Guide to Cuba: Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South

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Jennifer Kirk is back with her series for Food Travelist on Cuba. Jennifer visited Cuba in November of 2016, spending two incredible weeks in the country visiting over half a dozen cities, towns and sights. From celebrating Thanksgiving in Havana to being there when Fidel Castro passed away, Jennifer has many awesome experiences to share. Over the coming weeks she’ll be sharing a series of guides on Cuban travel for Americans wanting to visit the Pearl of the Antilles. You can find her on Twitter at @The_Jenius and see more photos of her Cuban adventure on Instagram at @365Cuba. Please watch the videos she’s included. Music is such an important part of the Cuban culture!

Cienfuegos Town Square

Cienfuegos Town Square

 

I started my journey in Cuba on the southern side of the island in Cienfuegos. A beautiful coastal town, Cienfuegos has been called “Pearl of the South”. Considering Cuba is referred to as the “Pearl of the Antilles”, this speaks volumes about how special this city is. Only a true gem can be a pearl within a pearl!

Cienfuegos Marina

Cienfuegos Marina

 

Cienfuegos is home to lovely views of the water along their malecon, and famed Cuban musician Benny Mora (and many MLB players, too!). I booked a casa particular on the malecon and enjoyed gorgeous views for breakfast and dinner every night. Music from the salsa clubs would drift across the water. Reminding me as I ate my dinner prepared by my hosts that I was indeed, finally, in Cuba.

Rooftop view from our casa particular

Rooftop view from our casa particular

 

Welcome dinner at our casa particular

Welcome dinner at our casa particular

 

My first day was more relaxed, as taking the red eye from San Francisco meant little sleep. If you’re looking for an enjoyable day without a fast pace, I recommend visiting the botanical gardens just outside the city limits. It hosts over 2000 species and after completing your exploration you’ll end at a charming bar. There you can cool off with a Cuba Libre (or other rum drink of your choice) and be serenaded by Cuban musicians.

 

Flowers at the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens

Flowers at the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens

 

Pick your poison

Pick your poison

 

A Cuban Serenade from Jennifer Kirk on Vimeo.

After the botanical garden, treat yourself to a glimpse of Rancho Luna Playa – a calm, tranquil beach where you can grab a drink (pro tip: do this a lot in Cuba!), some fresh fruit and be as lazy as the beach cats you’ll find. This is a popular beach for the locals, and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble on a family pot luck or live music at the band shell. Then, end your day with a sunset trip to the town square and take in the beautiful architecture and local merchants. Cienfuegos has a thriving art community – I purchased a incredible photograph and painting which are among my favorite souvenirs from Cuba. Remember – there is more to bring back than rum and cigars! Then, wander to the “marina” for a drink and more live music.

Rancho Luna Playa

Rancho Luna Playa

 

Lazy Gato

Lazy Gato

 

Lovely Cienfuegos town square

Lovely Cienfuegos town square

 

Live music at the Cinefuegos marina from Jennifer Kirk on Vimeo.

 

While one can explore Cuba on your own, a guide is worth their weight in gold. I lucked out and found the best guide in all of Cuba: Fernando Hernandez. Fernando not only ensured we saw the not-to-be-missed sites, but also answered copious questions, arranged transportation, knew all the local secret spots (and took us there!) all for $40-60 a day. WORTH IT. I also tipped him daily because again, WORTH IT.

 

Guide Fernando and driver

Guide Fernando and driver

 

Our first stop on Day 2 in Cienfuegos, with Fernando’s help, was Guanaroca (Flamingo) Lagoon. Here we took a rowboat around a large, serene lagoon filled with various birds, crabs, the largest shrimp farm in Cienfuegos, and of course, flamingos! Our boat guide, Walter, was incredibly sweet (like every person in Cienfuegos). Walter held us back from the other boats so we could get closer to the flamingos, birds and even waded into the water to find us crabs! He truly went above and beyond for our experience. We tipped him $5 CUC ($5 USD) before returning back to shore and then discovered Walter only makes $10 a month (the average Cuban makes $30-40 a month. Not a lot, but far more than Walter).

blue crab

Blue crab

 

Flamingos Fly! from Jennifer Kirk on Vimeo.

 

It was a reminder (one of many I experienced on my trip) how fortunate those of us are who can travel (and live in a first world country). It’s very difficult for Cubans to change economic status, and access to the tourist trade is the easiest way locals can provide more for their family. As you travel in Cuba I encourage you to find ways to be slightly more generous than you might normally be when traveling. It really can make a large difference, such as the small tip to Walter that ended up being half a month salary.

After the magical lagoon, we were whisked to a gorgeous restaurant on the water, The Drake Club, for lunch. We said goodbye to our driver and then began a walking tour of Cienfuegos with Fernando. A sculpture park was a local, hidden gem we encountered on our way to Palacio de Valle. An unique home with with Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque architecture. At the top you’ll be treated to lovely views of the water and a lively band. I joined as honorary drummer for a bit! Then, find your way to the tip of Punta Gorda. There’s a lovely gazebo to watch the sunset over the water. You’ll stroll through numerous neighborhoods, giving you a flavor of local life.

 

Fresh Lobster at the Drake Club

Fresh Lobster at the Drake Club

 

Sculpture park

Sculpture park

 

Palacio de Valle Ceinfuegos

Palacio de Valle

 

Punta Gorda Point Cienfuegos

Punta Gorda Point Cienfuegos

 

If salsa dancing isn’t your cup of tea (but try it at least once in Cuba!) there is plenty to do when the sun sets in Cienfuegos. Stop by Hotel La Union, built in 1869 and lovingly restored to its original glory and enjoy a drink by their stunning pool.

 

Sunset on the malecon

Sunset on the malecon

 

Hotel La Union Swimming Pool

Hotel La Union Swimming Pool

 

Across the street from Hotel La Union is an old two story rum and cigar shop (with beautiful woodwork). You can order coffee and take a break downstairs, or take a cigar and rum upstairs.

Cienfuegos rum and cigar shop

Cienfuegos rum and cigar shop

 

Here you can buy rum the locals prefer (Ron Santiago), rum for the tourists (Havana Club) or rum for collectors. Here I purchased a triple-barrel aged rum for only $40 (steal for Americans, exorbitant for Cubans). If you’re an even higher roller, they had plenty of special, rare rums that can set you back thousands of dollars if you’re really itching to do so.

Waterfront Home in Ceinfuegos

Waterfront Home in Ceinfuegos

 

Visiting Cienfuegos

I can’t not stress enough how much I loved my time in Cienfuegos. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. It was my favorite city in all of Cuba and the perfect location to start my incredible two-week journey of Cuban discovery. I can not wait to return!


If you’re traveling to Cuba, and want to email Fernando Hernandez to book his guide services, drop him an email. Be sure to tell him I sent you!

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11 Responses to Guide to Cuba: Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South

  1. Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields Reply

    March 22, 2017 at 3:50 am

    Cuba looks such a fascinating destination. I want to go soon, before it looses its authenticity.

  2. michele h peterson Reply

    March 20, 2017 at 10:05 am

    What a fantastic post on Cienfuegos. I love the addition of the music videos. We have many friends from Cuba and they always bring their musical instruments whenever we have a get together so it’s always great fun.I’d love to try that triple-barrel aged rum!

  3. Charles McCool Reply

    March 18, 2017 at 7:48 am

    Wonderful coverage to Cienfuegos. Very compelling evidence to hire a guide.

    • Jennifer Reply

      March 18, 2017 at 10:20 am

      Thanks Charles! 🙂

  4. Patti Morrow Reply

    March 15, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    I may be going to Cuba in August, and if so, will definitely get to Cienfuegos. I can just see myself under those palapas in Rancho Luna Playa or watching the sunset on the malecon!

  5. Becky Moore Reply

    March 15, 2017 at 6:44 am

    I went a couple of years ago and I still miss it every day, I hope to return one day soon!

  6. Kristin Henning Reply

    March 14, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Cienfuegos is a cool town, and I could really imagine renting a place to stay for an extended period of time. How did you find your casa particular and your driver/guide? We loved hearing the Cinefuegos Chamber Choir and seeing the inside of the Terry theater. Good recommendations.

    • Jennifer Reply

      March 18, 2017 at 12:54 am

      Hi Kristin! I booked all of my casa particulars via AirBnB and HomeStay. It really helped to pre-pay since Americans must bring all cash – and enough to last your entire trip!

  7. Janice Chung Reply

    March 14, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Lovely photos and videos. And a much more interesting time than I had 20 years ago when non-Americans could visit. Sadly I stayed pretty much on the all-inclusive resort in Varadero. I really didn’t experience all that Jennifer did…and what great experiences she had! So true about being more generous than usual, particularly in Cuba. Only making $10 a month or even slightly more is still very, very low. So tourism dollars can help a lot.

  8. Doreen Pendgracs Reply

    March 14, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Thx for this terrific post on Cienfuegos. I’ve never been there, but have been to Cuba 3x and have loved every minute of it. I am hoping that the food in Cuba has gotten better since our visits in the early 2000’s when we found most dishes to be very bland. Other than that, love every thing about Cuba, and certainly appreciate your comments about how economically challenged the local residents are. We found the same thing, and tried to give in every way we could, including bringing down a large bag of small soaps–which they appreciated very much!

    • Jennifer Reply

      March 18, 2017 at 12:55 am

      Hi Doreen!

      The food is * much better *, we ate incredible well our entire trip. The key is to eat with your hosts or at paladars – the private restaurants are much better than gov/state restaurants.

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