Exploring the natural and cultural heritage of Cuba

Few locales have been receiving as much attention in the media lately as Cuba, with the death of long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Nov. 25, and much speculation over the future of changing U.S.-Cuba relations. Of course, Cuba is already on the minds of many Canadians this time of year, as the island’s beautiful beaches and hot sunny weather are a draw for Canucks seeking a respite from the chilly northern winter. But for those seeking a travel experience beyond the beach, inland from the holiday resorts is a country rich in history and culture with beautiful landscapes and experiences worth pursuing.

In mid-November I joined a small group tour, starting and ending in Cuba’s capital city of Havana, meant to give participants an introduction to Cuba “on foot.” On the itinerary for the week-long expedition with U.K.-based adventure tour provider Explore were several geographic and cultural highlights in central Cuba, including four of Cuba’s nine locales with UNESCO World Heritage status, and lots of hiking and swimming along the way. Not on the tour schedule but just as rewarding was a glimpse into the real Cuba, gained from observations and discussions en route.

After meeting the other 11 tour participants and our local tour leader, Osmani, in Havana the first morning of the tour, we hopped onto our 16-seater minibus and headed west. An easy walk in the Las Terrazas nature reserve brought us to the natural pools of the San Juan River, where clear waters surrounded by tropical forest beckoned. We were happy to hop in and have a short swim before lunch, followed by an easy drive to the famed Viñales Valley.

I’d seen pictures of the distinctive limestone karst geography of the Viñales region in guidebooks, and it was just as lovely in real life, if not even more striking. I managed to get up before the rest of the group to go for a run the next morning, and was rewarded by the ethereal sight of mist blanketing the valley, the limestone karsts rising above, and everything bathed in a golden glow. The village was just starting to come to life, and I jogged past children walking to school in their white shirts and kneesocks and maroon shorts or skirts, men riding horses and starting the day’s farm work, and locals heading to work in the town’s shops and restaurants.

The scenery was just as spectacular later in the day, when the mist lifted and we were able to see the valley in its entirety. But hiking under the hot sun among the tobacco and coffee fields was tiring, and sitting down for a cold lemonade before heading to a tobacco-drying hut and learning how to roll Cuban cigars was just the ticket.

I was lucky enough to catch the valley views at the end of the day, too, when the sun sat low on the horizon, infusing the fields and brightly painted little houses and casa particulars (family-run guesthouses) with a warm glow. My roommate and I brought the chairs from our front porch up to the roof of our standalone casa particular and watched the sun set over the valley, amazed at our luck at having no buildings in the way to spoil the view.

After staying in Viñales for a couple of nights, it was time to head east to the historic town of Trinidad and the Escambray Mountain range nearby for some hikes. Several stops along the way (swimming in the infamous Bay of Pigs, snack breaks at roadside bars selling charming souvenirs, lunch at a cute place with crocodile on the menu) helped break up the five-hour drive, and observing what was going on as we travelled along the main highway from Havana to the east actually ended up being one of the most fascinating sights of Cuba. This main thoroughfare wasn’t clogged with cars like most interstate highways across the developed world; by contrast it was mainly empty. I began counting seconds between cars and it was often 10-15 seconds or more between motorized vehicles. There were more of the non-motorized variety, with horse carts and bicycles and people walking along the side of the road being more common than the old American and Russian cars or Chinese-manufactured tour buses that I had expected to make up the majority of traffic on a Cuban highway.

As we drove, Osmani gave us lessons in Cuban history and geography, explaining about the regions we were going to and the most important historical events that had happened there, and answering questions we had about Cuba past and present. It’s hard to not be a bit overzealous when asking Cubans about their lives — as Westerners we were all fascinated by what it’s really like to live in a socialist society, particularly one in which so many turbulent events have left their mark. But Osmani answered our enquiries openly and honestly, even providing information about his own family’s finances and his personal schooling and employment.

Perhaps the Topes de Collantes region that we visited the next day was the nicest walk of our “Cuba Highlights on Foot” tour — a long hike in the mountains that took us from the typical Cuban hot sunny weather in Trinidad up into a rainforest, where the air was moist and cool and little showers sprinkled down on us every so often. At one point our local park guide stopped us and told us to wait for a minute and then headed off into the forest. He came out of the woods a couple of minutes later with a pocket knife in hand and a lime for each of us to eat on the spot, sucking up the juice of the fruits (very juicy and less tangy than the variety we get in Canada) and throwing the rinds into the bushes.

The ride down from the mountains was rather exciting. “Now it’s time for the Russian roller coaster” quipped our guide, and the girl who didn’t like heights gave a nervous half-smile. It did feel like we were on a coaster as the truck rumbled its way to the top of one of the first of many steep inclines. I gripped the side with trepidation, but, seeing that there were no seatbelts in the vehicle, I realized it probably wasn’t going to speed down the slope like an amusement park ride, and thankfully I was right. The truck lumbered its way down the hill as slowly as it had gone up, giving us lovely views over the side of the mountain and the treetops, but no upset stomachs.

The next day another hike lower down took us to a natural pool with a beautiful waterfall cascading over a cliff. We swam through the clear, cold, turquoise water up to the waterfall and behind it, and were rewarded with the still air and stalactite-covered ceilings of the cavernous cave beyond. Later that afternoon we had a cocktail-making session followed by a salsa dancing lesson in the old city of Trinidad, whose UNESCO world heritage site-designated downtown core features colourful colonial buildings and cobbled streets.

On the last day of the tour, we broke up the drive back to Havana with a stop to visit the Che Guevara mausoleum and museum in Santa Clara, where we were intrigued by objects from Guevara’s childhood, such as an elementary school report card and drawings he’d done as a young boy, in addition to objects used by revolutionary forces during the revolution of 1959.

We arrived in the capital city in time for a walking tour around Old Havana, and then some of us headed to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old factory that has been converted into a combined art gallery, music venue and nightclub. We had our final piña coladas and mojitos of the tour and toasted our time together exploring the cities, towns, and natural landscapes of Cuba, and gaining a greater understanding into the events that have shaped and are continuing to shape this fascinating island.

Catherine Muir, The Chronicle Herald

January 20, 2017

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