Cienfuegos is one of the cleanest, most relaxed cities in Cuba. Evidence of previous prosperity can be seen in the city’s stellar and efficient design, its architecture and in the impressive structures that have survived the test of time. Tourism and agriculture are mainstays of this southern seaport and capital of Cienfuegos Province.
Several tour providers prefer to fly direct to Cienfuegos and begin tours in this quiet and open but active and vibrant seaside haven. In keeping with its tourist friendly reputation, excellent accommodations, service and beaches serve as the perfect introduction to south and central Cuba. One of the most popular bayside trips is the Jagua ferry that travels across the Bahia de Cienfuegos to the Castillo de Jagua. The fortress was constructed in 1745, when the area was a collection of cattle farmers, to protect the harbor from numerous pirate invasions. Take you camera for this ride that features remarkable water views in all directions. The Castillo provides an intriguing backdrop for a day of visual superlatives.
Cienfuegos (One hundred fires) is not a typical Cuban city. It is the only city founded by French settlers who arrived late to the game. In 1819, French immigrants from Bordeaux, Guarico, Louisiana and Philadelphia arrived under the leadership of Don Louis de Clouet, who dubbed the settlement Fernardina de Jagua in honor of Ferdinand VII, the Spanish monarch at the time.
The French immigrants were farmers and the region quickly became an agricultural hub as well as an active seaport. Sugar cane, tobacco and coffee were in demand exports from the region. By 1829, the settlement was designated a villa (town) which designation entitled businesses to use the port for international trade. By 1880, the villa was upgraded to a city and renamed Cienfuegos, in honor of the island’s presiding Captain General. Today, the population is under 200,000. Leading industries remain the port, tobacco, sugar, wax and coffee. Originally, cattle farmers worked the land but the emergence of sugar cane transformed the community from herders to growers, a conversion that was supported by US businesses in the 1900’s when Cienfuegos ballooned to the third largest city in Cuba.
As the economy in the region expanded, the city continued to grow and prosper. The original city design was the typical square outwardly similar to other Cuban cities where business was at the center of the 25 block square layout and side streets containing residences and sub-parques filtered to what is now Parque Jose Marti.
However, because Cienfuegos was developed later than most of its neighbors, it reflects the improvements of Spanish urban designs of the 19th century, including wider streets and broader sidewalks. Observers believe this UNESCO World Heritage site is an outstanding demonstration of urban planning from the period of the Spanish Enlightenment.
Cienfuegos is characterized by its easy flow between streets, delightful squares and plazas and a cleanliness that does not exist in other Cuban cities. The atmosphere is polite and unbothered. While tourists could spend several days here, the city’s proximity to other attractions makes it a popular hub for sojourns to other cities and activities. The architecture is usually described as the best city-wide example of neo-classical architecture in the Caribbean. However, Cienfuegos was developed over time and while the core architecture is neo-classical, there are complimentary diverse styles in the newer structures.
The city contains 6 buildings circa 1819-1850, 327 buildings constructed between 1851 and 1900 and 1,188 buildings built during the 2th century. The building exteriors do not offer the balconies that are noticeable in many other cities. Cienfuegos has many sights to see and sounds to hear as well as terrific beaches and open parks where natives are very approachable and eager to communicate.
After obtaining independence from Spain, American investors flocked to Cuba and to Cienfuegos in particular. By 1914, Americans owned and operated the major sugar mills in the region. The United States was the principal trading partner for exports from Cienfuegos until the Revolution of 1958.
Many notable artists and athletes were born in the city. Americans familiar with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yasiel Puig will be interested to know Cienfuegos was his birthplace. Prominent Cuban singer Benny Moré, exiled Cuban painter Gina Pellón and vocalist María Conchita Alonso are among other esteemed dignitaries born in Cienfuegos.
Tourists love the open spaces in and around Cienfuegos. This destination is very different than a tour in Havana. There is plenty to do, plenty to see and many outlying attractions are within 20 kilometers of the city. The pace is slower, the accommodations excellent and the people from the Pearl of the South are as pleasant as the calm waters that caress the sandy beach of your choice.