Cienfuegos is an amazing place. It’s the center of Cuba’s sugar, tobacco, and coffee trades, and is known to Cubans as the Pearl of the South. But the culture here is not typically Cuban. The influence of the French, who settled Cienfuegos in 1819, can be seen in the architecture, the boulevard-like streets, and of course, the food. But the spectacular view of the massive stone fortress of Castillo de Jagua, built in 1745 to protect the city against pirate attacks, was my favorite. Of course, the rooftop terrace at the Palacio de Valle, a beautiful former palace that now houses a museum, wasn’t bad either.
As we sailed away from Cienfuegos that night, we sat and enjoyed some live Cuban music. Turns out we had picked up a band from Cienfuegos that were heading to Santiago de Cuba, so they performed for us the entire way. Lucky us!
Our last stop was Santiago de Cuba, the country’s capital from 1522-1589. We went first to the Basilica del Cobre, which is considered the holiest shrine in the whole country. From there we toured the UNESCO World Heritage site of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, another coastal fortress constructed in 1637 to protect Santiago de Cuba from pirates. It was twice destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt, only to be damaged again by more earthquakes in 1757 and 1766. It’s been through a lot, which only made me love it even more.
Wrapping up our cruise to Cuba in the only way anyone should ever close out their time there, we had the best lunch of the entire trip at local paladar, Ire a Santiago. In Cuba, a paladar is a family-run restaurant or hotel, many times a combination of both. The food (I made sure to get in one more dish of arroz congri) was served family style and that felt perfect to me, because after our week together, my group definitely felt like family.
With time remaining before we had to head back to the ship, we walked off that amazing feast with a leisurely tour of downtown and a visit to the Catedral de la Ciudad, another architectural beauty with its own stories to tell. It was in surprisingly good condition, and I later learned why. This cool, beautiful, cathedral had been refurbished to coincide with a visit from Pope Francis in September of last year. It was interesting to think I might have been standing right where he stood to admire this amazing place.
When we set sail from Santiago de Cuba heading back to Miami, I didn’t want the trip to end, but on the bright side, in each city, our guides did a fantastic job of showing us as much of the country and the culture as possible, to ensure that our trip was an unforgettable experience. For me, the trip was the perfect combination of beauty, connection, and education. I learned about the country. Its history. Its culture. I loved its food. I made friends with its people. And I can’t wait for future travelers to visit Cuba and come back and tell us their stories.
p.s. I know I used the words amazing, perfect, cool, special, lucky, and love a billion times in this story. I meant every single one.
Lourdes Valdez, Fathom
August 2, 2016