Although Columbus stumbled upon the bay of Cienfuegos on his second voyage in 1494, it wasn’t until the 18th century that this port saw any form of settlement. In 1745 the Spanish built the Castillo de Jagua to defend the harbour from pirates, and later in 1819 a group of French colonists permanently settled here. Originally named Fernandina de Jagua, it is the only city in Cuba that was founded by the French.
In 2005 Cienfuegos was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often referred to as La Perla del Sur ( The Pearl of the South).
We only spent an afternoon and a night in Cienfuegos and felt this was a good amount of time – it’s a small town! Besides walking the streets and admiring the colourful buildings (some of the best preserved colonial architecture that we saw in Cuba) there is little aimed at tourists, especially those with kids. It did, however provide a welcome overnight break on our road trip from Havana to Trinidad.
We spent most of the afternoon in and around Parque José Martí, where you can pick up WiFi if you have a scratch card (see FAQ). Most of our entertainment came in the form of a lively carnival parade that gathered outside the Teatro Tomas Terry (a 19th century theatre / museum piece that’s worth a quick glance inside) on the northern side of the main square. Musicians, dancers and colourful floats took to the streets like a flash mob!
Take a video of tour of Cienfuegos
In the evening, we took a walk long the Punta Gorda peninsula as the sun set over the water. The sunsets here are pretty spectacular! To enjoy the views with a drink in hand, we were told the well-positioned Palacio de Valle (opposite Hotel Jagua) has a terrace bar overlooking the entire bay.
Where to stay in Cienfuegos with kids
We stayed in a Casa Particular called Hostal Cienfuegos Center and would recommend it to other families. The owners are friendly, the bedroom was spacious (and had two double beds) and it was one of the more comfortable casas we stayed in. Breakfast is served on a rooftop terrace which also doubles up as a quiet bar area in the evening. This casa costs US $35 a night. For more information on staying in Casas Particulares see Cuba with Kids: Staying in a Casa Particular.
For something a little more upmarket, Cubanacan Boutique La Union hotel is apparently the place to go! A colonial building set in the neoclassical style, the rooms are said to be simple and less impressive than its striking green exterior but nevertheless comfortable. For the kids, it has a swimming pool, and for the parents, a small rooftop bar with some of the best views of the city.
Where to eat in Cienfuegos with kids
In general we found the prices slightly higher in Cienfuegos than in Havana and the menus a little less creative. Like everywhere in Cuba, reservations in the more popular restaurants are essential.
Restaurante Palader Ache Currently holding the number one spot on Tripadvisor, the Cuban menu keeps things simple and fresh.
- Avenida 38 No.4106 e/ 41 y 43. Cienfuegos
- Phone: (+53) 4352 6173
Restaurant El Criollito Having trawled through town trying to find a table (if I haven’t stressed it enough, you need to book a table in advance!) we ended up here. Had I read the (awful!) reviews on Tripadvisor beforehand I don’t think we’d have gone though. The only reason I include it is because we found the food to be absolutely fine, but moreover we loved the live music performed by a couple (possibly a husband and wife team?) – we even bought their CD! They played a number of mellow Cuban classics which even kept the children quiet for a while (always a bonus!). (See the end of our video for a little demo!)
- Calle 33 N.o 5603, Cienfuegos
Other options that we didn’t try but rate highly on Tripadvisor (which remember you can’t access when you are there due to limited wifi) include Las Mamparas, Bahia, Finca del Mar and Villa Lagarto.
As with the accommodation, please let us know if you have any tried & tested recommendations!
Good to know
Driving time between Havana and Cienfuegos is approximately three hours by car. About half way between Havana and Cienfuegos, on the side of the highway, is a little zoo called Fiesta Campesina Don Pedro.
Animal activists may find the conditions a little depressing but the grassy complex certainly gave the children a good runaround. For a nominal fee, kids can interact with a handful of animals such as sitting astride a Cuban ox, holding snakes and, er, gambling with guinea pigs. Admittedly, the latter was totally unexpected!
The children were lured over to a table at the sight of a cuddly guinea pig. It’s owner asked us if we wanted to place a bet to see which wooden hut the guinea pig would run into. ‘Sure!’ we said, handing over our dollar. The owner then placed the animal in a wooden hut at the centre of the table, but before he released the latch, he spun the box and asked the children to shout stop. ‘Stop!’ I yelled before the children had a chance. The dizzy guinea pig flew out and scuttled into one of the houses (not the one with our dollar on it!). Needless to say, you may wish to by-pass this table and give the ox a gentle pat instead!
The coffees and juices here were very good! Somehow we whiled away an hour here.
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