Chasing Waterfalls in Cienfuegos
With only ten days to spend in Cuba, my girl and I flew into Havana and then made our way to Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Viñales. So after a few soggy days in Trinidad, Cienfuegos was up next. The city is located on Bahía de Cienfuegos, a bay on Cuba’s southern coast 90 minutes from Trinidad. A “collectivo” picked us up from our hostel in Trinidad for 15 CUC each ($15 US) and drove us to Cienfuegos. Upon arrival, Mari and I checked in to our new hostel, Hostal las Gemelas.
Day 1: Morning | Struggle at the Botanical Gardens
With no time to waste we arranged a taxi for the day. First up, the Botanical Garden of Cienfuegos about 20 minutes outside the city. A small entrance fee of 2.50 CUC was collected and we made our way down a long windy road until reaching the main entrance. Inside there was a small palm and cactus house but not much else.
We were told to enter a grassy path and “keep right”. With that, we disappeared into the woods. Almost immediately we lost our way in the brush. It was incredibly hot and muggy and mosquitoes were eating us alive. There weren’t any signs or paths, only cattle. It was so frustrating and we couldn’t wait to escape. Unfortunately, the gardens were extremely disappointing (maybe due to rainy season or high expectations) but it seemed like a better spot to tour by car.
Day 1: Afternoon | Relax at Rancho Luna Beach
After such a rough time at the botanical gardens, we needed a moment to relax. Rancho Luna Beach was a short drive away, just 20 minutes and exactly what we hoped for. Before settling into the sand, Mari and I ate a lunch of shrimp, fish, rice and beans with piña coladas.
The beach was gorgeous and fairly empty. The warm ocean water was refreshing and we enjoyed the weather for a few relaxing hours. Eventually, it began to cool as the sun set.
Back at the hostel, our hosts prepared a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, pork, chicken, rice, pumpkin and veggies (avocado & mushroom) with flan and chocolate ice cream for dessert. It was such a nice treat; we welcomed a home-cooked meal after so many nights out.
Day 2: Morning & Afternoon | Chase Waterfalls
The next morning we woke to a delicious breakfast of tiny arepas (elephant ears) with honey, scrambled eggs, ham, cheese, bread, fruit (banana, papaya & watermelon), mango juice and coffee.
With full bellies, we were off to El Nicho. A taxi picked us up at our hostel and began the 90 minute drive. The waterfalls and natural pools of El Nicho sit inside the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, a forest-covered park extending across the Sierra Escambray mountain range in central Cuba.
Our driver was very kind, stopping along the way to enjoy the view and take a few photos. During the drive we passed many farms growing fruit, coffee and sugar cane. We even stopped to grab a few citrus fruits.
When we arrived at El Nicho our driver explained it would take about two hours to hike up and back down the mountain. Also, it’s a good idea to bring a swimsuit although swim at your own risk due to icy cold water.
Upon entering the park, the guides gave us a really hard time about not having our passports. It wasn’t clear if they were telling the truth about needing them to enter or if they were looking for a “tip”. After convincing them we weren’t a risk (in Spanish, of course) they let us enter by paying the entrance fee of 10 CUC ($10 US).
The hike up was fairly easy and there were multiple spots to pause and enjoy the view. Almost immediately there was a small pool of water where some were swimming but we chose to keep it moving.
A short while later we reached a huge waterfall on the left-hand side and a few smaller falls hidden behind trees on the right. It felt like every few minutes we’d bump into another waterfall. It was really nice to find them so easily and not struggle in the process.
The mountain had a clear path to follow including small bridges and stairs made of dirt and stones. Other tourists were enjoying the hike but not too many to be obnoxious. The weather held out and was gorgeous all day. It couldn't have been a more beautiful experience.
After an hour or so we reached the top of the mountain. The hike turned out to be a loop so we could either return back down the same way or continue on the loop. At the highest point, there was an incredible view of the entire valley below.
Just below the highest point there was a large waterfall and shallow pool. This was really the only spot that was super busy so we passed back around on our way down hoping it had cleared a bit. Hikers were still resting and cooling off in the water but many had turned back down the mountain.
On the way down, we noticed even more flowers and plants in bloom. The White Ginger, the national flower of Cuba, smelled beautiful and resembled a flying butterfly.
As the hike came to an end, we were starving. Our taxi driver took us down the road to La Casa del Campesino for lunch. It was packed but after a short wait we sat down. We ordered fruit, mixed rice, salad, fried chicken with coconut and mint drinks. Everything was incredible, especially the fried chicken. As we were leaving, our driver suggested we pick up a bag of coffee beans from the restaurant for only $3 US.
After chowing down we made our way back into the city. An afternoon rain held us up but eventually we made it out to explore the central square, Parque José Martí. The square was just a few minutes walk from our home stay. On the way we began to get a feel for the city. Cienfuegos felt small and gritty but welcoming.
The paved plaza is surrounded by 19th century buildings and houses a José Martí memorial. José Martí is considered a national hero and a Cuban poet, essayist, journalist, translator, professor and publisher. Strangely, the square felt deserted. We had imagined it to be bustling with vendors, locals and restaurants but not much was going on.
Opening up into the Caribbean Sea, the Bay of Cienfuegos was right down the street from central square. We found a fisherman working and a group of kids jumping into the water just as it began to rain. The skies became dark and moody but the bay was gorgeous. We stayed as long as we could before it began to pour down from the skies. An instant flood rushed through the streets as we returned to our home stay.
In the morning our final destination, Viñales, a small town in western Cuba known for it’s green botanical gardens and rocky limestone hills.
Hostal Las Gemelas
Hostal las Gemelas was our favorite stay in Cuba. The family was so kind and hospitable. They helped us find activities, taxi cabs and even prepared delicious home-cooked meals. The accommodations were clean, private and comfortable. The location is just a few blocks away from the city center but count on taxi’s to the beach and El Nicho (a must see).