A Travellerspoint blog

The French, a fort, and a farewell

A couple of days in Cienfuegos

sunny 32 °C

We packed up and left Playa Larga, trying to understand the ramblings of the manic hostel owner with limited success. Our taxi driver seemed to know most people living around Cienfuegos, beeping and waving at just about every second car, and giving friendly gestures to people sitting in the street. We saw many more pro-Revolution billboards in that part of the world than we’ve seen elsewhere, too.

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Che was a 'gentleman without fear or blemish'

It was stinking hot in Cienfuegos city, and we had a merciful rest next to a fan after we arrived. Even our host in the hostel had a small towel to wipe his brow. But soon we headed out on a city tour, with a charismatic guide, Lesley, who spoke incredible English.

She told us about the arrival of the French in 1819, and how the Spanish let them set up a colony there as long as they dotted lions around the city to remind the people that they were in a Spanish colony. The rigid structure of the road system – even-numbered avenues and odd-numbered streets, each block 100 metres by 100 metres – was put down to the exacting French settlers, too. It makes the city pretty easy to navigate.

We saw French architecture (not that I can really distinguish colonial Spanish from colonial French buildings) and a few Art Deco blocks. Other highlights included the library’s original edition of Don Quixote, beautiful buildings around the central park, and an arcade with some billiards tables for Al. He was scathing of their condition, though.

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The range of architecture in Cienfuegos

Unfortunately, in the middle of that tour Caroline had to go back to the hostel to pick up her bags and leave us for good. She was heading back to Havana to fly home and go to work (see previous entry).

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Caroline starting her long journey home

In the evening, while I pined for my departed novia, we went to a little garden off the central park where a well-known local ‘oldies’ band was playing. They had some great tunes, and the oldies who had made it out – and there were quite a few – weren’t shy in getting up and dancing. One charmer, Shimon, had a few dances with Rosie and Mat and warmed everyone’s heart with his beaming smile.

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Rosie and Shimon

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Unusually, we had no specific activities planned for the next day. We all went for a walk along the Malecon (seafront boulevard) in the morning, then split up. While the others went into town to do some shopping, I walked the other way along the water to Punta Gorda, a breezy and stately neighbourhood to the south.

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Renowned 1950s/60s Afro-Cuban musician Benny Moré sang the Cienfuegos was the city 'that he liked best'

I saw grand clubs, lovely sea views, and houses that looked like they’d been transported from plantations in Louisiana (both would have been French, so they’re possibly very similar, I suppose). There’s also a completely over-the-top manor house, plastered with Moroccan touches, built by a wealthy and possibly crazy Spaniard in the 1910s.

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In Punta Gorda

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The almost absurd Palacio de Valle

The group reconvened in town and we all caught the ferry across to the heads of the bay. The boat was packed (and had far too few life jackets for the number of passengers) and Matilda felt a bit dehydrated/claustrophobic/exhausted and literally fainted in my arms before we’d even left.

She made it over to the other side but didn’t feel quite right, so we took it easy and didn’t explore too much. Not that there was much to explore. The only real attraction was the castle fort, built to protect the area from raiding pirates in the mid-18th Century, nearly a century before the city itself was founded. The museum inside was a bit rubbish but the views were great.

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The other highlight though was the views of Ciudad Nuclear (yes, Nuclear City), a Soviet-Cuban project of a nuclear power plant with nearby apartments built for workers. It fell through after the collapse of communism, and the empty apartment blocks stand abandoned, and look very eerie on the horizon. Unfortunately you can’t visit.

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Ciudad Nuclear

We returned to Cienfuegos, and sat in the park in the late afternoon, catching up on some internet time. Dad met another new friend, Gareth, from North Wales but now Perth.

In the evening some of us caught a horse-drawn cart back down to Punta Gorda for dinner. Our driver was a bit eccentric (the person guiding the horse, not the horse itself). After he worked out that my girlfriend wasn't there, he suggested I go dancing to ‘meet’ Cuban women. I assumed arguments about fidelity would be tossed aside, and my Spanish vocab isn’t good enough anyway, so instead I settled on saying that I can’t dance. “No problem,” he said, “after two, three mojitos, everyone can dance.”

And then we passed an Australian tourist he’d driven earlier, and he called out to her that we were Australian too, and she waved. That was fine, but then we passed East Asian tourists, and he called out “China! China!” to which he received confused shakes of the head and grimaces from the back seat.

Undeterred, he called out to the next group “Japan! Japan!” and when he got a confused nod, “Konnichi wa!” We were fairly glad to get out.

A nice dinner with views over the bay, and that was it for Cienfuegos.

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Posted by samoline 19:17 Archived in Cuba

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