After Havana, the usual next stop on Cuban itineraries is the tobacco-producing area of Viñales or time-warped Trinidad. But I had read so much about the architecture of Cienfuegos that I was determined to make it my first stop after Havana.
Cienfuegos is layed out on a grid system so orientating yourself is very easy. The streets running in a north-south direction are called ‘calle’ and have odd numbers. For example, the main street that bisects the city is the Paseo El Prado but is also known as Calle 37. The streets running from east to west are called ‘avenida’ and have even numbers.
Maps show a number of beaches on the south side of the city on the Punta Gorda peninsula. These are more swimming areas than beaches. The water didn’t look clean but these swimming areas were popular with locals. Another traveller recommended Playita Junco Sur beach 3-4 kilometres east of the city.
Is Cienfuegos worth visiting for beaches? No, as there are better beaches outside the city. Besides, architecture is what Cienfuegos does best.
Yes, Cienfuegos architecture differed from the rest of Cuba reflecting its French colonial past. It is definitely worth visiting Cienfuegos to look at this architecture as it is well preserved. The best of the sites can be seen in one day. Here’s a flavour of that architecture.
IS CIENFUEGOS WORTH VISITING?
It’s not that Cienfuegos was a disappointment but I simply lingered there too long and got bored. So how many days should you stay in Cienfuegos? One day and an overnight stay is sufficient to see the city centre. Give yourself two nights if doing a day trip to Rancho Luna.
The golden rule of visiting Cuba independently is this: never use a town as a hub to travel to other places. Public transport is limited so stay in the towns you wish to visit. For example, my trip to the Bay of Pigs could have been done as an inexpensive overnight stay at a casa particulare as opposed to an expensive day trip by taxi from Cienfuegos.
Beach problems aside, Cienfuegos also suffers from being over-rated. Lonely Planet called it a “displaced piece of Paris” and I would love to know what piece of Paris they think is displaced. Last but not least, Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage site and perhaps it’s this tag that sets the highest expectation of all.
However, all was not lost when visiting Cienfuegos. I did day trips to Rancho Luna beach and the Bay of Pigs. Both were great experiences, and for that I think they are worth mentioning here.
RANCHO LUNA: BEST BEACH NEAR CIENFUEGOS
Rancho Luna is not only the best beach near Cienfuegos but was the best beach I experienced in Cuba. Located approximately 15-20 minutes’ drive east of Cienfuegos, Rancho Luna was the safest and ultimately the most peaceful place in Cuba I visited.
Warm tranquil water, soft sand and friendly café staff made this a memorable experience. As you can appreciate, I reluctantly plied myself away in the evening to catch my taxi back to Cienfuegos. Rancho Luna comes highly recommended.
BAY OF PIGS DAY TRIP
The Bay of Pigs exceeded my expectations. Somewhere in my brain politics, history and current affairs have a common meeting point and the Bay stimulated this cerebral junction. It’s a stunning coastal area more suited to a photo shoot rather than the shooting and military action that took place there in 1961.
But even before I reached the gorgeous beach of Playa Girón I was entertained as well as informed at Museo de Playa Girón, the museum that charts the ill-fated CIA-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to invade and overthrow Castro. The museum also looks at Cuba’s success in expelling Yankee Imperialism from the island. I can’t remember the admission fee but distinctly remember a feeling of value for money upon exiting.
The museum’s exhibition of conflict and combat is a far cry from the relaxing environment one will find in the general Playa Girón area. It’s popular with the scuba-diving fraternity as the corals are quite close to the shore and the limpid water gives great clarity. But I recommend the area to all travellers as the beach is simply gorgeous.
The Bay of Pigs should be done as an overnight stay rather than a day trip from Cienfuegos. The drive from Cienfuegos took 1.5 hours approximately, and the bucolic surroundings would be a perfect place to chill.
The next stop on my trip to Cuba was Trinidad.
Check out my Cuba Solo Travel post for further information on destinations within Cuba.
Author’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.