Cuba: Cienfuegos, re-finding the love

Without a doubt, I re-found my love for Cuba on the day I hit Cienfuegos. You might gather from the frankly unprecedented amount of swearing in the last post that Trinidad had royally pissed me off. But my entirely opposite experience in Cienfuegos started from the moment I started trying to get there.

The night before, through the enforced mourning darkness of the streets, I’d started trying to hook up transport to Cienfuegos. This was far harder than I thought it would be, since Viazul was hopelessly full, and it’s much harder to find colectivos to closer destinations than far-flung ones. It’s only 90 minutes down the coast. So, I went out and chatted with a few taxistas. This really is how all business should be conducted, leaning against the wing of a 1948 Plymouth whilst chatting to the driver.

The sum total of these discussions was that there might be one heading out at 11am the next morning, but if I got to the bus station at 8am I’d likely have luck finding someone. So, I was up bright and early to give it a try. Worst case scenario was that I’d just head to Havana instead, it’s always easy to find a ride to Havana. 

As luck would have it, I pitched up on the right road at 8am and, whilst talking to a few drivers, saw a local bus passing with CIENFUEGOS in its front window. Fuck me, what a stroke of luck. Flagged down, and we’re on our way. 6CUP- 4 less than the cheapest possible price in a colectivo. WIN.

The road to Cienfuegos from Trinidad follows the coast and is seriously lovely.

But more than that, what was better was that the bus driver, conductor and everyone else was treating me like a normal person, not a wallet. I’d been charged the correct fare, no gringo tax and nobody was trying to sell me anything, it just felt like proper human interaction- Even down to the extent of them taking the piss about having lost my rucksack down the road. As I got off the bus I got directions from the conductor to the main street, he shook my hand and I thanked him. “My pleasure”. Jeez, that’s rewarding after the glassy-eyed contempt of a diehard tourist town.

I found Cienfuegos’ lovely Bulevar pretty quickly, after turning off by the big Che billboard. It’s an idealistic shopping street fully in the Soviet mould, with aspirational homeware shops and strolling families. Cuba has opened up a lot in recent years, including with surprising stuff like allowing citizens to actually buy consumer goods like I saw, this was somewhat of a surprise.

“Che: Gentleman without blemish or fear”

The Bulevar towards the main square. One of the sadly defunct rail lines in shot.

I had a firm strategy to find a Casa this time. Find my way down the main street until a relatively strategic point (Since I was planning to use a colectivo on the next leg proximity to the bus station was irrelevant), then get a couple of blocks off the main street to find somewhere cheap. And it had to have a nice dog. And no sign in English. Seriously, these are winning criteria.

As luck would have it, not less than 2 blocks from the Bulevar I spotted the tell-tale Arrenador Divisa sign and, sitting by the open front door, a sausage dog wearing a jumper. This was it…

And there I met the lovely Maria, as far from the glassy-eyed tourist exploiter and as far towards the archetypal surrogate Latina mother as one could hope to find. “Si, Mi amor!” She had room. A comfortable downstairs room, nothing glamorous but a decent price for the night of 25CUC. And obviously a sausage dog in a jumper. DONE.

Surrogate Casa Mother Maria

I dumped my bag and headed straight out, since by now I was starving. A block down the street was a Government-run pizza/pasta restaurant. That’ll do. At this point the whole enforced mourning malarkey didn’t seem to have fully kicked in, so we were allowed one beer each. Magic. Shortly after turning up, the place started really filling up. So, I waved two gringos who came in to the spare seats on my table- At least I wouldn’t look like such a Nobby no mates!

They were Austrian, and a good laugh. I noted that one had “YEAH” tattooed on his right arm in Times New Roman, probably about 36 point. What an oddity. I suppose on the upside it wasn’t in Comic Sans. After an interminable wait for pizza as is the custom in Government restaurants, and then an interminable wait to pay, I said a grateful goodbye to my by now very annoying table mates and hit the streets for some sightseeing.

Most of Cienfuegos’ most important architecture is clustered around the main park. There’s a strong French influence including its own Arc de Triomphe and fantastically well preserved buildings such as the Teatro Tomas Terry (Don’t bother paying the entrance fee though, there’s very little to see inside!)

Cienfuegos, like Trinidad, has long been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and lots of money has been poured in, so the architecture and public spaces are, as the kids would say, on point. The main square has been fully and sympathetically restored, and many other areas of the city are currently in the process of restoration. Oh, and by the way, I didn’t pay the classic car drivers to strategically place them, it was just blind luck. Even the pink one, in two shots!

I needed to grab some Internet time to reassure my mum I hadn’t been killed to death, so grabbed a 5CUC card from a local shop. As I scratched off the code, it was clear that this was not the right one, it was a mobile credit card. Bugger. Luckily there was a guy selling the RIGHT card (ETECSA internet card) just outside the relevant shop, which saved a long queue. 3CUC. And then I actually managed to sell the scratched mobile credit card for only a little less than I paid for it to another tout. Fantastique.

Lots of public areas are wifi hotspots, and you just buy the access cards for as long as you need. The speed is pretty decent too. So, I uploaded my last shovelful of self-indulgent blog nonsense, updated La Madre and was good to go again. Down to the docks area, along a walking street packed full of utter tourist tat. I didn’t partake.

Fishing boats in dock

Customs building

Heading back to Maria’s (receiving a massive greeting from the jumpered hound, good work winning her affections so rapidly), I got changed and brushed up for an evening stroll down to Punta Gorda. Essentially Cienfuegos’ most important stuff is in a big T, from the pedestrian shopping Bulevar down to the other main road, an attractive tree-lined grand promenade which leads down to Punta Gorda.

This is a real spot for promenading with young Cubans everywhere seeing and being seen. Combined with the cool ocean breeze and the balmy temperatures you could hardly conceive a better way to spend the evening. Punta Gorda is a fair old walk from the town centre along a causeway but it’s completely safe, and besides, what else is there to do here other than taking the air?

Benny More, Cienfuegos’ most famous musician son

Grand old buildings on the walk down

After a kilometre or so, you reach the Punta itself, with a small park, pavilions and of course, a bar to satiate your sundowner urges. My timing was perfectly coincidental with a really lovely sunset and a crystal-clear view across the bay. Sunset is just Cuba’s time, it really is. Particularly in a setting like this, with a sunset as good as that. Utter perfection.

Suitably mellowed, I decided to try my luck with the cyclo-taxi mafia. Sorry, collective. There’s a small bunch of them clustered around the entrance to the Punta Gorda park. I wanted to go back to Club Cienfuegos a few hundred metres down the road, but thought it’d be nice to do so under pedal power. Needless to say, none of them were interested in the 60 cents in change I had apart from a couple of BIG notes they certainly weren’t having.

Just up the road though, the huge Cuban guy who’d been cycling around blasting Michael Jackson was happy to take me. Just as we set off he suddenly stopped and killed the music from his on-bike sound system as we were about to pass the cops, and during the period of mourning music was VERBOTEN. This led to a great chat, Armando was 64 but really didn’t look like it. We talked about how Cuba might change after Fidel, and what was wrong with the current situation. Another really nice, genuine interaction of the type that had eluded me for much of my time in Trinidad.

So, Club Cienfuegos:

Stunning. Looking out onto the bay and with a suitably opulent interior, this place is actually Government-run. I’d seen earlier that they had a set dinner option so went in to check it out. Actually it represented excellent value for money: 20CUC for a full 3 course meal including a welcome cocktail, beer or wine during the meal, dessert and coffee. 

Unlike some of the stuffier Government-run joints here, the service was actually excellent, if a little formal at times. The waiters were mainly older guys who really knew their profession, but who demonstrated genuine warmth, like they were happy for me to be there. I left a good tip, mindful of the fact that the average monthly wage for Government-employed Cubans is what tonight’s dinner cost me.

Nice setting

Nice spot of Filet Mignon

Without reservation, I will say that it was a great meal but probably the first time I’ve seen glacé cherries deployed in anger since the mid-80’s. A traditional menu starting with prawn cocktail, filet mignon for main course and some manner of tart dessert. Sadly the alcohol ban remained in force, so my daiquiri was unmolested by liquor, nor did I enjoy a beer. 

Overall though, what a fantastic evening. I rejoined the promenaders and strolled happily back into town.

Promenading

Maria had sorted me out a colectivo for the morning all the way to Vinales, 6 hours away, in order for me to get my countryside fix. 40CUC, not a great deal more than the bus. Pickup from right outside the Casa.

Sadly, due to the effects of the coffee and a very noisy street it wasn’t the best night of sleep but overall…

Cienfuegos, je t’aime 

Next up… Indulging my Cuban countryside dreams in Vinales.

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