A blinding start
In the middle of the night, at 3:20 AM, we awoke with a jolt as we were suddenly blinded by the bright ceiling light of our cabin. Why was that necessary? I had put my own alarm, but someone from the main cabin seemed not to trust our discipline and thought it was necessary to help out. Message received. Time to get out of bed.
As opposed to what I had expected, we weren’t met by Jorge, but by one of the other guys who worked in the cabin. No idea what had caused the change of plans, but he would guide us to the summit of Pico Turquino. When I asked his name, he mumbled something back that I couldn’t understand. I’ll call him Mumble Man.
Hiking up in the dark
Although it was hard to leave the warm blanket that I still had wrapped around me, it was time to leave the hut and start climbing. It was still pitch dark, so we had to use a headlight to know where the trail was. We tackled the steepest ascent straight away and the warm blanket was soon forgotten, as I already overheated after five minutes of climbing. The first half hour was the hardest part of today’s hike. In 800 meters’ distance, we ascended an astounding 300 meters in altitude.
It was really tough, but I didn’t want to let down Mumble Man, so I kept a steady pace mastering the many vertical meters of sweat and toil. My brain was still too drowsy to complain, so my legs kept on going. We passed by a signpost that put a smile on my face, announcing that the worst part of the climb was over and that the peak wasn’t that far anymore. Ten minutes later, we reached Pico Joaquin at an altitude of 1676 meters. Just a bit further up was Pico Regino.
Given we had already covered the worst part, the rest of today’s climb couldn’t be that bad, right? I hadn’t finished my thought or we started descending. Lower and lower, along a super steep trail. I felt as if all my efforts had been for nothing, as we were losing all the altitude we had gained.
Finally, the trail started to level. Short ascents alternated with equal descents until we reached the viewpoint Loma Redonda. As it was still dark, we couldn’t see anything apart from the lights of the village in the distance. It was then that I noticed the signpost marking the altitude: less than Pico Joaquin where we came from. That was so demotivating!
As we resumed our climb, the lyrics of the song ‘Despacito’ started playing on repeat mode in my head. I tackled the next series of steps on the rhythm of my imagined song and convinced myself that I would make it, ‘despacito’ if necessary, but that I wouldn’t stop. Ironically, the rhythm of that song is quite up-tempo, so without realizing I was actually making good progress.
Around 5:45 AM, it wasn’t only dark, it had also become so foggy that visibility was extremely low. I had to stand right in front of a signpost to realize it was there. Enjoying the opportunity to stop for a moment, I read what it said. “Did you think it was a long way to get here? Well, this is where you're really start climbing the Pico Turquino. Rest a little, then go for it.” According to Mumble Man, it was another 20-30 minutes to the top. We felt skeptical looking up, as we were hardly able to discern the shape of the giant mountain ahead of us.
As the sun rose, we started to see what our surroundings really looked like. Large bushes shrouded in a thick fog surrounded us. We climbed over a series of boulders and, finally, there was not so much mountain to look up to anymore. The summit was in sight!
On top of Pico Turquino!
At 6h15, we reached the summit of Cuba’s highest mountain. A big bust of the Cuban national hero José Marti, wrapped in a misty blanket, loomed over us and gave the entire setting a mystical atmosphere. The top itself doesn’t offer good views because of the dense woods. Not that it mattered, because on this misty day we wouldn’t have seen a thing anyways.
After having cookies for breakfast under José Marti’s bust, we started hiking back to Aguadas de Joaquín. When the sky cleared out, my hopes were up to get a better view at one of the viewpoints. The moment I sped up to get there quickly, it started drizzling again. So much for viewpoints today…
It was when we kept on descending that we realized how much we had actually climbed up. So far the hike back had been very easy, but I remembered we had done a huge descent earlier in the morning, meaning we still an equally huge ascent to do on our way back. In the distance and very high up, I could see Pico Joaquín. Although it was still far away, it wasn’t really motivating to anticipate the pain I would soon endure.
The path had become slippery because of the rain. It didn’t take long before I landed on my butt. Luckily, the muddy track provided for a soft landing. We covered a series of minor ascents and one big descent, and there it was. The steep path to Pico Joaquín that I had been dreading all this time, had doomed up. The climb felt more difficult than Pico Turquino, probably because of the fatigue.
From the top of Pico Joaquín and Regino, it was only downhill to our cabin at Aguadas de Joaquín. At first, this perspective relieved me, but I had forgotten the endless amount of steps I had come up. My sagging knees made clear that they weren’t too happy about it.
A well-earned breakfast
At 8:40 AM we were back at the cabin, where we were greeted by the friendly cat without ears. Did you know that in this area, some people cut off the ears of their cats to make sure they won’t run away? When it rains, the water enters the cat’s ears, so the animal prefers to remain inside, or at least close to the house.
For breakfast, the familiar ingredients were placed on the table: crackers with cheese, ham, licorice tea and coffee. Once our stomachs were full again, we brushed our teeth and prepared for part two of our day and hike. Outside, it was cold and rainy and I didn’t feel like leaving. A heavy downpour postponed our departure for about 15 minutes. At 10 AM, it was time to go.
Our two guides, Jorge and Mumble Man, walked ahead as if they were in a hurry. I didn’t understand why, because our arrival time at La Plática (today’s goal) was planned around noon. We walked at our own pace and enjoyed the view at Loma del León, which looked better (less cloudy) than the day before. When the winds became stronger and the rain heavier, we understood our guides’ haste. I still didn’t feel like rushing it though. Since it was a three-hour hike, there was no way to avoid the rains and I had already accepted the fact that we’d get soaked.
Jorge warned us to be careful for a particular plant with leaves so sharp that it could cut us when the wind blew. We also had to stop when the gusts of wind were too strong and look up for falling branches. Then he disappeared again somewhere ahead of us. But… but… wasn’t this the moment when we needed him most?
As a result, we did speed up though. So much that when the rain stopped, I couldn’t tell the difference between rain and sweat; everything was soaked. Tired from the steady walking, we took a break and ate all the juicy lemon-oranges we had gathered. I’ve never enjoyed an orange that much.
A change of scenery
It wasn’t far anymore to the fork between Alto de Naranja and La Plática. Turning left to the former, we were treated right away to a stunning viewpoint. Afterwards, the trail went downhill for a very long time. Fearing we had to come the same way up later on, I was grumpy until Jorge reassured me we’d take another trail on the way back. As we descended, the flora changed completely. The area was dotted with large banana trees and small streams crossed our path. Everything looked a bit more tropical.
Not having seen our guides for a long time, we caught up with them when Jorge was digging something out of the earth. When Bart learned he was looking for ginger, he thought it was an excellent idea and started crawling through the dirt too. A bit later, he came back, proud as a peacock, holding up a few tiny ginger roots. We’d use them later to make tea.
We passed by the ‘Estacion biológica’ and just a little further was campsite La Platica, at an altitude of merely 400 meters. It was 2PM, meaning lunch time. Our meal comprised fresh bananas, rice with beans and ham in tomato sauce. And some tasty mint tea too.
As a consequence of the initial misunderstanding about our planning, Jorge couldn’t stay until the end and said goodbye. He reassured us that his friend Julio would do a good job taking us to Comandancia de la Plata tomorrow. When he left, we wondered what to do next. It wasn’t even 3PM and we had nothing to do. Eventually, a quick nap turned into a profound sleep. We barely woke up in time for dinner (a rather nice meal consisting of soup, chicken with rice, bananas and tomatoes), then crawled back to our beds to sleep some more.