June 16, 2016: Cienfuegos, Cuba
The comparisons between Havana and Cienfuegos started the moment we left the Cuban capital city. Havana is 3.5 million people, Cienfuegos is only 150,000! It’s a quiet sleepy little coastal town “David” in comparison to the “Goliath” of Havana that we just left. Dubbed La Perla del Sur (“The Pearl of the South”), soon after arriving into this city one begins to understand the quiet beauty of this place and why it doesn’t mind having 150 miles separating itself from the massive capital city.
Arriving into Cienfuegos at 7:00am in the morning, most of our sail in through the spectacular natural bay was completed under cover of darkness, though given that we only have a half day visit here, we will see the complete sail away early in the afternoon as we make our way towards our final port of call, Santiago de Cuba.
As we pulled up to the waterfront dock, the massive and empty concrete wharf was lacking any buildings, people, or terminal. A few mobile buildings provided the pre-requisite customs and security screening facilities with a few more mobile cubes for Cadeca currency exchange (2 windows here) and a few small shops and refreshment stands.
Right around 7:30am, we made our way out to the parking lot where the buses were waiting for our half bus/half walking “Pearl of the South” tour with Havanatur. Our first stop was to the morning municipal market, where commerce is changing and each of the sellers within the market were private owners (they grew the food or raised the animals) and thus can sell their goods in the private market for their own profit. This is a big change from just a few years ago when all of the food would be essentially property of the state and be sold and available to all of the people through the state run stores and marketplaces:
Following our stop at the Municipal Market, we continued into the heart of town, the plaza bordered by Avenidas 54 and 56 and Calles 25 and 29. Our first stop as we moved clockwise around the plaza was the Catedral de Purisima Conception. The church’s yellow walls and red steeples contrasted against the bright blue skies and clouds on this Thursday morning:
Next stop outside of the Catedral was the Poder Popular Provincial or the Town Hall of Cienfuegos:
Quickly, the plaza was filling with people, though it wasn’t all tourists convening on this place. The Plaza is a center hub for local residents and school students as they start their day and await the start of morning classes at the nearby school:
As we took in all of the activity, we were patiently awaiting the opportunity to enter Teatro Tomas Terry (shown below) for a private concert with a magnificent A Capella choir. We were fortunate to be one of the first groups into the theater securing front row seats just off to the left of stage. Soon, the choirmaster came out and introduced the group and some of their selections for our concert. 15 members of the choir, all sporting dark pants and brightly colored shirts walked on stage and moments later, the music filled the hall. It was upbeat, fun, and each of the singers were able to express themselves and contribute both individually (with solos and handheld instruments) as well as a group. The acoustics in the theater were spectacular and the A Capella performance rivaled that of any choir in the United States:
Following the one hour performance, the choir came down off the stage, introduced themselves individually and talked about growing up in Cuba, how their calling to music came to be (sometimes in a most unique and unexpected way), and how their performances have earned them the privilege to represent Cuba internationally at Music Festivals around the world. There was a short question and answer period and then the concert completed and we returned outside to continue our city tour of Cienfuegos.
From Experiences and Activities To Conversations & Interactions…
As we made our way back out into the plaza, it was clear that today’s visit to Cienfuegos certainly had a different feel than that of Havana. I’m sure some of it was because this city was so much smaller and more compact than Havana, but there was more to it than that. Havana seemed to be about History of the country, architecture, the embargo and the relationship between the United States and Cuba. While it was fun to see and experience all that we did there, it was about the experiences and the sights (riding in a classic car, seeing the Cabaret Parisien, visiting Fusterland), and just scratching the surface of the People 2 People engagement (the gentleman on the street we met, our classic car driver, etc.) but the transition to Cienfuegos was almost entirely about people (the people in the private market selling their fruits, vegetables, and meat, the choir singers and their individual stories, the two women having a casual conversation in the shade of the cathedral, the local residents heading off to their jobs, parents getting their children off to school, and the curious kids who wanted to practice their english before the morning bell went off to call them to class) — Today was about the people of Cuba and the transition from things and activities to conversations and insights from the people who call this place their home had begun… This is how you #TravelDeep.
As we made our way back to the bus for a panoramic tour of the city, our guide gave us insight to the people of Cienfuegos and how life under Cuban rule was on a day to day basis. One of the topics of conversation was Ration Cards — They are still very much active and used daily, though in the last decade, the value of the program is probably 1/2 of its original worth. Each month, a family receives a set of rations from the government and the amounts of each item are directly proportional to the number and ages of people within the home. This can include Oil, Rice, Beans, and other staples. The challenge, our tour guide explained, was that a decade ago, the rations would last for the full 30 days of each month. Today, the rations are lucky to make it to week 3 and some items are no longer available or can only be acquired with a some supplemental payment to make up the difference in cost from what the government can provide:
One of the stops along the Panoramic Tour was along Calle 37 or Paseo de Prado. This affluent street (near the water) represents how the few and fortunate of Cuba experience life, while the central part of the Paseo de Prado is now a bustling shopping district for the people of Cienfuegos:
Turning away from Punta Gorda and back into the town proper, we got to see life more day to day amongst the people of this beautiful city. We passed by a roadside vendor, saw a ration store, passed by the local sports stadium (where you can catch a game for just a dollar!), saw local hospitals and got a better understanding of free education and free healthcare for all Cubans and what that means in day to day reality:
Our final stop allowed us the chance to walk the commercial shopping district (Avenida 54/Bulevar) in an all pedestrian zone where we could see locals shopping for anything from food to clothing to building supplies. It was a great view into the day to day activities of the people of Cienfuegos, talk to some shopkeepers, and better appreciate some of the daily struggles of the Cuban people (Did you know there is a soap shortage in the country???):
Although we were in port for less than 6 hours, Cienfuegos left a positive impression on us and we found that we were much more at ease with getting to know the people of Cuba. The day to day world of Cuba is both familiar and in the same moment completely different, providing many opportunities to learn and appreciate the time we get to visit here.
Next Up: Santiago de Cuba, on the Southeastern edge of Cuba provides us with the strongest Caribbean influence on the island, a morning Cuban music party, a visit to the Parque Cespedes, an amazing lunch at our first Paladar, and a breathtaking close to our day at the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a massive coastal fortress!