When planning our trip to Cuba this year, the first question we asked ourselves was: Does Cuba even have any mountains we could climb? And if so, what is the highest peak on the island? So, we decided to look into the matter a bit more closely. As it happens Pico Turquino turned out to be the ideal goal for adding a little active twist to our relaxing holiday…
The Sierra Maestra National Park in eastern Cuba not only encompasses a whole mountain range but is also home to the country’s highest mountain: Pico Turquino, which rises 1,974 metres. For those of us used to mountains in the Alps, it sounds like a relatively easy undertaking. But as we’ve learnt from hiking over the years, height is not the only way to judge a mountain. Other factors, such as the weather, climate, footwear, food, how you feel on the day etc. often have much more of an influence on how well a hike goes.
We chose the classic Revolutionary route that sets out from the interior, which should normally take a minimum of two days. The little village of Santo Domingo, which lies at the foot of the Sierra Maestra, is the perfect starting point for any hike. As we had learned, or were forced to learn, travelling in Cuba can be difficult and not that easy to plan in advance. Airport waiting times of twelve hours are not that unusual, and vehicles breaking down or impassable roads are also part and parcel of life on the island. So at least we would be climbing Pico Turquino under our own steam – your own two feet are generally reliable enough.
By the time we arrive in Santo Domingo early in the morning after a very long and eventful trip, we had already been on the move for 24 hours and could happily have had a nap. We are on a pretty tight schedule however, so we quickly change into our hiking gear and prepare our mountain packs. The start of the trail is a jeep-ride away up a steep dirt track, and then it’s off into the jungle. The trail starts out flat with the first kilometre or so allowing you to acclimatise to the heat in the Cuban jungle. But we soon realise that the hike would be tougher than we had reckoned. Most of it runs steeply up rocky steps with tree roots and through ever-denser tropical vegetation.
There are few flat sections and with the passing kilometres, it becomes painfully clear just how strenuous the endless up and down is. Twenty metres of steep ascent, followed by ten metres of moderate descent. Then, ten metres of moderate ascent, followed by twenty metres of steep descent. And all the while never gaining any height. We find that it’s really important not to waste any energy, to make sure each step is precise and economical. We make it to base camp where later, after summiting, we’d be spending the night. There’s a small alpine style hut, split into two relatively large dormitory rooms with mattresses. We stop for a little rest before heading back out into the humid jungle of ferns, vines and palms.
Climbing over tree roots and rocks that form a natural staircase requires your full attention, although the act itself of going up, step by step, becomes almost meditative. Here and there we hear birdsong. Up at the summit, there isn’t much. Just a stone plinth with a statue of a Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, in the middle of an overgrown clearing. Just José in the middle and us, surrounded by row upon row of palms and shrubs. It feels like standing right in the centre of an enchanted space on Cuba’s highest point. We savour the moment to the full.
And as we head back down to base camp, we experience a deep sense of inner happiness. We’ve done it! All in all, the fact we are experienced at mountain hiking in central Europe, makes very little difference when it comes to hiking in the tropics through unfamiliar terrain. It’s a sweaty business. So, make sure you pack enough water and food. For us, it was straight to the beach after that to dip our feet in the sea! 🙂