Many visitors to Cuba consider their trips complete when they have spent a few days in Havana. Cienfuegos, a coastal city 160 miles to the southeast, provides an entirely different experience.
Cienfuegos lies along the Bay of Cienfuegos, a haven for eighteenth century pirates of the Caribbean. The city was founded in 1819 by French-speaking immigrants, some of them from New Orleans. Based on then-modern ideas of urban planning, the streets where laid out on a grid, with a park at the center. The city soon became an important international port, exporting sugar cane, tobacco and other crops grown in the fertile fields nearby. Within 40 years of its founding, Cienfuegos had become the third wealthiest city in Cuba. With their wealth, local residents built impressive neoclassical buildings along the streets surrounding the park, including a domed city hall, a theatre and a cathedral. As the city expanded beyond its original 25 blocks, the grid pattern was meticulously maintained and the buildings in the city center were expanded. Because of its magnificent architecture, Cienfuegos became known as La Perla del Sur, the Pearl of the South. In 1902, when Cuban gained its independence, the central park was renamed in honor of José Martí, a Cuban national hero who had long argued for independence. A large statue of him was erected in the park.
In 2005, the center of Cienfuegos was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its representation of early urban planning in Latin America. Today’s visitors see an outstanding example of a nineteenth century colonial city, with the historic center much like it was more than 100 years ago. Visitors so inclined can take a ferry across the Bay of Cienfuegos to Castillo de Jagua, a fortress built by the Spanish in 1742 to protect the area from pirates.