There’s a saying that Matanzas is the Athens of Cuba, with its many generations of great literary and cultural minds. There is another saying that the city is the Venice of Cuba, because of it’s many rivers and subsequent bridges. So why does it get passed over so often by visitors to the island for other more distant cities and towns?
The references to ancient Greece and Italy seem to have arisen organically, but they have the faint echo of an era when western tourism was in its infancy and comparisons to Europe were part of creating an enticing image out of a city that was better known for what it wasn’t than what it was. Matanzas, after all, was not Varadero, the gleaming 20 kilometer strip of beaches and hotels that sat 20 miles east, and it was certainly not Havana, the by far more dynamic and multifaceted capital city just two hours by car to the west.
Flanked by these two more obvious and attractive neighbors, Matanzas lacks their dynamism — the large percentage of locals who earn a living performing and working at hotels in Varadero takes a toll on the local nightlife, garnering them a reputation as people who work too hard to have the energy to do anything fun in their time off. By contrast, the city’s history anything but dull: it was the birthplace of the Afro-Cuban heritage societies of the island (the most well known being Abakuá and Palo Monte), which were central to the shaping of Cuba’s history and contemporary national identity. It is home to a long list of Cuban poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have found fame on and off the island. But it also has history to contend with, as one of the biggest slave trading ports in the Caribbean and a manifestation of the inhuman mechanism that fed the demands of the sugar industry which so dominated the economy in the fertile valleys of the greater province. The city’s prominence was derived directly from it’s abhorrent past, complicating it’s narrative to the visitor in search of a placid tropical escape. But it’s this complexity, in my view, that makes it worth visiting.
Today, Matanzas is a dense grid of mostly two story colonial homes situated between the Río San Juan and the Río Yumurí, with newer residential sections of houses and apartment buildings running along the coastline to the north and east. Downtown is centered around an impressive colonial square (Parque de la Libertad) and pedestrian mall with shops, including a handmade book publisher called Ediciones La Vigía, and lots of locals on foot. It’s situated at the most inner point of a deep, curved bay and extends out along the coastline to the north and east and up into the hills at it’s furthest reaches to the south.
The colonial fortress to the north of the center, built to ensure safe passage for the slaving boats that dominated the port, has been converted into a museum dedicated to the history of the slave trade and is the city’s most interesting attraction, recounting and reflecting on the complexity of it’s past. The ornate pharmacy that once serviced the city center has been turned into a museum (El Museo Farmacéutico), and the Teatro Sauto, though it continues to be closed for restoration, is an acoustical and architectural gem. Running along the water’s edge there are small local beaches between the coral and rock — their scarcity and size adding to their charm. In the nearby hills are several remarkable cave systems, including Cuevas de Bella Mar (one of the earliest tourist attractions on the island), Cuevas de Ambrosio, and La Cueva de Saturno, as well as Emerita de Monserrate, a church perched on a ridge overlooking the city and Caribbean Sea beyond to the north and the verdant Yurumí Valley to the south. Along the Río Canimár to the east of the city, there are places to rent kayaks, picnic, and swim.
During my visit, I stayed in a private room with private bath at a terrific casa particular booked on Airbnb that was located on the waterfront about a 10 minute taxi ride from the city center. As has been my experience in almost every casa I’ve stayed at in Cuba, the hosts were friendly, accommodating, and a wealth of knowledge when it came to local sites and activities. The room was comfortable (with a great bed and fluffy IKEA pillows, a rarity in Cuba), and the view of sunset and sunrise from the window was unforgettable. My host was the mother of musicians, and they had adorned the apartment with instruments and even outfitted it with hand crafted fixtures from old brass instrument bodies. Breakfast included a healthy dose of all of the hits — coffee, juice, fruit, eggs, bread, and sweet pastries — and a wonderful conversation with my host about the local attractions and tips for how to get around.
Matanzas may be overshadowed by other more picturesque and exciting locales, but it’s deserving of consideration from anyone who is interested digging a bit deeper into the island’s historical complexities. The city itself offers more than a day’s worth of museums, nature, and city walking, and Varadero os on your agenda, Matanzas is a good home base from which to take day trips to the beaches. You’ll pay a bit more for a taxi, but you’ll avoid the tourist prices and tourist culture, while gaining a chance to experience a city that is closer to the “real Cuba” than anything in Havana or Varadero. Get there by car from Havana, or take the Hershey Train, an antique electric train car that is an adventure all by itself. The city of Matanzas reveals the complex and fascinating history of Cuba, something no one traveling to the island should overlook.