The village of Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe was one of the original seven villages in Cuba founded by Spanish explorers during the 16th century. Originally located on the northern coast, the town fell prey to numerous pirate attacks and was relocated to the present site of Camagüey in central Cuba in 1528. Today, the city is the third largest in Cuba.
It is believed that the original village was square shaped and deviated from the traditional Spanish design. The original structures were constructed from wood harvested from local timber and palm trees. The fragile building technique allowed the village to be destroyed by fire in 1616. The pirate Captain Morgan would destroy the rebuilt city in 1668.
As a central plains town, Camagüey enjoyed fresh water supplies from various reservoirs and rivers but residents have always stored water in large, clay jars or vessels remindful of the pottery made in Andalusia. Local tradesmen created the pots in volume and the city became known as the “City of the Earthen Jars (Tinajones).” It was a local belief that if males drank water from a young woman’s earthen jar, they would fall under her romantic spell.
The layout of the 17th century village was different than the urban plan for most Spanish-Cuban cities. It is believed the seemingly spontaneous urban design of narrow, winding streets was planned to confuse would-be attackers. The city still consists of irregular blocks, minor squares and alleys all centered in communities around the city’s 15 local churches, many of which are truly spectacular.
As a thriving center for sugar trade and cattle farming, Camagüey is the capital of the province of the same name. A growth spurt in the early 18th century established the city as one of Cuba’s wealthiest cities. Today, the plain city is strategically and logistically important. Many travelers and People-to-People tours prefer to land at the Ignacio Agramonte International Airport. The nearby Beach of Santa Lucía is a popular international beach destination.
Commercial and tourist trade relies heavily on the central Havana-Santiago rail with a station located in the central Avenida Van Horne. Cuba’s A1 highway is in progress and will connect Havana to Guantánamo via Camagüey. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The historic Centre of Camagüey is an exceptional, traditional urban settlement representative of the Spanish plan for Caribbean trade cities. Unlike most Cuban cities, this one features influences from several different European architectural styles but the most dominant designs feature truncated pilasters that frame main entrances and lathed balustrades that protect the windows.
The development of the Royal Road of Cuba from Santiago de Cuba to Havana gave the city added prominence. By 1774, Puerto Principe (Camagüey) was home to 18,000 residents and was Cuba’s second largest city. The growing population and central location paved the way for the relocation of the Royal Audience, one of Latin America’s most influential institutions, from Santa Domingo. The Royal Audience established religion as one of the core functions of the town and region. The Old Square was host to church housing as well as many Catholic celebrations that included noticeable elements of the country’s expanding African slave population.
Sugar trade was the main industry of the region. By 1881, another wave of growth prevailed. During the early 20th century, Camagüey’s streets were paved in stone and downtown centers took on more modern architectural designs. In 1978, Fidel Castro declared the town’s center as a National monument.
The Instituto Preuniversitario Vocacional de Ciencias Exactas Maximo Maez is the largest secondary education center in the province. Admittance requires a strict testing protocol. Students receive intensive education in anticipation of attending a university. The school is classified as a “learning city.” Camagüey also contains specialized schools for artists, athletes and military students. The University of Camagüey specializes in engineering and humanities. A separate university is a medical school.
Camagüey is the birthplace of Ignacio Agramonte (1841), a major force in the Ten Years War against Spain (1868-1878. Agramonte created the first Cuban Constitution in 1869. As Major General, Agramonte led the Camagüey cavalry against the Spanish. Upon his death in 1873, his body was burned to discourage the rebels from invading the fortified city. A statue created in his honor in 1911 presides in the park bearing his name.