Tag Archives: Cuban Revolution

Cars and transport of Cuba: a photo essay

Before we arrived in Cuba we wondered how common the classic 1940s and ’50s American cars would be, given that the newest would be 57 years old by now and their maintenance would have been severely hampered by post-Revolution trade embargoes. The fuel shortages during the Special Period of the 1990s meant many vehicles sat unused as people took to bicycles and public transport.

However, we soon learned that the resourceful Cubans have worked miracles to keep so many of them running, their tough life evident in a patchwork of dints, bumps, scrapes, makeshift repairs and resprays which only added to the charm, and complemented the dilapidation of their surroundings.

Classic American 1950s green Ford, Camagüey, Cuba

The thing we noticed most was the size of the classic American cars – they’re huge!

Close up of the rear light cluster, green Ford, Camagüey

The modest tail fin puts this Ford in the mid to late 1950s, when pointed tailfins and chrome were the futuristic fashion – America was in the Space Race with the USSR at the time

White 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe

At first glance, this de-badged 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe looked abandoned

Bright red and white interior of the white 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe

But its bright red interior and new seats mean someone’s looking after it and it’s slowly being restored

Green 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan sitting on stilts and covered in dust

Unlike this 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan, which is how I imagined I would see a lot of the cars in Cuba; up on stilts, patiently waiting for its owner’s fortunes to change

1921 Ford Model T, Trinidad

The oldest car we saw was this 1921 Ford Model T Touring which sadly doesn’t work anymore and sits in the back of a pottery factory in Trinidad

Big black Lincoln Premiere, Varadero

The largest ‘sedan’ we saw was this monstrous late 1950s Lincoln Premiere – even the 2-door version sits 6 people!

Colourful bicycle taxis lined up in Bici-taxis in Camagüey

Many people took to cycling as their mode of transport in during the economic crisis known as the Special Period and “bici-taxis” or bicycle taxis are still a popular form of employment and transport today. They typically have a simple roof providing shelter from the sun and the rain, but we loved the unique design and colourful artwork on these bici-taxis in Camagüey

CoCo Taxi, Havana

Slightly larger than a bici-taxi and unique to Cuba are CoCo-taxis, small motorised vehicles that get their name because they resemble the shape of a coconut

Viazul bus, Cuba

We’ve written about a few of our public transport experiences, such as taking a bench-seat passenger truck from Baracoa to Moa, a Pontiac colectivo from Moa to Holguin, and a ‘camion’ or converted truck which was pretty much standing room only! For the longer distances we usually used the Viazul coaches for the comfort of the seats and the air conditioning (which was a bit too cold sometimes, even for me!). There’s a rival service called Cubanacan which runs between Havana, Viñales and Trinidad and we’d recommend them as their pick-up and drop-off locations are more central than the Viazul stations

We made use of private taxis for bus station transfers and the odd half-day excursion. Typically they’d be Ladas which were pretty common on the roads of every Cuban city we visited. I’d say about half of them had been modified, sporting huge drain-pipe or even sewer-pipe sized exhausts!

3 1970's Lada cars parked in a street in Camagüey

Lovely examples of the more original, unmodified Ladas we saw. From front to back, I think they’re an AvtoVAZ VAZ-2103 (exported from Serbia as the Lada 1500); It’s precursor and first AvtoVAZ car the VAZ-2101 (Lada 1200/1300); and the yellow one at the back is likely an earlier revision still, as it more closely resembles the car the other 2 are based on, the Fiat 124. 3 generations in a street!

Russian Kamaz truck, Camagüey

Familiar to us from our travels in Russia is the Russian brand Kamaz. We saw plenty of their trucks on the main roads

There are mechanical garage services like we have here in the UK, but we also saw a bit of roadside maintenance being carried out in the street too..

Inside the boot of a classic 1950's American car in Old Havana, propped open and full of tools

An advantage of a huge car is the boot can hold all the tools for an owner’s workshop, like this one in a back street in Havana’s Old Town


We also saw a couple of chassis that had been stripped and resprayed, though I’m not sure this particular shade was one of the manufacture’s original swatches..

The result of the restorations are amazing – even though we were in Cuba for 6 weeks, we never tired of looking at them and we never saw two cars exactly alike either..

Metallic Blue 1950's Chevrolet Bel Air

A 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air 2-door Hardtop in a lovely metallic baby-blue

Metallic red 1950's Chevrolet

And a slightly newer Bel Air Sport Sedan from 1957. Chevrolet was the most common marque of classic car we saw in Cuba, which isn’t surprising given how popular they were in 50s and 60s America

Unsurprisingly, the cars in the best condition were to be found nearest the tourist money in Havana and Varadero. We found that the main road along the Varadero peninsula was ideal for classic car spotting..

Bright Pink Pontiac, Varadero

A two-tone pink and white Pontiac

Blue 1950's Mercedes-Benz W120

There were very few non-American classics from the 1950s, but we did spot this Mercedes-Benz W120

Oldsmobile 98 Second Generation, Holguin

We spotted this near pristine Oldsmobile 98 sitting in a back street in Holguin. It looked even better when the sun came out!

Ford Fairlane 500

I really liked seeing the whitewall tyres, and they’re a lovely complement to the paintwork on this beautiful Ford Fairlane 500

Line of classic cars in San Martin, Havana

And speaking of paintwork, there was always a line up of gleaming, vibrant motorcars at the end of Parque Central opposite the Gran Teatro de la Habana

Sunset on the Malecón

Havana’s Malecón was another great place to spot cars as it’s on the itinerary of all the classic car tours

Andrew’s Highlights of Havana

By the time we arrived in Havana we’d been in Cuba for the best part of 4 weeks, having already climbed its highest mountain, swam in the North Atlantic ocean, and made the pilgrimage to Che Guevara’s mausoleum in Santa Clara but we knew that the capital held the majority of the sights and activities in Cuba. We were also looking forward to a bit of culinary variation and excitement as we were getting a little tired of processed cheese and ham sandwiches! We’re planning a post about our experiences of Cuban food, but first here are my highlights of our time in Havana.

The Malecón

Perhaps because we live near the sea in England I couldn’t get enough of Havana’s Malecón – the 8km (and growing) seaside promenade that curves its way along the northern shore. We walked most of it from the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in the east to Hotel Nacional and the Monte de las Banderas in the west.

Havana's Malecón seaside promenade with waves crashing over the sea wall

Dusk at Havana’s Malecón. During the day it’s dotted with local fishermen

It was busiest late in the evenings when locals and tourists alike would congregate at the eastern end near the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta to watch the sunset. As it was just a couple of blocks from our casa we even ventured out to the Malecón during a thunderstorm to try and photograph some lightning!

Lightning over Havana's Malecón

We had fun trying to photograph the lightning, and then getting back to our casa before the rain hit us!

Throughout Havana we often heard a particular song blaring from bicycle taxis and I thought it included the word Malecón, so I looked it up and sure enough, it does!

Havana Vieja

Havana Vieja or Old Havana is the heart of the city and the quintessential image of Cuba; grand restored Spanish colonial buildings surrounding wide open squares.

Panorama view of Plaza Vieja in Havana

Plaza Vieja, the main and the grandest of the public squares in Havana

Havana maintains the laid-back feel of the rest of Cuba. There isn’t as much if any of the heads-down metropolitan rush-hour crush we’ve experienced in almost all other capital cities. I suspect that’s a factor of the heat as it’s just impractical to rush around, and the primary business, particularly in the Old Town is tourism and not on-the-clock office work.

Back street in Havana's Old Town

Most of the streets joining the restored squares have yet to receive the same attention

The 4 main squares are all beautifully restored along with the main destination buildings such as the Capitolio, and work is starting on the buildings in the main connecting streets but there is still a lot to do if the aim is to return the entire city to its former glory. For us, we loved the contrast of completed and complete wreck often just a corner away. We saw a few gorgeous free-standing facades held up by little more than tree roots fronting tumbled-down insides.

Crumbling facade, Havana, Cuba

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The National Hotel of Cuba sits with an enviable position overlooking the Malecón. It’s the most prestigious state-owned hotel in Cuba, and if you’re a guest of the country this will be your accommodation. It’s also open to mere mortals, albeit those with a larger travel budget than us!

View of the Hotel Nacional from the Malecón in Havana

Looking up at the impressive Hotel Nacional de Cuba from the Malecón

We’d had a quick look around this very swanky hotel, but returned a few days later to take them up on their free guided tour which is usually at 10am and 3pm Monday to Saturday. Our guide was the diminutive, pleasant but slightly scary Estela – think Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers movies.

Lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The ceiling is painted to look like wood, but it’s actually concrete!

Estela explained the early history of the Hotel to us in the lobby, then we took the lift to the 2nd floor which was booked in its entirety by the American Mafia attending the 1946 Havana Conference. After showing us the suite Charles “Lucky” Luciano stayed in (yours for only $1,000 USD per night, including breakfast), the tour continued in the gardens overlooking the Malecón and the sea, where there are two large coastal cannons preserved from the original Santa Clara Battery that stood here in the late 17th century.

Frank Sinatra's room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Frank Sinatra was a guest at the same time as the American Mafia’s Havana Conference. He stayed in the room next to Charles “Lucky” Luciano and, according to our guide, there was a door joining the two rooms so they could meet in private

Cannons of the Santa Clara Battery, Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The massive sea-facing cannons of the former Santa Clara Battery which stood on the site of the hotel

Just past the cannons are a series of bunkers and walled tunnels underneath the gardens that were constructed during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis as part of Havana’s defences. Now they contain a small museum with details of the lead up to the Soviet Union’s support to Cuba which was a completely unexpected twist to the usual hotel tour and a very enlightening display.

Cuban Missile Crisis Museum

Estela explaining the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Revolution Square

Quite by accident we found ourselves in the capital during a national holiday, just like we’d done for Victory Day in Moscow. The 1st of May is Worker’s Day and is celebrated in Havana by a long march through Revolution Square.

Revolution Square, Havana

Revolution Square on the 1st of May Worker’s Day celebrations. Where did everyone go?

We asked our host Olga about it and she immediately turned on the TV where we saw president Raul Castro waving at a river of people from the giant José Marti statue and mausoleum in the square so we gathered our stuff and headed for the action.

It took us about an hour and half to walk across Havana, only to find that we’d completely missed the party! In a heretofore unexperienced show of speedy organisation, the entire event had finished, the road hosed down and stage, scaffolding and seating was all but dismantled.

We honestly couldn’t believe our eyes – this place was packed less than 2 hours ago!

Us in Revolution Square, Havana

Having utterly failed to join the party, we took lots of photos and some selfies instead. Oh well!

Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón

Yes, another cemetery! Julie covered it in our Cemeteries of Cuba post but I wanted to mention it in my highlights too.

La Milagrosa, Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, Havana

The outpouring of gratitude was lovely to see at the grave of La Milagrosa in the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón

Daiquiri with Hemingway in El Floridita

There are a couple of famous bars in Havana, the most famous is unquestionably La Bodeguita del Medio which we didn’t visit, followed closely by El Floridita which we did, and is the birthplace of the frozen daiquiri. Frequented by Ernest Hemingway which the establishment, perhaps, mentions a little too often, we were passing by one hot afternoon and a daiquiri seemed like a splendid idea..

Frozen daiquiri's with Ernest Hemingway in El Floridita, Havana

Frozen daiquiris at El Floridita – cool, refreshing, but the life-size bronze Hemingway isn’t much of a talker

Museo de la Revolución

We put off the capital’s Revolution Museum for a rainy day that thankfully didn’t come, but also because we kind of felt that as we already had a pretty good grasp of the Cuban Revolution, the fairly steep 8CUC (£5.60) entrance fee wouldn’t be worth it. I’m glad to say that we were wrong, if only for the section right at the end that detailed the Revolutionary Government in power in the years following 1959.

Museo de la Revolución, Havana

The Revolution Museum is in the former Presidential Palace and like many buildings in Havana (and indeed Cuba), it’s currently being renovated. Incidentally, this is the view from Casa Elda where we were staying

View of one of the exhibition rooms inside the Revolution Museum. Glass display cases line the walls

The formula of glass-cases with an artefact, photo or two and explanations in Spanish with a smattering of English was a bit wearing after the 3rd or 4th room. We hope they too will get a little renovation attention that adds some variety

While the rooms covering the history of the Revolution filled a few gaps we had about the timeline of events, the claims of aggression from a Communist-fearing U.S.A. and the details of the rationing during Cuba’s Special Period were fascinating. For that reason I’ve included it in my highlights!

Ration book from the Special Period,  Museo de la Revolución, Havana

A ration book from the Special Period. The section of the museum about the post-revolution history really made the museum worthwhile for me


For my final highlight, I’m going to pick our host Olga who took an instant shine to us and my quirky sense of humour especially. Thanks for taking such good care of us Olga!

Our lovely host Olga using her phone to help translate our conversation

Our lovely host Olga using her phone to help translate our conversation

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

A magician and a rasta walk into a bar…

Santiago de Cuba has a special place in our hearts. Our host Margarita arranged for a classic American car to pick us up from the coach station which was our first ride in one, as well as being one of the best casa chefs of our trip.

1956 Plymouth Belvedere Sedan, Santiago

Our chariot awaits.. a lovely 1956 Plymouth Belvedere Sedan greeted us on our arrival in Santiago – what a welcome!

Parque Céspedes, Santiago de Cuba

Parque Céspedes, the main square in Santiago de Cuba from the roof of Hotel Casa Granda

An eminently walkable city where the main pedestrian walking street and its parallel to the south links all of the parks, squares and central attractions, we found Santiago to be packed with loads of different things to see and do.

Walking around the city

On our first afternoon we took the Lonely Planet’s walking tour as a guide and headed out to get our bearings. Being just around the corner from the main Parque Céspedes we obviously went there first. Restored like so many main city squares in Cuba, the balcony of the white and blue Ayuntamiento that overlooks this square is where a certain Fidel Castro announced to his country and the world that the Cuban Revolution had succeeded.

Ayuntamiento, Santiago de Cuba

The ‘Ayuntamiento’ in Santiago, which means local council. It’s here that Fidel announced the Cuban Revolution’s triumph

Just a block away is the Balcon de Velazquez which wasn’t at all what we’d imagined. I guess it’s called the balcony because it looks over the old French quarter of the city and down towards the bay and was once a small fort. We decided to forgo the small fee for taking photos until we’d taken a look first (which is free), and we’re glad we did as the views are likely better from any of the casas or private restaurants that have added 3rd or 4th floor rooftop dining areas that sadly obscure the view.

Balcon de Velazquez, Santiago de Cuba

The Balcon de Velazquez. We’re glad we didn’t pay for the privilege of taking photos from the balcony itself as the view isn’t as interesting as the balcony building itself

Hotel Casa Granda

One rooftop view that would be difficult to obscure is the one from the Hotel Casa Granda which is also famed for its mojito making prowess, well, we didn’t need much more convincing than that to see for ourselves..

View from the Hotel Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

Great views from theHotel Casa Granda’s rooftop bar of the square and the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Can you spot the impending rain in the background? We did!

About half-way down our drinks we saw dark clouds on the horizon and although it felt like the wind was blowing south and out to sea, the rain came east at us across the bay and everyone moved tables to shelter from the downpour. There wasn’t anything we could do but order another drink and sit it out. Oh well!

Mojito, Hotel Casa Granda, Santiago de Cuba

The rain meant we just had to stay put for another mojito. Happy days

Castillo del Morro

To give it its full name, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro is a large fortification that was originally designed to protect the bay and city from the ravages of pirates, but by the time construction of the first fort was completed piracy was in decline so it never fulfilled its intended purpose. Subsequent alterations increased the size, and before its current incarnation as a museum it was used as a prison.

Castillo del Morro, Santiago

We enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of the labyrinthine Castillo del Morro

It’s about 10km south of the city and getting a taxi would have been easy, cost us about 15CUC (~£10), and have been boring. Instead, as we’d seen the large American trucks operating as private busses and found that the main station for them is on Avenue de Los Libertadores, we opted for adventure and it didn’t take long for one to stop that was heading about 1km shy of the fort. We did end up paying 10 times the local’s rate, but at 1CUC (70p) each it was still cheaper than a taxi.

Camion (truck in Spanish) to Castillo del Morro. Picture of the truck and a picture of the inside - two long bench seats and people holding onto the roof rails

The ‘camion’ or truck form of privately run public transportation in Cuba

The uphill 1km turned out to be a nice walk, though we needed to stop for a refreshing (and overpriced) lemonade in the tourist-tat gauntlet run before exploring the many levels, rooms and defensive walls of the Castillo. The latter offered some amazing views out across the Caribbean, back towards Santiago Bay and we could even see the international airport but the best views were looking down over the fort itself.

Us at the Castillo del Morro

Us at the Castillo del Morro

We’d just about finished our exploration when the coach parties arrived, so we decided to take a shortcut to avoid the tourist stalls and ended up at the cove beach just north of the fort as another camion was about to leave. Not only were we able to flag it down, they charged us the local’s rate to return to town too!

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia

Julie has already written about the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia in our post about the cemeteries of Cuba. I’ll add here that it was one of our favourite sights in Santiago.

Moncada Barracks

A young and ideological Fidel Castro concluded that the corruption of Batista’s government couldn’t be eradicated through legal or populist support alone and decided on direct action. Specifically, a simultaneous assault on the two largest military barracks in the eastern Oriente region would allow room for a Revolutionary movement to gain support and work its way west towards Havana. Planned for the 26th of July 1953, the day after the annual street carnival to catch Batista’s army off guard, but as they were significantly outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels lost and ultimately most of them were killed or captured.

Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba

The former Moncada Barracks is a huge and imposing building

Fidel Castro, a qualified lawyer, stood trial and used his defence as the stage for his revolutionary message with a famous four-hour speech outlining his vision for an independent Cuba that ended with the line: “La historia me absolverá” – History will absolve me. Other factors such as the mistreatment of the rebel prisoners by the army, public pressure and interventions by a judge and the Catholic Church led to lenient sentences for all involved, and Fidel was given a 15 year prison sentence.

Detail of the attack damage at the Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba

The museum is set up in the rooms attacked by Fidel’s rebels, though the scars of the fighting are reconstructions as the building was repaired and repainted shortly afterward

The following year, Batista’s government won an unopposed election that was criticised as fraudulent, and some politicians suggested that an amnesty for the Moncada perpetrators would be good for publicity. Batista agreed and in 1955 they were freed. How history could have been so very different.

The museum is nicely laid out, gave us a very good understanding of the Cuban Revolution, and at the same time tested our Spanish as very few of the explanations are in English. There’s a lot of emphasis on the mistreatment of the rebels by Batista’s troops accompanied by some pretty gruesome photos and supposed implements of torture, and the timeline pretty much stops at the Revolution’s triumph in 1959.

Gran Piedra and Cafetal la Isabelica

On a recommendation from our lovely hosts in Bayamo, we arranged a day trip to the Gran Piedra which literally translates as ‘large stone’. Our souped-up Lada taxi needed a few rest stops on the way to cool down from the hilly, poorly maintained roads, which meant we had chance to admire the scenery and stretch our legs.

Overheating Lada, Santiago

Our souped-up Lada needed a couple of breathers to make it through the mountains to the Gran Piedra

The path that leads up to the Gran Piedra was through a pretty nice looking but empty hotel at the top of a hill that then has the ‘large stone’ perched on top of it! It’s easily the highest point for miles around and an easy walk along well maintained paths and steps – not at all as arduous as hiking up Pico Turquino!

Birds of Cuba spotted on the walk to the Gran Piedra

We spotted a lots of birds on the short walk to the Gran Piedra

View of the Gran Piedra or large stone from the footpath in Santiago, Cuba

The Gran Piedra, or ‘large stone’ – how are we going to get up there?!

View from the top of the Gran Piedra, Santiago

Made it! We weren’t expecting two shopping opportunities at the very top to accompany the spectacular views all the way to the Carribean.

View from the Gran Piedra, Santiago

How spectacular? How about this!

The Gran Piedra is the first stop on a recommended circuit that took us down a dirt road to the UNESCO recognised Cafetal la Isabelica, a restored two-storey mansion that was built by French slave-owning coffee growing emigrants from Haiti. The ground floor housed workshops for the creation and maintenance of the various tools the plantation required, while the top floor was home to the French owners. We didn’t pay for a guide, but as we were the only visitors there a bored one started contributing bits of history and information about the house, its restoration, and the layout of the plantation and it really added to our experience as there weren’t any explanations.

Cafetal la Isabelica, Santiago

The drainage for the drying beds and water storage systems for the house were innovative for their time

Little details like the raw coffee was stored in the roof of the house away from the kitchens as the cooking smells affect their flavour brought the place alive for us.

Two cups of coffee on a silver tray from beans grown at the Cafetal Isabelica, Santiago

They still grow a little coffee at the museum and as well as selling it as beans or grounds, they make a cup that rivals an Italian ristretto for strength!

Oh yes, the magician and the rasta.. there are any number of scams and annoyances targeting tourists to Cuba and Santiago is home to two colourful characters that saw us trying to write up our diaries in a bar and thought we might make for a couple of quid. The first was a magician, dressed in a smart tuxedo that looked 2 sizes too big for him, accompanied by a slightly inebriated sway reminiscent of the great Tommy Cooper. After a few card tricks and other sleight of hand tricks that were well done, he was adamant that his fiery finale would only work with a 10CUC note (~£7). Our point-blank refusal and the trio of small coins we gave him was easily worth the disdainful stare we got before he stood up and made an almost straight-line for the exit.

10 minutes later his seat is taken by a cheerful round rasta with a little English who claimed to play percussion in a band around the corner. During the next 30 minutes we learned his catchphrase of ‘peace and love’, his daughter’s name is Julia (what a coincidence!) and it’s her 9th birthday. Fascinating. He finally worked up to asking for money to buy balloons for his daughter’s party. Apparently, balloons are really expensive in Cuba. Well, we hope your birthday party wasn’t ruined without a contribution towards balloons Julia, if that’s your real name, if you exist at all.

Hiking Pico Turquino and the Comandancia de la Plata, Cuba

Day 1 – Bayamo to Camp Joaquin

Starting at 7am in Bayamo, we arrived by taxi in Santo Domingo at the foot of the Sierra Maestra mountains and the entrance to Turquino National Park at 8:30am.

There was a little waiting around until the 4WDs had ferried various groups to the starting point and then it was our turn. The low-ratio gears in the people carriers made short work of the steepest roads in Cuba (some gradients were up to 45%!), even with 9 of us, everyone’s 2-days worth of luggage, a guide and a driver onboard!

The view of the Santo Domingo valley from the Pico Turquino trail

The view of the Santo Domingo valley from the Pico Turquino trail

The starting point, 950m above sea level, is a concrete plateau or turning circle where a signpost points right for the Comandancia de la Plata, and left to Pico Turquino. From here it’s a 13 km hike where we gain just over 1,000m to reach the summit of Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba!

Full of energy, spirit and new faces to get know, we set off apace down the wide and easy-going track, which soon narrowed to near single-file well-maintained forested trail.

Our group starting the hike to Pico Turquino

Our group starting the hike to Pico Turquino

We’d hoped to see plenty of wildlife and we weren’t disappointed: We saw woodpeckers, Tocororos (the national bird of Cuba because its plumage is the colours of the Cuban flag: white, blue and red), a cute little green and white fluff-ball of a bird called the Cuban Tody Flycatcher, and even hummingbirds doing fly-bys right past our heads!

A Northern Flicker Woodpecker and the cute little Cuban Tody Flycatcher

A Northern Flicker Woodpecker and the cute little Cuban Tody Flycatcher

Our guide Raul was very good at stopping to point out the different flora and fauna, and at taking the time to explain a little more about them. He had a smartphone with him, and when he stopped to take a photo with it I knew it must have been for something good and close by; I took a couple of steps back to join him and saw, about 4 metres away, another Tody Flycatcher shouting at the top of his little voice!

Also in our group was a French couple and the guy was just as knowledgeable about the birds as Raul, it turned out he writes books about them!

Julie our informal guide and translator

Julie with our informal guide and translator

The forest was lush with orchids, lichen and various reptiles and insects too..

Collage of reptiles, insects and flowers

Some of the flora and insects. Clockwise from top-left: A small lizard shows off its white throat; wild orchids; we didn’t see many butterflies; but there was plenty of lichen; another rare sighting of a butterfly; blankets of spider’s webs like piled up snow at the foot of trees. We didn’t see any spiders though!

The final kilometre felt like it was really twice as long to our tired legs, and after a particularly muddy section of the trail we emerged at Camp Joaquin just after 3pm, the welcome sign greeted us with an altitude of 1364m though we’d certainly climbed more than the 414m difference since the start given the up and down terrain. After picking our bunks in the shared bunkhouse I decided to take a very cold bucket shower before we sat down for lunch.

Camp Joaquin (camp Joaquin)

Arriving at Camp Joaquin. The bunkhouse is the building on the left

Our group sharing out the well deserved lunch

Our group sharing out the well deserved lunch

Bowl of plain rice, bean soup and chayote - a vegetable that tastes like a cucumber

Mmmm.. a hot meal of plain rice, bean soup and chayote – a vegetable that tastes like cucumber

Day 2 – Camp Joaquin to Pico Turquino, then down to Santo Domingo

Alarms went off at the unsociable hour of 4:30am, and after a simple breakfast we started the final 5km ascent in the dark. I was the only person without a torch, making do with the auto-focus lamp on my camera which was enough in 2 second bursts for me to get my footing. The start was a long section of muddy stairs with the occasional handrail, and we all found it a heads down challenging start to the day.

Andrew hiking in the dark

The second day started in the dark, and involved a lot of up and down as we worked our way towards Pico Turquino

As it started getting lighter, we saw that the cloud that had come in the night before was still with us and we wondered if it would clear or be clearer by the time we made it to the top.

Julie looking from a viewpoint into a whiteout

Mirador means viewpoint in Spanish. Not much of a view past the trees this time!

Raul kept our spirits up with startlingly accurate descriptions of the trail ahead and how long it’d take to reach the next km marker or resting spot. Just before 9am we turned a corner and entered a small, foggy clearing – we’d all made it!

A very cloudy top of Pico Turquino

Made it! The top of Pico Turquino, if you can see it!

Us with Jose Marti at the top of Pico Turquino

Us with José Martí at the top of Pico Turquino

Everyone shared out the various snacks they’d brought, and we took it in turns to have our photo taken with the giant José Martí that had been hauled up some 63 years prior, before bidding him farewell and starting the 5km descent back to the camp.

As I may have mentioned previously, I much prefer hiking up to hiking down, and I don’t think I was the only one who was starting to feel tired legs and sore knees, but the scenery was new because it was now light enough to see it!

Moremi, Julie and I taking it easy on the descent

Moremi, Julie and I taking it easy on the descent

Bright green hummingbird

A hummingbird stopped on a branch next to me to say hello!

Stopping for lunch at the camp was very well received, mostly for the chance to sit down for an hour to rest our legs! Refuelled and re-packed, the only way was to continue the trail down the remaining 8km – it didn’t sound that far considering we’d already done 10km before lunch!

Julie descending in the rain

More downhill – Julie descending with a smile on her face despite the rain

Tiny frog

We’d heard about these tiny little frogs and then heard them the previous night – a chorus of clicking that sounds like a thousand pens being tapped on a wooden desk

Tiny frog with finger for scale

No wonder we couldn’t see them at night, they’re black and tiny!

With about a kilometre or so before the end the misty fog turned to rain. Everyone bar Julie and I donned their waterproofs – we’d left ours behind as we’d tried to pack light, figuring that we’d just get wet – and we got very wet indeed! So wet that we thought the 4WD wouldn’t take us back but they weren’t the least bit concerned!

Getting into the jeep at the end of day 2

Look at the relief! The final stretch of hiking in the rain wasn’t the most pleasant bit – we can’t wait to get into the jeep for a soft-seated sit down having hiked 18km!

Pico Turquino is a beautiful and challenging hike. We saw some colourful wildlife and met some adventurous people though we were all a little disappointed that the weather wasn’t better on the second day.

Day 3 – Comandancia de la Plata

We awoke from our deep restorative slumber to the sound of cockerels. Our legs felt like they’d pretty-much recovered though the soles of our feet were still a little sore and our shoes hadn’t completely dried out from yesterday’s drenching.

Our lovely hostess at Casa Arcadia made sure we were suitably fortified for another day of hiking with a typically huge Cuban breakfast and we made our way to the now familiar park entrance for the much more civilised start time of 8:30am. There was a shorter wait for the 4WD this time and a much smaller group too – just two others; an older couple from Germany and our guide Rogelio who we’d met on the hike down yesterday afternoon.

The start of the Comandancia de la Plata. 3km? After Pico Turquino that should be a doddle!

The start of the Comandancia de la Plata. 3km? After Pico Turquino that should be a doddle!

It’s a much easier hike than Pico Turquino, though the first few downhill steps were enough to remind our legs of yesterday’s soreness! We didn’t spot as much wildlife, and the route soon took us through an old farm. Today, the people who live here maintain the historic site rather than farm the land, but when Fidel and his Los Barbudos (‘the bearded ones’) regrouped and set up camp here, their support in food and silence was vital to the Revolution’s success. In return, the farmers received education and medical treatment.

Farm buildings

An old farm en-route to the Comandancia, now a base for maintenance workers

Just past the farm and up a short but steep section of trail we arrived at one of the checkpoints that encircle the Comandancia. These simple straw huts were used to control access to the camp. Of the few visitors, most weren’t allowed past them, their messages and supplies were relayed to keep the size and location of the actual campsite a secret. It worked too, Batista’s troops and reconnaissance aeroplanes never found it.

Straw hut checkpoint

Checkpoint #1 – this is as close to the camp as most people would get. Messages and supplies would be relayed from here

Just past the checkpoint, the forest and the sky opened up, welcoming us..

Arriving at the Comandancia

Just up the hill from the checkpoint. Incidentally, the hole in the foreground used to be a tree! It was taken down so Fidel’s helicopter could land when he visited on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution

The camp itself is pretty big, at its height it supported 300 troops and is spread out along both sides of the valley. The first building we came to was originally a meeting hall and hospital and is now a sort of visitor’s centre with maps, photos, copies of communications from Fidel and memorabilia such as a sewing machine and medical supplies. Julie did a fantastic job of translating the description of the camp as the centre’s attendant pointed out each building’s purpose in a model of the valley.

Inside the former meeting hall and hospital

The former meeting hall and hospital is now a visitor’s centre and museum

Rogelio then took us deeper into the camp, further than any visitors would have gone as it was explained that if they were allowed through the checkpoint then they’d be met at the meeting hall, where they only had sight of one or two other buildings and so couldn’t gauge the camp’s size. A little further into the camp we passed a signpost that read ‘Radio Rebelde’ (Rebel Radio) which pointed to a nearby peak where the rebels would raise an antennae and broadcast propaganda for a few hours every night.

Path to Radio Rebelde

The path to the peak where the Rebel Radio was broadcast

The next buildings on the trail were the storehouse, ‘cocina’ or kitchen come dining hall, and then down a narrow path and round the back of a small hill we arrived at the highlight of the Comandancia – the very well hidden Casa Fidel.

Casa Fidel, Fidel Castro's house in the mountains

Fidel’s 3-room forest abode. Dropping in unannounced, there was always the risk he wouldn’t be in

Collage of the inside of Casa Fidel

Inside Casa Fidel: the main or entrance room has a kerosene powered fridge which was used for medicines; the bedroom which doubles as an office with a writing desk

We’d read that there were 7 different exits or escape routes from Fidel’s house and it was fun walking round it to try and find them all.

Casa Fidel's outside loo

Fidel even had his own private outside toilet

Just past Casa Fidel was a 2-storey building used as a library and documents storage which was being re-constructed to the same design, simply because being made of wood it had deteriorated after 55 years.

2 storey archive building

The 2 storey archive building was being restored

We continued around the small hill and came out back at the kitchen. From there our guide was quite keen to get us back to the starting point as soon as possible as he suspected it might rain again. We passed a couple of groups heading to the Comandancia on our way back along the trail, and no sooner had we jumped into the 4WD than it did indeed start chucking it down!

Hiking back from the Comandancia

Hiking back from the Comandancia at a pace to avoid the impending rain showers

We really enjoyed the entire Comandancia de la Plata. It’s a very different experience to the Pico Turquino hike as it’s nowhere near as physically challenging even though they’re in the same region and start from the same place. Although we only got to see inside 6 of the many buildings that make up the camp, the significance is not the buildings themselves, but that the Cuban Revolution was planned and orchestrated from these simple wooden huts.