Cuba's third-largest city (population 315,000) and the capital of the country's biggest province, Camagüey (pronounced cah-mah-gway) is a sprawling but tranquil town of narrow, cobbled streets—lined with an eclectic mix of architecture—converging on plazas dominated by colonial churches. The camagüeyanos, as its citizens are known, are proud of their city and its nearly five centuries of history. They welcome the few foreigners who pass this way, which makes it an exceptionally pleasant city to visit.
Camagüey was one of the seven villas founded by Diego Velázquez at the beginning of the 16th century. Originally called Puerto del Principe (Prince's Port), the settlement was established on the northern coast and was moved twice, reaching its current location in 1528. It wasn't until the early 1900s that it took the name Camagüey, after a tree common to the region. As the vast plain surrounding it was converted to ranchland, the city became a prosperous commercial center. During the 17th and 18th centuries, buccaneers and pirates, led by the likes of Henry Morgan, marched inland and sacked the city several times. As protection against such invasions, Camagüey was transformed into a maze of narrow streets that facilitated ambushing attackers in the old days but today only make it easier for visitors to get lost. That's the traditional story that everyone tells, but historians today posit that a simple lack of urban planning was more likely the cause of Camagüey's spaghetti entanglement of streets. (Pirates always make for a better story.)
As sugar exports came to complement ranching profits, Camagüey developed a criollo upper class that was supportive of the independence movements that swept the country in the 19th century. Some of its most fortunate sons took up arms against the Spanish, and many paid dearly for their treason. The most famous of these rebels was Ignacio Agramonte (1841–73); after he was killed by the Spanish, his body was burned in public. Agramonte consequently became the town hero, with the central park and airport named for him.
As the city is set in a fairly dry, flat region, for centuries the camagüeyanos drank rainwater collected in giant ceramic vessels called tinajones. In the early 20th century, when a water system was finally built, it's estimated that there were 1,900 such containers, more than enough to give Camagüey its nickname "City of the Tinajones." (You will see tinajones elsewhere in Cuba, but in smaller numbers.) Those giant jugs are now displayed all over town, and the need for them gave birth to a ceramic-making tradition. One popular legend has it that if a local maiden gives a visitor water from a tinajón, he'll fall in love with her and never leave.