Famed for its vintage French pharmacy, handmade books, marble theatre, and for being the original powerhouse of rumba, it's a wonder Matanzas doesn't get more visitors.
Most travellers are on their way straight to the golden sands at Varadero, 3 hours east of Havana, and don't give the city of Matanzas a second thought. It's worth thinking again, especially as the city hosts an artists' revival, and a collaborative creative project shaking down the music scene.
Whereas parts of Havana have seen major restoration and a serious lick of paint, much of Matanzas remains neglected. Her magnificent colonial buildings, heavy with motifs and sparkling half-moon stained glass windows, slump from years of dilapidation and ruin, but look beneath the surface, and Matanzas is a rising star.
Handmade books, African masks and an antique pharmacy
Some of Matanzas' must-visit places include the Sauto Theatre, the Triolet French pharmacy, the art museum's extraordinary collection of African masks, and gorgeous artist-designed handmade books. The 1863 Italian-architect designed Sauto Theatre, all Carrara marble statues, American theatre seats, and frescoed ceiling, has been under a grand renovation since 2009; it's expected to open in 2018.
Diagonally opposite is Ediciones Vigia, on Plaza La Vigia, where the ethereal creations of the artists making hand-crafted books at this publishing house are sold. Here, creatives recycle pages, textiles, wood, and metal to fashion beautiful books set to stories, poetry and children's tales. It's all set down on paper made from bagasse - the pulp left after extracting juice from sugar cane. They're so beautiful and unique that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has been collecting editions since 2005.
Upstairs, the psychology graduate-turned-designer and artist Elizabeth Valero exhibits beautiful pieces of art, along with her fellow artist Marialva Rios in rotating exhibitions of young artists. (Closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays.) The nearby Galeria Bazar La Vigia art gallery, with its changing exhibitions of Matanzas artists, hosts weekly musical events, too. (Closed weekends.)
The 19th-century French pharmacy on Parque de La Libertad is the city's stand-out museum. It was a working pharmacy for just over 100 years from 1862 to 1964. Its perfectly preserved apothecary jars, medicines, bottles, recipes and ampoules, are unique in Cuba. The museum director has applied this year to UNESCO to seek world heritage listing.
One of Matanzas' hidden jewels is the extraordinary collection of African masks at the Art Museum. It's little known and visited by foreign travellers. There are some 340 fascinating pieces from 80 ethnic groups from across 14 African countries donated by a Matanzas artist living in France.
What's new in Matanzas? Jazz, folk music, dance and sculpture
A new colourful quarter is growing in the Pablo Nuevo district south of the River San Juan. The Callejon de las Tradiciones, on San Ignacio Street, between San Francisco and San Juan Bautista streets is a cultural walkway decorated in sculptures, and in Yoruba imagery. At the top of the street is the Villanueva Building, restored last year using Swiss NGO funds, which houses a cultural centre, library and cafe.
Those using one of the studios in the newly animated Callejon is "El Almacen", a collective of 15 arts' schools graduates, who record and photograph mostly independent Afro-Cuban folkloric musicians who have had no commercial exposure. They've just released their first album Transmision en la Erita Meta featuring 12 musicians through MusicWorksNYC and their own title - Sendero Music. It includes the recording of "Ilu Keki" one of the oldest family sets of consecrated religious drums (bàta) in Matanzas. In Santeria (which fuses the Roman Catholic saints with those of the orisha saints of the Yoruba religion), the drum is at the heart of this syncretic religion.
This summer Matanzas held its first jazz festival featuring Bobby Carcasses, the Swing Cubano jazz band, Ruy Lopez-Nussa and La Academia, Alejandro Falcon and Cubadentro, and the well-known group Afrocuba. The concerts were held in the restored Sala de Conciertos Jose White on Plaza de la Libertad, which reopened last year. (Call by to check its scheduling for the free concerts.)
Also, look out for the Festival Internacional de la Rumba Timbalaye which is celebrated every August across the island, including in Matanzas. Every July the city hosts the Temporada Espacio Abierto para la Danza y el Espectaculo (a coming together of global dancers for workshops and public performances organised by Canada's Cuban-run Danza Corpus, and local cultural institutions.
At Galeria Taller Lolo, down on the restored waterfront facing the River San Juan, the sculptor Osmany Betancourt has opened a workshop and exhibition space for his fantastical out-sized sculptures. His work, much of it in bronze, ranges from work that is ethereally beautiful to frightening with sculptures of figures with crumpled, adorned faces on tilting poles.
One of his works, "La Comparsita", featuring a towering image of Jose Marti clasping a machete in his mouth was exhibited at the 11th Havana Art Biennale. Galeria Taller Lolo is a collective, home to 9 other sculptors and ceramic artists (closed Sundays), and can be found by following the trail of sculptures on the north bank of the River San Juan.
Eating, Drinking and Sleeping in Matanzas
Everyone is drawn to the Taberna La Vigia, a huge beer hall studded with bronze Corinthian columns and mediopuntos (half-moon stained glass windows), just off Plaza La Vigia. It's a cheap place for a beer. The newest kid on the private restaurant block is Le Fettuccine (half a block from the pharmacy museum on Calle Milanes). Blink and you'll miss it; it's tiny with a dining room of just 3 tables, and is a temple to home-made pasta and handsome portions - fettuccine al pesto, vegetable cannelloni, and lasagne deliciously covered in ample grated cheese - and at extremely affordable prices. Get there early for the 1pm opening or you'll face a queue (Closed Thursdays). Take out is possible.
Along the Bay of Havana, on the highway out to Varadero, there's a growing cluster of bars and private restaurants on the sea front. I ordered a pina colada at Bella Vista, right next to the little beach "Playita Allende" while admiring the Bay of Matanzas from its seafront tables, before savouring an excellent grilled fish meal with top-notch service at private restaurant Bukan (closed Tuesdays).
For nighttime drinks head to the Hotel Velasco for a Cristal beer, or to newish Bistro Kuba bar for its cocktail menu. The ACAA cafe and bar, dripping with tumbling creepers, is a favourite hang out for Matanzas' creatives.
Modern homestay, Hostal 109, run by the very welcoming Clara and Onelio, was very comfortable. They arranged a great breakfast and drove me into town to see the sights. They have a couple of rooms, free parking, and are close to the bay in the "Penas Altas" district of Matanzas. They also have great cultural contacts. Look out for the future openings of the city's old hostelry relics - the19th-century hotels Louvre, the Diana, and the Yara - all planned for restoration and reopening. A former antique hostelry, and widely known in its era, the Leon de Oro, will reopen in 2020.
With new hotels in the pipeline, welcoming new B&Bs, and an increasing focus on Matanzas' cultural wealth, now is the time to visit this underrated historic city on the Atlantic north coast - either as a stopover to and from Varadero - or as a city break in its own right.