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Traveling Cuba – Stage 5.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Central Cuba – Off the beaten track in Cuba
After breakfast we left Trinidad for the Cienfuegos and Península de Zapata. There we were expecting an extensive swamp region that is inhabited by crocodiles and flamingos, also declared a National Park. We also wanted to see well known Bahia de los Cochinos, the famous Bay of Pigs.
Road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos goes near by the ocean
Province of Cienfuegos: Central – south part of Cuba
Road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos is in good shape
Road from Trinidad to Cienfuegos mostly goes thru the coastal area and it’s only about 90 km between the two cities. Skirting approximately 50 km of coast you can get to Cienfuegos, in a journey where very dens vegetation, valleys, plantations of sugar and small towns are found. It was a very pleasant drive and the road was in good shape. We got stopped at the military check point, but it was just a routine check-stop. The two policemen’s that approached the car were very polite and just asked to see our passports.
Small village by the road; we were tempted to stop and go for a swim.
As we neared Cienfuegos after two hour drive, rice fields began to appear amid the sugarcane and above them the Royal palm, Cuba’s national tree, beautifying the skyline. The most favored of the country’s 89 species of palms it is heaven-sent to farmers who feed its fruit to their pigs and use its trunk and branches for building their homes.
Cienfuegos city comes as a sophisticated surprise. The city of Cienfuegos lies on Cienfuegos bay, at the entrance to the Caribbean Sea. Over a long period of time it was used by pirates as a strategically favorable place for attacking Spanish ships. In the mid 18th century the Spanish built a fortress there, and only then did they manage to gain control over the area.
Cienfuegos: Pearl of the South
As we entered Cienfuegos from the east, I was amazed. First impression was that Cienfuegos was timidly beautiful with busy streets. Unlike other cities in Cuba, the majority of its buildings gleamed sparkling white in the sunlight. An industrial urban centre of some 138,000, the city is a relatively modern town, founded in 1819. Known as the ‘Pearl of the South’, it hugs the bright-blue Cienfuegos Bay and is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
Beautiful church on Central Plaza
Zdenko in Jose Martí Park
The sugar industry used to be the main source of wealth in Cienfuegos. You can still admire these buildings, for example Palacio del Valle, from which you can enjoy breathtaking view of Jagua bay. Cienfuegos is also an ideal starting point for excursions to numerous interesting sites – Hanabanilla reservoir in the Escambray mountain range or the Jardín Botánico Soledad botanical garden, which is situated on 90 ha of land, 25 km away from the city.
Government building on Central Plaza
Beautiful building by the Jose Martí Park
“Zero mile” in Jose Martí Park
We ambled across the main plaza, hurrying from the shade of one palm tree to the next. The glorious theatre – Teatro Tomas Terry – and museum have been painstakingly restored and, as in Havana, what amazes are the colors: marigold orange, Barbie pink and every shade of green, from spearmint to newly-laid lawn.
Jose Martí Park
Teatro Tomas Terry
The Jose Martí Park communicates with a pedestrian walk known as the Cienfuegos Boulevard to the principal artery of the city, the Paseo del Prado. This is the longest street lined with trees in Cuba and leads the traveler to the Cienfuegarian Malecón. On the Malecón, the waterfront drag, kids queued for barbecued pork and cans of Cuban-brand cola, or cycled past on bikes, trying to catch the eye of the girl they fancied.
Beautiful Valle Palace
Palacio del Vall
We drove along the Prado, the longest promenade in Cuba that terminates at the bay until we reached José Martí Square in the heart of town. As we tumbled out of our car I remarked to my wife: “It looks more attractive than a good number of North American cities.” “I can’t believe it’s in Cuba.”
Malecon ends with the traffic circle
At the end of Malecon: La Punta
One beautiful house
Driving for a few minutes we came to Valle Palace, a replica of a part of the Moorish Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Even the Arab Nassrid, king of Granada’s wa la ghalib ilallah (there is no conqueror but God) is inscribed in Arabic on its walls. Once the home of a count that must have been enamored with Spain’s Arab past, it now houses an antique shop, bar and a restaurant, surrounded by Moorish type plaster filigree – an exact copy of those in Alhambra. For me, it appeared like a re-creation from the Arabian Nights.
Pedestrian walk known as the Cienfuegos Boulevard
Pedestrian walk known as the Cienfuegos Boulevard
Vera on the Paseo del Prado with José Martí
Further on, the residential zone and recreational area of Punta Gorda continues with nautical and traditional sport and marine clubs. This peninsula which enters the bay and terminates in La Punta has as well been declared a National Monument, because of its wooden large houses close to the sea, and other important buildings. Amongst the most important is the Palacio del Valle, an elegant eclectic mansion that combines the styles of Mudejar, Byzantine, Venetian, Gothic and Baroque.
The French influence is notable in many cultural traits and Cienfuguerian customs, particularly in architecture, where arcs, stained-glass windows and bars prevail and it is common to find palaces and mansions .The streets, of perfect design, are wide and straight, and give Cienfuegos, the flavor of being an enchanting city.
The Pearl of the South
Cienfuegos City is called “The Pearl of the South” because of the impressive beauty of its bay; because of its seductive city which provokes the wonder of all who know it, and because of that innate nobility which characterizes those born in Cienfuegos.
The history of Cienfuegos possesses interesting antecedents and is rich in aborigine and Hispanic legends. Before the Spanish came to America, the zone was settled by indigenous people and was known as the Cacicazgo de Jagua.
In order to protect its magnificent bay from corsairs and pirates, who ploughed the Caribbean, the third most important fort was erected in 1745. It was called the castle of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Jagua, situated right in the canyon of the entrance to the bay.
The Paseo del Prado street is about 3 km long
House on the Paseo del Prado
The foundation of Cienfuegos occurred in 1819, when French colonists settled in it, calling it Fernandina de Jagua, in honor of King Ferdinand VII and because of its aborigine origin. A rosette in the José Martí Park serves as a reminder of the place where the founding took place, and which served as the center for the urban design/layout. This park, which was the ancient Arms Square, is ample and rich in monuments, from which protrudes the only existing Arch of Triumph of Cuba.
In its surroundings coexists, harmoniously, buildings from the end of the XIX century and the first half of the XX, in eclecticism dominated by neoclassic cannons. This historical center has been declared a National Monument for its exclusive patrimonial value.
Another look at Central Plaza in Cienfuegos
It was a tranquil way to spend three hours in this city. We moved on reluctantly after having a lunch in the pedestrian walk known as the Paseo del Prado pedestrian only area. We departed around noon to be on schedule for our planned visit to Playa Giron, the site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
To be continued…