Squeeze sugar cane. Filter juice through crushed ice. Swirl in fresh lemon juice. And enjoy guarapo, the classic Cuban beverage that tastes its very best when sipped in a slice of shade overlooking the bay in Cienfuegos. A guarapo is a great way to launch a visit to Cuba’s Caribbean coast. That close encounter with sugar cane is a helpful reminder of the role that sugar played in local history. And a nice natural jolt of energy comes in handy as you begin a ramble in a region that, in an easy few days, reveals a face of Cuba that couldn’t be more different than Havana.
Known as the “Pearl of the South”, Cienfuegos is the place to start, most of all because it contradicts what you think you know about the Spanish colonial history of Cuba. Founded in 1819, this city was settled by immigrants from France and Louisiana. Even today, the pastel city wears traces of Paris and New Orleans on its sleeve. The historic center of town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and it’s an incomparable place for strolling. For a cool twist, check into the mid-century modern Hotel Jagua. Built by mobster Meyer Lansky, the hotel has undergone a sophisticated update, but it’s still easy to picture a Rat-Pack gathering by the palm-shaded pool. While here, you’re almost always in earshot of a street-music performance, and it takes minimal persuasion to enjoy a private concert from one of the city’s choral groups.
Down the coast, 500-year-old Trinidad is as close to time travel as you’re likely to come. As if it were still 1850, farmers trek into town via donkey cart and horseback. Bread-makers bike through the early-morning streets, ferrying warm loaves to housewives. Find a sweep of stairs or a café to sit for a while and soak it in and go for a walk amid vivid mansions and ornate public buildings built by vast sugar fortunes. Slaves were essential to that trade, and from Africa they brought with them the roots of the Santeria religion. It’s practiced throughout Cuba, but Yemaya Temple is one of the places where a white-magic priest will invite you in to learn more.
For balance, head out of town into the beautiful country, specifically the slopes of the lush Escambray Mountains. If you find Tony, ask him to take you for a walk on the private trail he carved with his own machete, under the supervision of his sidekick, Fendi the Chihuahua. His route takes you past coffee plantations and a waterfall. For country hospitality, you can’t top his wife Mailin who has lunch waiting on the patio when your walk ends.
Because you just happen to be in the neighborhood, make time for the beach on the infamous Bay of Pigs. A small museum commemorates the Cuban victory, but these days the real attraction is the bay itself. These waters contain what is probably the finest reef habitat in all of Cuba. With a naturalist and a snorkel mask, you can get a remarkable look at striped goatfish, peacock flounder and a finned kaleidoscope of other species.
If you want a well-rounded understanding of Cuba, the calm, colorful and very colonial vibe of the Caribbean coast is an essential part of your trip to the island.
Join Classic Journeys on our handcrafted 8-day/7-night Cultural Walking Adventure to Cienfuegos, Trinidad & Havana. Our expert local guides will introduce you to life on the Caribbean side and to Cubans from every walk of life. Highlights include:
- Multi-night stays in Cienfuegos and Havana
- Guided explorations of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Havana
- Snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs
- The sights of Havana including Hemingway’s home, the Malécon, the Hotel Nacional, and more
- Chatting with vintage-car restorers in their workshop
- Meetings with artists, chefs, musicians and dancers