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Go off the beaten path to discover the Athens of Cuba - a full guide to Matanzas

A few days ago, my wife and I went back to the tricentenary city of San Carlos y San Severino de Matanzas, more commonly known as Matanzas; with the excuse of enjoying the city's International Book Fair. The name Matanzas may not sound too familiar to many, since it's not a place the average tourist stops to visit.

Go off the beaten path to discover the Athens of Cuba - a full guide to Matanzas

Only those who stay awake on the journey to Varadero, plus one or two other clever-clogs who do their research ahead of travel, will have heard or read the name. Yet, this is one interesting place to get to know and pay a visit to if you can spare the time. Traversed by a quite a few rivers, thanks to which the city displays a peculiar architecture and urban layout. It still preserves unique buildings from the 19th century, many of whom were home to important Cuban figures and famous culture icons, and from which you can enjoy unsurpassable views of the beautiful bay, the various rivers and the beautiful "valle del Yumurí" (Yumurí Valley).

In this post I’ll let you in on a few interesting facts regarding Matanzas’s history, as well as my suggestion of a route to help you get to know it better. I especially designed it for travellers who can spare a day to delve deep into the city’s history and culture. I personally, strongly recommend you to visit Matanzas, if you happen to be in Varadero or in the vicinities of "Playa Girón".

What is the city famous for?

Matanzas; home to many singularities, boasts more than 75 historic novelties and has earned itself over 50 nicknames. It’s known for having the largest quantity of stairway-shaped streets, river crossings and bridges of any city in Cuba. Its bay is Cuba’s second deepest and its architectural and historic heritage is invaluable.

Founded in 1693; this city whose "Centro Histórico Urbano" (Historic Urban Centre) has been declared a National Monument, was for a long time, according to renowned Cuban singer and songwriter, Marta Valdés, “the city that the world was missing”. This she affirmed, because its citizens made enormous contributions that extended beyond the reach of Cuba’s natural boundaries to other parts of the world.

Suffice is to say that "el danzón" (the danzón); Cuba’s national dance, was created here by famous Cuban musician José White, whose violin moved the European courts in the 19th century. Furthermore, another "mulatto matancero"; Severiano de Heredia, was elected mayor of Paris in 1879.

The origin of its name

Matanzas owes its name to the first act of defiance the island witnessed in the beginning of the 16th century. In its bay Cuban aboriginals sunk a canoe that carried various Spanish "conquistadores" (conquerors). Ever since, the area was known as “la bahía de la matanza” (“the bay of the killings”) and thus, the city got its name; Matanzas, which literally translates as “killings”.

Many journalists and travellers, put it on level with the Greek capital, calling it “the Athens of Cuba”, because of its impressive cultural and economic development during the 19th century.Today, it still stands as one of Cuba’s most interesting cities.

Where should you begin your tour of the city?

The Bay

If it’s your first visit to Matanzas; as a magnificent coastal city you should first enjoy the view of its splendid bay; one of Cuba’s most beautiful waterscapes, with its very deep, warm, and clean waters, whose stillness and varying shades of blue never fail to positively surprise the visitor. You mustn’t miss the chance to have your photo taken next to the statue of Piet Hein; the Dutch pirate who, on 8th September 1628, captured and sunk the "Flota de La Plata" (Silver Fleet) right here.

From there on, you can continue to visit the "Centro Histórico Urbano"; declared, as I was saying earlier, a National Monument, given its historic and architectural value. The neoclassical style predominates in most of the centre’s buildings, but you can still spot some very interesting examples of eclecticism. I suggest we begin our tour by the "Plaza de la Vigía" (Vigía Plaza).

La Plaza de la Vigía

This welcoming place was the site chosen to found Matanzas on 12 October 1693. According to old street maps, this was the site around which the first Cuban community was created.

This "plaza" (square); a commercial area from its very beginnings, witnessed the tenacious and difficult battle fought by the early Matanzas residents to gain more land from the rivers and the sea.

The site acquired its current layout during the second half of the 19th century, and aside from the addition in 1919 of a sculpture devoted to the “Soldado Desconocido del Ejercito Libertador Cubano" (Unknown Soldier of the Cuban Liberation Army); carved by the famous Italian sculptor Carlos Nicoli, the city looks pretty much the same way it has for centuries. You’ll find it just as it would have been seen by an English traveller arriving to it in the 1880s.

While walking around this plaza, you must not fail to visit the nearby "Teatro Sauto" (Sauto Theatre), another National Monument. Opened in 1863, this beautiful coliseum has played an important role throughout its history, hosting the performances of renowned Cuban artists as well as foreign performers and theatre companies.

Neither must you fail; that is, if you feel passionate about history and the fine arts, to tour the showrooms of the "Museo Provincial Palacio de Junco" (Junco Palace Provincial Museum); the first museum founded by the Revolution. This institution occupies a small 19th century palace exhibiting unique pieces that tell the story of Matanzas’s history from its aboriginal times to the present day. To me, the most important piece is the mummy of Josefa Petronila; a lady from Matanzas who died in Havana during the 19th century, and was embalmed to be later buried her in her homeland. But I’ll tell you no more because in order to know this mummy’s full story and find out about other curious pieces, you need to visit this museum, one of the prides and symbols of the matanceros.

Liberty Park

You cannot visit Matanzas and miss this park; the city’s beating heart. It’s presided by a statue of José Martí; Cuba’s National Hero, and is surrounded by cultural institutions and shops.

The area’s main attraction aside from its characteristic bustling atmosphere, is the "Museo Farmacéutico" (Pharmaceutical Museum); the only one of its kind in the world. Declared a National Monument in 2008, this museum was a French Pharmacy inaugurated on 1st January 1882. Stuck in a time warp, it opened as a museum in 1964 and since then, has been visited by hundreds of Cuban and foreign tourists who admire the well-preserved condition of instruments, prescription pads, medicine jars, decorative art objects and other original pieces exhibited here.

And nearing the tour’s end…

After seeing the sites, you’ll surely agree that Matanzas is a city to be toured in more than one day, given the unique natural, architectural and historic treasures it perfectly preserves. But even if you can’t spare longer than a day to visit, you mustn’t leave it without visiting la "Ermita de Montserrat" (The Montserrat Shrine), devoted to the "Patrona de Cataluña" (Catalonia Patron). Built on a high hill by the Catalonians who inhabited Matanzas between 1871 and 1875, and turned into a busy cultural centre in 2009, it is strategically located between the "valle del Yumurí"; a marvel of Cuban nature, the city itself, and its bay. From its height, you’ll be able to lap up the beautiful vistas. Take out your camera to capture the amazing city views and its most outstanding geographical features.

Neither should you skip a visit to the "Castillo de San Severino", in the industrial area near the Matanzas harbour. This fortress is a remarkable example of the intercontinental defensive system erected by Spain to protect its colonial empire in the Americas. The castle; built between 1693 and 1695, and restored in 1998, houses "El Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo" (The Slave’s Route Museum). Sponsored by UNESCO, this museum will enlighten you on the slaves of African-origin that arrived in the Matanzas region and their descendants. This region held the largest number of slaves during the 19th century, because it was the island’s greatest sugar producer at that time. From here, you’ll also be able to take outstanding photos of the bay.

How to reach the city

Matanzas can be easily reached from Varadero through a modern highway that connects both sites. You can get here by hiring a car, taking a state agency taxi or by renting a classic car (you can do so by asking around at your resort, who will put you in touch with the classic cars owners). The roundtrip price for the Varadero-Matanzas journey on a classic car, ranges from 20 to 40 CUC per person, depending on how long you stay in Matanzas.

Where to eat and chill?

From the times I was a student, every time I visit Matanzas I never fail to drop by "El Parnasso". This coffee bar named after a Matanzas 19th century newspaper and located on "Calle Medio" (Middle Street); the city’s busiest and most central thoroughfare, offers an ample variety of sandwiches, pizzas, spaghettis, coffees, soft drinks and ice creams. Prices range from 1 CUC to 5 CUC per person, and the joint opens daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Other good choices include a few coffee shops, bars and restaurants popularly known as "paladares"; opened in recent years by matanceros. Many of these private restaurants are set up inside their own houses, where you will find an assorted food fare for all tastes and pockets.

And; should you decide to end your night in la "Ciudad de los Puentes y los Ríos" (the City of Bridges and Rivers), my recommendation is to go enjoy a performance at the Sauto Theatre, or “strut your stuff”; as we Cubans refer to dancing, at the "Cabaret Tropicana Matanzas" (Tropicana Matanzas Nightclub), located near the Canímar river, in the vicinity of the highway communicating Matanzas with Varadero. Inspired by Havana’s famous Tropicana Nightclub; its location and design enable the surroundings to become part of the show presented every night in this site.

I can assure you that you’ll never regret having devoted several hours; or more than just a day, to tour Matanzas’s streets, plazas, museums and bridges.

Ernesto Alvarez

Ernesto Alvarez

Passionate Historian

Being the author of The History of Tourism in Varadero and a resident there, Ernesto hoards an...

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