Outside of Matanzas, along Cuba’s northern shore, rolling hills hug the Atlantic and the sweet, syrupy scent of distilling rum perfumes the air.
Inside the city — beyond the forgotten, industrial waterfront — colonial-style architecture and 1960s-era Fords border Parque Liberdad, the center square. Overgrown trellises sport purple flowers. At dusk, birds converge in the branches and form a symphony. Old men in panama hats and dusty tank tops sit on stoops in the surrounding streets, drinking coffee, smoking cigars and talking.
In a moment, it’s easy to see the beauty and struggle in Matanzas.
Like so much of Cuba, here every lovely thing has a flip side, it seems, just as challenges are countered with an unmistakable allure.
In this city, just 50 miles from Havana, the stunning landscape is framed by an impoverished community. An early 1900s French pharmacy, perfectly preserved, is just one of many museums. Bookstores and theaters stand as reminders of its cultural significance, as the birthplace of many of the country’s most famous poets, artists and musicians. Yet, finding the ingredients for dinner can be difficult. Garbage sometimes litters the views.
On one sunny December morning, three other tourists and I cruised along the Canimar, one of three rivers that flow into the humble bay, in a bare-bones motorboat we had rented from a friend of my Airbnb host. We zipped around tight bends and down long beside high riverbanks thick with jungle. Afterward, the promise of chicken-sized lobsters on the dock loomed.
As the morning stretched to afternoon, a baseball game at Victoria de Giron Stadium — where the Matanzas Cocodrilos were trying to maintain their edge near the top of the Cuban National Series standings — served as the backdrop for local get-togethers. Heckling was rampant, and surprisingly two-sided; the fans dished out criticism and the players sent it right back. One fellow in the stands picked up a trash can and threatened to dump it on a player of the opposing team; the interaction ended with the two reaching over the fence for a handshake and a laugh.
From certain angles, Matanzas is a paradise. Monserrate, the city’s highest peak, offers an up-close glimpse of Ermita de Monserrate, a sparkling Spanish church, and views of cattle in green pastures tumbling toward the ocean.
But my daring ride down — via the sidecar of a motorbike taxi — showed another perspective. Outside the colorful town center, row houses faded to gray. Clothes lines hung from peeling exteriors. Nearly naked children, accompanied by stray dogs, ran in pothole-dented streets left out of travel guides.
South of the town square, artists produce intricate sculptures and pottery in shanties along the Rio San Juan. Just past their dusty studios, though, the river overflows with trash.
Daily battles are felt by everyone. In the home of my Airbnb hosts — Sara and her daughter Edelys — the towels were soft, the water was hot and the hosts themselves were dressed impeccably. An engineer and a dermatologist, they are rich by Cuban standards. But they, like everyone, must piece things together.
When I tagged along on a daily shopping trip with Sara, it took several hours to gather what she needed, with stops at seven or eight different stores. Most shops sell only one brand of an item, and have empty shelves. That day, though we found no eggs, we bought razor blades and Brillo pads, rare finds, out of a suitcase on an apartment stoop.
The chore is further complicated by extremely low wages, no matter the level of education or the prestige of the career.
One night Edelys’ husband told me that he’d heard his wife’s work as dermatologist was a good job in the U.S.
“How much would it pay there?” he asked. “Here, she makes about [$60] a month.”
Another day, Edelys laughed while bouncing her baby, Carlos, on a curb outside the apartment.
“My city is old,” she said, somewhat sheepishly. “And dirty.”
The challenges are real, but there is also beauty at every turn.