Once radiant and beautiful, Matanzas has aged terribly since the Revolution; now its outward countenance seems to belie four centuries of illustrious history when, thanks to a gigantic literary and musical heritage, it was regularly touted as the ‘Athens of Cuba.' With its battle-scarred buildings and cars belching out asphyxiating diesel fumes, contemporary Matanzas is a long way from the vacation glitter of Varadero; though there’s dignity amid the dilapidation. If the city were a character it would be the fisherman, Santiago, in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: ‘thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles’ yet, irrepressibly ‘cheerful and undefeated.’
Two pivotal Cuban musical forms, danzón and rumba, were hatched here among Matanzas' erstwhile splendor, along with various religions of African origin, including Arará, Regla de Ocha (Santería) and the secret Abakuá fraternity. Matanzas is also the home of Cuba’s finest provincial theater (the Sauto), and was the birthplace of some its most eloquent poets and writers. Today, the city offers little in the way of standard sights, but plenty of under-the-radar pleasures. Join a spontaneous game of dominoes in Plaza Libertad, or listen to some bembe drummers in the Marina neighborhood, and you’ll quickly ascertain that Matanzas’ greatest strength is its people, a proud, poetic populace infused with the spirit of stoic survivors. Welcome to the real Cuba, asere.