Bayamo and the Sierra Maestra

Full set of Bayamo and Sierra Maestra photos are here

If you’re going to start a revolution in a very hot climate it makes sense to me to set up your base in the mountains.  That’s sure as hell what I would do.  No slogging it out on the hot plains for me, I would be sitting up in the cloud forest with a jungle garden and a group of female fighters while my enemies slogged around in the forest looking for me.  Fidel Castro and I are of the same mind on this, in fact this was exactly the blueprint Castro followed in his guerilla campaign of 1958 and ’59.  I might be glossing over the difficulties of his situation slightly but from what we saw of his jungle hideout he had a pretty sweet six months up there.

We got to the hideout by a less arduous method than the revolutionaries although there was still a muddy jungle trek to content with.  From Camaguey we went south to the small and sleepy town of Bayamo where we discovered that not all casas are created equally (although they all charge a very similar price).  As in Camaguey when we arrived at the casa we had booked we were given the palm off to a nearby casa, not that there was much difference in our minds as we arranged the original casa through the unofficial casa owners network and had no idea what the place was like.  As a result of the palm off we ended up in a basic room with lumpy beds above a blaring TV, but in had air-con so I’ll quit my whinging now.  To be fair they did serve up one of the nicest breakfasts in one of the worst settings.  We were jammed into a dining room with barely enough room for the small table, jammed in between the kitchen and the living room.  A random assortment of people watched a soap opera (which was quite entertaining) while omelette was cooked for us with half decent cheese and ham.  Add some fresh rolls, the option of peanut butter and plenty of fresh fruit and we were in breakfast heaven.  It always pays to have fat hosts.

We shifted after that to the old hotel on the main square which was not much more expensive and a whole lot quieter.  They had clocks in the lobby showing the time in London, Spain, Berlin and Cuba, but the Cuban clock had stopped running.  Time has stopped for Cuban food as well.  We ate in the hotel restaurant one night just from lack of choice.  We ordered two ‘salade naturelles’ which it turns out is sliced cucumber on a plate (one for each of us) with an unidentified white creamy substance on the skin of the cucumber which I hoped was cheese that had been left on the knife while the cucumber was being sliced.  We were the only people in the 50-seater restaurant and were scratching the depths of conversation for an hour.  Given that we are doing almost everything together and lack no opportunity for talking, extra talking time over dinner can be a bit redundant.  Finally our very tasty traditional rice dish arrived, much like a risotto, served in typical surly government-run restaurant fashion by our waitress.

There is no greater example of the differences between the capitalist free market system and the communist system than the way it affects customer service.  I don’t wish to trivialise communist revolutions but it is the most striking difference for a tourist.  The capitalist free market is represented by the touts who bend over backwards to sell you something, anything that you want they can find.  They are pushy and obnoxious but incredibly useful in getting things done.  The workers in government-run restaurants and hotels represent the communist system.  They have no incentive for you to enjoy your stay as their job is secure and funded.  As a result most of the time when you enter they look as though you’ve just inconvenienced them by disturbing their spare time as they sit bored in the empty restaurant.  Dining in a government-run restaurant in Cuba is the closest I have come to an authentic Fawlty Towers experience.

Bayamo is a quiet town.  One of our most exciting nights was when we had a beer overlooking the trickle of a creek.  A couple of flies were walking across the table, which was pretty exciting in itself, but then our new best friend, Mr Green Lizard, wandered onto the table and proceded to pounce on and catch six flies in a row.  We were just entranced watching him sneak up and catch these flies with a lightning fast lunge.  We started to will more flies to land on the table so that we could watch him catch more.  Eventually his belly must have been so full of fly that he jumped off the table to sit in the sun and digest.

From Bayamo we took a taxi to Santo Domingo in the heart of the Sierra Maestra range.  Santo Domingo is one dirt street but what a setting!  Nestled in a verdant valley peppered with pigs and goats, banana trees, sugar cane and coffee plantations you couldn’t ask for a more peaceful or picturesque setting.  We stayed in the government hotel and got the expected government service at lunch but for dinner that night we went to a local paladar, which is the restaurant equivalent to casa particulares, home run enterprises that have been licensed by the government to serve the public.  Here we had stewed goat and crispy banana chips, the best in Cuba so far.  We also had a guava milkshake, the first and only example of this delicious treat that we had while in the country.  If you’re ever in the area, we don’t know the ladies name but just ask for the paladar next door to the library, it’s well worth it.

We had an appetite that night because we had earned it with a walk through the jungle to one of Castro’s bases in his guerilla fight against Batista.  In a very brief summary, Castro first attacked the Batista government in a bungled raid on the barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city in Cuba at the other end of the island.  This happened in 1953 but when he was caught Castro was jailed and then exiled.  From Mexico he gathered forces and with 82 men returned to Cuba in 1956 on a ship called the Granma.  In another bungle they landed in the wrong spot and were quickly routed by the army.  The scattered force headed to the nearby mountains to regroup and start a guerilla movement.  The camp we visited was Castro’s base for six months and was one of many that he moved between.  No-one knew the location of all the camps but Castro.

There is a five kilometre uphill stretch to the start of the walk which we got a lift up in a 4WD.  The road is insanely steep.  I’ve often wondered what it would look like on some hills if rather than snaking around in hairpin turns the road just went straight up.  Look no further for the answer, you get gradients of 45% which can only be attempted in a 4WD despite in being paved.

Once at the top of that hill it’s a mere six kilometre return hike on a muddy rock strewn path.  Beats my why he couldn’t locate his rebel base somewhere a bit more accessible.  This walk was actually a lot easier than the hike to the waterfall near Trinidad, partly because it was cooler up in the mountains and a little less steep for this particular walk, although I imagine the nearby three day trek up Cuba’s highest mountain has some challenging moments.

We were being guided on this walk by Alexi (the name is part of a trend of Cuban childrens names from that era with Russian overtones) the mandatory walk guide.  Luckily he was very informative with understandable English.  He is yet another Cuban teacher who has moved into the tourist business, I’m sure not coincidentally right around the time he had his first child, though he didn’t explicitly make that link for us.

The headquarters you trek to see are a re-creation.  The original buildings were reclaimed by the jungle.  Castro kept the location of these headquarters secret for ten years after he came to power just in case everything went pear-shaped and he needed somewhere to escape and start again.  The political situation when Castro came to power was far from certain as in any power vacuum.  It didn’t help that a lot of the people who financed his revolution were not expecting him to be quite as communist as he turned out to be.  No refunds.  Once he felt secure enough he opened the location up in the 1970s.  It was then used for a few ceremonies with ministers flown in by helicopter to see where it all started.  It was only in the 90s that they decided to turn it into a tourist attraction and built the huts in what looks like a pretty authentic recreation.  Castro’s hut has multiple exit points so that he could jump out the window if enemy forces managed to sneak past the sentry or creep up the steep gully next to his hut.  Castro had a spring mattress and kerosene-powered fridge.  It’s actually a very pleasant spot.  The rebels even had a radio transmitter for spreading soft propaganda with the dulcet tones of the afore-mentioned female contingent of revolutionaries on for an hour a day (between seven and eight pm).

The best part of the walk was the coffee plantation halfway along the track where you can pull up a pew next to the coffee beans drying in the sun and, if you’re non-caffeine drinkers like us, have a refreshing drink of bottled water and some bananas.  It’s the one place recently I wished I still drank that vile black liquid as the peacocks (seriously) and chickens wandered around and the clouds draped themselves over the green mountains.  The peacocks actually wandered through the drying coffee beans – maybe that’s their signature taste, a bit like the coffee from Vietnam that is picked out of the poo of civets.

I wound down the day with a Cuban cigar and a bottle of seven year old rum which was surprisingly smooth, but didn’t kick on as we were in the country and getting up early in the morning to drive back to Bayamo and then get the bus onwards to Santiago de Cuba.  It was while driving between Bayamo and Santo Domingo that I first noticed the human-powered machete lawnmower.  You take one machete per person and then hack at the grass repeatedly until it has been shorn.  The guys with these machetes do an incredible job.  Whereas you or I would give at best a dozen strokes resulting in a lawn that looks like a bad haircut.  These guys leave a perfectly manicured looking lawn all along the verges of the roads.  I’m not sure whether the lack of lawnmowers is due to expensive fuel or whether they simply can’t afford them, but it’s this human-powered approach which keeps Cuba a low emissions economy (trying to overlook the fact that the diesel emissions they do have are really dirty).

Full set of Bayamo and Sierra Maestra photos are here

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