While most visitors to Cuba flock to the beaches of the north coast or the historic cities of Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, approximately 245 kilometres south of the capital sits the charming city of Cienfuegos. Unlike most other places in Cuba, Cienfuegos contains a rare history of overlapping waves of Spanish, American, Cuban and French influence.
Founded in 1819 by French settlers from Louisiana, French influence is evident throughout the city from the overall grid pattern with its wide, straight streets with varied promenades and parks to the emblematic buildings richly decorated with neoclassical motifs. What dominates the city is the true eclecticism of those buildings. Nineteenth-century American influence is not only noted in the structures that line the streets, but also in the splendid 97-hectare/240-acre Botanical Garden, which is the oldest in Cuba. Designed by the wealthy American businessman Edwin F. Atkins in order to optimize existing sugarcane varieties and obtain new crops, the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden was declared a National Monument in 1989. Another of the city’s landmarks is the Tomás Terry Theater. Built in 1889, the theater’s ceiling and interior walls are painted with the works of Camilo Salaya, an outstanding Spanish artist who left a significant imprint on several other public buildings as well.
These and many other architectural wonders, such as the Parque José Martí, the Cathedral, Palacio de Valle and the Arco de Triunfo –the only Arch of Triumph in Cuba – have earned Cienfuegos the reputation as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South) and made it worthy of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
Baseball is our daily bread; it’s the rice and beans in a Cuban meal; it’s what people talk about on the street.”
Modesto Agüero, Sports commentator
No other event in Cuba has the potential to draw huge crowds like baseball. Fans fill the stadium and the conga cheers on the local team. It’s hard for men, women and children to keep still. They sing and dance from the grandstand. As the game progresses, the passion grows. Baseball is life, joy, fun and motivation.
There’s nothing like going to the Cienfuego’s stadium during this season’s playoffs to experience up close how Cubans enjoy and suffer their baseball. Amidst the rejoicing and the infectious rhythm from drums, trombones and trumpets, people forget their woes and daily worries and simply and purely enjoy. Deeply ingrained in the minds and hearts of every Cuban, baseball is–like the national anthem or the flag–an expression of Cuban-ness. It is a passion that unites millions of people sharing a single heart and nowhere more so than in Cienfuegos where the perennial underdog, Elefantes fill their fans to bursting with hope and enthusiasm.
If that is not enough to convince you of the city’s merits, then you should check out the exquisite harbors where the fresh and salty waters of the Jagua Bay, the Guanaroca Lagoon and the Damují River come together, creating fascinating legends that have been passed on for generations. I will leave you with a famous story about an Indian woman named Guanaroca:
One night, noting the absence of her husband and son, Guanaroca rushed off to look for them. Worried and anxious, she wandered throughout the woods, calling in vain for her loved ones. Exhausted, she was about to fall to the ground when the shrill cry of a black bird made her lift her head and she saw a “güiro” hanging from the branch of a nearby tree. The woman climbed the tree and took the güiro. Noting that the fruit was punctured, she thought that she saw the body of her child inside. Her pain was so great and the emotion so intense that she felt faint and the güiro slipped from her hands and broke when it hit the ground. Astonished, the Indian woman saw fish, turtles and a vast amount of liquid coming out of the fruit. As it spilled downhill, the fish formed the rivers that bathe the Jagua region, the turtles became the Majagua peninsula and the keys, and the hot and salty tears of the unhappy mother, who wept inconsolably over the death of her beloved son, formed the lagoon that bears her name: Guanaroca.