Cienfuegos: Pearl of the South?

Our second stop in Cuba was the city of Cienfuegos, just under a 5-hour bus ride from Havana this city is dubbed ‘La Perla del Sur’ (Pearl of the South) because of the magnificent architecture and beautiful bay. It didn’t appear to be much of a pearl when we arrived, on our first step off of the bus we were greeted by pushy taxi drivers, grey skies, humidity and rain. Thankfully our casa was only a few minutes on foot so we strapped our backpacks on and made a run for it. Out of all of the casas we had booked for our stay in Cuba, this one was predominantly because of the hosts. The reviews on Airbnb for Joel and Ivet were awesome. Plus when we saw that Joel runs a local flamenco company, and guests are sometimes treated to a private show in the garden, we knew we had to book. The bad weather had caused a power cut across the city on our first night so we decided to wait it out at El Patio Andalu (with a few of Joel’s homemade Ron Collins’). While we were sat by candlelight on Joel and Ivet’s patio (with three day old chicks in the pen behind us!!!) our hosts came out to join us and sang a wonderful duet accompanied by Joel’s guitar and we knew we had chosen the right place.

If you’re coming from Havana, Cienfuegos is very different. Our Havana host Ana-Maria had explained that the further you get from Havana the cleaner the cities and the nicer the people. I’m not sure that I totally agree but Cienfuegos definitely felt a lot smaller, less busy and less worn-out. The centre of the city is focused around one long road, Paseo El Prado, to the East of it is more residential and the location of our casa, to the West is the Parque Jose Marti, a wifi hotspot and busy hangout for locals and tourists alike. And to the South is the tree-lined malecon, which stretches about 3km.

On our first day in Cienfuegos we explored the area to the West of Paseo el Prado. We paid a visit to the Tomas Terry Theatre, one of a bunch of theatres in Cuba that you can pay a small entrance fee (1CUC or £0.80) to take a look around. We were the only visitors and it was almost surreal being in an empty, silent theatre. Of course there’s not much to the visit apart from looking around, but it makes for some good photo opportunities and the admission fee is used for upkeep of the theatre.

By most accounts, one of the benefits of staying in a casa particulare is the option to have a home cooked meal, often cited as better quality and value than the (unfairly) often-slated Cuban restaurants. We decided to find out for ourselves in Cienfuegos, and we’re so glad that we did. Joel and Ivet served us up a three course meal of vegetable soup, lamb and chickpea tagine with vegetable rice and salad, accompanied by numerous Ron Collins’ and finished off with some chocolate rum truffles. The food was delicious. But the after dinner entertainment was the real treat. As we were tucking into our last truffles we heard a shout from the kitchen, next thing we knew Joel, Ivet and a dancer from Joel’s flamenco company were shimmying out onto the patio, making their way to the small concrete block stage in the garden. The mini-set lasted for about 20 minutes with Joel on lead vocals and guitar and Ivet backing. 

On our second day we took the 45 minute walk along the malecon, stopping at a few places on route. First was Laguna deal Cura and the surrounding harbour. The harbour is still in use and was a good spot to sit for a little while to soak up the sun. Our next stop was a, rather unexpected, sculpture park, where most of the sculptures doubled up as benches. Cue passing back and forth of the camera and ”ooh take one of me on this one’. We got to the end of the malecon a little early for lunch and so decided to poke our heads into Palacio de Valle. There is an entrance fee of 2CUC (£1.60) and this includes a free drink, which you can enjoy on the roof terrace, overlooking the Ocean. Now a popular restaurant, the moorish wonder was built by Spaniard Acisclo del Valle Blanco in 1917 and looks like it has been pulled out of Morocco and placed in Cuba. Finally we stopped for lunch in Villa Lagarto. We had heard great things about the food here and, with it’s location at the far end of the malecon, it made for a perfect spot to finish our day of rambling, but an overpriced set menu and poor quality meat sadly left us a bit disappointed.

Anyone visiting Cienfuegos should be sure to check out Jardines de la UNEAC (Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba). This gated garden located off of Parque Jose Marti comes alive in the evenings with hour-long performances of traditional Cuban music, starting at 10pm. Arrive early, grab a couple of beers or mojitos and some seats and enjoy the performance, along with some dancing from the audience (some great, some not so great).

We enjoyed our time in Cienguegos, and it was great to see Cuba outside of Havana, but wouldn’t consider it a priority destination unless you have the time. The architecture is great to look at and the walk along the malecon is a nice way to spend half a day but there is no obvious (I hate using the word, but…) ‘vibe’ to the city. Staying at El Patio Andalu was the most enjoyable aspect of our time there and we would whole-heartedly recommend staying with Joel and Ivet.

Where we stayed:

Casa El Patio Andalu, available to book via Airbnb 

Where we ate:

Big Bang: This cafe/restaurant provides basic food at excellent value. We faced 10 minutes of anxiety after we ordered the 1CUC (£0.80) burger, we expected the worst and instead got a pretty big and really tasty surprise. The chicken croquettes also taste great but didn’t seem to contain any chicken. 

Villa Lagarto: Located at the end of the malecon, this wooden structure is part hotel and part restaurant with great views across the water. As this was our only meal for the day we splashed out on the set menu, which started well with bread/dip, a huge salad and nice appetisers. However, the main course was a disappointment, we shared the ribs and steak and both were fatty and chewy. But hey, maybe the chef was having an off day.

 


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