I craned my neck to see over the audience from my chair at the back of the crowd. The girl emerged out of the darkness into the spotlight, clad in a bright orange 80’s style evening gown complete with puffy sleeves and long white gloves. Her eyes glistened and she looked around nervously, and I gasped as I heard the opening piano notes. No, it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.
She raised the microphone to her mouth and began to sing in a strong Spanish accent.
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified….”
It could be. It was. And now I couldn’t stop laughing.
This was Cienfuegos, and this was not what I had expected.
I’d never heard of Cienfuegos before I got to Cuba but once I started doing a little research, I thought it sounded like an interesting town and would be worth a stop for a couple of days. So I did, and dragged along my friend Emma, whose taxi to Viñales had broken down and needed a plan B.
I stayed three nights, but left feeling like I wasn’t finished. There was so much to do in this town that I actually came back and spent another two nights, and even then I didn’t get to do it all! So to help you out, here are 13 things to do in Cienfuegos.
1. Cabaret Tropisur
When you’re on a budget and the famous Tropicana Cabaret in Havana costs 75 CUC, you don’t go. You just don’t. But when the cabaret costs 3 CUC, it’s worth a try! And this one was worth every penny of that 3 CUC.
Neither Emma nor I had ever actually been to a cabaret show before, and weren’t sure what to expect from one in Cienfuegos, Cuba. But when it started we were both mesmerized by the incredible dancers, bright costumes, vibrant latin music, and cheesy 80’s style solo singers, and we were left feeling very entertained!
Top it all off with the guys at the table next to us forcing us out of our seats to dance near the end, and all in all I’d say Tropisur was a highlight of Cienfuegos!
2. Laguna Guanaroca
A tour of Laguna Guanaroca consists of a guide who takes you on a short forest walk, pointing out the plants used to make maracas and other trees, as well as any interesting birds. We saw an emerald hummingbird here, feathers shimmering in the sunlight.
You can climb a very rickety lookout tower, praying the whole way up that your foot doesn’t slide off that slippery rung, sending you tumbling back down to the rocky ground below.
From there it’s a short stroll to the small wooden dock. The boat driver rows you silently across the lagoon with water so still it’s like glass. Herons and pelicans perch in the mangroves high above you, preening themselves while keeping a careful eye out for that next yummy fish.
You reach the flamingoes and admire their pink feathers and long, elegant necks. They take off, the whole group honking as they flap over you, circling around and around until they find a new spot to settle in.
It’s such a peaceful, quiet spot, and I went as early as I could so there were very few people around as well.
3. Cementerio la Reina
When you meet Carmen you’ll be so glad you came here. As far as I can tell she’s employed as the resident historian, in charge of vandalism prevention, maintenance, and researching the names and symbols seen in the cemetery.
Carmen speaks English quite well and is very talkative and open. She LOVES her job and is very enthusiastic about showing you around and telling you everything and anything you want to know about the cemetery, the people in it, and the symbols on their tombs. She’s very proud of the fact that her atmospheric workplace is one of only four cemeteries in Cuba that are listed as National Monuments.
I found Carmen to be an absolute gem of a lady and I consider my encounter with her to be one of the highlights of my visit to Cuba!
4. Punta Gorda
A walk along the malecon to swanky Punta Gorda is an essential for any visit to Cienfuegos. With a shady sculpture park along the way, a bar in the park at the end, and various restaurants to stop and rest in, you won’t get too hot.
Be sure to check out Palacio de Valle, a huge pink building that kind of looks like a doily threw up on it. There’s a rooftop bar with shady spots for a cool drink and great views over the rest of Punta Gorda.
If you take a detour where the malecon ends and go towards the water there are also a few small restaurants with varying types of music blaring, as well as the enormous and fancy Club Cienfuegos, where you can have a drink and watch the sunset.
5. Necrópolis Tomás Acea
Necropolis? Isn’t that just another word for cemetery? Yep, and this is another one of the four that are listed as National Monuments. Yes, Cienfuegos has two of them! This one’s much bigger and you’ll be glad you’re going in alive so you can see the grand columned building at the entrance. Wandering among the monumental graves of some of Cienfuegos’ most important citizens, you’ll feel like you’re in the presence of nobility. The memorial to the martyrs of the 5th of September, 1957 rebellion against the Batista government is just inside the entrance and can’t be missed. Horses graze amongst the tombstones.
6. The cupola in Palacio Ferrer
If you’re in town on a weekday, you can climb the cupola tower on the corner of Parque José Martí. But it’s not just about great views, the way up is through an old villa that’s crumbling apart and is cool to have a poke around in.
7. Laguna de la Cura
Calm, reflective water, rickety wooden docks, rusting old boat houses, and a whole ton of small brightly painted fishing boats. Sound good?
I suspect most people don’t make it out here, but if you look on your map of Cienfuegos, you’ll see that there’s a ‘lagoon’ right in town. Go to the end of Calle 43, Avenida 12 or Avenida 10 and you’ll find it.
8. El Nicho Waterfall
I didn’t go to El Nicho but I kind of wish I had. People said it was really pretty! But it was only accessible by a 35 CUC tour or a taxi and I decided against it. *sigh* Maybe next time.
9. Castillo de Jagua
Castillo de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Jagua occupies a dramatic position overlooking the entrance to Cienfuegos Harbour. I meant to go, but I didn’t. Why? You have to go by ferry, which goes at 8am and 1pm, takes 40 minutes, and returns at 10am and 3pm. So either you take the 8am ferry, spend all of an hour at the castle and then come back (really not enough for someone who does everything slowly like me), or you’re there until 3pm. Which maybe wouldn’t be so bad, but by the time you get back it’s just about an entire day!
Having said that, given more time in Cienfuegos this is probably what I would have done. I think there are restaurants nearby to have a sit in while you wait for the ferry!
10. Teatro Tomás Terry
You can go have a look around this old theatre, which is pretty inside but not all that big. I thought I was supposed to get a tour for my 2 CUC, but they left me to wander on my own, looking at the posters the walls and imagining I was rich enough to buy the most prime box seats.
The best part was when a tour group came in and convinced one of their members to get up on the stage and sing. She had clearly had training in opera, and sitting by myself in the upper balcony, I just closed my eyes and let her voice envelop me.
11. Sit in a café and people watch
On a particularly rainy, awful day in Cienfuegos, I found myself asking at Infotur about how to get to Laguna Guanaroca and while I was there happened to ask for suggestions about what to do here in the rain. The answer? Go to the café on the edge of the park, have a coffee, and read a book or people watch. I like doing that sort of thing anyway but I did think it was funny that that was their best suggestion for a rainy day!
The urban centre of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its early 19th century urban planning inspired by the Spanish Enlightenment. Add to that the traditional French architecture and beautiful columned buildings on the main street, and it’s a great place to wander. Don’t miss the miniature copy of the ‘Arc de Triomphe’!
13. Rancho Luna
I’m putting this at the bottom of the list because while it’s an ok beach, it’s not what people picture when they imagine Cuban beaches. It doesn’t have the sparkling white sand, or super clear blue water (although that may depend on the day you go) and there’s litter on the beach and the odd stray dog wandering around. But if you’re really in need of a beach day, it’s ok.
Are you excited to visit Cienfuegos yet? You can see there’s plenty to keep you busy! Any questions, just ask me!
Enjoy this post? Please pin it!