Cuba

Fathom Cuba Cruise – Port Two: Cienfuegos

Written by Mark McElroy

Cienfuegos means “one hundred fires,” so we didn’t know whether to expect a city dotted with campfires, burned out buildings, or a cluster of volcanoes. As it turns out, Cienfuegos’ fires are strictly metaphorical; the name comes from a captain general who once supervised the port.

In modern times, the port itself has, until very recently, been purely functional. The Adonia pulls up alongside an expanse of concrete and asphalt.

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Disembarking passengers stand in long lines, exposed to the elements (so bring a hat or an umbrella, as appropriate) while being paraded through two sheds (one where bored nurses check temperatures using thermal imaging and another where disinterested port security guards either glance at passports or simply wave passengers through).

On the other side, busses await! Will they take you the the El Nico waterfalls, the number one attraction in Cienfuegos? Will they drop you off to stroll the charming Punta Gorda neighborhood? Will they ferry you to the Moroccan-themed architectural wonder of the Palacio de Valle or the flamingo-studded Guanaroca Lagoon?

Nope. In fact, if you take Fathom’s pre-arranged tours, you will see none of these things.

This is why, of the three ports our Fathom cruise visits, we found Cienfuegos to be the most frustrating. Once past the utilitarian dock, Cienfuegos possesses an unspoiled charm that invites slow, careful exploration. Unfortunately, because Fathom gives you only about four hours ashore, the entire visit feels rushed and breathless.

On the one hand, the “panoramic bus tour” of the city does allow you to see a great deal of Cienfuegos in a very short time. But on the other hand, you don’t sign up for a cruise to Cuba to see the sights the same way you can see them (for free) with Google Map’s street view. Rather than be whisked past a dozen incredible sites, I’d prefer to be immersed in one or two.

But, for reasons I still don’t know, Fathom is in a rush to get into and out of Cienfuegos. (Maybe they’re afraid of the hundred fires!) So we drove past the lovely Placio Azul:

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And the stunning Club Cienfuegos:

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(Can you feel me stomping the virtual brakes, longing to stop, take pictures, and wander the grounds? This is yet another example of Fathom not really delivering on the “person to person” experience they market so well.)

We were happy, then, to leave the bus behind and take a walking tour of downtown Cienfuegos. On this sunny morning, the streets were crowded with locals. A truck was unloading at the local grocery store, and Cubans were eager to exchange ration coupons for beans, sugar, and rice while some commodities were still on the shelves:

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As we walked further down the street, we stuck our heads in a local department store – once a Sears, now a one-room emporium selling simple, basic goods:

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We also stepped into the local hair salon:

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Americans on our tour complained bitterly when they were told they couldn’t purchase anything at the shop or salon. Here’s the scoop: these stores sell government-subsidized Cuban goods and services to Cuban people only. (That’s why the barber shop charges only about fifty cents for haircuts for men.)

As a tourist, though, you exchange your dollars for the tourist currency, the CUC (or “kook”), and these cannot be spent in the subsidized shops. There is at least one store and one snack shack in town where your CUCs are gladly accepted, and you should plan to buy your rum, cigars, and trinkets there — or from the vendor stalls set up along the street that leads back to the busses.

Our walk eventually took us to the Theatro Terry — an amazing performance space built in 1889.

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The acoustics were superb, allowing us to enjoy every note of a local choir’s performance. (Tip: as you enter the theater, make a beeline for seats near one of the big oscillating fans planted here and there along the gallery walls. The Terry Theatre still features 1880’s air conditioning! That is to say: there is none.)

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After the show, we wandered away from our group, preferring to explore Plaza Jose Marti on our own. Locals were enjoying the space, too, playing in the park and feeding the pigeons:

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On the way to meet our bus, we walked that long, wide street I mentioned earlier — the one lined with vendors. The stalls sell the same trinkets you see on sale throughout Cuba (mostly wooden figures of various kinds, mass produced in China). We did, however, enjoy the seaside snack bar, where a chilly red kiwi milkshake really hit the spot:

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From there, I wandered down the long pier toward the sea:

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At the end of the pier, embolden by a photography session I’d attended on the ship, I used my very limited Spanish to strike up a conversation with a local fisherman. After we talked about the heat and the fishing, I asked if I could shoot his portrait. He scrambled to gather his morning’s catch in a little basket, then let me take one of my favorite photos from the entire trip:

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As we boarded the bus, we were approached by a woman selling fresh-baked bread. I didn’t need a snack, but I was delighted to offer her a CUC in exchange for shooting this portrait:

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As we sailed away, I found myself longing to spend more time in Cienfuegos, walking the streets, exploring the buildings, and meeting the townsfolk. In the future, I think we might be spending a weekend in one of the little rental houses, strolling the seaside and exploring the palaces at the much slower pace this exquisite little seaside town deserves.

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Mark McElroy

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