Painfully early in the morning, at 5 AM, the doorbell of our casa particular rang. The driver from Cuban Adventures Cuba Tours had come to pick us up and take us to Sierra Maestra, the country’s highest mountain range and home to its highest peak, Pico Turquino.
Although it was hard to say goodbye to our hosts Miriam and Fernando who had been kind to wake up at this ungodly hour, we hopped in the huge pre-revolutionary jeep for a three-hour ride from Santiago de Cuba to Santo Domingo. Because of the darkness and the mist, the road ahead was hardly visible. As the sun rose visibility improved, but that didn’t help our driver who seemed unsure about which direction to take. I guess it was the first time he did this ride.
Nevertheless, we arrived on time at the reception of Villa Santo Domingo, a large bungalow complex at the base of Pico Turquino. A helpful worker called Heidi coordinated our excursion by writing our vouchers, calling our guide and providing us with a packed lunch containing a large bottle of water, two mandarins and crackers with ham and cheese - the bread shortage was still ongoing. Heidi also let us drop our unnecessary luggage in her house.
Thanks to Heidi’s magical phone calls, a new car showed up which took us to the Sierra Maestra visitor center further along the road. There, our guide Jorge hopped in for the final short, but extremely steep ride. We covered 750 meters in elevation in a mere 5 km and arrived at the starting point at Alto de Naranja, 950m above sea level.
After an initial misunderstanding concerning the three-day trek we had planned and the two-day booking Jorge had received, it was time to start the hike. Jorge and his boss would sort things out, we didn’t have to worry.
The weather was nice today. It was warm and sunny, with a beautiful blue sky. The beginning of the hike was flat and easy and Jorge explained a lot about the plants and trees around us. Unfortunately, the idyll didn’t last long. Gradually, the path started to grow steeper, requiring more and more effort.
We didn’t meet anyone else along the hike, apart from a group of Cuban students coming down the mountain. Their expedition hadn’t been a successful one. Originally headed for Pico Turquino, they had given up at Camp Joaquin and turned around. They looked unhappy and totally worn out. A few had twisted their ankles and were being helped down by classmates. Looking at their shoes, that wasn’t a big surprise though. As decent hiking boots are way too expensive for Cubans, most kids were wearing regular sneakers or ballerina’s. ’Hija, mira!’, one of the students warned me. Standing aside to let the group pass by, I had stepped into a red ants’ nest. I quickly took off my shoe to remove unwanted visitors while Bart wiped off the big ants that were already crawling all over my trousers.
A little later, we reached a viewpoint over the mountains from where we could see Santo Domingo, the village we came from.
Jorge had a special interest for small things in nature. He loved to capture details and marvel at intriguing miniature orchids. He showed us a few of them that were not larger than a millimeter or five, as well as a super tiny frog. I challenge you to find him in the photo below. Applying his bird-spotting skills, he also spotted a nightingale, several mockingbirds and a tocororo, the national bird of Cuba.
Right after the junction between the path for Pico Turquino and the one for Comandancia de la Plata, we stopped at a viewpoint where we lunched. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were hungry too and they loved our blood more than our crackers. Was this a strategic move from Jorge to make sure we wouldn’t dawdle too much?
Shortly after lunch break, a steep series of stairs led to another viewpoint, befittingly called Teatro de Nubes. We couldn’t see a thing because of the clouds.
Unable to keep up with Jorge’s steady pace, I treaded behind. When I caught up again, Jorge was climbing a tree to pick some kind of oranges. Or lemons disguised like oranges. They tasted so sour we squeezed the juice into our bottle of water instead of eating them.
As we walked on, we encountered more interesting plants. One had stalks as sharp as a knife, and brushing against them resulted in bloody cuts. They were rather abundant during our hike. We also saw lots of airplants. These epiphythes could be huge and grew literally everywhere. We felt embarrassed when we realized how much trouble we had to keep our airplants alive at home, whereas here they’re doing so great just by themselves.
We were startled by a roar-like sound. Did they have boars here in the forest? Jorge reassured us there were no dangerous animals in Cuba and explained that the sound was actually produced by a bird.
Another steep ascent loomed ahead of us. While I was slowly making my way up, a purple butterfly fluttered around me. There were just a few of them now, but in the right season, the yellow flowers characteristic to this area are brimming with butterflies. Following my encouraging little helper, I reached the end of the ascent and caught up with the guys. Jorge had set off on another hunt. This time he had spotted mandarins, so into the tree he climbed.
At km 6, when we stopped for a break at the viewpoint Loma del Leon, we realized how much the surroundings had changed. Instead of tropical trees, the hills were dotted with smaller plants and pine trees. Jorge warned us that the next part would be the hardest, which proved to be correct as we covered a series of steep ascents. What annoyed me most, is that after every climb, we descended at least the same distance. Although we were getting closer, we weren’t getting any higher.
When finally, this up-and-down game came to end, we sat down and took a well-earned break. This is when a Cuban came up with his mule and parked it against a tree. The poor animal had received so many whips that his sides were bleeding. Luckily, he too could take a break now as his owner did the last bit of the climb towards Camp Joaquín on foot.
Feeling relieved that the cabin wasn’t far anymore, we started the last leg of today’s hike. For a moment the clouds moved away, revealing Pico Turquino in the distance!
We marched through the mockingbird lane (that’s not it official name, although there were so many of them that it could be), passed the sign marking km 8 and there was Camp Joaquin!
We had walked from 10am to 4pm, covering a total distance of 8 km and an elevation of 400 meters (not counting the aforementioned up-and-down game). Although it would’ve been possible to do it in a shorter amount of time, we had no reason to hurry. Once at Camp Joaquin, there wasn’t much else to do apart from eating and napping. In the main cabin of the camp, the table was already laid out for lunch. We ate rice with beans, pasta with tomato sauce, eggs, tea… and even received an ice-cold can of Coca-Cola! I can’t remember the last time I’ve craved that much for sugar.
After we had finally finished eating, Jorge asked at what time we wanted to have dinner. Was he kidding? It was 4:30 PM and we had just been stuffing ourselves to last until nightfall. It was not a joke: this was lunch, meaning dinner still had to be served. Even though we didn’t feel ready to eat again anytime soon, we agreed on 8 PM.
Jorge had another question. At what time did we want to start our hike the next morning? When we asked what time he suggested, he answered that we could decide, but it should be early. Okay, early. What about 7-8am? He grinned and replied that that was not early. It had to be between 4 and 5 AM, so we agreed on 4 AM. Given the huge amount of time we still had to sleep, we didn’t mind.
The sun started to go under. Although the actual sunset wasn’t visible from the camp because of the trees, we marveled at the beautiful sunset colors in the sky.
Whereas some guidebooks describe the ‘Spartan conditions’ at Camp Joaquin, it really wasn’t that bad. We were assigned a wooden cabin with eight bunks, which became our private room in the absence of other tourists. There were basic toilets and it was even possible to get a hot shower.
Bart had mysteriously disappeared, and one of the cats too. I didn’t have to search much to find them napping together in the cabin. Looking for warmth, I joined the party and dozed off. It had become really cold and the wind blew through the cracks in the wood. Normally, you get one blanket per person, but because there was no-one else, we got the entire pile for ourselves. That was good news for Mr. It-won’t-be-cold-in-Cuba who had refused to take along his sleeping bag.
I woke up feeling like a lot of time had passed. It was 8:30 PM and no one had called us for dinner. Had it been a joke after all? We returned to the main cabin which was completely empty and silent. Everybody turned out to be napping. As Bart and I stumbled around, we must’ve woken up one of the guys. He heated our food and served us some chicken, rice and cucumber.
I was really cold, even wrapped in my blanket. I quickly finished my food, wished the cats goodnight and returned to bed. It was only 9PM, but if we’d start hiking at 4 AM, it was time for bed.