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If you’re thinking of taking a day trip excursion from Santa Clara, you should put Cienfuegos at the top of your must-see towns in Cuba. Located about sixty-five kilometres south-east of Santa Clara, this pretty little city is worth the visit, here you get the entire package, historic Cuban architecture, lots of privately owned restaurants, a Spanish Castle and tonnes of pink flamingoes!
Settled mostly by the French with a splash of Spanish influence Cienfuegos has a very continental feel, its wide boulevards are lined with beautiful and well-preserved examples of neoclassical architecture. In 2005, the city was placed on the World Heritage List as the best example of early 19th century Spanish Enlightenment in Urban Planning.
With some of the loveliest streets and plazas in Cuba, Cienfuegos beckons both visitors and citizens to stroll slowly and see the sights. The plazas are full of families, music and entertainment. You can easily spend much of your time just people watching, and filling your photo stream with drop-dead gorgeous shots of pretty pastel colonial buildings. That would be a shame because there are plenty of other things you should do during your too short time in Cienfuegos. Here are our recommendations for a great day on the town.
Where to Eat in Cienfuegos
Paladars are local, privately owned restaurants in Cuba, as opposed to state-run businesses that were previously the only restaurants available on the island. The name paladar is associated with Vale Tudo, a very popular Brazilian soap opera televised in Cuba in the 1990’s, where one of the main characters in the show ran a chain of restaurants named Paladar (Spanish/Portuguese word for palate).
The term paladar was picked up in Cuba in the 1990’s when the government began to loosen regulations allowing citizens to run small independent restaurants. Paladars have become popular places to eat in Cuba, they tend to be family run, with owners who are passionate about providing the best food available.
Casa Prado Restaurant
Don’t let the not so stellar frontage dissuade you from trying this place out; Casa Prado is one of Cienfuegos’ most popular paladars. The restaurant has two dining options to choose from, you can try BBQ dining on the rooftop terrace accompanied with live Cuban music or the regular menu in the more formal dining area on the main floor. To us it was an obvious choice, we went up to the roof where the cool breezes, great music and grilled food made for a perfect night out in Cuba.
La Casa Prado is located at #4626 Calle 37 e/46 y 48 in Cienfuegos.
D’Carmelina is located in one of Cienfuagos’s most elegant neighbourhoods and is a popular family owned restaurant in the city. You share a long table with other customers making this spot a great place to gather, chat and find new friends.
D’Carmelina is located at Calle 59 e/y 6ne in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Mon Petit Café
Head to Mon Petit Café for your latte fix or for a casual meal, located near the centre of town at Calle 41 Avenida 62, Paseo El Prado, Cienfuegos, Cuba, this cute little bistro should be your go-to spot in Cienfuegos for yummy desserts and great tasting coffee.
Top Five Things to Do in Cienfuegos
1. La Laguna Guanaroca Nature Preserve
Pink Flamingos! The early bird catches the worm or perhaps the best bird watching opportunities. The entrance to the Nature Preserve opens at 8am and if you manage to get here at this time you are rewarded with few people, tranquil waters and lots of flamingos, pelicans, and herons. A rowboat and a guide take you out on a leisurely ride to the lagoon, where you can get a close up view of the wildlife. La Laguan Guanaroc is home to a colony of about 2000 flamingos, as well as the Florida Manatee at certain times of the year.
If you can’t get here in early morning buy an entrance ticket to the Nature Preserve at the Cubanacan outlet in the Hotel La Union in Cienfuegos, this will get you to the front of the line for the boat ride to the lagoon. Located about 12 kilometers from Cienfuegos, the Preserve is easily accessible via taxi or local bus.
2. Castillo de Jagua
It’s almost as much fun getting to the castle, as it is being there, the hour-long ferry ride in one of Cuba’s interestingly maintained boats rewards you with a leisurely tour of the bay.
Head over to the ferry docks in Cienfuegos located at Ave 46 and Calle 25 for the twice-daily trip to the castle. The ferry leaves at 8am and 1pm, and a word of warning, the 1pm ferry is crowded!
Built in 1740’s by the Spanish to protect Cienfuegos from pirates and enemies of the Spanish crown, this small fort sits at the mouth of the bay and has impressive views of the city. Once you arrive be sure to ask to lower the still functioning drawbridge, we recommend a guided tour for a more complete experience.
3. Stroll Along the Malecon
Take a walk on the 8km stretch of the seawall along the Bay of Cienfuegos, the Malecon is the place where Cubans gather to chat with friends and family, dance and play music. How can one resist the lure of the ocean breezes, beautiful mansions that line the avenue and perhaps the perfect sunset photo?
4. Jardines de la UNEAC
End your day with a visit to Cienfuegos’ Jardines de la UNEAC (Union Nacional De Escritores Y Artistas De Cuba) for an evening of music and dance. The Cuban Union of Artists promotes arts and culture on the island, and in Cienfuegos, they are located on the west side of Plaza Jose Marti. The organisation has nightly entertainment in their lovely garden; this is where you can truly experience Cuba, through its music and its people. Come early to get a good seat, order a mojito and dance the night away or just sit back, close your eyes and enjoy the music.
Jardines de la UNEAC is located at Calle 25, e/ 54 y 56, Cienfuegos, Cuba
5. El Nicho Falls
If you have more than one day in Cienfuegos or you’re doing a combination Cienfuegos and Trinidad outing during your stay in Cuba, you should stop off at El Nicho Falls, located halfway between the two cities. Head out of Cienfuegos early in the morning and spend a few leisurely hours exploring the park before heading to Trinidad or back to Santa Clara in the late afternoon. Get off the main tourist path and try hiking the many trails, swimming in the (very) cool waters or do some caving. Our favourite activity? A picnic lunch on the rocks close to the waterfalls. A word of warning, the road to El Nicho is slow and rough, it would be wise to hire a guide familiar with this part of the country.
Cover photo credit: lezumbalaberenjena via Creative Commons under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0