Travels with V
“I think we can win this!”
Sierra Maestra part one
Our next stop is Bayamo, on the threshold of the mighty Sierra Maestra. A town of a couple of hundred thousand residents that was a stronghold in the 18th and 19th centuries because of profitable smuggling. It has a few pretty squares and you get a nice view of the once strong river of Cauto, now merely a creek in a dry river bed.
But we’re going further south, up into the mountains themselves, on narrowing roads, bumpier and more and more winding. Bartolomé Maso is the last village that we pass, then we arrive at Santo Domingo, and the road comes to an end.
Though that’s not entirely true. One side road to the right leads up to the entrance of the Sierra Maestra National Park. And on our left there is a footpath leading across an almost dried-out river bed, and we see a few houses on the other side. We’re at our next goal, the Casa Sierra Maestra that we will call our home for the next few days.
It’s a casa particular of a very basic kind. A room with brown plywood walls, a bed and not much more *). But what matters more are the magnificent surroundings and the exceptional hospitality of the owners, Ulises and his wife and master chef Eva.
At the gates to the national park we wait for a guide and a car to take us high up in the mountains, and from there we walk quite a long hike over ridges and through ravines to La Commendancia de la Plata, the base camp for the revolutionary guerilla in the years before the fall of the Batista regime. The camp consists of a number of huts well hidden under the jungle canopy. Up on the mountain top stood the transmitter for Radio Rebelde, the radio station that spread the message of revolution all over the country.
Batista’s air force searched the Sierra Maestra numerous times but couldn’t detect the camp, that’s how desolate it was. Today much of it is still there, e.g. Fidel’s house that was where the top staff met. It had an ingenious construction to survive an attack, where a whole wall could be lifted up for a quick escape.
The Commendancia was a perfect spot for the revolutionary build-up, but it hadn’t started out so well. The original 82 guerillas that went from Mexico with the motor yatch “Granma” landed in a marshland and was almost immediately discovered by Batista’s troops and fired upon. For three days the survivors were crawling slowly through fields while bombs fell all around them. Eventually only 13 men managed to meet up at the decided meeting place in Sierra Maestra. Their spirits were of course low, but Fidel looked around and said enthusiastically: “I think we can win this!”
The highest point in Sierra Maestra and the tallest mountain in Cuba is Pico Turquino, 1 975 meters above sea level. It’s sometimes called Pico Sueco, the Swedish mountain, because the first one to climb it was a Swedish botanist, Erik Ekman, in 1922. An information poster tells about Ekman’s remarkable deed, and there’s also a reprint of an old photo of the wild-west-style hotel in the “Swedish” settlement in Bayate, from which Ekman set out on his travels.
Erik Ekman was born in Stockholm but grew up in the country town of Jönköping. Even though he is one of Sweden’s, if not the world’s foremost botanists he is virtually unknown in his home country. His adult life was spent in the Caribbean where he furiously collected and registered local plants. He stayed 10 years in Cuba and then continued to Hispanola (today Haiti & the Dominican Republic) where he died, 47 years old. In 1915 he was the first person to climb the high points of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and one of the highest was named Pico Suecia, The Swedish Peak .
Back from the hike in the mountains we are offered cold beer by Ulises and we are placed in two rocking chairs on the veranda. Rocking chairs are extremely common in Cuba, you see them in practically every home. Relaxed we sit sipping our beers when suddenly a thunderstorm appears. The thunderclaps sound like bombs, the echoes thrown back and forth between the mountains, and the rain pours down like a waterfall. But after half an hour it’s over and the sun is back.
*) Today Ulises has built a much more robust house for his guests. And the bridges across the river are also upgraded!
We love Casa Sierra Maestra so much that we stay for a couple of extra days, riding, swimming, being eaten by fish… in the next chapter!