A passing car honks, waking Dan up with a jolt and a loud involuntary snort. Our driver bursts out laughing hysterically. A bus then races past, splashing up a puddle of water through the driver’s window, he stops laughing. I watch this whole scene unfold from the back in hysterics then doze off.
Cienfuegos is a six hour drive east of Vinales and involves two collectivos (Shared taxis). It's a small maritime city on the edge of a colossal Caribbean bay, originally named Fernandina De Jagua after the Jagua Indians who lived in the area. It was changed to Cienfuegos to commemorate a Cuban General back in 1829. Today It's a clean and tidy place (something the locals are very proud of) with many grand old buildings with exquisite iron work. What classic cars are to Havana, and rocking chairs are to Vinales, intricate iron window trellises are Cienfuegos's form of expression.
Other than the main square and a small peninsula of land called Punta Gorda, there is not much to really do here without leaving the city. Still after the hectic world of Havana and rattling around the countryside of Vinales, maybe a sleepy town is what we needed. I went for a little explore whilst Dan had a siesta. After wandering along the edge of the bay for a while, I headed into the back-roads. Most of the residents would sit happily behind their beautiful iron trestles and chat to their neighbors, or buy fruit and veg from passing rickshaws or horse and carts through their windows. There was a lovely sense of community here.
We spent our first evening drinking at a little outdoor bar by the bay, then headed over to a waterside restaurant for a locally caught fish dinner.
Casa La Cascada
We took a room at Casa Jacqueline and Wilfredo. A lovely double height ceilinged colonial gem a few blocks away from the main square and the bay. We felt at home straight away in their lovely front room and leafy terrace. In fact we spent most of our time hanging out on their terrace and ate a couple of breakfasts and dinner there. You can contact Wilfredo and Jacqueline here.
The main square / park in Cienfuegos is has been declared as a national monument due to the beautiful buildings that surround it. We spent a morning here wandering around and people watching from a shady bench. The pace of life here is slow to non-existent.
Many of Cuba's main squares are now wifi hotspots where locals can buy a card with a code for a few pesos and access the internet. This has only happened in the last two years and now the squares are full of people, heads down, learning about the world outside theirs. It looks almost religious as everyone has their heads bowed in prayer and often in front of a towering cathedral or church. I remember Emilia telling me in Havana how she had just discovered Wikipedia and was fascinated by it (I decided not to tell her about Tinder). Wilfred our host here, said "I hope it stays and does not go away" as Airbnb has really changed their lives.
About 3km south from the main square along Paseo Del Prado (Cienfuegos's Main Street) is Punta Gorda, originally the aristocratic neighbourhood back in the 1900s. It's famous for its attractive wooden villas with incredible views over the bay. They are built similarly to prefabricated American style houses and are painted bright colours.
This thin slither of land with water on three sides finishes at La Punta (The Point). We arrived on a Sunday along with most of Cienfuegos's families and locals who weren't praying to their phones in the main square. Children splashed and squealed, local radio blared from some speakers and three men balanced precariously on a backless bench surrounded on three sides by cans of beer. One man was being upstaged by a pelican in the art of fishing.
We found a shaded wall overlooking the bay and shared a few cool beers to counter the hot afternoon sun.
Palacio De Valle
Where the main road ends just before the last section of Punta Gorda, stands the beautifully ornate Palacio De Valle. Completed in 1917 it was built as a private house by sugar merchant Acisclo Del Valle Blanco one of the wealthiest men in Cuba. Now it houses a posh restaurant and roof terrace bar. The facade has three different towers representing power, religion and love. I have no idea which is which.
We took a couple of beers on the terrace under the carved archways and watched the world go by. A photo shoot was taking place on the grand central staircase. I guessed it was for a fancy dress shop... No not Micky Mouse outfits and Peter Pan costumes (Although I would have preferred this), more like Belle and Cinderella on their way to a ball. This old place did have a magical feel to it. I nipped up to the roof for a quick view over the bay.
One day felt like enough time to spend in Cienfuegos, however it was a good way to break up the journey west. On our last night I asked Wilfredo for a recommendation for a place to stay in Trinidad and booked a collective for the following day. At 8:30 in the morning we hit the road again.