Skip Varadero! Hit up real Cuba in Matanzas!

3 Days in Matanzas will give you a flavour for real life in Cuba!

I travelled from Jibacoa to Matanzas with some nifty hitchhiking and a ton of luck!  After wandering around looking for a bed, I settled into a gorgeous old house and set out to explore this beautiful old Cuban town just 45 minutes from Varadero!

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Where to Stay in Matanzas Cuba

I was staying in a cool old hacienda style house, Casa Rio with antique furniture and a wonderfully strong water pressure. Actually, the true prize of this room was the hair dryer.

Conair 1600, you were loved. I hadn’t worn my hair down the entire time, since my hair does weird things when its not treated properly, so Conair was a special kind of luxury.

Also, the owner of my casa was a super hip old man who wore sunglasses all the time. All the time. 

Matanzas Cuba, an outta be UNESCO Heritage Site

When I did emerge from my cave the next day, feeling a bit better, I found out that Matanzas is a lovely little city, with surprisingly few tourists for the also surprisingly adorable and picturesque buildings and streets. Matanzas is not one of the many Cuba UNESCO heritage sites, but if it was anywhere else on the planet except for Cuba it completely would have one. The streets are all on a logical grid, and most of the happenings revolve around a couple of squares.

Matanzas also has rivers and waterways going through it, so is apparently named the ‘City of Bridges’. I went over a few of said bridges I guess, though had I not read about the name in my guidebook I probably wouldn’t have had a stunning epiphany thinking, “You know, I have been over MANY bridges today!   Wow!”

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La Museo Farmaceutico in Matanzas Cuba

My second day in Matanzas, I mainly just wandered those streets and meandered those squares. I walked down to the bus station and was confused, saw a really great Che mural, and looked into a fancy hotel and pretended to belong.

Then I checked out La Museo Farmaceutico, which is a French pharmacy that is now a museum in the main square of Matanzas that is exactly the way it was in 1962 when the pharmacist retired. There are shelves and drawers of glass bottles and canisters filled with herbs, compounds, and suspicious powders, you know the kind, like they might make you feel better but they also might kill you. I do feel like medicine has evolved since those days, but maybe back then the cough syrups tasted better.

The museum is in a gorgeous building that is being refurbished, and I met one of the brothers of the family who owns the building. He gave me a tour of the upstairs area in construction. I was very impressed.

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Day Trip around Matanzas

That afternoon, I sat in the main square and enjoyed the ambience while writing some blogs. There was a man sitting on the bench across from me drinking rum and singing to himself. There were teenaged boys having a summit to elect their new favourite ring tone. There were young couples that I stared at until they became uncomfortable. It was a very enjoyable afternoon. After a couple of hours, I figured it was time to go back to the casa and have a shower. That water pressure was calling my name.

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A Day Trip near Varadero: Boat Ride down the River Canimar

My last full day in Cuba was a question mark. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I woke up feeling great and wanted to try to go out to a river outside of town, Rio Canimar, for a boat ride, but I wasn’t totally sure how to get there, nor was I very sure how to arrange a boat ride. So I was going to do what all great travellers do; I was going to wing it. As luck would have it, a woman arrived in the casa at the end of my breakfast, just coming from another city, and we sat and chatted for a while before deciding we would wing it together. Jasmin also spoke fluent Spanish. Awesome. Lets wing!

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We first went to the square to find a city bus that would theoretically take us to Rio Canimar. After a few close calls (would help if the buses had numbers, or destination signs or something…), we found the right bus and sat right behind the driver. About 25 minutes later, we as the last remaining passengers on the bus crossed over a good-sized bridge and figured that may just be our river. The bus driver cordially confirmed. He said to get off, cross the street, and then climb down the steep embankment underneath the huge bridge and we would find the boats. Ok! Nothing shady ever happens underneath bridges right?

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Jasmin and I gingerly descended the terrace slope, until we did see the boats as promised, though we also found a finely paved road on the bank of the river. I had a feeling this road came from the road we just came off of, but I guess that bus driver must have thought we needed a short cut. Approaching the boats, we came to a security booth, where a really hot guy turned out to be very helpful and gave us all of the river info we needed to know. The info was basically that no, no, you do not take a boat ride; you take a boat and ride it. Oh. So, wait…you’re just going to give us a boat and send us upstream with it? Alone? Alright!! After a quick boat piloting tutorial and the purchase of a couple of beers, off we went!

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Piloting a Boat in Cuba? OK!

With my ever-steady boating hands on the wheel, Jasmin and I left the dock just behind a group of 6 boats all from a bus tour, or a resort, or whatever. We were clearly having more fun, especially when about 10 minutes up river the group turned around and returned to the dock and we just kept skipping along, free of both wake and structure!

We waved at the fishermen we passed, who were casting long lines while they bobbed in inner tubes. I wondered if they were wearing gaiters attached to the tubes, but we didn’t want to get too close for fear of scaring away their dinner.

Mangrove patches, dramatic cliffs, and curvy jungle on both sides border the water as we wound along the Rio Canimar for 7 km. I know because I measured it with my watch. So techy.

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Eventually we reached a park area where we were waved at by two more cute guys so I pulled the boat into a dock. They said we couldn’t go any further due to shrinking river depth, but that we could come ashore and take part in any number of activities, like horseback riding and wine drinking and archery!

We didn’t actually take part in any of those activities, especially not at the same time, but we did enjoy drinking our beers and petting the dogs. I bought some  knives that are made of crocodile bone, like, seriously cool.

Honestly, I was tempted by the fish statue that was made out of a horses mandible, but I thought Canadian customs may not have been as thrilled by it.

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Jasmin took over the controls for the ride back to the ocean, so I was 100% on bird watching duty; basically just pointing at any bird I spotted and then feeling good about actually spotting it. We oohed and ahhhed: “Ohhh, a white one!”, “Ahhhh, a blue one!!!”, “Wow, a big one!” and felt generally great about our Cuban Queen riverboat journey.

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We pulled into the dock just as the rain was starting, thanked all of the cute men around and scrambled back up to the bridge to catch a bus back to Matanzas.

Rio Canimar was gorgeous, and driving a boat was a hoot! And the adventure turned out to be much easier than I had thought it would be earlier that morning.

Meaning, three weeks in Cuba and after underestimating most of the complexity the entire time, something was finally actually easier than assumed. Cuba Travel: Level Pro!

Rio Canimar

Getting from Matanzas to Vardero Airport

My bus ride to the airport the next morning didn’t feel altogether confirmed (2 days previously, the ticket agent merely had me write my name on a blank piece of paper as my reservation), so I wanted to get there early, at 7:30am like the aforementioned agent told me to be.

Following directions ended up being for nothing, as the desk didn’t open until the minute the bus arrived at 8 am, but I was first in line, and first on that bus! Except for all of the other people already on the bus, whatever, I’m still Cuba Level Pro!

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Matanzas Cuba Travel Blog Treats!

I had a really great burger and fries when I arrived in Matanzas. Like. Really great. I was surprised when a man came into the cafe asking people for money, surprised because the waitresses didn’t look like they would stand for that. Well they didn’t in fact. One lady was so scary! She made my think of every bar maid that has been in any movie set in Tijuana. Or the Appalachians.

I picked up a big bottle of white rum at the airport, exchanged my Cuban currency for Canadian and then was bummed to realize that I couldn’t buy a last minute lemon pop at the gate.

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I always love it when I spot shirts around the world that obviously came from the west and are worn by a person who does not know what the words say or mean. I saw one in Matanzas that read “Let my tongue check that”. Euw.

Upon arrival in Toronto, I was ready to make hell about my backpack cover being lost while my pack was checked, but then I realized that I had been bumped up for my Vancouver flight, so I figured it all came out in the wash. Westjet Plus is delightful, especially when you didn’t pay for it! I know it was a mistake somewhere, but I failed to mention it to anybody and nobody kicked me out of my big seat nor did they take away my free wine, so we were all good!

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I finished my 14th book of the trip 10 minutes before landing in Vancouver and was met by my mom and some torrential rain at the YVR domestic arrivals pick up area. A true story-book ending.

Stay tuned for my next blog, which will be all about the ins and outs of traveling in Cuba, plus Cuba tips and tricks from this Cuba Travel: Level Pro! 

Matanzas Cuba is gorgeous and authentic, a town unspoiled by tourism, clinging to the Cuban North Coast's charm and easy going lifestyle.

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