A Dip at The Bay of Pigs before Chipping through Cienfuegos
I'm continuing my blog posts on my Cuba travels. This one is about the journey to Bay of Pigs and Cienfuegos. When planning my overall Cuba trip, I decided I'd have some concrete plans, and wing some things. Now, don't get crazy, I'm a planner, so of course I decided on which cities I wanted to visit, and for what amount of time, so my casas particulares (airbnbs) were booked ahead of time. Being homeless in Cuba didn't appeal to me, so I needed this part finalised. Now, don't let my paranoia freak you out, because it is easy to get to Cuba and find accommodation. Lots of people do this, and if your travel time is flexible, then by all means, be adventurous. It definitely gives you to opportunity to stay longer in the places you enjoy, and just pass through those that don't hold much appeal. Different cities will require varying times to properly explore depending on personal preference. I started my trip in Havana, with a stop at Bay of Pigs on the way to Cienfuegos for one night.
We did not arrange transportation until we were on the ground in Havana. Our tour guide in Havana, Pedro put us in touch with Leandro who was our taxi driver for the duration of our trip. He picked us up in Havana and drove us to Cienfuegos, and then picked us up in Cienfuegos to take us to Trinidad via Santa Clara the next day. He was always on time and he was such a pleasant human being. He did not speak any English, yet we got along very well. He's one of the people who I will forever hold dearly in my memories, as we spent many many hours on the road with him. Fun fact: he played us both Spanish and English music, but what's endearing is that he had an entire Backstreet Boys CD, and of course I knew all the words to every song. My boyfriend was not very impressed, but I was elated. So now every time I hear a Backstreet Boys song, on top of the nostalgic teenage memories, it brings back memories of driving through lush Cuban countryside.
Anyways, on to details of the trip, we stopped at Bay of Pigs, which is known as Bahia de Cochinos, or Playa Giron. This location is known for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the historic site of the failed CIA invasion to overthrow the Castro government in 1961. Castro had overthrown General Batista in 1959 to become the leader of Cuba, and immediately started imposing measures to make previously privately, American run industries nationalised,and this did not sit well with the US government. The President at the time, President Kennedy was not happy with this government change, as the previous President of Cuba, Batista was quite pro-American. The US, specifically the CIA recruited 1,400 Cuban exiles who had fled when Castro took over, and trained them for the invasion. It seemed that the plan was not a surprise to Castro, and his troops were able to overcome the attack. However, it was not without casualties, with 114 killed, and over 1100 taken prisoner. There is a museum as well in the vicinity which shows artifacts, and details the history of the day, but we were unable to visit. We did however get to spend a blissful couple of hours on the beach. Today, it shows no signs of its significant history, but its clear blue waters are perfection, with the opportunity to see the sealife in the shallow and deeper areas, so be sure to walk with your snorkels. If you forget to pack it, no worries, there's a place to rent it right on the beach so you're covered. We visited in the morning period before lunch and it wasn't too busy. The water is warm, and there are rocks to get to the beach, so you might also want to wear beach shoes. I didn't have any, but was okay. This was my first Cuban beach experience, as our planned outing to Playa del Este in Havana got rained out (the only time it rained in Cuba during our stay by the way!), and it was definitely worth it.
After this dip, we went to Cienfuegos where we checked into our airbnb, Relais Italia. It was right opposite El Malecon in Cienfuegos. Essentially the town of Cienfuegos is defined by a huge boardwalk, Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba. Once you use this street as your base point, you can explore to your heart's content without getting lost, as everything you'd really want to see is one of the streets to the left or right off Paseo del Prado. We were greeted with cold glasses of mango juice at our casa as we checked in. Point to note..you'll always have to provide your passport when checking in. It's a Cuban legal requirement, so expect it. I picked this place because of the great reviews, but mainly because of the pictures of the epic sunsets over the water from the balcony. Let me tell you..it did not disappoint. The bed we stayed in had a sink to the middle so we both kept rolling into the centre awkwardly, but it was one night and when that Cuban sun and hours of walking catch up with you at night, it's not a deal breaker because you will knock out. This airbnb had more of a restaurant feel than the others which were more homely. The owners do live at the casa but they have their own employees to take care of guests in terms of hosting, cooking, serving, etc. They have menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner which you can simply order beforehand so it's available when you're ready. We only took the breakfast, as we dined out for lunch and dinner on the day we arrived. The breakfast was worth it to sit and enjoy the view before heading out, without the hassle of walking into town (all of five minutes!) to get food. All in all, I would recommend this casa because the location is ideal. As said before, it's literally opposite El Malecon, so that night, although our initial plans were to head into the other end of Cienfuegos, to the more 'posh' area, we actually just sat on El Malecon for a while and hung out after dinner. There were lots of locals with their families, and out on dates as well, as this is a popular activity to do for many Cubans, where disposable income is limited. I must also say that as this is just a way of life, Cubans in general are quite happy and content to just enjoy life.
I've linked the casa below for ease of reference. It's not sponsored in any way, but it's a good option if you choose to go. Always check the latest reviews on airbnb before any bookings, as things can change at anytime.
When we arrived in Cienfuegos, after checking in, we hit the town immediately because it was mid afternoon, and we were starving and food was the number one priority. The first place that we saw that we chose was because of proximity..first place we saw that looked good. Also, because the menu (which is available at the door for your perusal) looked inviting and affordable, as well as there was a Trip Advisor Rating on the wall. This restaurant was Restaurante Las Mamparas. It's was located about five minutes walking distance from our casa directly on the Cienfuegos Boardwalk, and we were lucky we arrived outside of regular meal hours because it wasn't busy and we were able to get a table. The food was so good we wanted to go back for dinner but when we passed around 8-9pm, there was a waiting line out the door! The food was delicious. Service was great. Our waitress spoke more than enough english, so it was comfortable. Also, it was the best honey chicken I've ever had. I generally don't like sweet meats (sweet and sour, lemon, etc.), but this honey chicken that my boyfriend ordered was amazing. The other items we ordered, a creole chicken, and vegetable rice was also good. The best part was the price. These items, plus two waters and a soft drink came up to CUC$9.90. That's basically US$10. I mean...that's excellent.
Check out my instagram @sashamoons for more pictures not shown here.
Once we were stuffed on delicious Cuban food, our wandering began. Cienfuegos is different from the other Cuban cities in that it has more of a French influence, clearly seen in its architecture, and even the layout of the town itself. The buildings are beautiful, and in terms of cleanliness and upkeep, this one was the top of the list in all the cities we visited on our Cuba tour. We didn't have a set plan, so we just had a leisurely stroll, stopping where something caught our eye, whether a small shop, an art gallery, or just a shaded bench. Our only goal was to enjoy the experience. We also really enjoyed exploring the Museo Provincial. It was only CUC$2 to enter per person, and it was empty so we had the place to ourselves, and we were able to take pictures. In some places in Cuba, you have to pay an additional fee to be able to take pictures. I also really enjoyed just sitting in the historic centre in a shaded area gazing around at the buildings surrounding it. These include the Arco de los Trabajadores (Arc de Triumph), Palacio Ferrer, Palacio de Gobierno, and Teatro Tomas Terry. You can sit at your leisure and have the company of locals, foreigners, or you can find a spot to be alone with your thoughts. It's a truly beautiful place, and the historic centre was actually named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, in case you needed more than just my recommendation.
Check out the pictures below of some of the iconic places we visited.
We had ice-cream at Coppelia below which was the one place I wanted to go because we didn't make it to the one in Havana, and it's the most popular ice-cream shop in Cuba. We actually ended up walking for a mile more than we needed to, actually we were finished exploring and ready to treat ourselves to ice-cream, because we passed it. The sign is on the wall and can't be seen if you're on the same side as the building. We actually only found it when we gave up and were on our way back home and decided to cross the street, and looked up and saw the sign. Silly us! The ice-cream was okay to be honest. Nothing spectacular. The turnover was crazy in that place though, with so many customers coming in and out. There was sufficient seating so that was not a problem. Ordering was a bit of a challenge with the fast Spanish speaking, busy waitress but we made it work. However, it was a nice respite to have a seat and have something cold in that blistering heat.
We had dinner at Big Bang Restaurant as Las Mamparas was full. This restaurant is a little way from our first choice, but was still a great option. It was filled with locals so that's always a good sign that the food is good. I loved that it reminded me about the TV Show, The Big Bang Theory which I love. The food overall was good, but the chicken egg fried rice was amazing, so I also recommend this place.
Tip: Buy the 1 litre bottles of water wherever available. You need the hydration, and it's much cheaper.
For full details on planning your Cuba trip, check out my post "What to Know Before You Go - Cuba."
Also, if you have time, do check out Punta Gorda, the upper end neighbourbood of Cienfuegos. We were not able to make the journey on this trip (mainly because I was too tired), but you definitely should. You can take a walk, or hop into one of the many friendly bici-taxis available for a very reasonable price. This is also where you want to go if you want to visit a nightclub, or disco. There is nightlife on the other side of Cienfuegos as well, but on a more chill, relaxed scale. So pick your preference, and have a great time either way!
I hope you enjoyed this stroll with me through Cienfuegos. I've also done posts on the below Cuba experiences (links below), and I have two more coming up about my Trinidad and Havana visits, so subscribe to be notified in your inbox when they're published.
*A Fusterlandia Fairytale*
*A Day in Vinales*
*Callejon de Hamel - Voices in Colour*
Fun Fact: I'm not sure if chipping is usually used the way I did, but for us in the Caribbean it's used to mean happily moseying, or semi-dancing down the road especially during Carnival season.