HAVANA, April 11th Chaperoned by a Cuban scientist, we set off on trails of nickel-gold earth, through silent groves of succulents and cupet bushes, under pines and ferns, and across sun-dappled pastures aromatic with rain-soaked willowy grass and rushing streams.
Finally, we reached the apex of a waterfall and clambered down its face to a bone-cold pool. The water thundered down like a ferocious tap but we were supported from the sheer drop by gigantic black rocks. Down below, an immense, pine-filled valley reminiscent of the wide-open spiritual landscapes of southern Spain shimmered in the morning sun.
The 6,046-hectare Parque Nacional Mensura-Piloto, a national park in Cuba’s wild east, is about 40 miles (64km) north of the island’s second city, Santiago de Cuba. But it is largely unvisited, apart from another thundering twin waterfall that crashes through the forests near Pinares de Mayarí, called the Salto de Guayabo. Here day-trippers are bussed in and out from Guardalavaca, a resort on the north coast. The rest is gloriously, ridiculously unexplored.
Now, plans are afoot to broaden the appeal of this young national park (a decade old, as youthful as parks go). Ecotur, a Cuban ecological travel agency, began selling tours here last summer. I asked our guide and chaperone, Wilder Carmenate Reyes, how many people had visited so far. As director of the park’s research centre, he should know. He scratched his chin. “One group of Spanish scientists on holiday,” he replied.
As nature tourism grows worldwide, Cuba has recognised that touristic use of the island’s bounteous natural assets might not be a bad idea. Now, quietly, it has begun grooming state parks for visitors, installing basic facilities and promoting trails which are, or will be, sold by Ecotur to other travel operators. The Cuban company has its tentacles in almost every corner of the country, but it does not operate in the mass market.
Why, one wonders, did Cuba not push its national parks before? They are enshrined in its constitution, managed by esteemed scientists from the government institutions Flora and Fauna and Citma (the Cuban environment ministry) and considered vitally important to Cubans by Cubans.
It’s partly because, after the Bay of Pigs invasion, the idea of foreigners wandering around Cuba’s wildernesses was anathema. It might also have been because Fidel Castro wanted to guard that heritage. Ring-fencing and protecting nature was important to him, whereas sharing it with foreigners was not.
Things have shifted, albeit incrementally. Places that were previously hostile to outsiders are now embracing them. In Parque Nacional Mensura-Piloto, we were driven around in a 4×4 by botanists and forestry workers who were pleased as punch to host outsiders interested in their secret world. They took us to lookouts to gaze on a valley peppered with fragrant pines: this remote area is called the “Switzerland of Cuba” due to its alpine-fresh microclimate. While eastern Cuba is known for lush humidity and palm-smothered mountains, here the habitat is dry and rocky, the vegetation bushy, hardy and sparse. Forest fires wreak havoc.
We were ushered to a natural swimming hole, Poza de Raphael, which falls within the boundary of what was once the property of Ángel Castro, Fidel’s father (although, when Fidel nationalised land in 1959, the first farm he confiscated was this one).
The botanists pointed out the Flor de Holguin bush, with its perennially flowering blood-red endemic petals; paprika-hued vija seeds used to colour food; the three types of pine in the area, and some of the 50-plus species found only here – including, bizarrely, a fish that swims here and nowhere else.
We walked along another track forgotten by outsiders, with the long grass pocking our legs, past morning butterflies and the tocororo, the national bird of Cuba, whose plumage is in the colours of the national flag. Its song is as plaintive as any. We foraged windfalls of sweet wild mangoes and admired the curajaye plant, which resembles a beautiful orchid. I was shown the red-peeling almacigo tree, known as “piel de turistas” – tourists’ skin.
Negotiating fern-shrouded paths, we reached a cave hidden by overgrown foliage. Vast, echoey and filled with stalactites, it was refreshingly devoid of graffiti. There was no sound apart from the squeak of bats and the drip of water. “Who visits this place?” I asked. “Only archaeologists – and us,” said Wilder.
We headed to another national park, this time in the neighbouring province of Guantánamo. Part of the vast, 200,000-hectare Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve, the park was named after the 19th century’s most famous explorer, who visited, and was bowled over – Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. After a 90-mile (145km) trip on bumpy roads, we arrived in the improbably overwrought lushness of Humboldt. Here, mountainous landscapes and rivers snake towards the sea in a landscape that resembles Hawaii.
This park is an important site for the conservation of endemic flora, and its rivers harbour amazing diversity. It has never been much inhabited, either. In the 20th century, some of its coastal swathes were converted to coconut and cacao farms. However, it is still pretty much a virgin spot. It harbours rich mineral reserves – but for now, instead of speculators raping the land, government rangers are slowly working to open up new sections to nature lovers.
The day we visited, they had agreed to show us the first part of a path that forms part of a four-day trek. The Sendero El Balcón de Iberia has just had a series of small refuges built to encourage walkers – so now you may lay your head in rustic splendour along the way. It passes from Holguin to Guantánamo province through virgin forest, past a high-altitude rainwater lake with heaven-sent views.
We clambered up steep slopes observing the forest-green flicker of hummingbirds and the garrulous gaggles of scattering parrots. You certainly wouldn’t starve here: we picked corazon mangoes, the sweetest of them all; wild yellow guayaba, different from the fat pink Western version; the edible seed of the icaco plant; and the albaricoque bitter pear.
There is an abundance of beautiful Cuban trees – ebony-hard majagua; mangrove-like cupet; Cuban cedar; najeci; bucaro; and ocuje, with its giant, glossy black seeds sacred to the Afro-Cuban cult of Santeria. The jaguey tree has a hard bark and is used to make coffins. Locals like the bark of royal palms to make strong rope for hammocks and tethering horses. Seventy-five per cent of the plants on this stretch are endemic.
Finally we reached the Salto de Maja, a natural pool and mini waterfall, where we joined a local family who live within the confines of the park and went bathing. Bobbing in its glistening emerald green waters, I asked the guide how many people had walked the epic, four-day version of this trail in the five years since it opened.
“One group of US ecology students on tour,” he told me. Perhaps the new refuges will encourage more trekkers to spread the word and help protect this glorious area. These wildernesses have been little publicised, but are finally being prised open. If you want to get off the beaten track in Cuba, go east, go wild and go here.
First published in the www.telegraph.co.uk