Dusk is a special time in the Caribbean. At these low latitudes, the sun is quick to set, though the colours it leaves behind can be spectacular. It is also my favourite time for strolls, especially in Cuba. The heat of the day gives way to gentle breezes and people linger in doorways, chatting and enjoying the cool, while the way the light falls on buildings produces a magic of its own.
I have had many memorable strolls in Cuba, but none so much as one I took in Cienfuegos. In fact, the walk ended up coming back to me a year after my visit, when I was writing the conclusion to Empire’s Crossroads.
I had waited until my third trip to Cuba to visit Cienfuegos – though I later wondered why I did not go sooner. Research demanded that I visit, and I was immediately struck by the city’s elegance, often attributed to the French immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century.
Cienfugos held a number of surprises, especially the lovely walk along the seafront to Punta Gorda, a sliver of land south of the city centre that juts into the sea. Nearing the end of the peninsula, I spotted the hip, mid-century modernist Hotel Jagua, and couldn’t resist a quick trip to its lobby. After that, I came upon strange, yet striking, Palacio de Valle. It’s a vast, Moorish fantasy of a building that was built around 1894; it would not look out of place in a Spanish Andalusian city like Seville. After exploring its elegant, high-ceilinged interior, I discovered the rooftop bar. During a late afternoon lull, the bartender whisked together a refreshing mojito, and I sat there enjoying the fresh air coming off the bay.
It was later that day, at sunset, when I found myself back in the centre, wandering around the city’s main square, the Plaza José Martí. It is quite large, and as I was crossing it I heard music and a sizable group of people came into view. I had stumbled into an open-air rehearsal for an upcoming dance performance. Mellow but lively notes rang out from a battered trombone, while drummers provided the beat. The dancers practiced their routines, and the choreographers kept stopping and starting them. This, of course, attracted a crowd. We watched and clapped. I had started taking pictures, but I eventually put my camera down, wanting to enjoy every moment of this joyful scene as the light faded.
Later, when I was writing the conclusion to my book, this moment came back to me. It embodied so much about what is distinct, not only about Cuba, but also the entire Caribbean. It was a nice reminder that Cuba – and certainly Cienfuegos – is full of surprises, if you just listen out for them.