The further outside Havana you get the less and less tourists you find. If you head all the way down to Santiago-de-Cuba then you’ll barely find any.
One stop that is popular but not as much as nearby Trinidad is Cienfuegos. A small town that’s had a varied history. A UNESCO heritage site known as the Pearl of the South, it’s famous for its French architecture that populates most of the town. It’s different and a refreshing change from the Spanish influenced towns of Cuba.
You could easily spend a few days here, we spent 36 hours exploring that was a perfect amount of time. So, what should you do with your 36 hours, I’d recommend a good dose of wandering but here are my top things to do.
Parque Jose Marti
Cuba has some amazing squares that are great to potter around in people watching and experiencing a bit of everyday Cuba.
The centre of the square is occupied by a statue of the man himself, Jose Marti. The square is surrounded by important historical buildings, some of which you can visit. In one corner you’ll find Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion which was built in the 1800’s and uniquely has two towers that are differing heights.
At the opposite end other of the square you’ll find a mini Arc de Triomphe! The arch is Cuba’s only triumphal arch designed to commemorate the creation of the Republic of Cuba. Close by you’ll find the Palacio Ferrer which is now a performing space but has a small tower you can climb for a view over the city.
It’s a fairly small space and it was quite busy when we walked past so we opted for a hotel roof bar instead.
Hotel La Union
Just round the corner from the square you’ll find Hotel La Union, one of the taller buildings in Cienfuegos it has a wonderful rooftop bar. Nice and spacious with a good range of drinks that aren’t too expensive. Spend a couple of hours soaking up the views over the bay.
The hotel also allows non-residents to use their pool for a daily fee. It was a beautiful pool, we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to spend days lounging by the pool but if we’d had an extra day we’d have considered spending it there.
You’ll no doubt find yourself wandering along Paseo del Prado at some point, once you get to the end you’ll find the sea! The Malecon is the road that runs alongside the bay, it offers great views over the harbour to the large ships that come in.
It’s an easy walk but you can opt for a bicycle taxi if you’d like. Much like the famous Malecon in Havana the area comes alive at night. People head out into the warm sea air with music and beer to mooch about and dance the night away. I’d recommend experiencing it both during the day and at night.
You’ll no doubt find mixed reviews about Punta Gorda on the internet as it is a bit mixed. The area at the end of Punta Gorda called Centro Recreativo la Punta is a bit like a bad park that’s a tad neglected. It’s popular with teenagers who can swim in the sea and hang out all day but in reality it’s run down and doesn’t really have much going for it.
However, the walk to get there is great. You pass some fantastic houses and mansions from the more affluent part of Cienfuegos. It’s worth it just for the colours.
Palacio de Valle
Along Punta Gorda you’ll find the Palacio de Valle, a palace built for a Spanish merchant. You can wander round and look at the incredible architecture but it the view from the rooftop is worth the visit alone.
Now, it is very geared up for tourists and has a band and a bar on the roof. We stopped for a quick drink but to be honest it wasn’t really worth it. Skip the drinks on plastic chairs and just enjoy the views!
Enjoy a meal at Finca del Mar
I normally try to avoid Lonely Planet recommended restaurants as by the time I get their they’ve either been ruined by mass tourists or have shut. But, we were pretty hungry and Finca del Mar was very well recommended.
A paladar located on the waterfront you could only stay for food, no drinks only, but the wonderful garden restaurant is worth a stop at. We had a great meal with some really good seafood and a few really good drinks whilst watching the weather turn. It was also pretty well priced!
You’ll find paladar’s all over Cuba, they’re privately owned restaurants that give tourists a bit more of an insight into real Cuban cooking, rather than state owned establishments that are a bit bland.
Cienfuegos is an interesting small town with a sense of grandeur. It’s a great base for the area if you want to stay somewhere slightly less touristy but still close by to some excellent day trips. Dedicate as much time as you have but we found 36 hours to be the perfect amount.