For those of you just joining this blog, welcome! I’ll do my best to link you back to other parts of the story if I allude to them, as this is one long story about my journey throughout the world. This series specifically has been focusing on my most recent trip to Cuba, and this post is all about my time in Cienfuegos.
A necessary recap of the last post about Cuba is definitely in order. During our time in Viñales, we really came to understand a few more things about Cuba as a whole. For one, the tourism is extremely guided by the government, to a point that it was uncomfortable in Viñales. There was no true escape, as all the areas were either so small, or so far apart, that escaping from the government couldn’t be done without the assistance of the government.
While discovering that oxymoronic relationship, we also made a classic backpacker mistake – getting too far off the path, becoming desperate, and drinking the unfiltered water of a foreign land. Jillian, my girlfriend and travel partner of the trip, and I both got sick. I had the unfortunate timing to get sick in the middle of the night, breaking my treasured good-luck necklace and carrying on my weakness into the next day, which led us to some relief in Cienfuegos.
The Ride of Death, The Rise Back to Life
As I’ve touched on in past posts, the transportation in Cuba is not exactly the most reliable system on the planet. From the 1960s-era taxis around Havana, to the overbooked bus system to Viñales via the capital, we were already pretty acquainted with making do with whatever had four wheels and moved.
Once again, the bus system was overbooked, so we booked a private taxi between Viñales and Cienfuegos. I was still actively dying from my water-poisoning, and Jill was still weak, tired and heroically helping me along. The ride itself was pretty uneventful, considering all I did was sleep, and hope the stranger wasn’t going to bring me to some prison to harvest my organs. Hey, I wouldn’t have been able to fight back, so part of me worried!
Once we got to our apartment, I had to pretend to be alive and sort ourselves into our new casa particular. Our hosts, Leo and his family, were great people, and if you’re interested in traveling to this area, contact me directly, and I’ll be sure to put you in touch. (I also plan on a directory post in the future, so don’t worry, they’ll get their publicity too!)
We arrived in the early afternoon, and even though I wanted to die, I knew better than to waste time. We had a bag full of bread that we nabbed from breakfast that morning, and I slowly nibbled on that and rested for a little while in our new room.
Soon, we made our way onto the streets, and wandered around as best we could. The mission was to find our onward bus tickets to Trinidad. While the over-booked buses in Havana worked out, the need for a private taxi from Viñales to Cienfuegos was not exactly what I wanted marking up my travel budget.
Shout out to Lonely Planet’s Cuba travel guide, as the directions to the bus station were spot on. We made our way to the ticket room, which was crowded, hot, and absolutely atrocious for someone who was feeling ill. After a short, embarrassingly loud exchange with another American couple, we had our bus booked and escaped away back into the city.
I was still struggling from my sickness, and I really only was able to push through to get ripped off on a small bowl of ice cream, and then not eat much of my small dinner from a local restaurant close by our apartment. As for that ice cream, the shop owner didn’t have change for our cucs, and my lack of energy or patience to find ice cream elsewhere (Jill was insisting) resulted in an unintended “keep the change” moment.
4 pm became bedtime, and by 8 am the next day, life was good again.
Recovered: Finally, Let’s Join the Tourists
The next morning, it was finally time to exist as a healthy, traveling human again. The first item on our to-do list was to obtain tickets for a trip to El Nicho! Jillian made sure to insert this day-trip into our itinerary, and it did not disappoint. There will be a post about this beautiful waterfall in the Sierra del Escambray mountain range between Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Once again, shout out to Lonely Planet, as we found the travel service they suggested to use to get to El Nicho.
Booked for two days ahead, we stepped back out of the travel agency office into the center of El Bulevar. Our apartment was on the very top of this main street, so once we got our bearings, the renowned shopping center got lots of love from us.
El Bulevar is built right into the tourist section of the city, and spans out across multiple blocks in a cross, or tree-shaped location. The main trunk of the tree is lined with traditional storefronts, but then the branches go out among hotels and restaurants, and are budded with open market stands the whole way through selling hand-made items, and unique souvenirs.
The journey from the perspective of my GoPro:
Once you continue onwards to the top of the tree-shaped El Bulevar, the square of Parque Jose Marti takes shape. Encircling the park itself is the theatre, a government building, a few prominent restaurants and a whole bunch of old cars. This is a choice destination for people watching, because it is the perfect storm of tourists and locals, due to the jobs, necessities and amenities all within a short distance.
If you’re wandering along El Bulevar with this square at the top of the tree, you’d hit the hotels and restaurants if you turned right at any given time. If you were to turn left, you’d find different avenues to the Bay of Cienfuegos.
Turn left right where El Bulevar meets El Parque, and you’ll find yourself in a dead line to the pier. Again, you’re close enough to the local neighborhood and close enough to the tourist strip to have the perfect storm for people watching. Not to mention, it provides some of the best views of the sunset in town.
We wrapped around the block for some local pizza, and found ourselves watching the street below our room before we made our way to sleep.
A big, hearty Cuban breakfast later, and we were on to the next section of the city.
Let’s Escape the Tourists
We had walked an absurd distance covering Havana, so we weren’t too worried about a seemingly small city. Following our breakfast, we set out to find just how far we could get. We went the opposite direction down El Prado, the main road that seemed to help us find everything. We had Hotel Rancho Luna in mind, but that was like a million more miles than we were willing to spend a taxi on, and more than our feet could handle.
Instead, we found ourselves stumbling upon the other side of the bay from the pier we enjoyed the previous night, and following the curve to seemingly the end of the island.
About halfway down this path, we stumbled on what I called a country club, but what later searches and confirmations declare to be a yacht club restaurant, El Club de Cienfuegos.
This was a decent stop to rest on our walking journey, as well as an interesting building. However, it was pretty quiet while we were there, and nobody really tried to serve us. They just ignored the sweaty young people in the corner, which was fine, because we weren’t really in that budget realm anyway.
Beyond that expensive feeling stop, the surrounding areas were pretty much Cuban neighborhoods. There were a handful of destinations that tourists may be interested in scattered at far distances from each other, but most of it was just Cuban houses, Cuban neighborhoods, and Cuban people, which was fine by me. I mean, we even stumbled on a local wedding on this path of ours.
All through these neighborhoods, there were more casas particulares, more friendly waves, and more local eateries, corner stores, and a single gas station. All in all, we got a real feel for the local scene, but we were also pretty much left alone, unless we chose to ask for directions, or to buy something in one of the stores.
By the time we reached the end of the row, both in physical form due to the waterways, and mental tiredness, we found ourselves at another one of the widely-spaced tourist spots. This time it was a fancy restaurant, which we tried very hard to eat at. However, the one we could afford wasn’t open for another three hours. The one we couldn’t afford, but were hungry enough to throw out our budget, was purely seafood, and Jillian doesn’t do that. And the third, was just drinks until further notice. Defeated, we headed back to where we came from for another round of pizza and ice cream, and another sunset on our pier.
The Feel of Cienfuegos
Overall, and especially in comparison to Viñales, Cienfuegos has an awesome feel to it. So many points in the city converge with tourists and locals, but not in a locals-present-to-tourists type of way. Havana felt like a capital, but Cuban. Viñales felt like government-tourism. Cienfuegos felt like a real, low-profile but captivating city.
The engagement with the water is evident in this part of Cuba. Obviously the whole country is an island, and engages with water heavily, whether it be for trade, or their normal industries. However, it’s still a big country, so its possible to be far away from the ocean. This is not the case in Cienfuegos. From the endless fishermen on the piers, the accessibility to tasty seafood, and the seafaring fishing boats crossing paths with high profile yachts, the ocean is clearly in the blood of these people.
To the readers,
Cienfuegos is the last specific city in my retelling of my time in Cuba. My itinerary has been covered in full: Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad beaches. However, I do have a few more stories to tell, including the gemstone of the entire trip, a side trip from Cienfuegos to El Nicho.
Thank you for those of you following along, and hello to those checking in! Feel free to join the journey by subscribing via email, or on social media.