Matanzas

Matanzas is a sleepy city with old colonial buildings, a remarkable pharmacy museum and a legendary musical history. It sits on the Bahía de Matanzas and is freshened by the sea breeze. On the opposite side of the bay is the busy, ugly industrial zone (there are oil storage facilities, chemical and fertilizer plants, sugar, textile and paper mills and thermal power stations). Both the rivers Yumurí and San Juan flow through the city and you can walk along the riverside at dusk and watch the fishermen or take in the tranquillity and murmur of fellow observers.

Most of the old buildings are between the two rivers, with another colonial district, Versalles, to the north of the Río Yumurí. This area was colonized in the 19th century by French refugees from Haiti after the revolution there. The newer district, Pueblo Nuevo, also has many colonial houses.

Ins and outs 

Getting there

The town lies 104 km east of Havana along the Vía Blanca, which links the capital with Varadero beach, 34 km further east. If you are travelling by car the drive is unattractive along the coast and can be smelly because of the many small oil wells producing low-grade crude en route, but once you get into the hills there are good views of the countryside. There is a spectacular lookout with a view of the Yumurí valley, called the Mirador de Bacunayagua, overlooking a viaduct spanning a gorge, the highest bridge in Cuba. Most buses make this a rest stop. Long-distance buses

between Havana and Varadero all pass through Matanzas and you can request a stop here. You can also get here by train en route from Havana to Santiago. However, the 2½ to four-hour journey via the Hershey Railway, the only electric train in Cuba, which runs from Havana to Matanzas, is memorable and scenic if you are not in a hurry. 

Getting around

Most of the places of interest are within walking distance, but if you get tired you can board a horse-drawn coche, hail a bicitaxi or you can hire a local driver to take you around for a day trip out of town. Some of the main sights can be reached using the hop-on hop-off MatanzasBusTour between Varadero and Matanzas which passes the city centre historic sights, the San Severino fort, Cuevas de Bellamar and Tropicana.

History

The town dates from 1693, when immigrants from the Canary Islands founded a settlement they called San Carlos y Severino de Matanzas, between the rivers San Juan and Yumurí. Before that, the area was known mainly for an attack on the Spanish fleet in 1628 in the Bahía de Matanzas, by the Dutch Admiral Piet Heyn. Spain and Holland were at war at the time and the fleet was considered war booty, with the four million ducats of gold and silver captured being used to finance further battles. The name Matanzas is thought to come from the mass slaughter of wild pigs to provision the fleets, but it could also refer to the killing of the Amerindians who lived here and called the bay Guanima. Around the time of the founding of the city, a fortress, the Castillo de San Severino, was built on the northern shore of the bay to keep out pirates and any other invaders.

The town became prosperous with the advent of sugar mills in the 1820s, followed by the railway in 1843. Most of the buildings date from this time and by the 1860s it was the second largest town in Cuba after Havana, with all the trappings of an important city, such as a theatre, newspaper and library. It even became known as the 'Athens of Cuba' because of all the musicians and writers living there. The Sala de Conciertos José White de Matanzas , on Contreras (79) on the plaza, was formerly the Lyceum Club and is famous for being the place where the danzón was danced for the first time in 1879 (there is a plaque outside but it is now closed).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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