What to do in Matanzas, Cuba’s Cultural hidden gem? Matanzas capital of the province of the same name, may not have hit the big time when it comes to many popular tourist hot spots. Yet that can only be a good thing. Known as the ‘Athens of Cuba’ for its many Neoclassical buildings, Matanzas also boasts beaches, caves and many historical sites. The city is just 90 kms east of Havana and 30kms from the beach resorts of Varadero. Intrigued? Read on and discover more about this wonderful Cuban hidden gem!
Go underground at Cuevas de Bellamar
Las Cuevas de Bellamar or the Bellamar Caves are simply stunning. Over 300,000 years old they cover a distance of about 2.5kms of which 1km is open to the public. The highlights include a 12m stalagmite named ‘Manto de Colón’ (Columbus’ mantle) and an underground stream. The walls glittering with stalactites and stalagmites are an amazing sight to see! There caves are well lit and easily accessible with established paths making it suitable for all the family. There is admission fee plus an extra fee for a camera.
Go back in time at the Castillo de San Severino
From one of the largest caves in Cuba to one of the biggest Spanish-era fortresses anywhere in Latin America! You’ll be glad you’ve kept reading our What to do in Matanzas article on discovering this masterpiece of history, culture, and architecture! Sitting on the western side of Matanzas Bay, the Castillo de San Severino was finished in 1734. Its original purpose was to protect ship-borne trade in the area. But it also acted as first line of defence for Havana a little further along the coast.
Now a National Monument, its stout walls have held both slaves and Cuban rebels. And it was still being used as a prison until the 1970s!
Explore the museums of Matanzas
Any list of what to do in Matanzas must include the city’s museums. There are so many excellent museums it’s difficult to mention them all here! Located on Plaza de la Vigia, the Junco Palace Museum (aka the Provincial Museum) is the region’s de facto history museum.
Once the property of Don Vicente del Junco and Sardiñas, a wealthy sugar baron of Matanzas, the Junco Palace Museum is made up of seventeen rooms of exhibits that carefully chronicle the entire history of Matanzas. There is also one room that displays the personal art collection of Don Vicente in the museum.
The Pharmacology Museum, (Museo Farmaceutico), is home to a large collection of early pharmaceutical bottles and other items that are just waiting to be Instagrammed!
If you’re a big fan of art, be sure not to miss the Museo de Arte de Matanzas either. It has an extensive collection of paintings and ethnographic sculptures from over 14 different African nations and 80 ethnic groups. The collection will definitely expand your idea of what defines Cuban culture.
Take to the streets
Spend any time in Matanzas and you’ll soon realise that the streets are the place to be! The streets are full of life, with residents going about their everyday lives and crowded with historic statues. Wandering the city’s picturesque streets are a great way to get an authentic feel for Cuba’s hidden gem.
If you’ve visited the Junco Palace Museum already you will have likely passed through Plaza de la Vigia. This plaza is also the site of the famous Teatro Sauto and the beautiful old fire station museum with its elegant 19th century facade.
From there you can continue on to Plaza de la Libertad. Built in the 1800’s, the plaza contains the Sala White, a concert hall named after violinist Jose White. Born to a French business owner and a emancipated Afro-Cuban slave, White was a renowned concert violinist. His career took him to Europe and Brazil where was first violin at the court of Emperor Pedro.
Also located on the plaza is the Pharmaceutical Museum and Government House. In every way, these two squares are the very heart of Matanzas and it’s a great place to take in the local vibe.
Take the Pilgrimage to the Iglesia de Monserrate
You don’t have to be of a religious bent to enjoy a visit to the Iglesia de Monserrate on the outskirts of the city. It’s a roughly two and a half kms or a 25 minute walk from Matanzas’ Plaza de la Libertad. The church was built and paid for by colonists from Spain’s Catalonian region. It’s a stunning piece of nineteenth century colonial architecture. The church is situated on a lofty hilltop position and provides a spectacular view towards the city and in the opposite direction to the lush Valle de Yumuri.
Explore the Valle de Yumuri
A hidden gem, the Valle de Yumuri is a really beautiful valley close to Matanzas. It can easily be seen from the vantage point of the Iglesia de Monserrate. Stretching westward from Matanzas, the valley is a patchwork of banana groves, maize fields, dense forest and tiny isolated villages. It’s crisscrossed by a series of winding, narrow, roads. But perhaps the best way to experience this Eden-like landscape is onboard the Hershey Train.
Ride the Hershey Train
The Hershey Railway is special for a number of reasons and is not to be missed! For one thing, it’s the only surviving electrified rail line anywhere in Cuba. For another, it’s route from Matanzas to Havana 92 kms away along the island’s northern coast speaks volumes about the area’s history. As you may have already guessed from the the name, the entire project was the brainchild of US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys. In 1916 Hersheys were looking for away of transporting sugar to “Central Hershey” (the sugar mill) near Santa Cruz. The rail line was later extended on to Casablanca, a small hamlet across the river from the city of Havana.
The journey is very scenic (and slow!) and takes you through the Valle de Yumuri on its way to the capital. Be prepared for the train to leave late from Matanzas and arrive late in Havana and even break down! But hey that’s half the fun of it. Relax you’re on Cuban time!