For years, when we are asked “where were you when you learned about the new President of the United States?”, we will be able to answer with a most interesting response. We were in a taxi, travelling from Viñales to Cienfuegos, speaking to an incredibly interesting European couple. News travels slowly in Cuba, so it was days after the election results were released that this couple broke the news to us. A heated discussion about the state of world politics ensued, with the half-Swiss, half-Slovenian couple wholeheartedly agreeing that this new information had tarnished our trip; and all of us agreeing that each should go back to their home country and work their way up to the top of the political career in order to undo the negativity that is currently sweeping across the world from some of the world’s strongest States. We eventually had to take deep breaths and change the topic of conversation to something less disappointing, and spent the rest of the journey learning more about each other’s countries and lives.
The taxi ride from Viñales to Trinidad is a long one, so many tourists choose to stop a night or two in Cienfuegos on the way. There are quite a few tours you can do from Cienfuegos to keep your stay interesting; though if you can’t afford or aren’t inclined to join in on one of these, two nights here is enough.
The town itself is interestingly placed, with the ocean bordering one side, featuring a beautiful palm-lined esplanade leading to a fishing wharf; and historical streets and buildings throughout. What I found to be most interesting about this part of Cuba was the endless propaganda. Entering the city you will be greeted by billboard after billboard with slogans like “Socialism makes the impossible possible”, lining both sides of the highway. Within Cienfuegos, every walk will take you past pro-Che and pro-Castro propaganda, reminiscent of the propaganda seen during high school history classes, encouraging people to join whichever political movement was in power at the time. The propaganda here is emotive, strongly worded, graphically illustrated, and almost convincing.
On our first afternoon in Cienfuegos, we wandered through the centre of town, pausing to check out laneways filled with markets, and buy one or two souvenirs for ourselves and our loved ones. We had a very plain lunch at a courtyard restaurant, and ended up finding ourselves at the fishing wharf, where we sat for a time and watched beautiful little jellyfish drift out to sea with the tide. For a moment, I wondered where they would end up, and whether one day I would see them or their descendants in another place, at another time.
As the sun approached the horizon, we started home, pausing a moment to listen to a band at an outdoor bar play “Bailando”, an immensely popular Enrique Iglesias song we hear everywhere (and which every live band in Cuba plays at least once per set). With this catchy and uplifting tune stuck firmly in my head still hours later, I came to realise that for years to come, many of my favourite memories of Cuba would involve this song – and I loved this revelation.
We had chosen to enjoy dinner at our casa that evening, which led to us meeting two lovely European ladies staying in the same place. We chatted with them over drinks on the rooftop terrace before dinner, and the conversation flowed on constantly throughout our meal and for a while afterwards, until the pair headed out for a night on the town. It was interesting to get their perspective on Cuba as two young ladies travelling without male companions, as apparently the whistles, date requests, and other forms of harassment were rife throughout this part of the world. I hadn’t experienced this very much because I always had a male with me, though I had been asked by a few Cuban men if he was my boyfriend or not. It would be a real annoyance to be constantly approached and not left alone, simply because you are a female without a male; particularly in Cuba, where the men are used to getting their way with women because there are apparently five or more women for every man (as many Cuban men reminded every female tourist they could talk to for long enough). Whilst Cuba is by no means a dangerous country, there are certainly annoyances, and they do wear you down after a while.
On our second day in Cienfuegos, we followed Lonely Planet’s recommendation and made our way to Cementerio la Reina, the oldest cemetery in Cienfuegos (founded in 1837), where many Spanish soldiers who died during the Wars of Independence are buried. We were amazed to learn that, because of the high water levels here, many bodies were laid to rest in the walls, rather than in the ground. As well as this, there were a great number of incredibly elaborate statues on top of graves, and beautiful farewells inscribed on tombstones. We didn’t know it yet, but we would go on to see an even more impressive cemetery when we returned to Havana. Nonetheless, this one was interesting and beautiful and we were glad we went.
We enjoyed some mid-afternoon beers on the beautiful rooftop terrace of our casa, before making our way down to the esplanade to watch the sun set. It was an enchanting, fiery, stunning sunset; changing every minute until we were left with only a golden-red glow where the sun had been moments before. “Cienfuegos” literally translates to “one hundred fires”, and the sunsets alone are reason enough. We sat at a waterfront bar, sipping the most expensive mojitos we’d had in Cuba from plastic cups, thinking about our families at home and wishing they could be here to share this beautiful, tranquil moment with us.