By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Cuba calls to mind beaches, breezes, and the ocean, but in the geographic center of the largest of the Antilles lies a mountainous region where long pants and sturdy boots are not only more appropriate, but actually the only way to venture out on the tree-lined trails of Topes de Collantes Nature Park.
Topes de Collantes is a 70-mile natural protected area found in the Escambray range, or Macizo de Guamuhaya. Although the massif spreads over three provinces (Sancti Spíritus, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos), the Park sits 2,625 feet above sea level and 430 feet below Potrerillo Peak, the mountain range’s highest point.
The air smells of salt and life revolves around the sea on the Cuban coast, but Topes is a different world: the landscape is green, very green, and the forest is still blurred by mist at eight in the morning. On the coast, shorts and sandals are appropriate for the oppressive heat, even with the ameliorating effect of the sea breeze; Topes requires a light coat, at least during the coolest part of the day.
Ascent to Topes
My journey to Topes began in a room in the Costasur hotel in the city of Trinidad on the Ancón peninsula. I remember it now, because it was a night for memories. I stayed in a cabin with an enormous window looking out to the sea. Engrossed in the landscape and the sound of the waves, I turned off the air conditioner, opened the windows, and let in the world offered to me by that Cuban coastline. I slept, cradled by the wind and the stars.
The next day, my inclination was to spend another night there, but I nonetheless packed to leave. The journey would continue around this beautiful land of Cuba: a Cuba sometimes splintered and sometimes harmonious, a Cuba scorned, a Cuba of bearded revolutionaries, and also of blogger Yoani. There is the Cuba of magnificent, romantic landscapes and the Cuba of overflowing drains, the Cuba of hitchhiking on the highway, all-inclusive hotels, and children shooting marbles by the side of the road. In short, the Cuba of utopias faced with reality.
My journey around the island had already allowed me a peek at the city of Havana, two nights in Cayo Santa María, a pass through Caibarién, and visits to the party town of Remedios and the legendary Santa Clara, “home of Che Guevara.” Now I was headed for Topes de Collantes along a winding, mountain road, which sometimes disappeared into the trees and other times opened up to reveal more of its beauty.
The first stop was the park’s Information Center, where an enormous sundial in the ground draws the eye. There we meet our guide and set out in a military truck that digs in and roars like an enraged animal as it makes its way along the asphalt and stone it must travel to reach Hacienda Codina, which is the departure point for the hike.
The exuberant greenery along the road, featuring palm trees and giant ferns, is refreshing. Ginger lilies, Cuba’s national flower, perfume the air here and there. At the Hacienda, the guide explains the park’s various hiking options ―with different degrees of difficulty― but our limited time prods us to choose an easy, three-hour ramble.
Into the Forest
The mountainous Topes de Collantes region is ideal for growing coffee. The tour begins with an introduction to some of the varieties that are, or have been, grown here: arabigo, robusta, excelsa, olivera, San Ramón, bourbon, and yellow Caturra, among others, this last variety being the most commonly planted in Cuba.
Further on is the Casa del Café, a farm-style house where tourists are shown how the coffee is ground in small batches and prepared. This makes for a pleasant interlude at the Casa del Café, since it is still cold in the hills —unlike the coastal area— and a hot coffee goes down well. The difficulty lies in deciding among the twenty-three types of hot and cold coffee beverages. The menu features choices like Potrerillo, Guaniguical, Irish Coffee, The Explorer, Mexican Coffee, Antilles Coffee, Liqueur Coffee, Deep Black, and Carajillo. Cold beverages include Kahlua Dreams, Vodka Coffee, Chilled Marisol, and Miss Ochún.
The “real tour” begins after a short rest. The guide starts by letting us taste a hibiscus flower, which he assures us is non-toxic. I accept the flower and chew; the blossom tastes like a communion wafer, in other words, like nothing. It is used to make tea, and some people claim it is an aphrodisiac. Frankly, I think it is better left as an ornamental flower.
Along the road, the guide names the trees, enumerating their properties and uses. My poor memory has unfortunately not managed to retain this information. What I do remember is standing at the mouth of a cave and seeing the guide’s enthusiastic face, inviting us to follow him. “It’s just 2,625 feet,” he explains, and it can be done on foot. Apprehensive, but propelled by curiosity, I bent down to breach the entrance to that cavity in the ground, with its stalactites and the pervasive, lonely, rhythmic sound of water filtering in from the surface.
The caves are both magical and macabre. We know that our ancestors lived in caves, but I cannot imagine life in such darkness. While the impenetrable blackness makes me want to flee, a flashlight shows me the poetic side of a space best-suited ―in my view― to bats, spiders, and ghosts. Bemused, I observe my shadow as it coalesces and disintegrates in tune with the moving halo of light. There is the squeak of a bat, of many bats together. The human voice echoes here, turning this into a perfect spot for a game of echoes. “I’m here!” I say, almost whispering in that noisy silence, and the vaulted space magnifies my voice and repeats “…heeere, heeere, heeere!” It is a good place to be a child again.
It was definitely a novel experience, but seeing the light at the end of the tunnel ―literally― was a great relief. Outside the cave is a lookout point from which the discerning eye can see the Valley of the Sugar Mills, Trinidad, and even Ancón Beach. I could not identify the places pointed out by the guide, but the panorama was lovely anyway.
A Mystical Place
Following the guide, we reach a place called “Yoga Corner,” a niche in the forest with waterways, gentle waterfalls, and a gazebo for meditation and practicing yoga poses. It is truly relaxing, since the sound of the water is interrupted only by the birdsong that resonates from all sides. In Topes, there have been recorded sightings of more than one hundred species of birds, 45% of which are native to the country. One of the most sought after is the Cuban trogon, considered Cuba’s national bird, since it sports the colors of the flag: blue, red, and white. This mountain retreat also shelters parrots, Cuban bullfinches, hawks, and the Fernandina’s flicker, among many others.
A few steps further on, a rock wall appears to lean down to embrace the foliage. Corrugated and dressed in a patina of green and yellow, it shades rustic wood benches that invite visitors to sit, look, feel, and think.
The Topes experiences end in the dining room of the Hacienda Codina, with a lunch that includes black beans and rice and roast pork, among other delicacies. Back on the roaring truck, the Park’s landscape begins to thin out as we descend the highway, fading into a coastal road leading to Cienfuegos, the land of Benny Moré. But that is another story.
Attractions in Topes de Collantes
Given enough time and the right conditions, it is worth setting aside several days for the attractions of the province of Sancti Spíritus, which include the much-visited city of Trinidad, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, and Topes de Collantes Nature Park. Travelers can choose from a variety of sites:
• Caburní Waterfall: the most popular hike, which passes coffee plantations and traditional farm houses. It ends at the Caburní River, where a 200-foot waterfall cascades into several natural pools.
• Vegas Grandes: for hikers in good condition, as the trail ascends at a 45-degree slope. The effort is rewarded at the end by a gorgeous waterfall and a natural pool for cooling off.
• La Batata: the biggest attraction is the system of caves and the several natural pools with healing properties.
• Hacienda Codina: medicinal mud baths, medicinal and ornamental gardens, an orchid collection, a bamboo grove, Lovers’ Island, Yoga Corner, and Altar Cave.
• La Represa Park: located on the banks of Vega Grande River, it boasts an arboretum featuring more than three hundred exotic species.