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Making Friends and Touring Cienfuegos, Cuba

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This week, TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti is in Cuba on the first US cruise to the country in more than 50 years. Read on for her thoughts and experiences from the ship’s four-hour stop in Cienfuegos. Be sure to keep up with her travels on Twitter and Instagram.

It’s hard to believe we’re already up to the second city of our seven-day Cuba cruise. We spent Thursday morning in Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage site full of gorgeous, French-influenced Neoclassical buildings, plazas and cathedrals that truly lives up to its nickname as La Perla del Sur, or the Pearl of the South.

While the guided tour part of the day was a bit hectic, I did get to experience a true People-to-People connection with my new friend Sendi and his mother, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten separated from my group. Here are some highlights from our four-hour stop in Cienfuegos.

Arrival in Cienfuegos

I thoroughly enjoyed our half-day tour of beautiful Cienfuegos and wish we could have stayed longer!
I thoroughly enjoyed our half-day tour of beautiful Cienfuegos and wish we could have stayed longer!

Sailing into Cienfuegos wasn’t nearly as dramatic as when we’d arrived in Havana a few days ago — in fact, by the time I woke up at 7am, we were already docked.

The port in Cienfuegos resembled a large parking lot.
The port in Cienfuegos resembled a large parking lot.

The port itself looked kind of like a giant parking lot. It only took about five minutes for the Fathom crew to scan our cruise ship key cards (which happens every time we leave and return to the Adonia) and for us to walk across the giant lot to the tiny customs and immigration building. Whereas in Havana the security routine involved the vigorous checking of passports and Cuban visas by smiling security guards and passing through a metal detector, security in Cienfuegos was so relaxed they just smiled, said good morning and waved us right through.

We were also treated to an Afro-Cuban music and dance performance as we waited to go through — cruise passengers were really getting into it, especially when the dancers started to approach us, encouraging us to join in.

I was thrilled that it was only about 80 degrees when we reached Cienfuegos. Sure, it had rained right before we arrived, but there was a glorious cool breeze coming in since we were right on the coast. Havana was HOT and extremely muggy, and we’d been told by the local tour guides that our last port of call, Santiago de Cuba, would be even hotter and stickier, so I thoroughly enjoyed this break from the heat.

Highlights of Cienfuegos

Living the tour bus dream right here with a whole row to myself and plenty of room to spread out — or switch seats if we pass something cool on the opposite side.
Living the tour bus dream right here with a whole row to myself and plenty of room to spread out — or switch seats if we pass something cool on the opposite side.

Once again, we were directed into buses and given stickers so we’d be able to stay with the group. The only problem was there were about 30 of us per bus and it became really difficult to stick with the group as we wandered through the streets and mingled with some of the other groups. Cienfuegos is not that big of a city, so people kept recognizing friends in other groups and hanging out with them instead (guilty).

It was hard for the groups to stay organized as we kept walking through town.
It was hard for the groups to stay organized as we kept walking through town.

In Havana, the tour guides were super organized and really on top of keeping track of us, even doing head counts every time we arrived and left places along the way. In Cienfuegos, on the other hand, everybody was really laid back and people constantly wandered off to take photos as we went, with the rest of the group often moving on before those who wandered off were able to rejoin. Our local guide had a microphone headset so he could explain the historical significance of the buildings, sculptures and plazas we passed, but it was noisy on the street and extremely hard to hear him most of the time. It became an endless routine of straining to hear his explanations, trying to take photos of the pretty buildings around us and finding someone in your group who looked familiar so you could keep up and not get lost.

The first half of the guided tour involved a panoramic drive through Punta Gorda, home to the wealthiest people — and most beautiful houses — in town. It was still drizzling at this point, so we kept driving and I managed to snap a few photos through the rainy bus window.

We drove through Punta Gorda, the richest part of town.
We drove through Punta Gorda, the richest part of town.

Our guide explained how most of the homes we were driving past rented out rooms to tourists and pointed out the symbol that indicated this to passers-by. They looked like little beach bungalows and most were quaint properties with rocking chairs out front for guests to relax in.

Looking for a legit People-to-People experience? Try staying in a local’s home in Cienfuegos.
Looking for a legit People-to-People experience? Try staying in a local’s home in Cienfuegos.

At one point, we even drove by Fidel Castro’s former residence in Cienfuegos.

This was really interesting to see in person, if only for a minute as we passed by in the tour bus.
This was really interesting to see in person, if only for a minute as we passed by in the tour bus.

Next, we left the buses behind and went for a stroll along the Prado Promenade, making our way to downtown Cienfuegos and to the plaza where the Cathedral and Teatro Tomas Terry were. Along the way, our guide stopped to point out notable buildings and sculptures in the plaza, explaining the significance of Jose Marti Square and how every province in Cuba has one because he’s a national hero.

A statue of Jose Marti, one of Cuba’s national heroes.
A statue of Jose Marti, one of Cuba’s national heroes.

Compared to the wild energy that flows through Havana, Cienfuegos is a really charming, peaceful and quiet town by the bay. One thing we all talked about was how there weren’t as many classic American cars driving around like there had been in Havana, perhaps because it was a smaller town. I know we’re all hoping to see more in Santiago de Cuba, especially because it’s the second-largest city in Cuba and there’s a higher possibility we’ll see them again.

There were only a handful of classic American cars in Cienfuegos compared to all the ones we’d seen in Havana.
There were only a handful of classic American cars in Cienfuegos, compared to all the ones we’d seen in Havana.

We were given a quick tour of the Cathedral before heading to Teatro Tomas Terry. There, we were treated to a performance by the world-famous Cantores de Cienfuegos, an a cappella choir that sang a variety of popular Cuban hits, American gospel songs and my favorite, “Honey Pie” by The Beatles. The choir director introduced the song by saying, “You might remember we had a concert by The Rolling Stones a few weeks ago. We don’t have any songs by The Rolling Stones, but we do have one from The Beatles!”

Just a general observation about Cuba: I’ve never seen so many people as excited about The Beatles as I am and it makes me so happy. I wish there had been enough time to stop by the John Lennon statue in Havana, located in John Lennon Park — there’s even a bar next door called Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine) where cover bands take the stage and sing rock and roll songs all night long. Definitely finding time for this on a future Cuba trip!

A Small Snag Leads to a New Cuban Friend and Pen Pal

Everything was going well until it was time to leave the theater — all the bus groups had been inside for about a half-hour. I spotted our guide for bus 19 and a few others from the group I’d been talking to, so we made our way to the square. At this point, it started to rain again as we walked through the square. I snapped a few final photos, put my camera away and as I looked up, realized group 19 had vanished.

I quickly scanned the square and found another blue-shirted tour guide walking with some friends I’d made on the ship, including our Spanish instructor. I asked them if I should bother trying to find my own group, which had obviously turned somewhere out of sight, or just stick with theirs. I was invited to stay with them and we made our way back toward the marina where the buses were lined up waiting to take us back to the ship by 12:30pm. The idea was simple enough — meet group 19 and ride bus 19 back together. There were some shops and kiosks set up along the street leading up to the bus loading area and I spotted other groups shopping, so I decided to stay in this area until I could locate our bus, which hadn’t arrived yet.

As I walked down the street taking photos, a young man in sunglasses approached me and an older woman I’d been walking next to. He asked, “Hello, are you Cuban-American?” and the woman said, “Yes!” and they briefly chatted in Spanish before he turned to me and said, “And you?” I said I was Italian and Irish and from New York, and his face lit up as he explained that New York looked amazing in the movies — it turns out Cubans are really, really into American cinema and probably know more about it than we do! — and he’d love to visit someday.

The older woman kept walking but I stuck around. His English was fantastic so we kept the conversation going, talking about the cruise, how crazy Havana had been (he said Cienfuegos is much nicer and I totally agree!) and why we have such little time in the other ports compared to the full two days we had in Havana. This is definitely something Fathom should reconsider, since many of us fell in love with Cienfuegos today and were wondering the same thing.

We chatted for a few more minutes before I spotted the bus. I told him I had to go and hauled it to the bus, which I thought was leaving at the time. When I got there, I discovered it was empty and group 19 was still out there somewhere. I dropped off my bag of souvenirs and headed back out to keep talking to my new friend, Sendi.

I was so deep in conversation that I didn’t notice he and his family had been selling these beautiful hand-carved wooden jewelry boxes. I bought one (for only two pesos since we’re friends now) and then asked him if I could take a quick video clip of his reaction to Americans visiting Cuba. He said, “Of course!” and talked about how he thinks this is a good thing, especially the fact that our two countries are being friendly and talking to each other once again.

We kept chatting and he introduced me to his mother, who was also working at the stall along with a few other women in his family. I thought it would be fun for the two of us to take a selfie and noticed his mother quietly inching over, looking like she wanted to be part of it, so I asked her to join us. Here’s our photo together:

It was so nice to meet Sendi and his mother by the harbor in Cienfuegos.
It was so nice to meet Sendi and his mother by the harbor in Cienfuegos.

At this point, I spotted my bus starting to roll away with my bag of souvenirs still on it. I took off running down the street, but the bus just kept going. I knew there was another one I could hop on that would take me back to the ship — big picture, Kaeli, big picture — but was still mad at myself for letting this happen.

I joined the line for bus 13 and as I stood there talking to some friends from the ship, Sendi came running over holding up a piece of paper. He had written down his name and email address, saying that he’d love to keep in touch and asking if he should write to me in Spanish or English. I wrote down my info as well and we eventually decided that I’d write to him in English and he would write to me in Spanish so we could both practice. He also handed me a Cuban flag key chain and said, “This is for you, a gift for my friend.” I was speechless, managing a quick thank you and a hug before getting on the bus. I saw him and his mother, as well as the other women in his family waving to me until we drove away. It was such a beautiful moment and I’ve never been so thankful to have missed a bus in my life.

My story today has an even happier ending, as the Fathom crew went above and beyond and not only managed to track down bus 19, but also got my bag of souvenirs back to me before we even got back on the ship. Major-super-mega-brownie points to Gil and the gang for reuniting me with my stuff — you guys rock!

Tomorrow, we reach our final port of call, Santiago de Cuba. Stay tuned for a full report and for more coverage of the cruise itself. Cuba is such a wonderful, exciting place and I sincerely hope you visit someday.

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