Matanzas – The Athens of Cuba!

Matanzas is a city of many names. The two large rivers that divide the city require numerous bridges, causing it to also be known as the City of Bridges and the City of Rivers. And it’s also called Cuba’s Sleeping Beauty due to its laid back  pace and surrounding gentle Nature.  Yet another name is the Venice of Cuba,  but its most prestigious name is the Athens of Cuba. This name refers to the amazing amount of cultural tradition, architecture and music that formed the history of Matanzas.

The Viazul bus from Varadero made a stop at the Juan Gualberto International Airport – impressive! – before arriving 15 minutes later in Matanzas. While negotiating with a taxi driver who was demanding 5 CUC for the very short trip to my Casa, a man standing next to his parked motorcycle walked over and got involved in the exchange. He spoke pretty good English whereas the taxi driver didn’t. I explained that I had been told by the Casa owner that I should pay no more than 2 CUC for a taxi ride to his house. The motorcycle fellow got quite a good laugh out of that – this American knew the REAL taxi cost in advance! But the taxi driver wasn’t happy about it at all and sulked back over to his vehicle.

While standing waiting for the taxi driver to change his mind, a man named Sean and I started talking. Sean and I had arrived on the same bus and he, too, needed a ride, but he didn’t already have a Casa reserved. He had a Hostal in mind that we discovered when looking at our maps was located nearby my Casa. Just as we started talking about taking a taxi together the motorcycle man rode his bike up next to us with another motorcycle man by his side. They offered to give us a ride to my Casa for 2 CUC each!

Sean and I looked at each other – paused – and then said ‘Yes!’ I was a little nervous, as was Sean, but we each climbed onto the seat behind the driver, stashed our luggage in between our two bodies, and off we went! It was a bit of a bumpy, careening, nerve-wracking ride, but fortunately it lasted no more than 3 minutes before we were at my Casa! Sean got off there, too, and it turned out they had a room available for him at the same Casa, so he stayed. That wild motorcycle ride was an exhilarating beginning to Matanzas!

Because I was going to stay 4 nights, my room turned out to be at the daughter’s home which was 6 blocks away, a walk that took me past the Parque Libertad where Fidel Castro’s honorary services were already underway. After getting situated in my room I walked back to the park. Cuban flags were flying at half-mast along the streets, green military jeeps were everywhere, half the park was closed off to pedestrians and under security surveillance, tons of people were standing in a long line along the closed-off street waiting for their turn to honor Fidel, and a 12′ wide and 7′ tall canvas screen hanging above the sidewalk in front of the ceremonial building was showing pictures and videos of Castro’s life. Ceremonial activities were taking place on a stage and in a large building, but I couldn’t really see them from my outside-the-yellow-tape vantage point . However, the television was streaming it live-time constantly.

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All businesses and restaurants in that area were closed and I was getting hungry. Explored a pedestrian-only street about 3 blocks away and found an incredible little place called Cafe Mambo Jambo. What a SCORE! Had a delicious salad, flan for dessert, and a BEER! They very secretively served me the beer in a coffee cup, and hid the can by wrapping a napkin around it. They told me to keep the can down on the seat next to me so it wasn’t observable. With all the military and security in town one never knew if they might come checking the restaurants to enforce the no-alcohol mandate during Fidel’s ceremonies.

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After my meal I walked a few more blocks toward a large bridge – there are many in this city – and passed a restaurant where Sean was sitting!

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We visited a few minutes until his meal was served, whereupon I left to explore more of the town’s amazing architecture.

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Later I returned to the crowded Parque Libertad where the large DVD screen was showing a live aerial view of the thousands of people standing in line to pay tribute to Fidel! There is such a sadness everywhere – a solemness, yet also a warm, uplifting connection to him. School children in their uniforms were participating in the ceremonies in droves, and all over the concrete surfaces of the park people had written loving words to Fidel, such as “Fidel lives on in us”, and “We are Fidel”.

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If it weren’t for Fidel and Che Guevara, it’s quite possible that Cuba would now be another state like Hawaii, or a territory of the United States, like Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Somoa, to name only a few of the 16 territories the U.S. holds! Fidel and Che are considered to be the Father’s of Freedom by the majority of the Cuban population and they are both dearly loved and highly honored. The music playing throughout the ceremonies was solemn yet spiritually uplifting.

Later that afternoon one of the many fruit and vegetable vendors came by my Casa. Cuba has no real supermarkets where one goes to buy all their groceries. Refrigeration for produce is practically unheard of, though it is available at markets for water, soft drinks and beers. Other than that, you have to buy most of your produce from vendors on the streets.

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Sean didn’t have any solid plans for sightseeing in Matanzas, so the next morning after sharing breakfast at the main Casa  together…

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…he joined me in walking up to the highest hill spot where the Iglesia de Monserrate sits overlooking the entire city,  its harbor and the gorgeous green Yumuri Valley. Stunning views! We each had a Limonada at the bar while relaxing, chatting and absorbing the peace of the quiet, clean vistas.

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Later we walked back down the hill and went to Cafe Mambo Jambo’s where we both enjoyed great food and several beers 🙂 (Hee hee! Shhh! Don’t tell anyone! wink!) Actually, we weren’t the only ones doing this ‘no-no’. There was a group of Canadians at the table next to us and a single man at a table behind us who were also secretly imbibing via their coffee cups.

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The next morning I went to the bus terminal with Sean – he’s leaving to Havana for a couple days before he flies onward to Colombia where he will teach English as a second language for a year. I had a question to ask the ticket agent. Originally planning to return to Varadero for two more days (because the Casa woman in Varadero had told me it was almost impossible to catch a bus from Matanzas to Havana – she was wrong!), I had already purchased my bus ticket from Varadero to Havana . What I hadn’t anticipated was a change in my desires. Matanzas was REAL Cuba, returning to Varadero was not attractive, and I now knew that I could indeed catch the bus from Matanzas to Havana. So… could I get a refund? The answer was ‘Not that day, but tomorrow morning’. Manana!

On my way back to Parque Libertad I passed a park…

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…crossed the river…

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…had lunch at Cafe Mambo Jambo’s…

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…and saw some amazing wooden sculptures at the entrance way of a building.

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Tried another restaurant that evening – Restaurante Romantico San Severino. Perched above  the Parque Libertad, if provides great overlooking views. And THEY were serving beer, also, only these folks were not hiding it!

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Quietness had returned to Matanzas, the ceremonies were finished, and the military convoy hauling Fidel’s casket had moved on to the next city to continue the 9-day city-to-city respectful honorarium.

Early the next morning I walked a mile and a quarter to the Viazul bus terminal where I was told they were unable to give me a refund because they’re not ‘electronico’, only ‘mechanical’. But they DID say I would be able to get a refund in Havana. Will try again when I get there.

Returned to the parent Casa (not the daughter’s where my room is) to enjoy a nice breakfast in the hot sun on the balcony . It’s been extremely warm and humid in Matanzas –  hard to believe it’s December 2nd! When I’ve asked people if these are normal temperatures for this time of year, they’ve all replied, NO, it’s much hotter than normal.

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Walked along the Rio San Juan to another section of town with a lovely park that I had not yet explored, and then back up to the Iglesia de Monserrate. So peaceful, quiet and such magnificent views!

Walking back through town I passed a couple youths who were looking at me and whispering about the white-haired lady that was passing by (oh yes, I knew what they were saying – this isn’t the first time it’s happened!). So I walked over to them, we started chatting and laughing together, and they were delighted to pose for me.

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Headed back to my Casa on a new route, the sights of poverty and crumbling buildings were everywhere. What a contrast to the extravagant Velasco Hotel across from Parque Libertad that sold me a 5-hour wi-fi card!

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The next morning I would be taking the Viazul bus to Havana. Tired from the month’s trip, I was looking forward to being back in vibrant Old Havana for a few refreshing days before catching my return flight to Mexico City. What I never could have imagined was that on my last full day in Havana I would experience one of the most wonderful, beyond-belief synchronicity events I’ve ever had in my life!

 

 

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