Mantanzas is where Cuba's spirit of survival burns the greatest
By Brendan Sainsbury, Special To Canwest News Service
I'm on a borrowed bike, pedalling west from the Cuban mega-resort of Varadero on the island's busiest highway, hoping my luck will hold.
The early signs aren't good. Looking down at the two-wheeled boneshaker charitably lent to me by an off-duty hotel worker named Diego with its nonexistent suspension and old-fashioned "pedal-backwards" brakes, I wonder how far I'll get before I'm flattened by a passing tour bus. My aim is to reach the legendary city of Matanzas 32 kilometres away, but equipped with this improvised coat-hanger-on-wheels, my chances look decidedly slim.
Finally, intoxicated by history and rum, we sat on a vista-laden hill next to the ruins of the Sanctuary of Monserrate and discussed everything from Catholicism to Che Guevara. After such warm hospitality, I swore I'd come back.
Returning to the town through its peeling western suburbs I feel like Pip in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, arriving at Miss Havisham's house to discover a long-vanquished beauty struggling to show its face. A century ago, when Varadero was still little more than a mosquito-infested swamp, Matanzas reigned as the "Athens of Cuba," a proud city of lyrical poets and neo-classical architecture that rivalled Havana for culture and opulence.
Then came the revolution and the Cold War, followed by an era of severe economic austerity known euphemistically in Cuba as the "Special Period." Flummoxed by the crisis, Matanzas -- a rich sugar port -- suffered more than most and its infrastructure slipped into a seemingly terminal decline.
As a way out of the country's depression, the government opened up the economy to tourism, sponsoring massive hotel-building projects in neighbouring Varadero. By the late 1990s, the former swamp had morphed into a Cuban Cancun, while Matanzas remained a living ruin.
It still is. Crossing the Puente Calixto Garcia -- one of 17 city bridges -- and steering my surprisingly robust bike into diminutive Plaza Vigia is like cycling on to the set of a 1950s British kitchen-sink drama. Tatty house-fronts cower meekly behind lines of drying washing. You almost want to break out a tin of paint and start sprucing the place up.
Hungry after my ride, I leave my bike under the watchful eye of a congenial street-trader named Luis and slink into the Cafe Atenas, a lone eating house in a gastronomic desert. The spaghetti in tomato sauce -- when it arrives -- is a good 10 minutes past al dente, but no one's complaining. Customers inside include chatty university students, poets masquerading as taxi drivers, and hotel workers from Varadero on their day off. Everyone's surprisingly well-dressed and cheerful -- a striking dichotomy in a city where first impressions invariably lie.
In spite of its decrepit facade, Matanzas is where Cuba's spirit of survival burns the strongest. The collective ebullience isn't initially obvious, but spend a day or two trolling around the paint-starved buildings and scruffy ration shops, and you'll quickly discover that life carries on here resolutely, and -- above all -- passionately.
For Matanzas, passion means music. Collecting my bike from outside Cafe Atenas, Luis points to a hint of the city's legendary musical prowess: the crumbling Teatro Sauto.
"One hundred years ago, this was one of the greatest theatrical venues in Latin America," he says pointing across the street, "But now...." He doesn't need to elaborate. Fifty years without a facelift has left the Sauto in need of some serious architectural Botox but, like a priceless ruin, it glows with a kind of shabby magnificence. Great concerts still take place here, while more spontaneous "happenings" are held in the square outside.
Even in its salad days, Matanzas hid an edgier side. In the 1890s, as Cuban artists and intellectuals were crowding into the Sauto to strut the Danzon, freed slaves working on the nearby sugar plantations congregated in the city's docks, where they tapped out complex drumming patterns on old packing cases to pass the time. Adding words and dances, the rhythmic music quickly evolved and diversified, and, hey presto, rumba was born.
I spend the rest of the day cruising the ramshackle streets, taking in some of Matanzas' more under-the-radar sights.
As I pedal back along the coast, my bike becomes temperamental and starts making loud clunking noises as the lights of Varadero appear. But fortified, perhaps, with the survivalist spirit of the embattled city I have left behind, it rallies and heroically holds firm. Varadero may have its blond beaches and its adrenalin-fuelled tourist excursions, but bedizened with beauty that is only skin-deep, it'll never be Matanzas. They don't make them like that any more.
IF YOU GO
Bellmar Caves (5 km east of town centre; admission $5.50; 9 a.m. -6 p.m.) Castillo de San Severino (Av de Muelle; admission $2.25; 9 a.m. -5 p.m. daily) Catedral de San Carlos Borromeo (Calle 282 btwn Calles 280 & 282; donations welcome; 8 a.m. -noon, 3 p.m. -5 p.m. Mon -Fri; 9 a.m. -noon, Sun) Cafe Libertad (cnr Calle 290 & Calle 83) Cafe Atenas (Plaza de la Vigia; 10 a.m. -11 p.m.)
Teatro Sauto (Plaza de la Vigia; evening performances 8:30 p.m., Sun matinee 3 p.m.)
Museo Farmaceutico (Calle 83 No 4951; admission $3.25; 10 a.m. -5 p.m. daily) Most hotels in Varadero organize day trips to the Bellmar Caves, Playa Coral and Valle de Yumuri from around adult/ child $50/37
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