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Cuba Part 9: Cienfuegos

Photo: The Palacio de Valle in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos

This is Part 9 of a multi-part series on Cuba. Part 9 covers our time in this gorgeous city full of both unique Colonial architecture and crumbling facades. It is a microcosm of the dichotomous nature of Cuba.

As we drive through the countryside away from the Bay of Pigs, the horse carts get more prevalent and the cars less frequent. The road quality quickly diminishes--not that it was very good to begin with. Horses graze on the side of the road with no tether. Cows wander freely with seemingly no enclosures. Tony says people would not take someone else's cow, the laws are too strict if caught, but you could never let a pig wander in the street like this.

We pull out some snacks from home for the ride and offer Tony one of the peanut butter chocolate granola cups we are munching on. Tony says he has not eaten peanut butter in twenty years. He seems to savor every bite. Another thing to add to the list of things I am thankful for back at home--the endless aisles and varieties of food I have to choose from at my local Wegmans. We don't recognize enough how fortunate we are on a daily basis--something I consider a boring chore would be an experience Tony can barely imagine.

As we continue to drive, Tony points to rice paddies along the side of the road. "This area is very productive," he says. I can understand the reason the slave trade flourished in Cuba. Cultivating all of this land by hand is quite a feat. Even now, we only see one rare tractor working a huge tract of land during our drive. Most work is still done by hand today.

The landscape out here is quite picturesque. We pass crops, mangroves, and even a solar panel field. Periodically, we hit a small town with its dirt roads and single-story concrete homes with tin roofs. Residents either ride bikes or walk for the most part. Cars are much rarer as a mode of transportation; they are simply too expensive for the average citizen.

Tony points out a sign that says "Cienfuegos 40 km;" we turn the corner and there is another sign that says "Cienfuegos 30km." "That's Cuba," he says shaking his head. As we get closer to the city, we pass the Cienfuegos oil refinery, the biggest refinery in Cuba. Next, we pass a psychiatric hospital. According to Tony, Cuba has no homeless people; the government ensures they all have somewhere to go. Thinking back to Havana, I do realize that it was kind of odd that we never saw anyone on a corner begging for money, even with the level of poverty we perceived around us. Of course, many of the homes we saw Havana residents living in would be deemed uninhabitable in the U.S.--there would simply be too many code violations to even salvage the buildings. With another Cuban contradiction to contemplate, we arrive in Cienfuegos.

Photo: Panoramic view from the Palacio de Valle rooftop in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 by the French. According to Tony, it is the cleanest city in the country, and his favorite place in Cuba. Cienfuegos means one hundred fires. Tony says it got its name because people used to stand with torches/light fires to show ship captains into the narrow bay. However, at home, I can't find that explanation anywhere in my research. Most references seem to agree that Cienfuegos was actually named after the Cuban revolutionary, Camilo Cienfuegos. Either way, I personally think it should be named Cienfuegos for the beautiful, fiery sunsets you can witness over the bay in the evenings throughout the year.

Upon arrival, we first check into our AirBNB. Tonight, we are sleeping in a colonial house built in 1912. Conveniently located only a few blocks from the city's famous Jose Marti Park, our house is situated on a pedestrian street lined with shops. We have a bedroom, bathroom, and balcony to ourselves. The house has soaring ceilings with intricate moldings, and the common spaces feels very inviting with comfortable furnishings and an open floor plan featuring a shared living/dining space and another larger balcony. The street below is quite nice in comparison to the streets of Havana. It looks well maintained, clean, and there is even name brand merchandise in some of the shop windows. Cienfuegos feels modern and touristy in comparison to gritty Havana.

Photos: Our AirBNB and the view from our balcony

Cienfuegos has a gorgeous malecón (stone embankment along the waterfront) which is a perfect place for a walk or bike ride. Tony has set us up on a bike tour of the city for the evening. Our driver, Yunior (pronounced Junior) is a friendly, hardworking local. He actually studied to be a veterinarian, but he says he was only making the equivalent of 12 CUC ($12) a month, so he drives his bike full time now. "I have two daughters; I need to make life a little better for them," he tells us. Yunior built his bike with a friend and is quite proud of it. He says it cost him 210 CUC ($210) for its three motorcycle tires and that it was quite difficult (and expensive) for them to collect all of the necessary parts. Once built, Yunior had to obtain a license to operate his bike in Cienfuegos. He shows us his bicycle license which costs 200 CUP (~$8) a month to maintain.

Photos: Jose Marti Square

As we begin our ride, Yunior first takes us through Jose Marti Square. Surrounded by a panoramic view of exquisite Colonial architecture, Yunior pedals us past some of the square's encircling buildings and park monuments. We tell Yunior we are both interested in the city's beautiful sights and also in hearing--and seeing--a bit about daily life from a local's perspective. So, he heads away from all of the polished facades into workaday Cienfuegos. As we continue to ride, Yunior points out a store where they can utilize their government allowance to buy food--the store looks empty. One of Yunior's young daughters spots him as we pedal past and runs out of a ramshackle building I assume is their home to greet him and give her dad a kiss. Seeing the gentrified side of the city by our AirBNB and the more local area Yunior is now taking us through is a sharp contrast. We ride over ripped-up streets, past crumbling facades, and alongside horse carts and "free range" chickens.

Photos: Yunior's bike tour through workaday Cienfuegos

Yunior shows us the nearby port and says his grandfather worked on a boat here. We hop off the bike at a pier to take a photo and see the fishermen casting off the pier (watching for hooks) and selling their catches. Families are wandering the pier, enjoying the view or negotiating on some dinner, as well. The smells down by the water are a bit overpowering, and I am somewhat relieved when we head back inland.

Photos: The pier in Cienfuegos

Junior takes us down the Prado, Cienfuegos' most important Avenue. It is the longest Prado in the country (even longer than Havana's) and makes for a picturesque promenade. From here, we head toward the Malecón, which the Prado runs down. We pass some beautiful mansions, including a striking blue and white one overlooking the water. In addition, we see a gorgeous radio station, Revolutionary Square, and the city's baseball stadium (home of the Elephant). Yunior mentions that one of the current White Sox players started here, but I don't recognize the name.

Top Left: Prado; Top Right: Malecón; Center: The Blue House; Bottom Left: Club Cienfuegos; Bottom Right: Malecón View

We are now in Punta Gorda, the southern strip of the city. Yunior shows us a 1920s palace now called Club Cienfuegos. The club's white, grandiose decor stands out, even among the upscale surrounding buildings. As we continue to ride, he also points out the house Fidel Castro stayed at in Cienfuegos after the Revolution and Cultural Square. Everyone in Cuba always seems to be quick to point out any place Fidel ever so much as set foot and automatically assumes it is an important part of their history.

Photos: Punta Gorda--Palacio de Valle and the water view from a nearby park

Next, Yunior takes us to the Alhambra-like Palacio de Valle for a look inside and to take in the panoramic bay views from the rooftop. The palace's interior houses a restaurant, but we are just here for a quick peek. The decor is quite fanciful, and the view from the rooftop is pretty, but we don't linger long. We head nearby to the park at the tip of Punta Gorda. From here, we watch part of the sunset from a gazebo overlooking the water. As we drive back toward town along the Malecón, we catch some gorgeous views of the rest of the sunset over the bay.

Photo: Sunset from the Malecón

Tony said that Yunior would set us up with somewhere to eat dinner, and he takes us to a restaurant back near town called La Casa de Chango. It's a little ways off from the tourist drag. I've done my research on all of the cities we will be eating in, and Cienfuegos is actually the one I am least excited about. This surprises me given the more upscale feel here. However, unlike Havana or Trinidad, there aren't many well rated restaurants. Here, finding a clean restaurant is probably more the priority than finding a gourmet meal option.

There are no prices on the menu which tells me right off the bat that this is going to be one of those places that charges what they think they can get. In order to avoid being completely shocked at the end of the meal, we ask what the price is before ordering, Our host says a dollar value that is very high for Cuba, particularly outside of Havana, but we don't balk. While the price is a bit high, it's much lower than we are used to back at home (which I'm sure they are counting on). Typically, if a tour guide/local brings tourists to a restaurant, they are given a bit of a kick-back or a meal (or both) by the proprietor. So, I'm happy knowing that at least both Yunior and the local proprietor are making something off of our meal--the restaurant is otherwise empty tonight.

Dinner is the "house special" according to our server--lobster verde (lobster in a sweet red sauce). The meal is served with plantain chips, rice, beans, greens (lettuce, tomato, cabbage, green beans & avocado on a small side plate), bread & butter, chicken noodle soup, and chocolate ice cream. The food is fine (edible but not much more), but the proprietor is so proud of each course he brings us that we praise it and thank him in appreciation.

After dinner, Yunior offers to drop us at Jose Marti square to get a drink at the bar there, but we ask him to take us back to our AirBNB instead. We want to give him some Mickey Mouse coloring books, crayons, notebooks/pens, and American snacks we have in our luggage for his girls before saying our farewell. More and more during this trip, I realize how lucky both we and our two girls are to have what we do. We take much too much for granted back at home. Yunior is so excited about everything we give him and thanks us profusely.

Photos: Jose Marti Square at Night

Before turning in for the evening, we head off for a walk around the square to see the colorful colonial architecture lit up at night. The Cathedral is particularly eye-catching, but all of the monuments and buildings spaced around the square are even prettier at night than during the day. Again, I am surprised to see so many aesthetically-lit monuments and buildings in Cuba. Once we've fully explored the square, though, we decide to call it an early night since we have another exciting day planned for tomorrow.

In the morning, we eat breakfast at our AirBNB in the airy common room. Breakfast is quite good, and our host is very attentive. We both wish we were staying here longer. Getting to meet the locals in places like this makes our trip so much more enriching. Tony greets us after breakfast, and we walk around town a bit, shopping at the outdoor market and popping into a few stores. The outdoor market in Cienfuegos is fairly large, and I buy a straw hat that catches my eye. Tony spouts off a few facts as we walk. Cienfuegos has approximately 168K inhabitants, five hospitals (as as result of it being the capital of the province), and the worst baseball team in the country (Tony says tickets cost 2 CUP (~$0.10)).

My husband notices a man on the street corner refilling disposable cigarette lighters, and he asks Tony about it. Tony says some people make a living that way. They get 1 CUP (~$0.05) for each lighter they refill. It seems like such an insignificant amount of money, but Tony counters that in Cuba, they don't have "really rich" people. He knew of someone in Trinidad who made 400 CUC ($400) a day renting 11 rooms. That is one of the richest people he knows. He says that might not seem like a lot of money to some in the US, but in Cuba, that's a huge sum of money.

Still, Tony says proprietors have to pay their fair share toward taxes, as well. To deter residents from trying to rent a room without registering with the government, there is a 200 CUC ($200) fine for not registering people staying in your place and you can lose your right to rent. Saying guests just arrived is not an excuse, and the government is very strict about it. I do notice throughout our time in Cuba that the first thing the proprietors of our AirBNBs do is register us.

The government is very strict on certain regulations, Tony says. He recalls a man he knew who sold matches on the street; he was making 2 CUP ($0.10) per sale. He was given a 1500 CUP (~$63) ticket for selling in a location he apparently was not supposed to be. The man was crying, and the people around him were shouting at the inspector, but it didn't matter. If you need a license or there is a government regulation, you have to abide by the rules or face heavy fines. Then, if you don't pay your fine, it doubles a month later, then doubles again the next month, and eventually you can even end up in jail if you don't pay. This may seem harsh, but allowing Cubans to do any type of "entrepreneurship" is a relatively new concept. Up until recently, locals did not have the freedom to pursue business opportunities at all, so this a major change in direction.

After we collect our luggage, Tony drives us back down the Malecón, this time in the car, and points out many of the same sights we saw the evening before with Yunior. He also diverts to show us the Cemeterio Tomas Acea, which he says is the most beautiful cemetery in the province. "So beautiful," Tony jokes, "that people are dying to get in." I guess that joke is popular in almost any country.

Photo: Cienfuegos cemetery

Talk turns to more general things as we head up into the mountains and toward El Nicho Waterfalls, our next stop enroute to Trinidad. As we leave Cienfuegos behind, I can't help but reflect on everything we've learned about the Cuban people's struggle and their resilience to rise above even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They are very much each filled with their own Cienfuegos--a fiery passion and bright light that continues to fuel them with the power to overcome adversity.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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