History of Cienfuegos  What to See

[dropcap type=”1″]F[/dropcap]ounded in 1819, Cienfuegos is the youngest of Cuba’s main cities. A small group of French colonists first settled in the area, taking advantage of the free land and travel expenses offered by the Spanish government  for those willing to set roots here. The international ban on slaves’ trade at the time had the authorities thinking about creative ways to motivate farmers to settle and plant more food crops, to make the island self-sustained. Very soon the idea proved to be successful, the excellent Bay of Jagua and the fertile lands to the north quickly turned the village into an important trading post for fine timber, cattle, coffee, and tobacco. The town grew with more colonists coming from Havana and nearby areas, and in 1829 became the ‘Villa de Cienfuegos’ (named after the Spanish Captain General Jose Cienfuegos, the colonial governor who approved the plans for the settlement).  In the 1850’s the railroad arrived, connecting Cienfuegos with Santa Clara in the center of the island, and giving a mighty impulse to the development of sugar cane plantations along the way. By 1863 the Customs office in the port of Jagua was one of the top 5 in collecting revenues in the island.

During the Cuban wars of independence Cienfuegos was a hotbed of dissent and insurrection. Thousands joined the call to arms against the colonial rule in 1869, creating a force of 3,000 men led by local leaders. The rebels waged a successful campaign initially, defeating the Spanish troops in several occasions, and burning the sugar cane fields to cause economic distress. But after a decade of fighting, the lack of resources and the heavy reinforcements from Spain drove the surviving rebels to accept amnesty and put the weapons down. In 1895 a second round of fighting started in the East of the island, with the insurrection reignited by Cuban hero Jose Marti. The rebels vowed to take the war all over the island, battling the Spanish colonial forces as they marched West. By the time they reached the area of Cienfuegos, the insurgents had one of their key victories in the battle of Mal Tiempo, 20 miles to the north of the city; the rebels defeated a superior force of 2,500 Spanish troops, causing them 300 casualties and capturing weapons, horses, and equipment. Three years later, during the short Spanish American War, the american Navy blocked the bay and bombarded 3 Spanish ships and the Fort of Jagua. After the Spanish surrender at the end of the war, the port of Cienfuegos was the point of evacuation for the last contingent of Spanish soldiers in Cuba.

During the Castro revolution in the 1950’s, there were active cells of supporters in Cienfuegos conspiring against the Batista regime. On September 5th., 1957, revolutionaries and sympathetic Navy officers staged an uprising against the Batista government, capturing the Navy base of Cayo Loco and the police stations. The revolutionaries distributed weapons to supporters and controlled the city for a day, withstanding air raids and the attack of government forces coming from Havana and Matanzas. The next day the uprising was crushed, and many revolutionaries were killed or in hiding. In the 1960’s there were again underground cells conspiring in Cienfuegos, this time against the revolutionary government and in support of the counter-revolutionary guerrilla groups operating in the nearby Sierra del Escambray. In 1961 revolutionary militias from Cienfuegos were the first to clash with the anti-Castro exiles’ expeditionary force landing on Bay of Pigs, 50 miles to the west of the city.

Today in Cienfuegos you can catch a glimpse of its past splendor with its neat grid layout, elegant houses on the waterfront with spectacular views of the bay, and tidy squares. People in Cuba know Cienfuegos as “the Pearl of the South”, and even in times of economic hardships the city has managed to enjoy a somewhat better situation. Locals had access to better jobs thanks to the industrial activities around the harbor: an electric power plant, an oil refinery, a cement factory, a shipyard, railroad yards and repair shops… In the 1980’s works started in the area for an ambitious plan: building a nuclear power plant across the bay. Most of the plant was built, as well as the residential complex for the staff, but the plant was never completed: the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the necessary funding for finishing the job never arrived.

What to See in Cienfuegos
Main square Plaza de Armas – Parque Marti

The square marks the spot where the Cienfuegos was founded back in 1819. A large majagua tree in the middle of an empty, flat field was the reference point for starting the layout of the lots for the founders. The spot where the tree once stood now is marked with a marble compass rose embedded in the pavement, with a map of the bay and the location of the original town. The square ins its original form was arranged and decorated from the 1920’s, and most of the monuments we see now were added in that time. Notice on the west side of the square a small Arc de Triomphe dedicated by local trade unions to the Independence Day (May 20th., 1902): the day the Republic was inaugurated. Looking through the arch to the center of the square you can see the marble statue of Jose Marti, the Cuban national hero. There is also a domed glorieta (bandstand), where the municipal band used to perform marches and popular tunes, as it was customary in those days. There are also a few fountains and busts of city benefactors and patriots in the gardens, with park benches shaded by large trees.

Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos
Teatro Tomas Terry in Cienfuegos

Looking at the buildings around the square you will notice on the north side Teatro Tomas Terry, one of a few theaters built in the colonial era in Cuba, and the best preserved one. Completed in 1889, it bears the name of the wealthy landowner who wished to build a quality theater for the city. After his death in Paris, his sons came to Cienfuegos and fulfilled his will donating 100,000 pesos for the construction. The eclectic façade with gold-leaf ornaments complements the square very well, and the interior is very pleasant. The theater was built in the Italian style, with four levels in a horseshoe shape. A statue of Mr. Terry adorns the lobby, along with posters of luminaries like Enrico Caruso and other famous artists who performed here. Marble floors, wrought iron grills, and fine Cuban woods make the visitor feel transported to a bygone era, and looking up to the ceiling frescoes complete the illusion. The theater is in use, and there are regular programs of theater, ballet, and concerts; check the schedule at the lobby for current presentations. Admission (including tour): 2.00 CUC Hours: 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM

The Cafe Teatro Terry occupying the open-air space between the theater and the next building is a nice spot to enjoy the music of local troubadours and jazz bands, while savoring a Cuban coffee, cocktails, or a cold beer.

To the right of the Terry Theater is the San Lorenzo school building. It was completed in 1929 as a trades school and home for poor children. The façade facing the square features a neoclassical portico with a triangular relief on top, depicting the coat of arms of the city surrounded by its sources of prosperity: agriculture, industry, science, and art. The building is a historical landmark in Cienfuegos: during the uprising of September 5th, 1957, fifteen revolutionaries made a last stand here and battled with Batista’s troops, until they were captured and executed on the spot.

Facing the square on the east side, is the Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion (Cathedral of the Most Pure Conception). This is Cienfuegos’ main house of worship for the Catholic faithful, completed in 1869 in the place where there was a small parish church before. The notable vitrales (stained glass windows) of the 12 Apostles were made in Paris and added in 1871. The main religious celebrations in the city are held here: the procession when  the beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary is carried out of the church on December 8, and the Corpus Christi.

On the south side of the square is the former city hall and police headquarters from 1950, now provincial government building Palacio de Gobierno. With the large red dome, grey-blue and silver details, it contrasts with the much older buildings around the square. It is an office building and closed to visitors, but you can peek inside from the sidewalk to appreciate the fine staircase and decorations in the lobby.

Another notable building is on the southwest corner of the square: Palacio Ferrer, now Casa de la Cultura. Built for a wealthy Spanish merchant in 1818, the ground floor was originally a warehouse with the family home on the second floor, richly decorated with marble floors and ornaments. Notice the rounded lines of the balconies, and the slender domed lookout on the roof, with a wrought-iron spiral staircase to the top.

On the corner of Santa Isabel and San Fernando streets is the Casa del Fundador, the original house of Louis de Clouet, the Frenchman who came up with the idea to promote settlements in this area. This is the oldest building around the square (built in 1841), and a typical example of solid neoclassical construction of the times. The house is a today souvenir shop, and the adjacent San Fernando street is closed to traffic and becomes a shopping Boulevard: any time of the day you can see lots of people, mostly locals walking up and down going about their business. This pedestrian section is 4 blocks long and connects Parque Marti with:

Paseo del Prado is the main thoroughfare in Cienfuegos, running in a straight line from north to south. The street is lined with colonnades and a paved median with plants and benches for those looking for a place to stroll or sitting for a chat with friends. The southern section of the Prado runs by the bay, with nice waterfront views as you get closer to the section known as:

Punta Gorda

This is the area in the southern tip of the city, ending in a narrow strip of land jutting into the bay. The Paseo del Prado promenade ends in a roundabout facing one of the most striking buildings in Cienfuegos:

Palacio de Valle
Palacio de Valle, now a restaurant in Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos.

Palacio de Valle, the lavishly decorated mansion a wealthy industrialist (Don Acisclo Valle) built at a cost of 1.5 million Pesos in 1917, and is now one of Cienfuegos’ landmarks. The building features a mix of styles, but has a strong mudejar flavor (the Moorish influence in Spanish architecture reflected in the style of 16th century Spain). It was the design of local architect Carbonell, and constructed by Italian engineer Colli. The building was purchased in the 1950’s with plans to turn it into a casino, but the Revolution put a halt on gambling in the island. It is now a restaurant with a terrace bar and nice views to the bay.