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Cienfuegos, Cuba, fondly known as the Pearl of the South, was formerly a trading port for sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. It is situated in southern-central Cuba on the Caribbean coast. With a population of approximately 2,000 residents, the French Provincial town is a sharp contrast to the big city feel of Havana. Whether you arrive by cruise ship or as an independent traveler, here are my suggestions for 5 things to do in Cienfuegos, Cuba with a local guide.

My friend and I traveled to Cuba via Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as we wanted someone else to do the driving, or sailing, as the case may be. The cruise line secured our Cuban visas (for an additional fee) and we arranged for our own private guide to explore Cienfuegos. If you only have a day in this town, with its Colonial-era buildings, the best way to see Cienfuegos is with a local tour guide. The historic center of Cienfuegos is UNESCO Heritage certified and within walking distance from the cruise ship port.

If you arrange for a private tour, you can meet your guide immediately outside the cruise port gate. It’s very easy to find your guide, as they are clustered together and everyone speaks English, as well as Spanish.

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Josi Marti Square is located in the historic center of Unesco Heritage certified Cienfuegos. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

1.Walk Josi Marti Square

As we strolled Jose Marti Square, our tour guide explained that, at 2 city blocks, this was the biggest park in the Old Town City of Cienfuegos. Josi Marti was a national hero of Cuba, as he planned the war of 1895. Besides being a beautiful and clean, gathering place, the square is surrounded by the headquarters of the Provincial Government, Palacio de Ferrer and the church. She pointed out the 19th-century Neoclassical buildings including the Tomas Terry Theater, the White Palace, Santa Iglesia Cathedral, the Union Hotel and the Customs Building.

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Cienfuegos resident relaxing in Plaza Jose Marti. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

We spotted a local, dressed up in Cuban costume, willing to be paid for a picture and a song. However, I prefer to take pictures of people in their natural settings, like this town resident resting under the shade of a tree in Plaza Jose Marti. The plaza was very clean and we noticed a lot of fresh paint being applied to the local buildings as Cienfuegos prepared to celebrate its 200 year anniversary in April 2019.

2. Cienfuegos shopping

We walked the pedestrian-only street along Cienfuegos Boulevard. I stopped into a grab-and-go market and purchased a sweet candy bar made of peanuts, sugar and honey. I had spied a stack of these bars earlier in our cab driver’s taxi and was curious to try one for myself. They were delicious. On my travels I like to visit farmers’ markets and grocery stores to experience Cienfuegos like a local. I’m also reminded of how fortunate I am that I have access to so much fresh and affordable fruits, meats, vegetables and breads. During our visit to Cuba, Havana and Cienfuegos were experiencing a bread and potato shortage.

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The Union Hotel was established in 1869. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

3. La Union Hotel

Wander down to the Union Hotel, established in 1869. The three-story, 19th century neoclassical hotel offers a glimpse into Cuban life, with its antiques and reproductions. The atrium courtyard, with its sky blue painted interior walls, palm trees, brightly colored ceramic tiles and multi-tiered fountain brings the feel of the Caribbean inside the hotel. Have a mojito or rum drink by the outdoor swimming pool and take a selfie next to the faux-Romanesque lions standing guard over the pool.

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Hotel La Union atrium courtyard with fountain. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

4. Valley Palace

Known in Cienfuegos as Palacio de Valle, Valley Palace is often referred to as the Taja Mahal of Cuba. Our tour guide took us by taxi to La Punta neighborhood. The Spanish-Moorish pink pastel palace was built between 1913 and 1917 for Don Del Valle and is a sight to behold. On our visit, there was a charge to climb to the top of the two story building, but guests are rewarded on the rooftop terrace with an alcoholic beverage and a view of the Punta Gorda overlooking the sea.

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Visit Palacio de Valle in Punta Gorda. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

5. Jagua Castle

While technically not in Cienfuegos, just outside of town is Jagua Castle, a well maintained fortress once used to protect the local citizens. The Spanish fort dates back to the 1700’s and served as an important deep water harbor. You’ll need to take a ferry to get there. I confess that I did not visit Jagua Castle; I snapped this sunset picture of the fort from the deck of our cruise ship.

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Jagua Castle at sunset on Cienfuegos Bay. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Insider Tip: We initially exchanged our money in Havana, Cuba. You won’t be able to obtain CUCs (Cuban dollars) in the US and will need to exchange money in Cuba. Bring plenty of money to exchange. At the end of our Cienfuegos tour, our guide took us to a local bank where we were able to exchange CUCs back to Euros. During our visit, the exchange rate was about $1.05 per CUC. Keep in mind rates change daily. If you are traveling from the United States, consider bringing Euros or Canadian dollars. Cuban exchange fees set by the Cuban government on United States dollars were 13% on our visit, while the exchange fees for Euros or Canadian dollars was closer to 3%. Smart planning might save you 10%. Your experience may differ. We pre-paid our tour in advance. Allow time at the end of your tour to exchange your money, unless you are traveling to other destinations in Cuba. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown and Caribbean Pearl Tours on Instagram and Twitter.

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5 Things To Do in Cienfuegos, Cuba review and all photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. No compensation was received in return for this review.