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Camagüey – sophisticated Cuban town

Camagüey’s odd, labyrinthine layout is the by-product of two centuries spent fighting off musket-toting pirates like Henry Morgan: tumultuous times led the fledgling settlement to develop a peculiar street pattern designed to confuse pillaging invaders and provide cover for its long-suffering residents (or so legend has it). As a result, Camagüey’s sinuous streets and narrow winding alleys are more reminiscent of a Moroccan medina than the geometric grids of Lima or Mexico City.

Sandwiched on Carretera Central halfway between Ciego de Ávila and Las Tunas, the city of tinajones (clay pots), as Camagüey is sometimes known, is Cuba’s third-largest city, easily the suavest and most sophisticated after Havana, and the bastion of the Catholic Church on the island.

Camagüey’s warren-like streets generally inspire travelers with their hidden plazas, rearing baroque churches, riveting galleries and congenial bars/restaurants. The flip side is the higher-than-average number of jineteros (touts) who can dog you as you stroll. Get lost for a day or two and discover it for yourself.

Martha Jiménez Pérez

You’re in Cuba’s ceramics capital so why not gravitate to the studio-gallery of Martha Jiménez Pérez, one of its best living artists, to see everything from pots to paintings being produced? The studio overlooks Pérez’s magnum opus, Plaza del Carmen”s alfresco statue of three gossiping women entitled Chismosas (gossipers). The chismosas also feature in many of her paintings inside.

Estudio-Galería Jover

The Estudio-Galería Jover is the working studio of Joel Jover. Joel, along with his wife Ileana Sánchez, are Camagüey’s most accomplished contemporary artists with a whole gallery’s worth of probing, inspirational exhibits. You can see plenty more at their magnificent home, Casa de Arte Jover , in Plaza Agramonte.

Palacio de los Matrimonios

One of several grand buildings on the Av. de la Libertad, this Palacio de los Matrimonios, where Camagüayeños tie the knot, is one of Cuba’s most striking: a mix of colonial and Art Deco influences. Stroll through shady palm-filled grounds (if they’re open) and watch the newlyweds celebrate. One, two, three… ahhh…

Iglesia de San Cristo del Buen Viaje

The Iglesia de San Cristo del Buen Viaje , next door from the necropolis and overlooking a quiet square, is probably the least visited of Camagüey’s ecclesial sextet, but it is worth a peek if you’re visiting the graveyard. An original chapel was raised here in 1723, but the current structure is of mainly 19th-century vintage.

Iglesia de San Cristo del Buen Viaje

Iglesia de la Caridad

Iglesia de la Caridad stands sentinel on the southeastern edge of the city. Constructed originally as a chapel in the 18th century, it got a couple of 20th-century renovations (1930 and 1945) and has a fine silver altar (c.1730) and image of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre complete with an embossment of Cuba’s national flower, la mariposa (white jasmine).

Galería el Colonial

A shopping complex, Cuban-style, with all its engaging foibles and takes on commerce. It’s difficult to say if this pink colonial building, spruced up for the city’s 500th anniversary preparations, is more sight or shopaholic satisfier. Certainly you can buy rum or cigars, or sit down for an atmospheric coffee, but perhaps this is more about the overall experience.

Casa de Arte Jover

Camagüey is home to two of Cuba’s most creative and prodigious contemporary painters, Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sánchez. Their magnificent home in Plaza Agramonte functions both as a gallery and a piece of art in its own right, with a slew of original art and delightfully kitschy antiques on show.

You’re welcome to browse and, if you like high-quality original art, buy a painting. The artists also keep a studio and showroom, the Estudio-Galería Jover , in Plaza San Juan de Dios.

Casino Campestre

Over the Río Hatibonico from the old town is Cuba’s largest urban park, laid out in 1860. There’s shaded benches, a baseball stadium, concerts and activities. On a traffic island near the park entrance is a monument dedicated to Mariano Barberán and Joaquín Collar, Spaniards who made the first nonstop flight between Spain (Seville) and Cuba (Camagüey) in 1933.

The pair made the crossing in their plane Cuatro Vientos , but tragically the plane disappeared when flying to Mexico a week later. Ubiquitous bici-taxis are on hand to pedal you around.

El Lago de los Sueños

The so-called ‘lake of dreams’ has been recently developed as an out-of-town escape from Camagüey’s urban maze. It uses the same inventive if slightly kitschy methodology employed by a similar venture in Ciego de Ávila. Prize for the oddest installation is the Cremería 1514 an ice cream parlor encased in the fuselage of an old Soviet plane – a 1960s Antonov A26. Runner up is the antediluvian train carriage cum restaurant.

Elsewhere, you can enjoy the lake, go for a boat ride (CUC$1), or even stroll along a specially constructed malecón. There are copious places to eat.

Plaza del Carmen

Around 600m west of the frenzy of República sits another sublimely beautiful square, one less-visited than the central plazas. It’s backed on the eastern side by the masterful Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen , one of the prettiest city churches.

Little more than a decade ago Plaza del Carmen was a ruin, but it’s now restored to a state better than the original. The cobbled central space has been infused with giant tinajones , atmospheric street lamps and unique life-sized sculptures of camagüeyanos going about their daily business (reading newspapers and gossiping, mostly).

Necropolis de Camagüey

This sea of elaborate, lop-sided, bleached-white Gothic tombs makes up Cuba’s most underrated cemetery, secreting the resting place of Camagüey-born independence hero Ignacio Agramonte, among others. It might not quite have the clout of Havana’s Cementerio Colón but isn’t too far behind in its roll call of famous incumbents.

Agramonte lies halfway down the second avenue on the left after the entrance (the blue-painted tomb). Harder to find are tombs such as those of Camagüey freedom-fighters Tomás Betancourt or Salvador Cisneros Betancourt (one-time President of Cuba); show up for tours which depart from the entrance behind Iglesia de San Cristo de Buen Viaje (early to mid-morning is best).

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