March 1, 2017
We were up at our usual time, 6:45 am, to finish packing and have breakfast. Today we were heading to the mountains of Topes de Collantes National Park for some hiking, and the bus was picking us up at 8 am.
The first part of the trip to the mountains was in our own bus, and then we transferred into a Russian truck (painted in camouflage colours) which would take us up into the park. It was an open truck but at least we were facing forwards so it wasn’t hard on the back. Definitely windier though.
Our Russian truck
From the main road we went gradually uphill past cattle farms at first, and then past coffee plantations as we got higher. Some of the hills were really steep, so the truck drivers did a lot of gearing down. We saw a few cyclists labouring up the hills as we roared by.
View over the Caribbean
Once at the visitor centre we met our local guide, Alexey, and he gave us a quick talk about the area before we loaded our bags into the Russian truck. It took us a short distance uphill to a trailhead, from where the truck left with our bags and we headed up the trail with our small backpacks on. The first part of the trail was reasonably level but it soon climbed quite steeply to a low pass. Along the way Alexey would stop and point out various trees and plants, telling us about their medicinal uses—one reduced cholesterol in the blood, one produced insulin against diabetes, and so on.
Trail through the forest
Our guide Alexey
We may have been in a national park, but there were coffee plantations and small farms with pigs and chickens. We stopped at one of the farms and the lady there brought out a basket of fresh, ripe bananas for us. From there we went down, soon reaching the road leading to our destination. The hike was supposed to be 9 km according to our tour description, but Rosemary’s Strava measurement said it was 3.4 km. Quite a difference!
Our group at the top of the hill
Our home for tonight was Hacienda Gallega, which was in a lovely location next to the Rio Melodioso. The building was for food and drink, and next door was a camping area. There were tents set up on concrete platforms, with wooden roofs above them to keep off the sun and rain. Most of them had tears or broken zippers, so we opted for one which was reasonably intact. We dumped our packs inside and then went down for lunch. There were fruit slices to start, followed by tomatoes, cucumbers, and sliced meat along with an interesting style of pizza. Not your typical crust, but more like a corn bread topped with white cheese and ham bits. It was very tasty.
Our tent site
After lunch most of us set of on a hike to the local waterfall. Some of our group were sick, and we were hoping that John’s flu wouldn’t make the rounds. On the hike we were joined by David and Beatrice, a pair of independent travellers who had been put with us for administrative convenience. David was a keen birder so we could compare notes about what we’d seen so far.
The hike followed the river upstream through lush forest, sometimes close to the river and sometimes higher up the bank. Those of us who were birding got left behind, but José stayed with us as “end man” and found us the Cuban Trogon which we had missed this morning. After some quick walking to catch up, we all came to the swimming area, which was a lovely lake with a small waterfall above it. Some of the group went for a swim in the lake, and a few of us went on for another few hundred meters to the much taller waterfall.
Swimmers in the lake
Waterfall “El Rocio”
That was well worth the effort, because Alexey pointed out a hutia, a very large endangered rat which was similar in size to a beaver. It was perched high up on the cliffs next to the waterfall. On further examination of photos it looked as if there were three hutias up there. We stayed at the falls for a few minutes and then returned to the lake to wait for the others to finish swimming. After they were out of the lake Paul noticed a small bird splashing about, which turned out to be a Least Grebe. David was very pleased with that because it was a lifer for him.
Hutias on the cliff
Back at the camp we had a drink and waited for dinner, which was at 7:30 pm. Tonight we had chicken with rice and potatoes, accompanied by the usual fruit and veggie plates. Dessert was guava puree accompanied by white cheese. After dinner it was dark, so we went up to organize our tent. We had brought lightweight sleeping bags and light bag liners, which were quite enough for the temperature here.
March 2, 2017
We had to get up quite early this morning, but that wasn’t really a problem because there was a large gathering of chickens and roosters on the grassy slope where our tents were located. The roosters started crowing at 3:30 am and every half-hour after that. Breakfast was at 7:30 am so that we would have an early start for today’s hike.
Black-throated Blue Warbler
After loading up the Russian truck we climbed up to our seats and headed out. The first part of our route took us back to the main road, past the park centre. We stopped at a roadside stall to buy fruit, and also bought some nougat, sesame bars, and a honey peanut bar, all homemade. Must support private enterprise in Cuba! Back on the bus we continued along the road to a coffee demonstration area. Here we did a short walk through the garden, learning about the different varieties of coffee, and then headed across the road to the coffee shop and museum.
Roadside snack stand
Alexey showed us some of the implements used while processing the coffee beans. They are not in use today, of course, but had been used in earlier days. Outside the museum there was a small shop selling souvenirs, and on display were several hand-painted pictures of birds, which were all really good. We bought a lovely picture of a Cuban Tody.
Coffee tree on display
Before long we were at the start of the trail, the Sendero La Batata. (The batata is a freshwater shrimp which lives in the local streams.) We walked through lovely forests with groves of bamboo scattered among the trees. The route wasn’t flat at all, it had us going up steeply in places and down just as steeply. We did see some good birds, as Cuba is full of wintering warblers at this time of year. After a couple of hours or so we arrived at our camp for tonight, Hacienda Codina, just in time for lunch.
Cuban Green Woodpecker
We had a welcome cocktail, which this time was the house specialty. Its name was “Jincila” and it included ginger roots and honey. Today we had a light lunch, just soup and fruit, because tonight we would be having spit-roasted pork.
Welcome cocktails being made
Hacienda Codina was located in a lovely setting, with lots of birds and flowers. We opted to sleep in a tent rather than on the veranda, so we found a tent which was in quite good shape, in particular with a working zipper! We stashed our bags in the tent and then got ready for the afternoon walk.
Magic Carpet Trail
The walk was a short one, taking us on a circular route to a viewpoint from where we could see Trinidad and the Caribbean. On the way back we went by the area where a man was turning the spit to cook the pig over a charcoal fire, and took a group picture here. This was our dinner being cooked, and when dinner arrived the pig was excellent, flavoured with orange.
Our group with dinner
At dinner we asked Alexey about his name, and he told us that he was born in the days when the Soviet Union was a friend of Cuba. Lots of people got Russian names in those days, he said. He said his came from a Russian pilot but he didn’t elaborate on that.
After dinner somebody found a box of dominoes in the hacienda, so we took turns playing. These dominoes didn’t go from 0 to 6 like the ones we remembered from when we were kids, they went from 0 to 9. So it took us a little while to get used to 7, 8, and 9. And the rules we were using removed most strategies so winning a game was basically down to the luck of the draw.