Exotic Hikes: Che, Lionel, and the Sierra del Rosario

My wife and I are struggling up a jungly hillside, trying to keep pace with Lionel and the Swiss women. We don't know it yet, but we are scaling the Loma el Taburete, one of the highest peaks in the well-watered Sierra del Rosario.

Lionel is our guide, and Deb and I had him first, but the Swiss horned in, and now Lionel is overbooked, his loyalties as divided as the ambitions of his clientele. The Swiss want to summit; Deb and I are content with a shady stroll. So, I’m not sure if we’re going to make it to the Monument to Che Guevara and the Bolivian revolutionaries on the summit. It remains to be seen.

It almost always remains to be seen in Cuba. There may or may not be seats on the bus, or a bus at all. You may or may not be able to find—say, cheese. If you do, it may take an hour or a day. Independent travel into the backcountry is no different. Tourists may be able to stay in the pueblo of El Nicho high in the Sierra del Escambray. You’ll have to go and find out—assuming you can get there.

Consequently, a Cuba vacation is not a good choice for the uber-planner. Sure, you can schedule a 7 AM start at Soroa’s El Brujito path, plan on a mid-day lunch at the ecovillage of La Rosita, but it probably won’t work out that way. A guide may be mandatory or not. There may or may not be one around. More likely you’ll end up following a different trail, which in turn will lead you off to other places you didn’t intend to go. In the end, it won’t matter.

Because if independent travel is frustrating and difficult in Cuba, it is also rewarding and easy. The country embraces contradictions. Consider a culture at the center of the slave trade for over 300 years that now has, by American standards anyway, almost no legacy of racism. Or a government so tolerant that it provides free sex change treatments, but stifles political dissent. Or an economy where every financial transaction requires cash, which means tourists wander around with wads of bills, yet there is hardly any crime. So, if you end up on a dark road because something didn’t go according to plan, there’s no cause for concern. Someone will help you out. One thing you can count on in Cuba is the generosity, kindness, and resourcefulness of its people.

Take Lionel for instance (now slowing the Swiss by identifying hummingbirds and bird calls). Lionel embodies the characteristics, complexity, and contradictions of his country: proud of the achievements of the revolution in health care and education, but clear-sighted and aware of its failures; guardedly optimistic about the economic reforms, but aware of the poverty a more free-market approach has brought to countries throughout the Caribbean Basin. Capitalism may turn out okay, or not. It remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Lionel is working hard making the new economy work for his family. He has a license for his guiding business as well as approval to run the casa particular where Deb and I are lodged. His wife, Isabella, and sister, Marta, manage the operation.

A casa particular is a Cuban take on a bed and breakfast—although there may be options for breakfast and dinner or neither; it depends. You can count on a bed, a fee of $25-30 per night, and an insight into Cuba you are unlikely to gain on a packaged tour. I was gaining this insight yesterday afternoon, by lazing around on the front porch drinking a cold beer and watching Marta’s daughters play chase the chickens through the laundry area and vegetable gardens, and all along the pounded earth paths of the family compound, when Lionel came home from guiding, presented Isabella with an orchid (it was Valentine’s Day), and went to tend the pigs (another of the family’s commercial enterprises). Then he herded the chickens along the border of flowering mangoes, fetched two glasses and a bottle of rum, and joined me on the porch for the sunset.

Rum (straight up in a glass), a cigar and the sunset is a common ritual—another of Cuba’s cultural features I find easy to embrace. Sometimes this ritual leads to another: the long, philosophical, passionate discussion. Lionel and I talked into the night, about the environmental history of this region, about the poetry of José Martí, about Mark Twain and Donald Trump (like nearly everyone in Cuba, Lionel is very well educated), before moving on to the Cuban revolution, the new Cuban economy, and finally the life of Che Guevara, whom Lionel deeply admires.

Despite our late night, Lionel is full of energy today, as are the Swiss, who are already two or three switchbacks ahead. Every so often I get a glimpse of them through the screen of giant hostas-like understory with leaves the size of beach towels. Somewhere in this greenery, the robin-sized tocororo (Cuba’s national bird) is singing. Lionel scans the forest and locates it for us before it spooks—a flash of white and blue against the greenery. Cuba is home to some 350 bird species; more than 75 live here in the forests of the Rosario. Today I’ve spotted what I think are parrots, parakeets, and finches, although they’re easier to locate by their calls—if you know the song.

The Sierra del Rosario, 100 kilometers or so west of Havana is at forefront of ecotourism in Cuba. Las Terrazas is its center. Its ecohistory dates to the late 1960s when the Castro government initiated what was to become a largely successful effort of reforestation, sustainable agriculture, and a viable, largely self-sufficient village. Now, with the construction of the impressive ecohotel Moka, which offers guided tours of the village and surrounding mountains, it is making the transition to green tourism.

But the Moka is the exception. Ecotourism is in its nascent stage in Cuba. The national government has set aside large tracts, and UNESCO, as well as a variety of local organizations, has designated a variety of reserves, preserves and parklands. These governmental designations, in addition to the stagnation brought about by Cuba’s dysfunctional economy and the US embargo, have combined to create the Caribbean’s largest tracts of undeveloped reefs and tropical forests. But there are very few roads, established trails or services in these areas. If your goal is to experience the rainforest while staying comfortably on schedule, then try Costa Rica, which has been catering to European and North American ecosensibilities for decades.

In Cuba, you’re going to have to find your own way into these places. You’re going to have to resolver, which in Spanish means “to resolve,” but in Cuba means something else—something closer to finding a way around a problem—one that often involves the black market, or at least, a loose and creative interpretation of the rules governing political and economic behavior. Tourists can resolver too. Ariocho, friend to Lionel, told me about an avid hiker who resolvered her way from Las Terrazas to Soroa. A three-day hike on grown-in coffee plantation trails and horse trails and often no trails at all—a wilderness experience not included in any guidebook or tourist brochure, but possible all the same.

Deb and I are hoping to resolver a ride back to Lionel’s place from the waterfalls and swimming pools, the Banos del San Juan, where there may or may not be official and/or black-market taxis. Lionel has promised our hike will end at this oasis. But we’re going to have to gain the mountaintop Che Guevara monument first.

It is Che’s image, not Fidel’s that is plastered on signposts and roadside buildings the length of the island, which I figured was due to a decision by the Castro regime to offer an ageless, romantic image of the revolution, an image untainted by executions, political imprisonments, the deprivations of the “special period” (Castro’s euphemism for the decade after the Soviet collapse), the whole messy and slow-decaying promise of socialism. So I put the thought to Lionel during last night’s seminar.

“Of course, Frederico,” he told me. ‘All Cubans understand propaganda, but we honor Che because he was a good man with many flaws.'” Or something like that—it’s hard to translate, especially when you only half understand both the language and a culture that embraces imperfect heroes. Not to mention the rum, the last of which Lionel downed dramatically, rose to leave, and told me he would like to take me to the memorial to Che on our hike tomorrow.

“But,” he said with a critical glance at my conditioning and rum glass, “we will see.

Well, it looks like we’re going to make it. There are breaks in the canopy up ahead, indications of an approaching ridgeline. And it turns out that the Swiss, even though they look like they could sprint across the high Alps, are kind and patient. Besides, Deb has been translating Lionel’s explanations for them, so a cooperative spirit prevails amongst our expedition.

From the summit, we can see from the Straits of Florida to the Caribbean, clear across the narrowing tail of the island. To the west, the mountains roll off toward Soroa, but flatten to the south where the tobacco plains of Pinar del Rio, drop into the sea. And to the east, the main road to Havana threads straight through the sugar cane. Closer, the garden plots and small fields of Las Terrazas are laid out like quilt work. Here and there in clumps on the mountainsides, stands of Real Palms (Cuba’s national tree), their trunks as straight and bleached as telephone poles, tower over the forest.

Che is here too looking out over the new Cuba. Deb and I pull lunch out of our packs, plop down, and lean against the statue’s base–just another pair of American tourists come to picnic in the shade of his memorial.

Photo: David Anderson