Hiking In The Sierra
Hiking deep into the Sierra Maestra is a superbly rewarding experience for any hiker, but -- given the mountains' historic role in the success of the Revolution and the fact that much of the Sierra remains a military zone -- the Cuban government zealously protects access to it. By law, you need permission and a guide to explore the national park. Remember, Fidel's cronies hid from Batista's forces and the CIA for more than 2 years in the dense forest of the Sierra, so finding your way around is a complicated task. Park authorities don't look kindly upon foreigners seeking to explore the park on their own.
Guides can be contracted at the official entrance to the national park, the Centro de Visitantes, about 200m (656 ft.) along the road beyond the Hotel Villa Santo Domingo. It is open daily from 7:30 to 10am. Visitors now pay a minimum CUC$20 fee to enter the park, which includes a guide for hikes into the Sierra. An additional CUC$5 is payable to take pictures of La Comandancia. This also is the spot to arrange for treks and bird-watching. You will need to arrive with all necessary gear, as no one in the area rents equipment. The center offers a number of different hikes and prices. All prices are per person and include a guide:
To gain access to the Pico Turquino or La Plata trail, hikers must either climb or take a 4WD (CUC$5 return) that takes 15 minutes one-way, or a tough-as-nails flatbed truck (CUC$5 return) that takes 45 minutes one-way; the trip is up a treacherously steep paved road, with thrilling hairpin turns, to Alto de Naranjo, 5km (3 miles) from the visitor center. A minimum number of 10 to 12 hikers is usually required for the truck service.
Places to get more information about trekking in the Sierra Maestra are Agencia de Reservaciones del Campismo (Cubamar), General García 211, Bayamo (tel. 23/42-4200), and Islazul, General García 207, Bayamo (tel./fax 23/42-3273), which runs the Villa Santo Domingo hotel at the entrance to the park. However, it is much cheaper to arrive independently at the national park or with a hired carro particular (private Cuban's car) to arrange a hike than it is to book through Cubamar whose prices are exorbitant.
The hike to Pico Turquino, the highest summit in Cuba, requires a minimum of 2 nights in the area (1 night camping). The trek from Alto de Naranjo is about 15km (9 miles). Experienced, fast hikers can do the ascent and descent in a day, but most people choose to camp overnight at the refugio (refuge), several kilometers below the summit. The trek through an amazing array of tropical ferns, vines, and dense cloud forest, punctuated by the sharp calls of unseen birds, is terrific, with stunning panoramic views all around, and is only really difficult at the steep end. It gets quite cold at night, so make sure you're prepared with proper clothing and equipment.
Comandancia de la Plata
Though not nearly as challenging a hike -- you can do the 6km (4 miles) up and back in about 3 hours -- the trail to La Plata perched on a mountain ridge reverberates with thrilling history, no matter on which side of the political fence you fall. Visiting the rudimentary installations of Fidel Castro's rebel base camp is a remarkable experience. When you learn the story of the rebellion and visit the crude installations from which Fidel directed his offensive, it's hard not to have at least some appreciation for why this man clung so tenaciously to power and the ideals of the Revolution: Look what he did to get there.
After about 20 minutes on the trail, about 800m (2,625 ft.) above sea level, hikers come to the Alto de Medina, a small wooden house. At the entrance to the base camp, it was the checkpoint building. Farther up along the trail, you come to a small museum about the revolutionary guerrilla warfare waged in these mountains. You'll see what, at one time, was a small hospital, and eventually, you'll arrive at the huts where Fidel lived with his compañera (partner) Celia Sánchez. Fidel never allowed anyone but Celia inside the shack; the bench outside the door where he conducted interviews is still there. Ingeniously constructed under the cover of thick forest, the installations make it quite apparent how the rebels eluded capture and assassination. The hilltop rising above the camp is where the guerrillas covertly erected the antenna to broadcast their rebel message on the nascent Radio Rebelde.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.