Thanks to Kellie Loshak and Linda Cross for this excellent account of their trip to Matanzas City and the Bellamar Caves. Read on below, and click for some photos of the cave system.
Prior to our convention trip to Cuba, we did some research into attractions that would be appealing and interesting to children, and we knew that we were in the area where a trip to see the Bellamar caves would be possible. Consequently, we arranged through our Air Canada representative to book a Matanzas City/Bellamar caves excursion for Thursday January 19th.
The excursion bus picked us up in front of the Sol Palmeras Resort at 1300 hours, and our guide Alex kept up a running patter of information on the 45 minute drive into Matanzas City. We learned that the fields of agave plants were brought to Cuba in the sixties, and it was thought that they were the same plants from which tequila is made. Unfortunately, the wrong plants were acquired, and the agave in Cuba is not the tequila type, but the sisal type, from which rope is made.
The world famous beach resorts of Varadero are in the western province of Matanzas and as we drove past the University of Matanzas, we learned that each province in Cuba has at least one university in its area. University education is free in Cuba, and they pride themselves on their ambition to be the most literate people in the world.
The route we took to get to Matanzas City took us over the highest bridge in Cuba – the Bacunayagua Bridge, which is one hundred and ten meters high. It transverses the Yumuri Valley, considered to be one of the most attractive landscapes in Cuba. Cubans seem to take great fun in mother-in-law jokes, and this bridge is sometimes referred to as Lovers Leap, as unhappy couples who are forced to live with their in-laws are rumoured to find relief here. They also refer to the number of black purses that are found in the undergrowth, from so many mothers-in-law being pushed off the bridge!!
Matanzas City is the capital of the province of Matanzas. It is a city of approximately 120,000 people. The word “Matanzas” means “mass murder” or “killings” in Spanish, to reflect that in this area in the 16th century there was a massacre by the Spanish of the native Indians of the area. The city itself was founded in 1693 and is known as the Athens of Cuba, due to the number of poets and artists that originate from the area, and as the Venice of Cuba, as there are five bridges that cross the city. By the early 19th century, Matanzas had become the second most important city (after Havana) due to the growth of the sugar cane industry and its position as a port. Today, sugar, fruits and sisal are shipped from its large, deep harbour.
We arrived in the Plaza de La Vigia, which was the original urban core of the city. Surrounding the square is the firestation, the courthouse, museums, and nearby, the Teatro Sauto (opera house). The architecture of these buildings reflects their neo classical heritage, and the statue in the square is of Piet Heyn, a Dutch privateer who relieved the Spaniards of much of their silver treasure during the 1620’s.
We were admitted to a charming little museum housed in what used to be a wealthy businesspersons home. The vivid robins egg blue colour of the exterior of the museum accentuates its Spanish style architecture.
Inside the museum are many artifacts dating to the Spanish occupation of the area, including furniture, weaponry, ecclesiastical relics, and most interesting, the mummified remains of a woman. These remains were discovered in the late 1800’s at approximately the same time as the Bellamar caves were discovered. In fact, our guide Alex claimed that the discovery of the mummified remains led to the discovery of the caves, found when a worker dropped a tool down a hole.
The woman’s remains are set apart in the museum in a room on their own, in a glass case. She is surrounded by artifacts attesting to her lineage, which indicates she is a distant relative of Ponce de Leon.
Also in the square are the firestation and the police station. Alex told us that the police station closes at 5:30 pm each evening, and if you need the police, you would have to wait until the next morning when it opens. It is also closed on Sundays.
Discovered in the 19th century, the Bellamar caves are among the best known attractions in Cuba. They are nearly two kilometers long and feature many crystalline formations, including stalagmites and stalactites in salons that go deep into the geological base of the island, and often end in crystal clear waters.
Formed 300,000 years ago the Bellamar caves are made up of three caverns that were one whole cave in ancient times – Bellamar, El Jarrito and Soto Jibaro.
According to legend, the caves were discovered by accident in 1861, when a slave working in a Matanzas quarry lost his working tool in a hole in the ground, where later excavations unearthed a true natural treasure.
Speleologists consider the caves to be potential laboratories to study underground crystallography, particularly those derived from calcium carbonate, since their galleries feature a wide range of crystalline formations of spectacular beauty.
Experts guide groups of tourists along the caves galleries, where they can visit unique sites such as the “American Woman’s Bath” or the “fountain of youth”. On our trip, our guide pointed out these features. For the “Bath”, he told us that the legend was that the American woman had bathed in the pool of water, and disappeared. He said that he did not believe this story, as his mother-in-law had bathed in the pool and SHE didn’t disappear!! When we came upon the area known as the fountain of youth, we were all able to dip our hands in the water, and rub our faces. Next to the fountain of youth, our guide claimed another pool was known as the fountain of love, and that we were welcome to dip our hands in that pool as well. More people dipped in the fountain of youth than in the fountain of love!
We were also shown a shallow pool that our guide described as a wishing well. He gave us coins to toss into the well, along with a wish. If the coin landed squarely in the well, our wish would come true. Most of our wishes are destined to come true, as all the coins we tossed stayed in the pool of clear, cold water.
The ancient galleries were a safe haven for the region’s ancient animal life, a fact that has been confirmed by findings of some prehistoric fossils during excavations. During our tour, our guide pointed out fossilized remains in the rock formations over our heads.
The caves were a remarkable trek underground. The floor was the natural cave floor, though in some places it had been covered in paving stones to make the walk easier on tourists. At times we had to duck our heads to continue on the path, and because the humidity in the caves is 100%, it was quite warm.
But it was beautiful – the crystalline formations of copper, iron and calcium form remarkable shapes and images, and sparkle in the light from the overhead fixtures. It is profoundly quiet in the caves, with no air movement in the deepest sections.