The provincial interior of Matanzas, wedged between the two touristic poles of Varadero and the Península de Zapata, is dominated by agriculture, with islands of banana and vegetable crops dotting the seas of sugar-cane fields. There are a few small towns in this sparsely populated territory – a couple of the larger ones, Colón and Jovellanos, are on the Carretera Central, the main road bisecting the northern half of the province. Away from the highway the smaller, more picturesque hamlet of SAN MIGUEL DE LOS BAÑOS is one of the province’s lesser-known treats, off the official tourist track and accessible only by car, hidden away in its own cosy valley 25km southwest of Cárdenas. A cross between an alpine village and a Wild West ghost town, this once opulent settlement has lost most of its wealth, with the wood-panelled ranch-style houses and villas on the hillside among the few reminders of what San Miguel de los Baños once was. These faded signs of success are part of the enchantment of a place that made its fortune during the first half of the twentieth century through the popularity of its health spa and hotel, the Balneario San Miguel de los Baños, still one of the focal points for visits here, along with the public swimming pool and the Loma de Jacán.
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Balneario San Miguel de los Baños
Balneario San Miguel de los Baños
Located near the centre of the village, the turreted, mansion-like Balneario San Miguel de los Baños had its heyday in the 1930s but is now completely derelict, though you can still wander through its entrancingly overgrown gardens. At the rear of the building and spread around the garden, the red-brick wells and Romanesque baths built to accommodate the sulphurous springs that were discovered here in the mid-nineteenth century are still more or less intact, though the pools of water slushing around in them are no longer fit for human consumption. The three wells are themselves only about 3m deep; each was supplied from a different source and the supposed healing properties of the waters differed accordingly. With the stone benches encircling the centre of the garden and the wall of shade provided by the old trees, this is a pleasant spot for a picnic, the silence broken only by the sound of running water.
Loma de Jacán
Loma de Jacán
From the swimming pool in San Miguel de los Baños village you should be able to see the route to the foot of the Loma de Jacán, the highest peak among the small set of hills in the north of Matanzas province, yet one of the easiest to climb, thanks to a large set of concrete steps leading up it. A short drive from the northern edge of town up a steep and potholed road takes you to the bottom of this giant staircase. The 448 steps up to the peak are marked by murals depicting the Stations of the Cross, and at the top is a shrine, whose concrete dome houses a spooky representation of the Crucifixion, the untouched overgrowth and the airy atmosphere contributing to the mood of contemplation. For years the shrine has attracted local pilgrims who leave flowers and coins at its base, though the real attraction here is the all-encompassing view of the valley and beyond.
A history of sugar in Cuba
A history of sugar in Cuba
Despite the old Cuban saying “sin azúcar no hay país” (“without sugar there’s no country”), the crop is not actually native to the island, having been introduced by colonial pioneer Diego Velázquez in 1511. Furthermore, though its humid tropical climate and fertile soil makes the island ideal for sugar cane cultivation, sugar production got off to a slow start here. Initially produced almost entirely for local consumption, decades of declining population in Cuba meant the market for sugar was initially very small. In 1595, as Europe was beginning to develop its sweet tooth, King Philip II of Spain authorized the construction of sugar refineries on the island but for the next century and a half, the industry remained relatively stagnant. Impeded by the Spanish failure to take notice of new techniques in sugar production developed by the English and French elsewhere in the Caribbean, the lack of a substantial and regular supply of slaves, and by stifling regulations imposed by the Spanish Crown forcing Cuba to trade sugar only with Spain, sugar production on the island initially developed slowly.
The English arrive
In 1762, however, the English took control of Havana and during their short occupation opened up trade channels with the rest of the world, simultaneously introducing the industry to the technological advances Spain had failed to embrace. Subsequently, the number of slaves imported to Cuba almost doubled in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. In 1791 a slave-led revolution in Santo Domingo, the dominant force in world sugar at that time, all but wiped out its sugar industry, causing prices and the demand for Cuban sugar to rise, just as the global demand was also rising. By the end of the eighteenth century Cuba had become one of the world’s three biggest sugar producers.
Slavery and the Wars of Independence
Technological advances throughout the nineteenth century, including the mechanization of the refining process and the establishment of railways, saw Cuba’s share of the world market more than double and the crop become the primary focus of the economy. With hundreds of thousands of slaves being shipped into Cuba during this period, the island’s racial mix came to resemble something like it is today. Equally significant, the economic and structural imbalances between east and west, which were to influence the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War in 1868 and its successor in 1895, emerged as a result of the concentration of more and larger sugar mills in the west, closer to Havana. These Wars of Independence weakened the Cuban sugar industry to the point of vulnerability, thus clearing the way for a foreign takeover.
The twentieth century
Cuba began the twentieth century under indirect US control, and the Americans built huge factories known as centrales, able to process cane for a large number of different plantations. By 1959 there were 161 mills on the island, over half of them under foreign ownership, a fact that had not escaped the notice of Fidel Castro and his nationalist revolutionary followers. It was no surprise then that one of the first acts of the revolutionary government was, in 1960, to nationalize the entire sugar industry. Over the following decades Cuban economic policy fluctuated between attempts at diversification and greater dependency than ever on the zafra – the sugar harvest, influenced by artificially high prices paid by the Soviet Union for Cuban sugar. This dependency reached a disastrous peak when, in 1970, Castro zealously declared a target of ten million tons for the national annual sugar harvest, which has never been met.
The industry today
Since the mid-1990s there has been a sharp decline in the productivity of sugar. In 2002 a government plan to make production more efficient meant almost half of Cuba’s sugar mills were closed while the output of those that remained would, in theory, increase. While this plan patently failed, with Cuba’s share of global sugar production currently at around one percent, there have been recent developments in the industry: in 2012, the Brazilian firm Odebrecht became the first foreign company to administer a Cuban sugar mill since the Revolution. Whether this will provide a boost to the industry is yet to be properly measured.