Tag Archives: Hiking

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.