In early December 1956, Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, Ernesto (Che) Guevara, and a group of idealist revolutionaries, including some who had previously stormed the barracks in Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo, sailed back to Cuba from exile in Mexico with weapons and an audacious plan: to overthrow, once and for all, the Batista government. They set sail aboard a yacht christened the Granma, purchased from a couple of Americans in Veracruz. The stealth journey was beset by all manner of hitches, including bad weather and scarce provisions. Just 82 men disembarked at Las Coloradas beach 2 days later than planned, with few weapons and virtually no supplies.
Batista forces had been tipped off to the operation, and prompt aerial bombing killed about half the rebels; the others fled for the mountains in small groups. After suffering an ambush, only 16 men remained, and when the survivors eventually met up at Cinco Palmas in the Sierra Maestra, only a dozen men remained. They had but eight rifles to their names. Against monumental odds, they nonetheless began to plan their offensive. Batista, no doubt convinced that the attempted sedition had been effectively quashed, announced to the world that Castro and the other leaders had been killed and withdrew government forces from the area -- a fatal mistake.
Crafty Castro slowly but surely began to gain adherents and advance the rebel cause of the 26th of July movement. Astonishingly, a band of just over a dozen fighters at the campaign's inception -- propped up by a growing network of guajiros (poor rural farmers) and vast, inaccessible terrain -- somehow ended up toppling the Batista regime just 2 years later.
Today, the spot where the rebels landed ashore, at the southwestern tip of Cuba near Cabo Cruz, is a national park, Parque Nacional del Desembarco del Granma (admission CUC$5; open daily 7am-6pm). A monument features a replica of the Granma; the real vessel is in the Museo de la Revolución in Havana.
Cuba's highest and longest mountain range stretches about 140km (87 miles) west to east, across three provinces: Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo. Its highest peaks are only several kilometers from the coastline, making for some exciting views, whether you're perched up in the mountains or cruising along the coast. The entire range forms part of the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, and its thickly forested, rugged terrain, with steep, deep green mountains swathed in wispy clouds, is impenetrable for most traffic, though the area is splendid for hikers. While there are many trails just begging to be explored, until recently most remained closed to the public; hard-core hikers should perhaps anticipate encountering some closed trail heads. The heart of the Gran Parque is a park-within-a-park, the Parque Nacional de Turquino, which includes Turquino, the nation's highest summit at just under 2,000m (6,562 ft.).
Deep folds and craggy ravines make these mountains very inaccessible, and they are, not surprisingly, very sparsely populated, with only small numbers of guajiros (poor rural farmers) -- many of whose families once gave shelter and support to the rebels in their midst -- living very simply in bohíos (thatched-roof huts) with no electricity or running water. Also tucked away in the mountain range are dozens of endemic species of birds and plants.
Unless you're a physically prepared hiker with all your own equipment and several days or more for hikes, your best bet is to head to Turquino Park, where there is, at least, minimal infrastructure; there's also the lasting legacy of Fidel Castro and his committed band of rebels, which formed the Comandancia de La Plata, a base command for their guerrilla war in 1956 after returning from exile in Mexico (see "Dear Granma,"). The two main trails into the mountains are the Pico Turquino Trail and the La Plata Trail; the latter visits the rebels' base camp.
The road south from Bayamo is a long, lush, tropical adventure; it cuts through beautiful sugar-cane fields where pigs, peacocks, and machete-wielding farmers roam, with the rounded, green peaks of the Sierra Maestra looming in the background. Villa Santo Domingo, 65km (40 miles) south of Bayamo by a good road, is where you'll find the entrance to the national park, as well as a rustic hotel and restaurant that serve as a perfect base camp for those who want to trace the trail of Fidel and Che, ascend Pico Turquino, or just explore the rugged beauty of the national park. The Hotel Villa Santo Domingo (tel. 23/56-5568; www.islazul.cu), where Fidel and his brother Raúl have been frequent guests in the past (Fidel favored cabin no. 6), sits down a bit on the left side of the road, on the banks of the Yara River. The 20 attractive little cabins have twin beds, private bathrooms, air-conditioning, TVs, solar-powered hot water, and fridges. They cost CUC$34 to CUC$37 double, including breakfast. Also on the grounds are a good restaurant and outdoor grill, as well as a bar, and video/game room. Even for those not staying at the hotel, the rustic, open-air Restaurant La Yamagua is the best place to eat in the area if you didn't bring your own provisions. For groups, the restaurant does a good parrillada (barbecue) of cerdo asado (roast pork), salad, rice, dessert, and coffee for CUC$14 per person. The menu includes standards of comida criolla (Cuban creole food), several different preparations of chicken, and pork steak.
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.