Varadero, Matanzas and Mayabeque
Varadero, with almost 25km of beach, most of it lined with hotels, is Cuba’s largest tourist resort. It occupies the Península de Hicacos, a slender finger of land pointing into the warm currents of the western Atlantic from the northern coastline of the province of Matanzas. That stunning esplanade of fine white sand certainly makes Varadero a world-class beach but the resort itself is not, however, the complete package. Increasing numbers of luxury hotels provide optimum accommodation, but the nightlife and entertainment is pretty poor. That said, this is the best major beach resort in Cuba for independent or budget travellers as it’s one of the few with a wide spread of low-priced accommodation, options and a decent, ever-improving choice of restaurants outside the hotels.
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Matanzas and Mayabeque
Roughly 30km west along the coastline from the peninsula is the provincial capital, also named Matanzas, while to the east, and somewhat closer, is the bayside town of Cárdenas. These once grand colonial towns now live largely in Varadero’s shadow, relegated to day-trip destinations for holidaymakers. Many of their historic buildings are in considerable disrepair but they do still make a refreshing contrast to their more cultureless and one-dimensional neighbour. What's more, the Matanzas city surrounds hold three of the most captivating natural phenomena in the province: the subterranean cave network of the Cuevas de Bellamar; the broad, slinking Río Canímar, host to some great boat trips; and the enchanting tropical landscapes of the Yumurí Valley. The valley nudges into the neighbouring province of Mayabeque, bypassed by most tourists on the journey between Havana and Varadero but whose pretty stretch of uncrowded coastlineat the resort of Playa Jibacoa is easier to get to from Matanzas than any other town or city. The hills of the Escaleras de Jaruco, also in Mayabeque, offer somewhere interesting and attractive to head for if you want to get well off the beaten track. Back in Matanzas province, another little-visited but charming spot is the once wealthy village of San Miguel de los Baños, now a slightly surreal but intriguing testament to a bygone era.
On the southern side of the province, the Península de Zapata’s sweeping tracts of coastal marshlands and wooded interior can be explored with guides, who help protect this encouragingly unspoiled national park and Biosphere Reserve. There are a couple of very modest beaches here but the area is better suited to hiking, birdwatching and scuba diving than sunbathing. It is also the site of one of the most infamous acts in Cuban-US history – the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Ten kilometres southeast of Varadero and home to much of the peninsula’s workforce, Cárdenas offers a taste of Cuban life away from the tourist spotlight, with a much stronger sense of history and a town centre dotted with crumbling colonial and neo-colonial buildings. Though it’s on the coast, Cárdenas doesn’t feel like a seaside town since most of its shoreline, hugging the Bay of Cárdenas, is an industrial zone. Few visitors are tempted to spend more than a day here, and the town is quite run down, its battered roads full of potholes, but there are one or two excellent casas particulares that help to make an overnight stay a little more worthwhile. The Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción is Cárdenas’ most distinguished historic building; its creditable museums, including the Museo a la Batalla de Ideas, with its fantastic views of the town, are on or right next to the Parque José Antonio Echeverría, the most inviting square in the city, though far less lively than Plaza Malacoff, the bustling market square.
Brief history of Cárdenas
Founded in 1828 and known as the Ciudad Bandera (Flag City), it was here in 1850 that what became the national flag was first raised by the Venezuelan General Narcisco López and his troops, who had disembarked at Cárdenas in a US-backed attempt to spark a revolt against Spanish rule and clear the way for annexation. The attempt failed, but the flag’s design was later adopted by the independence movement.
In 1878 José Arechabala, an immigrant from the Basque Country who’d moved to Cárdenas from Havana, founded what was then known as La Vizcaya, a rum distillery. It was at this distillery that Havana Club, Cuba’s most famous rum, was born, distilled for the first time in 1934. The factory, located in the portside industrial zone, still exists to this day; nationalized after the Revolution, it’s now known as the José Antonio Echeverría Distillery.
The town’s more recent claim to fame is as the birthplace of Elian González, the young boy who came to symbolize the ideological conflict between the US and Cuba during a 1999 custody battle of unusual geopolitical significance. The government wasted no time in setting up a museum here to commemorate their perceived triumph when Elian was returned to his home town.
Parque José Antonio Echeverría
Two blocks from Avenida Céspedes, southeast along Calle 12, is plain but tranquil Parque José Antonio Echeverría, the archetypal town square that Parque Colón fails to be, dotted with trees and benches and enclosed by buildings on all sides. The real reason to visit, though, is for the three surrounding museums.
Founded in 1900 and one of the oldest museums in the country, the Museo Oscar María de Rojas, occupying the entire southwestern side of Parque José Antonio Echeverría, brings together a jamboree of coins, medals, bugs, butterflies and weapons along with other seemingly random collections across its thirteen rooms. By far the most engaging and substantial sections are the two rooms of pre-Columbian Cuban and Latin American artefacts. Among the archeological finds displayed are human skeletal remains found on the island, dating back almost 5800 years, a bizarre shrunken head from southern Ecuador, examples of Mayan art and some stone idols from Mexico.
On the northwestern side of Parque José Antonio Echeverría is the relatively illuminating Museo José Antonio Echeverría, set in the birthplace of the 1950s anti-Batista student leader and activist, a statue of whom stands casually, hand in pocket, in the square outside. Considered one of the martyrs of the Revolution, Echeverría and several of his comrades were shot and killed by Batista’s police during an attack on the Presidential Palace in Havana on March 13, 1957. The museum charts his life growing up in Cárdenas and his protest years in Havana, as well as examining the wider role of the Federation of University Students (FEU) in Cuba, of which Echeverría became president in 1954. You can see his parents’ pink 1954 Chrysler Windsor Deluxe parked in the courtyard.
Since its foundation in 1859, curious-looking Plaza Malacoff has hosted the stalls and booths that make up the city’s main food market. The centre of this old market square is occupied by a 15m-high, cross-shaped building consisting of four two-storey hallways and a large iron-and-zinc dome in the centre, which gives it the appearance of a run-down Islamic temple. While the square has seen better days, it is still full of life and perhaps the best place in Cárdenas to find some genuine local flavour.
San Miguel de los Baños
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 Loma de Jacán – though don’t miss the magnificently perched outdoor public swimming pool either, five minutes’ walk from the old hotel through the centre of the village – often empty but with lovely views of the enclosing, fir-covered, palm-dotted hills.
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
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
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.
Península de Zapata
The whole southern section of Matanzas province is taken up by the Península de Zapata, also known as the Ciénaga de Zapata, a large, flat national park and UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve covered by vast tracts of open swampland and contrastingly dense forests. The largest but least populated of all Cuba’s municipalities, the peninsula is predominantly wild, unspoilt and a rich habitat for Cuban animal life, including boar, mongoose, iguana and crocodile. It also provides excellent birdwatching opportunities, on the migratory routes between the Americas and home to endemic species such as the Zapata rail and Cuban pygmy owl. Despite its 30km of accessible Caribbean coastline, the Península de Zapata’s modest beaches and mostly rocky shores make it unsuitable for sun-and-sand holidays, regardless of what the brochures claim, but it is an excellent area for diving, with crystal clear waters, coral reefs within swimming distance of the shore and a small network of flooded caves known as cenotes.
As one of the most popular day-trips from Havana and Varadero, the peninsula has built up a set of conveniently packaged diversions, though these are best combined with the more active business of birdwatching, fishing, diving or trekking, for which you’ll need to hire a guide and, in some cases, rent a car – entrance is restricted to most of the protected wildlife zones, which are spread over a wide area and not accessible on foot. Of the ready-made attractions, the Finca Fiesta Campesina, just off the Autopista Nacional, is a somewhat contrived but nonetheless likeable cross between a farm and a tiny zoo. Further in, about halfway down to the coast, Boca de Guamá draws the largest number of bus parties with its crocodile farm, restaurants and pottery workshop. This is also the point of departure for the boat trip to Guamá, a convincingly reconstructed Taíno Indian village on the edge of a huge lake. Further south on the Bay of Pigs, scene of the infamous 1961 invasion, the beaches of Playa Girón and Playa Larga are nowhere near as spectacular as their northern counterpart, but offer far superior scuba diving to the offerings near Varadero. The invasion itself is commemorated in a museum at Playa Girón and along the roadside in a series of grave-like monuments, each representing a Cuban casualty of the conflict.
Even before the dramatic failure of the military offensive at the Bay of Pigs, the US had been planning less overt methods for removing Fidel Castro from power. Fabián Escalante, the former head of Cuban State Security, claims that between 1959 and 1963 over six hundred plots were hatched to kill the Cuban president, which became more devious and ludicrous as the US grew increasingly desperate to take out the communist leader. In 1960, during a visit which Castro was making to the UN, it was planned that he be given a cigar which would explode in his face, while back in Cuba, in 1963, Rolando Cubela, who had been a commander in the rebel army, was given a syringe disguised as a pen to be used in an assassination attempt. The Mafia also took a stab at killing Castro with their poison pill plot, but got no further than their CIA counterparts. Some of the more outlandish schemes included poisoning a diving suit, poisoning a cigar, leaving an explosive shell on a beach frequented by Castro and spraying LSD in a television studio in the hope of inducing an attack of uncontrollable – and presumably fatal – laughter.
The Bay of Pigs
The triumph of the Cuban revolution was initially treated with caution rather than hostility by the US government, but tensions between the two countries developed quickly. As Castro’s reforms became more radical, the US tried harder to thwart the process and in particular refused to accept the terms of the agrarian reform law, which dispossessed a number of American landowners. Castro attacked the US in his speeches, became increasingly friendly with the Soviet Union and in the latter half of 1960 expropriated all US property in Cuba. The Americans responded by cancelling Cuba’s sugar quota and secretly authorizing the CIA to organize the training of Cuban exiles, who had fled the country following the rebel triumph, for a future invasion of the island.
On April 15, 1961, US planes disguised with Cuban markings and piloted by exiles bombed Cuban airfields but caused more panic than actual damage, although seven people were killed. The intention had been to incapacitate the small Cuban air force so that the invading troops would be free from aerial bombardment, but Castro had cannily moved most of the Cuban bombers away from the airfields and camouflaged them. Two days later Brigade 2506, as the exile invasion force was known, landed at Playa Girón, in the Bay of Pigs. The brigade had been led to believe that the air attacks had been successful and were not prepared for what was in store. As soon as Castro learned the precise location of the invasion he moved his base of operations to the sugar refinery of Central Australia and ordered both his air force and land militias to repel the advancing invaders.
The unexpected aerial attacks caused much damage and confusion; two freighters were destroyed and the rest of the fleet fled, leaving 1300 troops trapped on Playa Larga and Playa Girón. During the night of April 17–18 the Cuban government forces, which had been reinforced with armoured cars and tanks, renewed attacks on the brigade. The battle continued into the next day as the brigade became increasingly outnumbered by the advancing revolutionary army. Several B-26 bombers, two manned by US pilots, flew over to the Bay of Pigs from Nicaragua the next morning in an attempt to weaken the Cuban army and clear the way for the landing of supplies needed by the stranded brigade. Most of the bombers were shot down and the supplies never arrived. Castro’s army was victorious, having captured 1180 prisoners who were eventually traded for medical and other supplies from the US. Other ways would have to be found to topple the Cuban leader.
Scuba diving and snorkelling off the Península de Zapata
The Península de Zapata is one of the top spots in Cuba for scuba diving and snorkelling, with waters here generally calmer than those around Varadero, coral reefs close to the shore, some fantastic 30–40m coral walls and in-shore flooded caves. Scorpion fish, moray eels, groupers and barracuda are resident here, while the coral life is extremely healthy, with an abundance of brightly coloured sponges, some giant gorgonians and a proliferation of sea fans. At least ten good dive sites are spread along the eastern coast of the bay and beyond, right down to the more exposed waters around Hotel Playa Girón. Most of the coral walls are no more than 40m offshore, so to get to them you just swim from the shore. The principal cave dive on the peninsula is at El Cenote, known in tourist literature as the Cueva de los Peces, a limestone sinkhole linked to the sea through an underground channel and home to numerous tropical fish. There are a number of other flooded sinkholes around the peninsula and more excellent snorkelling and diving at Caleta Buena and Punta Perdiz.
Nature trails, birdwatching and fishing on the Península de Zapata
Besides managing most of the attractions on the peninsula, Cubanacán also organizes less touristy trips into the heart of the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata nature reserve, offering tailor-made packages which can be spread over a number of days or weeks, or ready-made day-trips to specific areas of natural interest. They can supply specialist guides, some of whom speak English, for diving, fishing and birdwatching. The marshes and rivers of Zapata are great areas for fly-fishing; however, very little equipment is available locally and you should bring your own kit (plus your passport, needed to obtain a fishing licence). The three excursions described here are to UNESCO-protected parts of the peninsula that can only be visited with a guide, and which together provide a varied experience of what the area has to offer.
The Río Hatiguanico
Hidden away in the woods on the northwestern edge of Zapata is the base camp for trips in small motor boats on the peninsula’s widest river, the Hatiguanico. A tree-lined canal connects the camp to the river, and the whole route is abundant in birdlife, including Zapata sparrows and Cuban green woodpeckers. Before reaching the widest part of the river, the canal flows into a narrow, twisting corridor of water where you’re brushed by leaning branches. After, the river opens out into an Amazonian-style waterscape and curves gracefully through the densely packed woodland. Trips last between one and two hours, cost $19CUC per person and usually include a packed lunch, a short hike into the woods, and a swim in one of the river alcoves. Fishing is also an option here; tarpon, snapper and snook are among the fish in these waters.
Thirty kilometres west from the small village just before Playa Larga, along a dirt road through dense forest, Santo Tomás sits at the heart of the reserve. Beyond the scattered huts which make up the tiny community here is a small, 2m-wide tributary of the Hatiguanico. In winter it’s dry enough to walk but during the wet season groups of four to six are punted quietly a few hundred metres down the hidden little waterway, brushing past the overhanging reeds. This is real swampland and will suit the dedicated birdwatcher who doesn’t mind getting dirty looking out for, among many others, the three endemic species in this part of the peninsula: the Zapata wren, Zapata sparrow and Zapata rail.
In stark contrast to the dense woodlands of Santo Tomás, the open saltwater wetlands around Las Salinas are the best place on the peninsula for observing migratory and aquatic birds. From observation towers dotted along a track that cuts through the shallow waters you can see huge flocks of flamingos in the distance and solitary blue herons gliding over the shallow water, while blue-wing duck and many other species pop in and out of view from behind the scattered islets. Las Salinas is also a great fly-fishing spot, home to bonefish, permit and barracuda among others. Since this is a protected area, no more than six anglers per week are permitted to fish here.
One of the closest and easiest day-trip destinations from Varadero is Mantazas, the biggest and most interesting city in the province of the same name and just 25km west along the coast from the beach resort. Clustered on the hillsides around a large bay and endowed with several of its own beaches, albeit small and scrappy ones, the city’s setting is perhaps its greatest asset, though as with much else about the place, this remains largely unexploited. This is slowly changing, however, as investment in the previously neglected city centre, where many of the most prominent buildings are undergoing or have undergone renovations, is finally dragging Matanzas out of the doldrums. Still, its greatest appeal remains as a convenient base for the caves on its outskirts and the nearby Yumurí valley and Río Canímar, and one or two nights here usually suffices.
The best place to get your bearings – but also where you’re most likely to be pestered by jineteros – is the more central of Matanzas’ two main plazas, the Parque de la Libertad, home to the fantastically well-preserved Museo Farmacéutico Matanzas. Though the other main square, the Plaza de la Vigía, is less inviting, it's worth visiting for the Museo Provincial and the stately, still functioning Teatro Sauto. Beyond the plazas and the main street, Calle 85 (known to locals as Medio), the slightly claustrophobic city centre quickly becomes a series of similar-looking streets plagued by drainage problems, and tangible focal points are few and far between until you reach Monserrate on the edge of town, and the lovely views of the bay and city it provides.
The sights around Matanzas are more appealing than the city itself, and are the best justification for spending a few days in the area. The highlights are the Cuevas de Bellamar, also a popular day-trip from Varadero, while the Yumurí Valley offers a fantastic showcase of Cuban plant life in a sublime and peaceful landscape. The Río Canímar offers some excellent boat trips and organized excursions, while the hotel here is home to the prodigious Tropicana cabaret.
Local buses and the Matanzas Bus Tour will get you to all these places except the Yumurí Valley, which you can visit by catching the Hershey train or by taking a taxi or rental car.
The Hershey train
In 1916 Milton Hershey, founder of US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys, established a sugar mill halfway between Matanzas and Havana. Built to process sugar cane for the company’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, the renowned businessman and philanthropist also commissioned 135km of railway line to transport workers and goods to and from the mill and the workers’ village he erected around it. Today the Hershey train line transports the only electric trains left in Cuba, which pass through the Yumurí valley and within sight of the Atlantic coastline on their three-hour journey between the two terminals, Casablanca in Havana and the Matanzas station in Versalles.
Calling at dozens of stations along the way, including the one in Camilo Cienfuegos (the post-1959 name for the tiny town of Hershey), a ride on the Hershey train is to experience Cuban public transport at its most idiosyncratic. Services are scheduled to leave three times a day, but there is never any guarantee of this, with reasons for delays and cancellations ranging from power failures to cattle on the line.
The current tram-like interurban train cars were imported from Spain in the 1990s, though they date back to the 1940s. Rarely exceeding speeds of 40km/hr, the journey unfolds at the perfect speed for taking in the marvellous landscapes along the way, the best of them in the Yumurí valley with its mosaic of cultivated fields, open countryside, patchwork forests and snaking rivers. Stations are more like bus stops, and some platforms are little more than a metre or two long, leaving some passengers having to literally jump off the train. To buy a ticket for one of the three daily services to Havana, arrive at the station in Versalles, Matanzas, an hour before the scheduled departure time.
Sugar and slavery
The sugar industry in Cuba, and indeed all over the Caribbean, was up until the end of the nineteenth century inextricably linked to the slave trade and slavery itself. It’s been estimated that at least a third of the slaves in Cuba during the nineteenth century worked on sugar plantations, playing a vital role in Cuba’s biggest industry and accounting for the largest single investment made by most plantation owners. Working conditions for slaves were even worse on the massive sugar estates than on the smaller tobacco or coffee plantations. Death from overwork was not uncommon as, unlike tobacco and coffee, levels of production were directly linked to the intensity of the labour, and plantation owners demanded the maximum possible output from their workforce. The six months of harvest were by far the most gruelling period of the year, when plantation slaves often slept for no more than four hours a day, rising as early as 2am. They were divided into gangs and those sent to cut cane in the fields might be working there for sixteen hours before they could take a significant break. A small proportion would work in the mill grinding the cane and boiling the sugar-cane juice. Accidents in the mills were frequent and punishments were harsh; it was not unknown for slaves to be left in the stocks – which took various forms but usually involved the head, hands and feet locked into the same flat wooden board – for days at a time.
Slaves were most often housed in communal barrack buildings, which replaced the collections of huts used in the eighteenth century, subdivided into cramped cells, with the men, who made up about two-thirds of the slave workforce, separated from the women. This was considered a more effective method of containment as there were fewer doors through which it was possible to escape.
With one of the best beaches in Cuba just 25km up the road, few visitors bother with the rag-tag beaches in Matanzas. Some of them, however, do offer the chance of some secluded sunbathing, and if you’re staying in the city for a couple of days you could do worse than to seek one of them out. By far the largest and most popular is Playa El Tenis, hemmed in by a busy viaduct and complemented by a bar and restaurant. Much smaller and more private is Playa Allende, hidden away below a steep slope just off General Betancourt. With overhanging trees and a sense of enclosure there is a more attractive look and feel here than at Playa El Tenis but there are no amenities and a lot less sand.
About three blocks north from the Plaza de la Vigía, over the Puente de la Concordia, which spans the Río Yumurí, is the almost exclusively residential Versalles district. Few visitors to the city choose to explore this area and those who do are usually heading for the Hershey train terminal or, in an industrial zone on the north face of the bay, the Castillo de San Severino fort and its Museo de la Ruta de los Esclavos.
Constructed in 1734, the Castillo de San Severino fort is based around a wide open central square and surrounded by a now-empty moat. With imposing, thick stone walls and broad ramparts, where three cannon still stand, this was the principal structure in the local colonial defence system, once guarding Matanzas from pirates intent on plundering the substantial wealth of the city. It functioned as a prison in the latter part of the nineteenth century but stood derelict thereafter, though hearsay has it that right up until the late 1970s political prisoners of the revolutionary regime were locked up inside. It now houses the Museo de la Ruta de los Esclavos. The limited displays on slavery and the slave trade reflect the fort’s one-time use as a storage unit for slaves unloaded from boats on the coast below, many of them destined for nearby sugar plantations.
The Hershey train
In 1916 Milton Hershey, founder of US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys, established a sugar mill halfway between Matanzas and Havana. Built to process sugar cane for the company’s chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, the renowned businessman and philanthropist also commissioned 135km of railway line to transport workers and goods to and from the mill and the workers’ village he erected around it. Today the Hershey train line transports the only electric trains left in Cuba, which pass through the Yumurí Valley and within sight of the Atlantic coastline on their three-hour journey between the two termini, Casablanca in Havana and the Matanzas station in Versalles.
Calling at dozens of stations along the way, including the one in Camilo Cienfuegos (the post-1959 name for the tiny town of Hershey), a ride on the Hershey train is to experience Cuban public transport at its most idiosyncratic. Services are scheduled to leave four times a day, but there is never any guarantee of this, with reasons for delays and cancellations ranging from power failures to cattle on the line. The current tram-like interurban train cars were imported from Spain in the 1990s, though they date back to the 1940s. Rarely exceeding speeds of 40km/hr, the journey unfolds at the perfect speed for taking in the marvellous landscapes along the way, the best of them in the Yumurí Valley with its mosaic of cultivated fields, open countryside, patchwork forests and snaking rivers. Stations are more like bus stops, and some platforms are little more than a metre or two long, leaving some passengers having to literally jump off the train. To buy a ticket, arrive at the station an hour before the scheduled departure time. It costs $2.80CUC to travel the full length of the line between Matanzas and Havana. Full timetables are given in Chapter 1 (see By train).
Cuevas de Bellamar
Just beyond the southeastern outskirts of Matanzas, the Cuevas de Bellamar is the most awe-inspiring natural wonder in the province. The cave system attracts coach-loads of tourists and is very visitor-friendly, allowing anyone who can scale a few sets of steps to descend 50m under the ground along 750m of underground corridors and caverns. The entrance is located within a small complex called Finca La Alcancía, hosting shops, two restaurants and a children’s playground.
The caves were first happened upon in 1861 – although there’s some dispute over whether credit should go to a slave working in a limestone pit or a shepherd looking for his lost sheep. Tours are conducted in various languages, including English, and start with a bang as a large staircase leads down into the first, huge gallery, where a gargantuan stalactite known as El Manto de Colón takes centre stage. From here the damp, occasionally muddy and moodily lit trail undulates gently through the rock, passing along narrow passageways. Every so often the cave widens out into larger but still tightly enclosed galleries and chambers lined with lichen and crystal formations.
Snaking its way around fields and woodlands on its journey to the coast, the Río Canímar meets the Bay of Matanzas 4km east of the city. With thick, jungle-like vegetation clasping its banks and swaying bends twisting out of sight, a trip up the Canímar is an easily accessible way to delve a little deeper inland and is one of the most rewarding ways of experiencing the Cuban countryside around these parts. A short stay at the Hotel Canimao, which overlooks the river, combines well with one of the boat trips that leave from below the Puente Antonio Guiteras, the impressive bridge spanning the river near its mouth and the focal point for the area. Next to the hotel is the Tropicana, sister venue of the internationally renowned Havana cabaret and one of the most prestigious entertainment centres in the country; while the Museo El Morrillo by the mouth of the river offers a rather more sedate diversion.
Directly opposite the turning for the Hotel Canimao, a road slopes down to an isolated, simple two-storey building known as the Castillo del Morrillo, an eighteenth-century Spanish fortification near the mouth of the river and alongside a scrappy little beach. With its terracotta-tiled roof, beige paintwork and wooden shuttered windows, the so-called fort looks more like a large and very plain house, and only the two cannon facing out to sea suggest that it was once used to defend Matanzas from pirates and other invaders. Nowadays it’s the home of the Museo El Morrillo, currently only partially open (and temporarily free) as it undergoes renovations with no known reopening date. The interest here is in the connection the building has to Antonio Guiteras Holmes, a political activist in 1930s Cuba. With his companion Carlos Aponte and a small group of revolutionaries, Guiteras plotted to overthrow the Mendieta regime, and chose the Castillo del Morrillo as a hideout from where they would depart by boat to Mexico to plan their insurrection, exactly as Fidel Castro did twenty years later. Intercepted by military troops before they could leave, they were shot down on May 8, 1935, at this very spot. Among the bits and pieces commemorating Holmes’s life and death are usually the rowing boat that transported the corpses of Guiteras and Aponte, as well as the tomb containing their remains, currently the only visitable room.
The Yumurí Valley
Hidden behind the hills that skirt the northern edges of Matanzas, the Yumurí Valley is the provincial capital’s giant back garden, stretching westwards from the city into Mayabeque province. Out of sight until you reach the edge of the valley itself, it’s the most beautiful landscape in the province, and it comes as quite a surprise to find it so close to the grimy city streets. There’s a new vista around every corner, as rolling pastures merge into fields of palm trees, and small forests are interrupted by plots of banana, maize, tobacco and other crops.
The valley has remained relatively untouched by tourism, with its tiny villages few and far between, and though it draws much of its appeal from being so unspoilt, this also means that there’s no obvious way to explore it independently. Several minor roads allow you to cut through its centre, but the best way to get here on public transport is to catch the Hershey train from Matanzas and get off at Mena, the first stop on the line and just ten minutes from the city. From the station you can wander in any direction and you’ll soon chance upon an idyllic scene.
For a more structured approach, book the Jeep Safari Yumurí, an organized excursion from Varadero to Rancho Gaviota, the only tourist-oriented stop in the valley, where you can eat a hearty Cuban meal and go horseriding. For the most breathtaking views of the valley, however, make your way by road to the Puente Bacunayagua, 20km northwest along the Vía Blanca from the centre of Matanzas. At 112m high, this is the tallest bridge in Cuba, spanning the border between Havana and Matanzas province. Up the hill from here is the viewpoint, Mirador de Bacunayagua, where a snack bar looks out to the coastline and from where a trail leads down to the sea, a thirty-minute walk away by the side of a river.