The Cienfuegos Meteor Crater:
A Hard Earth Traveler’s Guide
By Chris Oakley
Rarely, if ever, does a vacationer to Cuba end their trip without at least once standing on the rim of the Cienfuegos crater, known to local residents as simply "the crater" or (if you’re feeling a little more imaginative)"the cauldron". Formed by a meteor impact millions of years ago, the Cienfuegos basin is the largest geological formation of its kind in the Caribbean and the third-largest in the entire Western Hemisphere; it’s been a witness to many of the most important moments in Cuban history and some people believe it may become the second-most popular destination in Cuba for American tourists once the Communist regime falls.
In fact, up until Castro seized power in 1959 thousands of US tourists came to the Cienfuegos crater every year, as often as not dovetailing their visits to the crater with their trips to see the bright lights of Havana. Castro himself made annual pilgrimages to the Cienfuegos crater for decades to celebrate a critical victory in his guerrilla war against the Batista regime; only in the past two years has he missed out on this event, largely due to his ongoing health problems.
Even with the break in US-Cuban diplomatic relations in 1961, adventurous Americans have continued to make the trek to the crater either on their own or in small groups-- and with the political situation in Cuba beginning to change again now that Fidel Castro has handed over the reins of power to his brother Raul, many tourism experts are predicting it won’t be long before American vacationers are once more flocking to the Cienfuegos crater in vast numbers. So before the crater becomes a tourist trap, you owe it to yourself to check out this natural wonder while it’s still relatively inexpensive to do so.
And if you are planning a trip to the Cienfuegos crater, here are a few facts you should know before you pack your bags:
Since the United States and Cuba have still not yet resumed normal diplomatic relations, you’ll need to obtain your passport from a third country. Your best bet is to apply for such a passport with the nearest Canadian or British consulate.
It can’t be stressed too much that you need to be sure all your vaccinations are up to date. Nor can we overemphasize the vital importance of inoculating yourself against the tropical diseases which are known to be present in Cuba and other Caribbean islands.
Cuban government regulations regarding smuggling are among the strictest in the Western Hemisphere. If you get caught violating these regulations, you can expect to face a stiff prison sentence. Likewise, if you try to bring anything from Cuba into the United States, especially cigars, chances are pretty good that the FBI or Homeland Security-- if not both --will be knocking on your door in short order. So for heaven’s sake, don’t take any needless risks where the smuggling laws are concerned.
Once again, the absence of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba means you’ll need to use the services of a third party. Fortunately, there are daily commercial flights between Havana and Mexico City; once you’ve arrived in Cuba, you can take a sightseeing bus or ferryboat to the crater site; if you have the money and are particularly daring, you can even hire out a helicopter to fly into the depths of the crater itself.
Most hotels in Cuba, including those near the Cienfuegos crater, are designed to cater to domestic tourists, but if you shop around you can usually find one that caters to foreign guests. Just make sure to book your room in advance.
And now, let’s talk about the crater’s history...
As we mentioned at the beginning, the Cienfuegos crater dates back millions of years. Precisely how many million years is still a subject for debate among geologists, but it certainly can’t be less than two million; paleontologists exploring the area have found animal fossils verified by carbon dating to be more than 1.75 million years old. The earliest signs of human habitation date back to about 8000 BC, and most anthropologists believe the Carib Indians may have had permanent settlements in the vicinity of the crater by 900 AD.
Like the Arizona Meteor Crater in the United States, the Cienfuegos crater was formed by the impact of a huge meteor in what is now Cuba’s Cienfuegos province during Earth’s prehistoric era. Faint scorch marks can still be seen around the crater’s rim, a sign of the intensity of the heat generated by the meteor strike. Due to the constant shifting of Earth’s tectonic plates and the natural processes of erosion which are gradually changing the shape of Cuba’s coastline, many geologists believe that in the next few million years or so the crater may become a lake as water from the Caribbean breaches the shores of Cienfuegos and fills the crater’s bowl.
The first European to see the Cienfuegos crater was a Spanish mariner named Juan Diego Reyes, who came across it in 1512 during an expedition to chart Cuba’s coastal regions for the king of Spain. By 1540 Spanish cartographers were prominently featuring the crater on their maps of Cuba, and as early as 1609 London printing houses were turning out English-language accounts of Reyes’ expeditions to the area. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the crater was a popular dumping ground for pirates seeking to dispose of the corpses of their unlucky victims or of shipmates who had wronged them. The Spanish army and navy put a stop to this practice in the early 1740s, by which time the crater had gained yet another colorful nickname-- "the buccaneers’ graveyard".
During the brief British occupation of Havana in 1762-63, there was talk of dispatching a Royal Navy expedition to the Cienfuegos coast for further exploration of the legendary crater. Although the proposed survey mission never came to pass, the seed had been planted for the rest of the world to take a greater interest in the crater. In 1801 a joint Franco-Spanish geological expedition made the first known survey of the crater’s basin; a second survey was planned but ended up being scrapped following the French invasion of Spain in 1808 during the Napoleonic wars.
The earliest known American reference to the crater is in a scientific treatise published by Thomas Jefferson in 1791. In the late 1810s, President James Monroe sponsored a geological mission to study the rock composition of the crater walls; his successor John Quincy Adams would be the driving force behind the famed Perritt zoological expedition of 1826. Ten years after the Perritt expedition, naturalist James J. Audubon visited the Cienfuegos region and came back with a number of sketches of the fowl living there; these sketches became the basis for his celebrated 1838 book A Field Study Of Birds Common To The Cienfuegos Province of The Island of Cuba. Audubon’s book is still widely used today as a guide to the bird life of the Cienfuegos area.
Events both within and outside Cuba would conspire to discourage further scientific study of the crater until the late 1900s. Unrest within the Spanish royal family during the late 1830s and early 1840s, a Cuban slave revolt in 1844, the Crimean War of the early 1850s, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, a failed ten-year guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule by Cuban pro-independence forces in the 1870s, the outbreak of Jose Marti’s more successful rebellion against Spain in 1895, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 all combined to keep plans for any further exploration of the Cienfuegos basin on the back burner.
The crater essentially became a "no go" zone for anybody who wasn’t heavily armed. And even if you were, it didn’t necessarily guarantee your safety-- a lesson a Spanish cavalry brigade learned the hard way in 1897 when they were ambushed five miles east of the crater by Cuban insurgents. The Battle of the Eastern Rim, as it’s known in modern Cuban history texts, saw the rebel forces kill most of the unfortunate Spanish cavalrymen and send those who survived the ambush fleeing for the safety of their home base back in Santa Clara. This defeat dealt a huge blow to the morale of the Spanish colonial armies, and on top of that it left Madrid short of experienced combat soldiers when the United States declared war on Spain less than a year later.
Many of the Cuban insurgents who fought at the Battle of the Eastern Rim would also see action in the Spanish-American War’s famous "crater offensive" of June 1898, when local anti-Spanish guerrilla bands joined forces with a contingent of US Marines to cut off a Spanish infantry column that was marching across western Cuba to reinforce the undermanned colonial garrison at Santo Domingo. When the Spanish troops encountered the combined US-Cuban force, the result was a long and bitter battle that ended in a convincing victory for the US-Cuban side.
One of the Spanish-American War’s most famous veterans, Theodore Roosevelt, had been fascinated by the Cienfuegos crater since his late teens, and when he began his second term as President of the United States in 1905 one of his first official acts of that term was to co- sponsor a photographic survey of the crater’s rim. In 1907 he finally fulfilled one of his longtime wishes and visited the crater himself at the invitation of US civil commissioner for Cuba Charles E. Magoon; that same year, Britain’s Royal Geographic Society hired cameramen to film what are widely believed to be the earliest known motion pictures of the crater.
The oldest known aerial photograph of the crater was taken in 1913 by a German naturalist named Dietrich Atwalger, who at the time was on the second leg of a bird-watching trek through the Caribbean. He hoped to make a return trip to the crater the following year, but on the eve of his scheduled departure for that trip a certain Austrian archduke had the misfortune to get shot and killed in Sarajevo. That shooting set off the First World War-- and in effect made the Cienfuegos crater an American private preserve until the United States got into the war itself in 1917.
One of America’s most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway, made his first visit to the crater in 1925; that visit produced what may have been the finest short story of his career, "The Rim". A two-fisted yarn about rival soldiers competing for the affections of a mystery woman living in the countryside near the crater, "Rim" is considered by many literary scholars to be a prototype for some of Hemingway’s later works like For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Its no-holds-barred violence, frank sexual content, and grim climax in which all three protagonists fall off the crater’s rim to their deaths made it a target for bluenoses who considered the story obscene.
But "Rim" also inspired a renewal of interest in the crater among its readers; in the early 1930s, despite the economic hardships being inflicted on much of the world by the Great Depression, fresh waves of tourists and scientists came to Cuba to see the Cienfuegos basin. In the summer of 1932 alone, at least eight scientific expeditions paid a visit either to the crater itself or to the area surrounding it. Some of these scientific expeditions had a distinctly mercenary undertone to them: Italy’s Benito Mussolini, having heard rumors that there was gold to be found in the crater region, secretly sponsored two mineral survey expeditions with the objectives of confirming those rumors and eventually securing the supposed gold supply for the benefit of the Italian Fascist regime. Unfortunately for the Duce’s geopolitical ambitions, though, both expeditions came away empty-handed-- and to add insult to injury, the second expedition had to be terminated ahead of schedule when Italian counterintelligence operatives learned that the Cuban government had started to get wind of the truth behind the Italians’ cover story of wanting to judge the agricultural potential of the soil near the crater.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Cienfuegos crater once again became in effect an American private preserve. People as diverse as author Pearl S. Buck and baseball pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige visited the crater during the period between September of 1939 and December of 1941 when the United States was officially neutral in the conflict; newsreel and radio commentator Lowell Thomas narrated a documentary film about the crater that played to packed houses across America in the spring and summer of 1940. Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a proposal was briefly contemplated by the Roosevelt Administration under which the US Army would have leased the crater as a practice range for its bomber crews; however, the idea was quickly shelved as the result of a massive outcry from American and Cuban naturalists.
But the crater did play a part in the war effort just the same, acting as a navigational reference point for transport aircraft pilots flying from North to South America; to make it easier to locate on nighttime flights, the Cuban government had a series of electric lamps set up around the crater’s rim. By special decree, these lamps were exempted from normal wartime blackout regulations and were kept lit continuously from 6:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning.
The end of World War II signaled the beginning of a new surge in tourist visits to the Cienfuegos crater; in fact, the late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed the last great tourism boom in the crater region before Fidel Castro launched his 1956 Marxist revolution against the Fulgencio Batista regime. During the second year of that revolution, a battle between the insurgent armies and Cuban government troops would be fought near the crater’s northern rim which would deal a sharp blow to Batista’s efforts to stay in power. Castro was a keen student of the tactics used in the Battle of the Eastern Rim; he and his brother Raul believed that those tactics, adapted to take into consideration the realities of modern mechanized warfare, could help them defeat the government army.
His instincts turned out to be correct: the Batista forces, who were led for the most part by officers who’d paid only scant attention to the lessons of the Battle of the Eastern Rim, were massacred by the guerrilla troops when the two sides made contact at the northern lip of the crater. Barely a handful of government soldiers survived what is now known in official Cuban histories as the Battle of the Northern Edge; most of those who did survive soon deserted and either went into hiding or defected to the Marxist side. Many historical scholars both within and outside Cuba credit Castro’s victory in the Battle of the Northern Edge with having hastened the fall of the Batista regime; it certainly did a great deal to undermine the combat effectiveness of that regime’s military.
When Castro succeeded in overthrowing the Batista government, one of his first official acts as Cuba’s new head of state was to declare August 22nd, the anniversary of the Battle of the Northern Edge, a national holiday. Throughout the era of Communist rule in Cuba, that holiday-- called Cienfuegos Victory Day --has been marked with massive parades and rallies; until 2005 it was also marked by a speech from Fidel himself at the site of the battle and a visit by Fidel and his brother Raul to the granite monument erected in 1960 to honor the Marxist insurgents killed in the battle. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Fidel used the crater as a backdrop for fiery harangues denouncing the United States; when Che Guevara, a friend of Fidel’s and a veteran of the Battle of the Northern Edge, was killed in Bolivia in 1967, a memorial service in his honor was held at the crater.
Since 2006 lingering health problems have forced Fidel Castro to discontinue his old tradition of visiting the crater every August, but Raul continues to make the pilgrimage and has said in a number of TV and online interviews he will keep making it every year until he dies. As Cuba gradually moves away from the hard-line Marxism that has been the hallmark of the Castro government, Western tourists are beginning to rediscover the crater and the wonders of the land surrounding it; the Cuban tourist ministry is already working on a comprehensive plan to upgrade hotel facilities in the Cienfuegos region to accommodate the expected surge in foreign tourist business many believe will take place once Marxist rule in Cuba ends.
This brochure only hints at the rich history of the Cienfuegos crater; to cover the full annals of everything that’s happened there since that day millions of years ago when a meteor strike brought it into existence, we’d need something roughly equivalent in size to the first ten volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And speaking of encyclopedias, you can find more information about the crater in the reference section of your local library or in pamphlets from the Cuban UN mission in New York. There’s also a website, cienfuegoscrater.org, which has a detailed timeline of the crater’s history and streaming live videos of the crater itself.
And on that note, enjoy your trip to the Cienfuegos crater. Just remember what we said about the cigars, OK?