Cuba's digital destination
Cuba is by far the largest of the Caribbean islands, covering an area of 42,000 square miles (114,000 sq km). Wild places are strewn like isles within isles. The varied ecosystems spell Nirvana to tourists who appreciate nature. Many areas are buried in thick rainforest brightened with tropical flowers. Other areas are desert—dry plateaus dotted with cactus. In fact, Cuba is sculpted to show off the full potential of the tropics, permitting you to journey metaphorically from the Amazon to a Swiss alpine forest.
While Cuba continues to depend heavily on resort-based, sun-seeking tourists, it’s paying more attention to visitors who wish to forsake sandals for hiking boots and tread mountains trails, shower in waterfalls, and shoot birds through the lens of a camera. Beyond the sun and fun world of the all-inclusives lies one of the most biologically rich areas in the world.
The fecund lowlands are disjoined by three mountain zones, where the air is cool and inviting and the trails often reach into some very untropical-looking countryside. Each of the alturas (heights) offers its own compelling beauty, with cool pine forests and sparkling lakes. Moreover, the coasts are rimmed by a necklace of coral jewels limned by sandlike crushed sugar shelving into shallows of Maxfield Parrish blues and greens, with surf pound on the reef edge. It’s enough to bring out the Robinson Crusoe in anyone, with the trail of a tiny lizard leading up toward the scrubby pines as perhaps the only sign that any living creature has been here before.
Woodland and mangroves (Guanahacabibes / Isla Juventud)
At the far western tip of Cuba, the Reserva de la Biosfera Península de Guanahacabibes protects a zone of precious semi-deciduous woodland and mangroves and the wildlife that lives there. The willowy peninsula narrows down to the tip at Cabo de San Antonio, where a recently opened hotel—Hotel Villa Gaviota Cabo San Antonio—makes exploring this remote region easy. Compulsory guides can be hired for hikes along trails that lead to caverns and dramatic seascapes.
A similar environment is protected within the Área Protegida Sur de la Isla de la Juventud, harboring crocodiles, deer, wild pigs, and the endangered Cuban crane. EcoTur, in the town of Nueva Gerona, arranges tours, including to Cueva Punta del Este—caves containing remarkable pre-Columbian pictographs. Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, at Cuba’s very southeast tip, is a virtual carbon copy yet made more impressive by its dramatic landscape stair-stepping in orderly terraces from the shore to the Sierra Maestra.
Mountain hiking (Banao / Gavilanes)
When thoughts turn to mountain hiking, they usually turn to the Sierra del Escambray or Pico Turquino. One of my favorite spots is Reserva Ecológica Alturas de Banao, a mountain retreat accessed from the village of Banao, 20 kilometers west of Sancti Spíritus. The sheer, barren, whisky-brown crags seem to belong in the Scottish Highlands. With Campismo Planta Cantú as a base, you can explore four separate ecosystems rich in birdlife. A highlight is the rugged hike to the Comandancia del Guerrillero Heroico, Che Guevara’s former guerrilla headquarters deep in the mountains near the hamlet of Gavilanes.
Another guerrillero hero, Camilo Cienfuegos, is honored at the Monumento y Museo Camilo Cienfuegos in the agricultural town of Yaguajay in Sancti Spíritus province. Banao can be combined with an exploration of Parque Nacional Caguanas, north of Yaguajay. This national park is currently in development and protects coastal swamps, mangroves, semi-deciduous forest, and offshore cays teeming with iguanas and birdlife. With luck, you’ll get to see Cuba’s largest colony of endemic cranes. And more than 35 caves are adorned with pre-Columbian paintings.
Remote Cays (Cayo Sabinal / Playa Los Pinos)
Still, if it’s remote cays that you’re seeking, follow me to Cayo Sabinal, a sea-girt, sun-bleached wilderness attached to the mainland of Camagüey province by a hair’s-breadth isthmus. I first rode out there on my motorcycle in 1996. The road of hard-packed coral seemed to float above the waters of Laguna de los Flamencos, a precious mirror reflecting gawky flamingos tiptoeing around in hot pink. I passed a few bohíos belonging to soot-stained carboneros (charcoal burners). These isolated, hospitable people eke out an austere livelihood axing mangrove. They pointed the way to Playa Los Pinos. Tough going in the soft sand, so I stood on the foot pegs and cranked the throttle to give the bike some oomph and ran in third gear with the power on, letting the engine’s torque do the work.
Playa Los Pinos was the most beautiful Cuban beach that I’d seen. Pristine, too. The silence was absolute, save for the muffled drown of the surf breaking on the far-off reef. Cuba through the eyes of a conquistador. My—and your—only option was a homespun cabana made of palm trunks and mangrove roots, with thatch for a roof. It had a rough-hewn bed and a simple bathroom with a cold-water shower. My folksy home was one of five such cabanas attached to a bucolic beach bar with chairs of sunbaked cowhide and walls of woven palm festooned with fishing nets and grinning shark jaws. When I ordered lunch, a rowboat pulled up and a young man dressed in swimming trunks jumped out and held up the lunch menu: a huge lobster in one hand and a large incarnadine snapper in the other.
Historic sites (Birán)
Another of my favorite off-the-beaten-track spots is Sitio Histórico Birán, about 60 kilometers southeast of Holguín. Here, where Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 is a handsome two-story home tucked within a copse and overlooking a serene lake surrounded by pasture and cane fields. “The house was made of wood,” Castro told Brazilian theologian Frey Beto in Fidel: My Early Years, giving the impression of a primitive property. “No mortar, cement or bricks.” In truth, it’s a surprisingly substantial house: the home of a well-to-do rural patriarch. In 2002, duly restored, the finca (farm) opened to the public as a National Historic Site run by the Council of State. Security is heavy, and an armed guard will accompany you as you’re shown the graves of Castro’s parents; the simple schoolhouse that Fidel attended; and the huge main house, where Fidel’s personal effects include his baseball glove and basketball, and the crib in which he was supposedly rocked as an infant (actually, evidence suggests baby Fidel lived his first few years in poverty with his mother—the family housemaid).
Almost every part of the island offers opportunities for taking a walk on the wild side. In fact, so much diversity is sprinkled like pirate’s treasure across Cuba’s 1,200 kilometer length that it’s enough to bring out the Indiana Jones in anyone.
More unsung rural places
La Boca, Camagüey Province
At la Boca, a clutch of clapboard shacks hug the shoreline, overhung with fat palms providing dappled shade on the pale sands. This is a proper fishing village with washing strung between the coconut trunks, children playing and villagers pulling lobsters out of the water. At the other end of the beach are two seafood restaurants for tourists who come in for the day from the holiday playground of Santa Maria eight kilometres down the road. La Boca is another planet—a one-phone village. If a villager rents a room to you, it’s not strictly legal, but then nothing fun is in Cuba. And who wouldn’t forsake the resort buffet for snapper caught that day and cooked in front of you, and an evening spent listening to the waves crash at your feet while admiring the constellations of the night sky.
Río Canímar in Matanzas Province
Just a one-hour skip in a classic car from the lurid delights of the tourist peninsula of Varadero, the rural province of Matanzas is surprisingly wild. Hotels in Varadero will sell you day trips to the banks of Río Canímar where you’ll be transported along with the other tourists, which is all very well, but maybe you don’t want to be accompanied by a band of musicians who’ll shred the silence and scare away the wildlife. There is, of course, a sneaky way to escape the cattle run. Just ask a car to take you to the Canímar Abajo river entrance site, near a camping ground about 10km from Matanzas. Here, you can swim and eat and wander. Cubans relax by necking rum, eating copious amounts of pork and beans and playing deafening salsa. If you want a moment of silence, hire a rowboat. Round one river bend and the giant palms and emerald green waters will swallow you up.
Sierra Maestra in Granma Province
The Sierra Maestra is a revolutionary’s mountain range. Here, Castro, Che, Celia Sánchez and their band of blood brothers hid out and plotted exactly how and when to bring down the Batista government in 1959. The government knew they were there and blocked off all the roads. But the mountains were virgin jungle, impassable, and a Fidelist network of silent locals protected the rebels. These days, the rebel base camp is not much more on the beaten track than it ever was: attracting a trickle of hikers and not much else. Its lush, palm-smothered beauty is spectacular and its views epic. Stay at Villa Santo Domingo, a range of cabins in the access village of Santo Domingo.
Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO’S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
Christopher P Baker
travel writer • photographer • moto-journalist • cuba expert
firstname.lastname@example.org | www.christopherpbaker.com
Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year
In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.
Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever
“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph June 2012 This article formed part of the june 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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