This is Cuba in miniature with the frenetic bustle of Havana reduced to a slow hum and the impossibly turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea rarely far away. It’s the sort of city that gets much less attention than Havana or Trinidad and yet it grows on you. Its nickname is ‘the Pearl of the South’ and the longer you stay the more you will be charmed.
As in the capital, you can relax in the back of a stunningly restored vintage 1950s Cadillac as you cruise the stunning old streets of the city and admire its pastel chocolate-box good looks and colonial architecture. You may find though that as you park up you are joined by some locals who whose transport is by rather more old-fashioned means – horse and cart – a common sight throughout Cuba where fuel is scarce and vehicles are expensive.
Cienfuegos was settled as late as 1819 so the streets are spacious and civilised. Its marina is the embarkation point for many catamaran excursions to the southern keys near Cayo Largo and this laidback little city is a great place to simply soak up the relaxed provincial atmosphere. It has a wonderful selection of private restaurants or paladares here, increasingly common now throughout the country – here of course the treat in store is the freshest seafood you may ever have tasted.
On the Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba, people-watching and ice-cream consumption seems to be the main event but the beautiful natural harbour views are also to be admired.
There are some grand buildings you shouldn’t miss like the cathedral or the imposing fortress of Castillo de Jagua but one of our favourite spots is the Botanical Gardens - created in the 1900s with the help of two Harvard professors. These delightful gardens are now little visited but play host to a treasure trove of more than 2,000 tropical plants which you are likely to have all to yourself during your visit.
The streets here are wider thanks to the city’s French origins and they also a great place to stroll along and while away a few hours delving into colourful fascinating art galleries and peeking into houses filled with immaculate antique furniture.
A fabulous place to spend a day in a remote wilderness nearby that is beautifully located between Cienfuegos and Trinidad is the unique and stunningly beautiful mountainous region of Topes de Collantes. This protected area, although not yet a National Park, is nestled up in the Sierra de Escambray Mountains and is a haven for stunning flora and fauna and a myriad of nature trails that offer some of the very best hiking in Cuba.
Think jungle-like forest, dangling lichens, spectacular lush ferns and mosses interspersed with dazzling natural pools perfect for a cooling dip and picture-perfect waterfalls. As well as birdlife, marvel at the spectacle of the mariposa or butterfly lily in flower from June to August, Cuba’s national flower alongside hundreds of species of orchids and ferns.