Tag Archives: Hiking

Travelling in the Georgian Caucasus: Kazbegi and Svaneti

Georgia is a mountainous land.  There’s a low, flattish strip running from the Black Sea in the west to the Azerbaijan border in the south-east, but everywhere else is high ground with the mighty Caucasus mountains forming the country’s northern border with Russia.  Visiting at the end of March we weren’t sure whether the snow would have melted and how accessible the mountains would be but we wanted to try to get to them.

Snowy mountains

Into the mountains! There was still a lot of snow as we crossed the Jvari pass before dropping down a little into Kazbegi

From Sighnaghi we returned to Tbilisi and took another marshrutka along the Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi.  This small town is home to one of the most famous views in the country and if you look at any tourism material about Georgia you’ll almost certainly see a picture of the small monastery perched on a ridge with a towering mountain behind it.  We’d booked rooms in a guesthouse before arriving, saw that it was marked on our offline map and confidently struck out from the bus stop in the centre of town for what looked to be about a five minute walk.

Cloudy Kazbegi view

View from our guesthouse, Homestay Lela and Mari. We originally thought that Mt Kazbek was the snowy section to the right of the monastery, and then we saw the peak poking out from the clouds above!

Suffice to say, the guesthouse wasn’t where the map said, and after knocking on the door of a random lady, walking up and down the street for 20 minutes, bothering several other passersby and three phone calls to the guesthouse who spoke limited English, we were a little nervous about all the trouble we’d caused when our host Gela pulled up next to us in his car. No need to worry! He brushed off our apologies, drove 30 seconds to the house (just round the corner from where the map said it was), presented us with plates full of biscuits and sweets and offered us coffee or tea.  We gratefully accepted a coffee and he confidently added ‘chacha?’  Not wishing to be rude we tentatively accepted a glass of the local firewater, distilled from the second pressing of the grapes, which with Gela’s hospitality swiftly became three and then five shots so that when we later set out to explore the town we were all a little giggly!

Kazbegi

Kazbegi (clockwise from top): the River Terek runs through the town; Soviet era mural adorning the end of a building in the centre; parts of the town are looking a bit run down including this now defunct cable car station

The following morning I woke quite early, peeped around the curtain to see what the weather was like and my jaw dropped.  Mt Kazbek had emerged from the clouds and the pink light of the sunrise was making its way down the peak towards the Gergeti monastery.  We oohed and aahed, taking lots of (almost identical) photos until Gela bundled us all into the car and we sped off up the hill.  We weren’t entirely clear on where we were going but shortly arrived at a small monastery above the town opposite Mt Kazbek. As we got out of the car we saw a young monk hurrying across the snow covered grounds to ring the bell and a few minutes later we were standing at the back of the tiny colourfully frescoed church listening to the monks’ morning prayer chants. Gela gave us each a candle to light and place in front of one of the icons and I said a small thank you to the world for such a magical start to the day.

On our second morning in Kazbegi, Andrew got his camera set up to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.

After breakfast we set off to hike up to the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) monastery which we’d been admiring from below since the previous afternoon. We refused the many offers of ‘taxi?’ as we walked through the town, crossed the river and passed through the opposite village of Gergeti. The hike was steep but not difficult and with a few pauses to catch our breath admire the spectacular view we made it up to the monastery in about an hour from the valley floor.

Cows beside the path

Cows beside the path as we pass through Gergeti village on the way to the monastery

Having seen no other tourists on the walk up it was a bit of a shock to find several groups armed with selfie sticks spilling out of cars at the monastery. The church itself is small and architecturally nothing special, it’s really the location that counts here. Even historically, when enemies threatened, the Georgians brought their sacred treasures from Mtskheta and put them in the monastery for safe keeping.

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery

The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location

Thermal pool near Kazbegi

On our second day in Kazbegi we walked along the valley to the village of Pansheti. On the way we passed this swimming pool fed from a mineral spring

Overnight train to Zugdidi at Tbilisi station

We took the afternoon marshrutka back to Tbilisi in time to catch the overnight train to Zugdidi. We love sleeping in the rocking motion of a slow train but this one would have been a bit more comfortable if they’d turned the heating down a few notches

We arrived in Zugdidi in north-western Georgia at 6am after an uncomfortably hot overnight train journey.  From there it was a three hour marshrutka ride up increasingly twisty roads with increasingly stunning views to Mestia, the main town of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region of the Caucasus has its own distinct culture, food, traditions and even language, and the Svan people are very proud that they’ve never been ruled by outsiders.  The most obvious and distinctive part of their culture are the defensive towers.

Mestia

Mestia and its distinctive defensive towers

We’d seen an example of a Svan tower at the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi but here we were able to go inside and climb up to the top even sticking our head through the roof hatch in one case! Some levels had stone floors and others wood but each was small and had bare stone walls.  The tradition of the towers dates back to the Middle Ages and each family had its own attached to the main living hall to be used for protection of the owners and their animals in case of attack from invaders or raiders.  Some of the towers were also used for signalling with fires being lit in a chain down the valley to warn of an impending attack. The excellent museum in Mestia had an exhibit of photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella in the 1890s and the town’s architecture is still recognisable 125 years later.

Svan towers (clockwise from left): the tower entrance is part way up the side to aid with defence; Jo climbing up one of the ladders, stone slabs would be used to close these holes in case of attack; only the top floor of the tower has windows

Although Mestia is at roughly the same altitude as Kazbegi, around 1500m, the sunny spring weather that we’d experienced in the eastern mountains didn’t quite seem to have arrived here yet.  There was still snow on the ground and on our second day we were more or less snowed in as the fluffy flakes fell continuously from early morning to late evening.  We ventured out for a walk to the cathedral (locked) and for lunch at a local cafe but mostly we just holed up in our guesthouse around the cosy wood burning stove.

Holed up in the guesthouse on a snowy day in Mestia

Fortunately by the following morning the sun had appeared and was starting to lift the clouds from the mountains.  We’d arranged a trip to Ushguli, a UNESCO listed village further into the mountains with Vakho, our guesthouse owner’s brother.  Also joining us were a Korean woman and a Japanese man who we’d met in town.  It’s a rough road passable only by 4WD vehicles even in the summer and the 47km (29 miles) takes over 2 hours to drive.  We reached a point where no other vehicles had driven and were cruising along downhill when suddenly a Russian made jeep flew around the corner ahead of us. CRUNCH! There was nowhere for us to go and the front corner and headlight unit of our Mitsubishi was caved in by the impact.

Crash on the snowy road to Ushguli

Luckily no-one was hurt and the engine wasn’t damaged so after a short while we were back on our way though Vakho was understandably upset at the damage which would likely cost him significantly more to fix than the 200GEL that we were paying him for the day’s excursion. There’s no car insurance here and the other vehicle’s owner didn’t seem to be overly concerned about helping out though technically it was his fault as he was driving uphill.

The previous day’s snow made the view from the road to Ushguli even prettier

The community of Ushguli stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, and is made up of five villages, one of which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. At an altitude of between 2060 and 2200m it also lays claim to being the highest permanently (i.e. year round) inhabited settlement in Europe. It must be a difficult place to live, bitterly cold in the winter (it was bad enough in late March), two hours on a bad road to the nearest small town, and five or more to anything bigger, the people must be hardy and self-sufficient in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.

The villages of Ushguli, in the foreground UNESCO listed Chazhashi, with Chvibiani behind

One Svan culinary specialty is the kubdari, similar to the cheese-filled khachapuri found in the rest of Georgia, but stuffed with seasoned meat.  In Ushguli we got an impromptu cooking lesson from a cafe owner as we watched her make pies for our lunch. I suspect that getting the filling to stay neatly inside the dough is not nearly as easy as she made it look. Once made, the kubdari were cooked on top of and then inside the traditional wood-fired stove which is the heart of every Svan home and kitchen.

Making kubdari in Ushguli

Cafe owner making kubdari, Svan meat pie, in Ushguli

After lunch, Vakho and the cafe owner scrambled the security guard and museum keeper to open the small ethnographic museum up for us. Located in a fat tower in Chazhashi, it houses treasures from Ushguli’s seven churches including gold and silver chalices, icons and crosses as well as jewellery and drinking horns.

Ushguli ethnographic museum

Emerging from the museum we trudged through the snow a little further along the street when we heard loud barking and saw an enormous Caucasian shepherd dog bearing down on us. A woman shouted at him but we beat a hasty retreat all the same. The dogs in the streets of both Ushguli and Mestia are quite intimidating. Not so bad if it’s a cute waddling sausage dog, but others are descended from the mountain dogs bred to protect the sheep from wolves and bears and could do quite a bit of damage if they felt so inclined. Locals told us that they are generally safe as the dogs have learnt that tourists will give them food but I didn’t enjoy having a pack follow us around especially as we had no intention of feeding them.

Our tour group in Ushguli (left to right): Julie, Andrew, Jo, Masato, Hyunja

Feral dogs aside, the mountains were a highlight of the trip for all of us and we vowed to return in the summer for some hiking!

Southern Armenia – Goris and around

The southern-most destination of our Armenian road trip was the once prosperous industrial town of Goris, still quite bustling but very much past its heyday. The long main streets with their two-storey houses with large wooden balconies stretching out over the pavement contrast with the functional concrete Soviet-era municipal buildings and residential apartment blocks. Everything has a partially abandoned shabbiness to it that’s quite endearing.

Goris, Armenia

Goris’ central town square is quite grand. It’d be nice in the summer with all the fountains working

The main highway from Yerevan skirts the top of the town on its way to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Iran further south (two more places to visit that we’ve added to our ever-expanding list!), but our reason for stopping in Goris was the nearby sights of Tatev Monastery and the cave settlement of Khndzoresk.

Tatev Monastery

Tatev Monastery, Armenia

Another monastery? We weren’t kidding when we said we thought every other site might be a monastery or church!

The journey to Tatev is a little more exciting than most as it involves a cable car. Somewhat ostentatiously called ‘The Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway’, it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest non-stop double-track cable car – which makes it sound a lot more impressive that it actually is! However, all is forgiven for the views over the small village of Halidzor, the remains of a warning bell tower and the spectacular view of the monastery itself, perched on the edge of the plateau.

Church of St Paul and St Peter, Tatev, Armenia

The church of St Paul and St Peter looks impressive and commands an enviable view down the valley

Although there was a small church on the site from the 4th century, Tatev grew into a thriving academic monastery after the main Surp Poghos-Petros (St Paul and St Peter) church was built in the 9th century to house important relics, and at its peak was home to some 1,000 clergy and students.

Former monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

I enjoyed exploring the old monk cells more than Julie did!

When we visited in March 2017 the restoration works were well underway and we read that the intention is to restore Tatev to a working monastic university which will include an interactive museum. I hope it’ll still be possible to visit some of the monk’s cells in the outer walls that look down the valley as we enjoyed exploring the rabbit-warren of interconnected rooms.

View from the monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

The view from the monk cells down the valley. Apparently there’s a tunnel carved into the hillside to the valley below!

The other highlight of Tatev for us was the huge communal oil press sited just outside the monastery so the nearby villagers could use it without disturbing the monks. At first glance we thought the giant screw end did the pressing but a video showed us that we had it the wrong way round – the sacks of seeds sit under the other end of the long wooden beams, and the screw end is used to control the compression.

Oil pressing house, Tatev, Armenia

Oil presses were common in monasteries all around Armenia, but Tatev’s has been reconstructed to show how they worked

Having taken the cable car to Tatev we decided to hike the 9 miles (15km) back which meant we could visit Tatevi Mets Anapat (Tatev Hermitage) and the Devil’s Bridge both located in the valley below. After a spot of lunch on the outskirts of Tatev village, we were adopted by our requisite tour guide dog whom we named Grigor and set off on the well trodden trail down the hillside.

Andrew and Grigor, Tatev, Armenia

Have pooch, will hike. It’s worth mentioning that the offline maps.me app was very helpful hiking down from Tatev Monastery as there are a few forks in the track and very few markers

Tatevi Mets Anapat

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

The Tatev Hermitage viewed from the cable car

Concerned that we were running a little short of time to make it back to the car park before it closed at 6pm, we gave ourselves 20 minutes to poke around the ruined hermitage of Tatev and that was plenty of time, though I still couldn’t find the tunnel that apparently links it with the monastery we’d hiked from!

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

Inside the Tatev Hermitage, complete with a hermit! We offered him a biscuit but he politely declined

Devil’s Bridge

Devil's Bridge, Tatev, Armenia

The Devil’s Bridge, also known as Satan’s Bridge, is a naturally created, 50m wide bridge spanning the river at the bottom of the valley

Filling up our water bottles from the natural spring at the Devil’s Bridge gave us two surprises: firstly, the tepid sulphuric taste was a bit of a shock to our hiker’s thirst and we were re-united with Grigor! He’d gone walkabout as we’d left him outside while we were in the hermitage and he was delighted as only dogs can be when they see you again!

Grigor reunited! Tatev, Armenia

Reunited! Grigor finds us at Devil’s Bridge

By now it was getting on for 4pm and we were both getting a little anxious about making it back in time to retrieve the hire car. We had 2 hours to hike 6 miles (9km) up the switchback valley road which was doable, but it would be close! After about 3 quarters of an hour we spotted some cars going our way and we were able to flag one of them down. As we set off with the 2 reserved Armenians in the front of their luxurious 4×4 we realised how far 6 miles is and were very thankful they had stopped for us!

Old Khndzoresk cave settlement

Khndzoresk, Armenia

The old cave settlement of Khndzoresk, all of those black dots are dwellings or storehouses

Old Khndzoresk is a large abandoned village of cave dwellings cut into the steep valley walls. The information board at the entrance said that at its peak in the early 20th century it comprised 9 districts, 1800 homes, 7 schools, shops, and workshops. We reckoned that meant the population would have been over 7,000!

Khndzoresk suspension bridge, Khndzoresk, Armenia

The caves are reached by a 160 metre suspension bridge that was hand-made by the locals to encourage tourism. They’re very proud that no heavy machinery was used!

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

A lot of the caves were simple one-room dug outs, but some had corridors and doorways to larger rooms deeper into the rock we assumed would have been for storage

Church, Khndzoresk, Armenia

There are a few churches dotted throughout the settlement and they’re a more typical building construction which makes for a nice contrast against the caves

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

While the higher caves were used for storage and reached by rope ladders, the lower caves were often extended with porches that doubled as yards or gardens for the caves directly above them

Us in Khndzoresk, Armenia

We took a little picnic with us and really enjoyed spending the day exploring the caves.

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.

Baracoa, Cuba

Baracoa, perched on Cuba’s eastern edge is the island’s oldest city founded in 1511 and surely also one of its smallest. It is hemmed in by mountains and rainforest, having a microclimate all its own and was isolated from the outside world until the spectacular La Farola road was opened in 1965 connecting the town with Guantanamo City and the south coast.

View from La FarolaSpectacular views from the bus as we climbed through the mountains on our way to Baracoa along La Farola

El YunqueThe table top mountain called El Yunque, the Anvil, is the symbol of Baracoa and is visible from many places in town including the roof terrace of our guesthouse.

Baracoa’s tiny cathedral (about the size of your average parish church) is at the centre of the town and is home to the Cruz de la Parra, the only surviving wooden cross of 29 planted in Cuba by Columbus on his first voyage and ‘discovery’ of the island in 1492.

Baracoa centreLooking along Baracoa’s walking street towards the cathedral

Cruz de la ParraThe Cruz de la Parra has been carbon dated to prove that it dates from the correct period but the wood is native Cuban and was not carried from Europe by Columbus as legend has it

The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of sights but we enjoyed strolling along the slightly dilapidated seafront to the even more dilapidated baseball stadium at the end of the beach. We also spent a fascinating hour nursing a beer on a balcony overlooking a street that was being resurfaced. It was amazing to see the hard work done by hand that we’re used to seeing machines do.

Baracoa baseball stadiumBaseball is Cuba’s national sport but its stadium was host to football practice when we poked our noses in

One morning we walked up the hill through residential streets, puzzling over why all the cockerels seemed to have no feathers on their legs or bellies until we realised they were for cockfighting.

Fighting cockerelCockfighting is a popular sport in Cuba judging by the number of cockerels we saw on a short walk through Baracoa’s streets

Dripping with sweat after the short but steep climb we arrived at the Archaeology Museum which has been imaginatively set up in a series of caves where burial chambers of the Taíno peoples had been found. The Taíno arrived in Cuba from Venezuela around 1050AD and were living there peacefully in farming communities when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century. Many died from European diseases and more when they were pressed into harsh slavery by the settlers.

Baracoa Museum of ArchaeologyThe entrance to Baracoa’s Museum of Archaeology

The displays were not so exciting but the cave setting was a quirky idea, the attendant was friendly and gave us a good explanation in English and the view over the town was superb (it’s from here that we spotted the cemetery that we visited later in our stay).

Museum of Archaeology exhibitsMuseum of Archaeology (clockwise from top left): display cases inside the cave; Taíno artefacts; a replica of the Ídolo de Tabaco, one of the most important Taíno finds in the Caribbean; burial chamber

View over BaracoaThe viewpoint above the museum provides a reward for the uphill climb

We had initially planned a hiking excursion to El Yunque, but changed our minds after hearing the descriptions of the Humboldt National Park, 40km north-west of Baracoa, and went there instead. The road to the north is not in very good condition and so our group of 15 plus our guide Benny were loaded into three jeeps for the dusty hour and a half that it took to bump our way there.

Jeep transport to Humboldt National ParkStretching our legs during a brief pause in the drive to Humboldt National Park

The Humboldt National Park is famous for its biodiversity with lots of endemic species. 70% of the plants as well as lots of amphibians, reptiles and birds are found nowhere else, and the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.  We’d hoped that we would see quite a bit of wildlife and certainly at the beginning of the hike we did with Benny stopping to point out Tocororos, woodpeckers and parrots as well as different kinds of plants. But as the path narrowed the group became too spread out to see much and the pace felt too fast for us to fully appreciate the forest.

Flora and fauna in Humboldt National ParkFlora and fauna in Humboldt National Park (clockwise from top left): Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo; termites; the colourful Rat Pineapple is related to the normal pineapple but doesn’t produce an edible fruit; this huge millipede was about 25cm long and thicker than my thumb

Swimming opportunities seem to be an obligatory feature of excursions in Cuba – it felt like every time someone was trying to sell us an excursion it ended with ‘a chance to swim in the river / pool / sea’ (frankly this usually feels like a waste of excursion time to me but clearly I’m in the minority here).  Anyway this trip was no different; just before lunch we stopped at the top of a waterfall where anyone who wanted to could jump into the pool below and swim downriver to the curve where we would break for lunch. About ten of the group did, the rest of us followed the path along the river to meet them below.

Swimming in the river in Humboldt National ParkSome of our group swimming down the river to join us at the lunch spot

Crossing the river in the Humboldt National ParkAfter lunch we had to cross the river 8 times to get back to where we’d left the jeeps. I was glad that I’d carried my flip-flops to cross the stony riverbed, Andrew had to do it barefoot.

On the way back to Baracoa we stopped at Playa Maguana.  It was our first Cuban beach experience and the white sand and turquoise ocean were just as breathtaking in real life as they are in the travel brochure photos.  The sea gets deep quite quickly, and the wave swells were high enough to make bobbing up and down in the water fun.  It also helped that we could take turns with the others in the group watching bags and go into the water together.

Playa MaguanaPlaya Maguana, there’s even a guy who’ll bring you a drink direct to your beach towel

The Lonely Planet touts Baracoa as the best place for food in Cuba.  Now that’s not saying much as in general the island’s cuisine is not the most exciting, but still I had hoped for more than just one sauce, albeit tasty, which is served with different kinds of seafood.

Prawns in coconut milk saucePrawns with the Baracoan sauce made from coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic and spices

Cucuruchos are the other regional specialty, a cone of palm leaf stuffed with an almost sickly sweet mixture of fruits, coconut and honey. Baracoa is the only region in Cuba where chocolate is grown and processed (the smell wafting from the factory just outside town reminded me of driving past the Rowntrees factory in York) and we really enjoyed the huge flask of hot chocolate that was included with our breakfast each morning.

CucuruchosPeeling a cucurucho

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.