When you mention Cuba, most people immediately think of Havana or Varadero for their holidays.
But those towns are tiny dots on Cuba’s map.
cuba-huge-nature-reserve16Around 23% of Cuba is a totally unspoilt natural environment, plus Unesco Heritage towns, centuries old.
There are 13 National Botanical Gardens, with mountains, lakes, evergreen forests, and spectacular waterfalls hidden amongst them all.
Because there aren’t many made-up roads in Cuba, we travelled around a lot of the time on strong ex-military lorries, known as Russian limousines!
After a brief tropical downpour, roads were transformed into rivers and mud-trails. The lorries cruised effortlessly through them all.
Just as well. There was no way that I was getting out to push!
We rarely saw any other vehicles. The few residents came out to stare as we passed their simple shacks. Children waved while women nursed babies. Packs of dogs glanced up, then they ignored us. Some of them walked in front of us and refused to move until a blast of the hooter sent them scuttling to the side of the road.
There is a choice of guided walks through the forests and swamps, varying in difficulty.
Hiking boots are a must for most of them. It’s wet and slippery in the rain forests even when the weather’s hot and dry outside.
cuba-huge-nature-reserve10I wouldn’t class myself as a walker. It’s not my favourite pastime. But walking slowly in a group, surrounded by the most stunning scenery, and stopping regularly, it’s surprising how much I achieved.
We plodded along behind our guide, stepping over tree roots, balancing delicately along tree trunks across rivers, clutching ropes, pausing to stare at a plant, or listen to the sound of a bird. Our guide knew the names of them all. He pointed out the tocororo, Cuba’s National bird, perched high up in a tree, hidden in the branches. It’s call sounds like ‘Tocororo!’
Everyone helped each other. The men stood on rocks, offering hands across the streams and rivers.
Mariposas, Spanish for butterflies due to their shape, are the Cuban national flower. Their beautiful white blooms are seen everywhere, and the sweet, lily-like scent wafts towards us as we walk.
There is also a perfume with the same name, made out of the flowers.
Eyes on the ground, we climb up and down the steps, often originally dug out by coffee growers’ slaves.
cuba-huge-nature-reserve04Sometimes I look up, and realise that I’m walking along a narrow ledge with a long drop down through the trees to the river below. But I never felt in any danger.
In Los Helechos, we crossed the Hanabanilla Lake by boat, then walked along a path to join the original trail. Due to global warming, the lake’s level is a lot lower than it used to be.
Just 21 families live in the area and help to protect its environment.
We came upon a small shack in the middle of nowhere. It had a corrugated iron roof. The floors were dirt, and flimsy net curtains separated the bedrooms.
In the front porch stood a giant wooden pestle and mortar, where they grind the coffee. In an emergency, they can bang the pestle against the side, playing a distinctive tune. The sound carries a long way. The next neighbour will immediately spread the word that they need help, probably by banging their own coffee grinder.
Out in the garden, a solar panel on a pole is a modern addition to their way of life.
They made us coffee as real as you can get; picked, ground, and cooked for us, served with bananas from their trees.
cuba-huge-nature-reserve08Lovely. I tried to ignore their primitive washing-up arrangements; a drop of recycled water in an old bucket. I complain about chemicals in our food making me bad. This was, um, natural. And, no, I had no upsetting side-effects from it.
We met the grandfather, son and grandson. They were stunningly good-looking, even in their ragged clothes. Eyes shone with character, despite, or because of their basic way of life. Their weather-beaten faces were an artist’s delight. They were very shy at first. They don’t get to hold many conversations with strangers. But when we left, they silently walked with us for several miles. I think they enjoyed the contact.
We reached a high waterfall, gushing down into a crystal-clear pond. The grandson stripped down to his pants and leaped over the side. He enjoyed the admiration. Some of our group stepped gingerly downwards and dived in the icy water.
Back at our boat, we looked behind us. There were the men, sitting in a small rowing-boat, waving to us. It would probably be a long time before they had company again.