If you’re a seasoned tourist, you will know that there is one thing that can easily damage the experience of being a tourist. Can you guess what it is? Yes, that’s correct… it’s other tourists. Most alluring photos of stunning tourist attractions are taken with selective angles at opportunistic times that manage to crop out or avoid the hordes of people you will have to contend with. Ever tried to go up the Eiffel Tower? Be prepared to wait in line for a few hours.
Ever seen the Great Wall of China?
You might need some aspirin after you get walloped in the head with a selfie stick. The number of visitors to Cuba is steadily climbing each year, although it’s a stretch to suggest that the island nation is being ruined by tourists. But still, key locations such as Old Havana are definitely an experience that you will need to share with other visitors. If you crave the hidden charms of a piece of the island that many visitors would simply not have heard of, it’s time to discover the rustic delights of Matanzas Cuba.
It’s Really Not That Far
It’s actually a little bit odd that more people don’t take the time to visit Matanzas Cuba. It’s not some hidden village off the beaten track, and is a town of around 150,000 residents that must be passed when travelling between Havana and the popular resort area of Varadero. But passing by is what most people do, and their only association with the town is perhaps an indifferent announcement from a tour bus driver (“On your left you will see the town of Matanzas Cuba”). The town is around 90 minutes by road from Havana, and only around 50 minutes by road from Varadero, so it’s not going to take a lot of effort to get there.
No Need to Compare
To not visit the town really is the loss of all those tourists who bustle by on their way elsewhere. As your vehicle approaches Matanzas Cuba you will be struck at how the pretty little town is dissected by a number of waterways. There are three main rivers (and many smaller canals) that divide the town before feeding into the Bay of Matanzas. These rivers are the Rio Yumuri, the San Juan, and the Canima, and it’s the numerous bridges that cross these rivers that have given the town its nickname, which is the Venice of Cuba. You can see where this comparison has originated, but still… what’s the point? Matanzas is distinctively beautiful and doesn’t need to be compared with Venice… or Athens, for that matter.
Making Poetry in Matanzas Cuba
Matanzas Cuba has also found itself being compared with the Greek capital, although not the Athens of contemporary times. Before BC turned to AD, Athens was the focal point for the creation of a huge amount of poetry, much of which has stood the test of time, although is is now unsurprisingly referred to as the poetry of Ancient Greece. For no discernable reason, Matanzas found itself as the home of large number of Cuban poets, attracted by the rich African-centric history of the town (and more about that in a moment) which in turn led to the rich musical history of the town. Perhaps there’s something about the unhurried pace of life in the town that inspires the creation of poetry.
The Strong Afro-Caribbean Identity of the Town
Like much of Cuba, the town of Matanzas hosted its fair number of slaves, plucked from their
homes across Africa and forcibly transported to the New World. In the 1850s it was estimated that more than 70% of the town’s population were in fact slaves, most of whom were forced to work on the sugar plantations that surrounded the town and led to the wealth of Cuba at the time. Slavery was abolished on the island in 1886, and while many of the newly-freed slaves dispersed across (or even departed from) the island, a large number of slaves decided to live in and around Matanzas. This gives the town a proud Afro-Caribbean identity, perhaps more so than any other town in Cuba.
A Truly Musical History
This Afro-Caribbean identity is best exemplified in the famous music that originated in the town. Rumba can largely be traced back to the slave population of Matanzas Cuba back in the 1800s. It truly was a merging of cultures, with origins in African styles of music such as yuka, which were combined with the musical styles of their colonial overlords, such as coros de clave. This rhythmic, percussive music became widespread across Cuba later in the 1800s, and was popularised in the clubs of nearby Havana. It wasn’t until it was actually recorded and distributed in the 1940s that the rumba of Matanzas was truly shared with the world.
It’s interesting that the town has such a concentration of culture given its relatively small size and proximity to the capital. Many of the poets that lived and created in the town are long dead and the music has now been shared with the rest of the world. But still, the town is a vibrant cultural hub. Matanzas has a wearied beauty, and it feels like some parts of the town have been awaiting repairs since the end of the Cuban Revolution. But this gives the town a gritty, edgy quality that is lacking in much of the country. If you don’t speak Spanish, you unfortunately cannot avail yourself of the regular theatrical productions that are performed in the town, although you won’t have to look too far to find a fantastic live musical performance (try one of the many venues in the Marina district).
What it lacks in discernable tourist attractions, the town more than compensates with its remarkable atmosphere. While many tourists will breeze straight by the town, it would be a regret if you didn’t visit and stay for a while. Maybe you can try writing some poetry?