With the onset of cold weather, quarantine, and the end of the holidays, I've finally found some free time to get back to writing. Luckily, I took such detailed notes during our trip to Cuba that I am always able to pick this story back up right where I last left off...
On our fifth day in Cuba, we are off on yet another adventure. We leave Cienfuegos behind and head up into the Sierra Escambray mountains to El Nicho waterfalls. El Nicho is located in the Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, about an hour and a half drive from Cienfuegos, depending on the weather. The section of the park that goes by this name is made up of several natural pools and a series of waterfalls. Locals say it is one of Cuba's most beautiful natural wonders.
As we climb up the mountains, I'm a bit surprised to see power lines this high up. I ask Tony how long it would take to have the lines up here repaired if they were damaged in a storm. "Maybe 15, 20 days," he replies nonchalantly as if this is completely normal. We pass through Crucitas, a ramshackle town with a one room schoolhouse, and Tony remarks, "This is the real poor" as he showing us a 'shop' and 'nightclub.' The tiny roadside shop has been open for almost two weeks now, the first one here, Tony says. He leans out the window and asks the shop owner if she has any cheese--"No."
Tony says the top point of this area is 800m above sea level; the topology of Cuba is obviously not as flat as one would think. "The last time I was here 15 days ago," he comments, "the rain was terrible. There was a point where the river was so high, I could not cross to the falls." We are visiting in the rainy season, and floods like that are apparently not out of the normal in the mountains. We cross our fingers that we will not encounter any problems today.
We bump, twist and turn climbing up and down the rough mountain road. "I have seen many old timers [cars] broken down along this road," Tony remarks. Good luck getting a tow truck up here, I think to myself, glad we are in a vehicle with four wheel drive.
When we arrive at El Nicho, we don long sleeves and pants despite the heat and humidity. We also put on plenty of insect repellant. According to Tony, the area is known for its hordes of mosquitos, and where there are mosquitos, there are typically mosquito borne illnesses. For once, I am not prepared for this contingency, and I have to borrow a pair of my husband's track pants. While it's not the most flattering of looks, neither are legs covered in welts. Once we're safely covered up, Tony hands us off to a local guide, Luis. Luis first takes us through a hike to the lower pools for a look around and then up to a good spot in front of the largest falls for pictures. After, he guides us to the upper pool for a swim in the crisp, clear water. The water is COLD, so we make our swim fairly brief, but it's wonderful to cool off after the hiking, taking in the small falls spritzing above us up close.
Next, we're off the the highest point in the area to take in a scenic overlook. Viewing the lush, rainforest like scenery and mountainous landscape, you almost forget you're in Cuba for a second. Finally, we hike back down via a different route to take in a different section of the park. Just as we get to the end of the trail--and the restaurant we will be eating lunch at--the skies open up. We get under the outdoor restaurant's tin roof with seconds to spare. The rain pounds down on the tin roof; the noise is almost deafening. We thank Luis for a wonderful morning and sit down to lunch, very grateful to have just missed the deluge.
Lunch, like many of our meals in Cuba, is surprisingly good and consists of fresh local ingredients. We are served pork, fruit (oranges and grapefruit), salad (cabbage, carrots and peas), roasted squash, rice and beans, and beer. We also order some piña coladas; when in the tropics--and caught in the rain--it just seems appropriate. Finally, for dessert, we are served some local papaya and café con leche.
There are two local men serenading the gathered diners with their guitars, and I recognize the song "La Bamba" from my childhood. While I'm familiar with the song from the U.S. adaptations, it actually originated as a Mexican folk song. It's so interesting how music is truly the universal language, crossing both countries and generations.
There is also a young local artist sitting at one of the tables nearby, sketching pictures of the diners. He comes by with one of my husband and leaves it at our table. We thank him and tip him a CUC, for which he vigorously thanks us. It's disarming how much thanks a CUC gets in the poorer areas of Cuba. It's a lovely souvenir, complete with his signature and a little Cuban flag. We ask him to do one for me, as well, and he gladly sits down at our table to focus on the drawing. He spends a good portion of time on mine, and I'm quite happy with the likeness--the perfect keepsake to remember our day. After another CUC in gratitude for his hard work (and another vigorous round thanks), we are ready to head out with Tony. The downpour has finally let up, and we happily take our local souvenirs--safely tucked away--back to the jeep.
On the way back down the mountain, we spot some local children sitting outdoors on a dilapidated covered porch and offer them some of the coloring books and crayons we have brought with us from home. They excitedly accept. Such a small gesture makes for so many smiles. Tony says that their parents will have them carefully use every page and every crayon, rationing the small gift to make it last as long as possible. In seeing their reactions and hearing this, I feel guilty about broken, discarded crayons and half-used coloring books littering our toy room at home, destined for the trash. The poverty in Cuba is very real, and it truly makes one appreciate all of the things we take for granted on a daily basis in our own lives.
As we head toward our next stop, the colorful city of Trinidad for two nights, the sun comes out, and we take in the lush countryside around us dotted with horses and cows. It's so bucolic. The tranquil atmosphere--minus the road's ever-present and enormous potholes--is perfect for reflecting on our trip thus far. The rough road and peaceful scenery get me thinking about what a paradoxical country Cuba is--one suffused with natural beauty but crumbling, ramshackle cities; free education but a lack of supplies or access to technology; an ideology strictly against entrepreneurship but a reliance on its existence for its people's survival... Yet despite this contradictory environment, Cubans find a way to endure. They work around the crumbling infrastructure, have over a 99% literacy rate, and use their talents (art, music, history, cooking) to earn a living--whether questionably legal or not. Like the El Nicho river earlier and the road we are traveling on now, Cubans find a way through life's challenges despite the falls and rough patches they may encounter along the way.
Photo Credit: Kyle Perkins