Standing at the Catalonians’ Hermitage (Ermita de los Catalanes), one can see the entire city of Matanzas. It sits beside a calm turquoise bay on undulating hills that are crossed by three rivers and wrapped in a bluish fog, especially at dawn. It is said that Matanzas is the least Cuban of the island’s cities, and certainly its architecture sets it apart.
Pale, neoclassic style houses line the banks of its rivers, which are crossed by so many bridges that Matanzas is sometimes called the Venice of Cuba and, in fact, with a little imagination, you can almost feel Venetian air wafting off those bridges.
The city of Matanzas, which is the capital of the province of Matanzas, 100 kilometres east of Havana, is also known as the Cuban Athens. With an intense, diverse cultural life, it is a city of poets, painters and musicians. It is where Cuban writer José María Heredia, the first romantic poet of the Spanish language, spent his youth, and it is the birthplace of other important writers, such as José Jacinto Milanés, Bonifacio Byrne, Agustín Acosta and the passionate poet Carilda Oliver Labra.
This city is also important for its music; it is known for rumba and it was the cradle of danzón – Cuba’s national dance – as well as the danzonete. Illustrious Matanzas musicians include José White, a noteworthy composer and brilliant violinist who won the Allard chair in the Paris Conservatory; Nilo Menéndez and Frank Domínguez, both of the fílin movement; and Dámaso Pérez Prado, the immortal creator of the mambo, one of the greats of Cuban music.It is said that the famous Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was astonished by a sunset over the Yumurí Valley, near the city, and said that the art of his era could not capture the colors that he saw that afternoon. The valley is a natural amphitheatre carved out by the Yumurí River, and it is surrounded, except on the east, by a mountain ridge 150 meters high.
Past and present
Matanzas was founded on the site of an indigenous village in 1693 by 30 colonists from the Canary Islands, and it grew gradually into a port city, with a significant boost from 18th century French immigration. In the 19th century, sugar was the main industry, and the slaves who worked on the sugarcane plantations rose up in several famous rebellions.
As Cuba’s sugar was sold all over the world, this port city became the wealthiest on the island and a center of culture. It was visited by celebrities like Fanny Elssler, Anna Pavlova, Sarah Bernhardt and the famous soprano Adelina Patti. Louis Philippe d’Orléans, future king of France, was one of a number of royal guests in the city. The splendour of the past can be seen today in the severe neoclassical style of many of the city’s buildings and large homes, with their huge porticos, wrought-iron railings over the windows and massive hardwood doors with gigantic ornamental nails.
One must-see is the family owned pharmacy of French-born Dr. Ernesto Víctor Triolet Lelievre. It is now a museum that holds colonial era instruments and porcelain jars on shelves made of precious woods. Another living example of the past is the famous Sauto Theatre. Founded in 1860 and one of the jewels of Cuban architecture, it still hosts concerts and other performances.
Nearby stands Junco Palace (1842), now a city museum, and the old fire station, all in the Plaza de la Vigia, the center of the colonial city. The Spanish romantic style is dominant in the architecture of the church of San Carlos (1730), which became a cathedral in 1915 and where worshippers pray before the image of the Holy Christ of Mercy.The plazas and bridges of Matanzas divide it into three large districts. In this culturally diverse city, the people are friendly and the women have a reputation for beauty. Matanzas presents its visitors with a sumptuous past that lives on within today’s hustle and bustle; nevertheless, it is still largely considered as the gateway to the famous beach resort of Varadero, 20 km east of the city.
Canimar and Bellamar
Four kilometres east of Matanzas, a bridge crosses over the Canímar River. Many, many years ago, the Canímar River was called the Jibacabuya by Cuba’s indigenous people. According to legend, the handsome Canimao fell in love with Cibaraya, the beautiful daughter of the tribal chief, but their happiness was short-lived. The girl was stricken with a deadly disease and Canimao offered his life to the Bat god in exchange for hers. However, the god did not hear his plea, and Canimao, in despair, climbed to the highest rocky outcrop, stabbed himself with a stone knife, and jumped into the river. The river was then named after him.
The banks of the Canímar are very beautiful, but one of the most dazzling features of nature in the hills above Matanzas is the Bellamar Caves. The people of Matanzas consider this cave system to be one of the wonders of the world, with its thousands of metres of galleries and passages full of stalactites and stalagmites. The first chamber, the impressive, 26-metre high “Gothic Temple,” contains a large stalactite called Columbus’s Cloak. The cave system’s underground streams have names like the Tunnel of Love, Devil’s Gorge, Rain’s Passageway, Hall of Snow, St. Peter’s Temple and the Chapel of the Twelve Apostles. Nestled in the serenity of the Yumurí Valley is the town of San Miguel de los Baños, which provides the natural conditions so appealing to travelers who are interested in enjoying the goodness of its healing mineral springs.
Some decades ago, a spa called the Gran Hotel operated there, and experts considered it to be a small-scale replica of the Monte Carlo Casino. Matanzas also offers the possibility of specialized anti-stress, beauty and obesity treatment programs, along with other programs for improving one’s quality of life, and doing so in an exceptional setting. In southern Matanzas province, the Montemar Natural Park is located in the Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve. It is a great place for those who enjoy nature tourism, with diving out in the open sea and cave diving in flooded caverns.
A land of poets, painters and musicians, full of peacefulness but also full of life as it hurtles toward the future, Matanzas is fascinating and friendly; it is one of those places where one feels at home.