Correcting what may be a false impression, I want to assure anyone who reads this that traveling to Cuba is a notable journey. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go there. But it’s not in any way a traditional or ordinary destination. For Americans, it’s not a stroll on the beach; it’s an emotional and intellectual travel challenge.
My favorite port was Cienfuegos. About 160 miles south of Havana, this once French city is in a breathtaking natural setting. Behind it are the Escambray mountains and its core sits on a peninsula that juts into the Bahia de Cienfuegos. To enter this bay requires specialized navigational skills. Any large ship has to ease between two close-together promontories and then make a sharp turn into a beautiful bay that’s one of Cuba’s largest. One passenger standing close to me compared it to Pearl Harbor. This is accurate. To see this city is to understand why it’s nicknamed La Perla Del Sur, the Pearl of the South, and why UNESCO has named it a world heritage site.
A city of close to 200,000 people, Cienfuegos has some wide Parisian-style boulevards, Cuba’s longest rambla, and a lot of neo-classical buildings that would not be out place in France. Around 1819 forty French families arrived here from Brodeaux and New Orleans to establish homes. Because they were close to Jamaica, those who preceded them experienced lots of pirate raids so they built a castle/fortress on one of the promontories by 1745. It’s still there but hard to get to.
After the Castro Revolution during the Russia-influencing years, Cienfuegos became an industrial area with sugar and flour mills. The Russians planned to build Cuba’s 1st nuclear power plant there, but it was never finished. We saw its white dome as we approached Jagua Bay, another name for the Bahia de Cienfuegos. This city remains Cuba’s 3rd largest port.
Sites worth seeing included the Parque José Martí, Cienfuegos’s central square surrounded by grand French buildings like the Cathedral of the Purisima Concepción that has stained glass windows imported from France, a bay-side yacht club that clearly shows Cienfuegos’ pre-Castro wealth, and especially the faded, Moorish-looking Palacio de Valle.
We enjoyed a musical performance by a choral group in the lavishly decorated Teatro Tomás Terry, one of the 3 surviving colonial theaters in Cuba. Choral groups seem to thrive in Cuba where the national pastime is dominos. My travel book called Tomás Terry a Venezuelan sugar magnet. Our Cuban guide José called him a cruel slaver and loan shark. Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova performed in this theater, and José made sure we saw a statue of Benny Moré, a popular Cuban singer from Cienfuegos whom I had never heard of. Benny died from liver failure at the age of 43.
Cienfuegos, City of 100 Fires, is a 5 Compass sensation. American Airlines already flies there and Jet Blue is coming.