Las Terrazas is the weekend retreat for overheated habaneros, especially in the summer. Why go to the beach when the sea’s the temperature of soup and the sand’s too hot to walk on? Only an hour out of Havana, it feels a million miles away from the city. It’s a UNESCO biosphere, so great care is taken sensitively to develop the area and a reasonably steep entry fee is charged, to prevent the place becoming too overrun with day trippers.
From the main gate, newcomers should make a sharp right and drive up the hill to the ruins of the Buenavista Coffee Plantation, where there’s a good view across the plain below and a cool mountain breeze. After the Haitian revolution many French coffee growers settled in the mountains at both extremes of the island and set about vigorously clearing those areas to plant coffee bushes. This amounted to an ecological disaster that is only now, slowly, being painstakingly rectified with government-sponsored reforestation programs. Now the coffee plantations are all reduced to romantic ruins and there is a small restaurant amongst those at Buenavista.
Descending the dizzying road to the valley, there is a balsamy, piney smell of hot vegetation. Past small farmsteads, huge clumps of rustling bamboo and litters of black piglets rooting in the undergrowth, you reach a village beside a large lake. You can hire boats, eat lunch at a Cuba’s best vegetarian restaurant or accept invitations into people’s houses for a coffee and a chat, soaking up the inhabitants’ laid-back humour and distinctly un-habanero olde-worlde courtesy.
Up the side of a steep hill is the Moka Hotel, an eco-friendly structure with its lobby designed around a huge tree that soars through the roof into the forest canopy. It can be quite chilly in the evening, so anyone contemplating an overnight stay should bring warm clothes. The conditions are pretty Spartan, but there’s a pioneering sensation about staying in the depths of the silent, fragrant forest, and especially about returning, wet and muddy from a long walk to a hot, leisurely soak in a tub with windows outside to watch birds and butterflies whizzing about in the tree tops.
At dawn, while it’s cool and the woods are still wreathed in mist, you can mount horses and ride through hidden paths to visit the orchid garden and the celebrated waterfall at Soroa. There, a hilltop mansion built in the 1940s overlooks a stepped garden set against the picturesque backdrop of the Guaniguanico Mountains. The view from the top of the hill is worth the steep walk up through a series of terraces, where orchids cascade from the trees and the morning rings with the whoops and whistles of waking birds. After a drink of fresh-squeezed guanabana juice, descend the jungle path to the waterfall where you can climb across the rocks and let the water cascade down on your head.
The flora and fauna in this area are remarkable. You might see the zunzuncito, the world’s smallest humming bird, or catch sight of the flash of red, white and blue plumage of the Tocororo, Cuba’s national bird. The very best part of Las Terrazas is the Rio San Juan, a clear mountain stream that runs down a gentle hillside in a series of small waterfalls and deep pools. During the winter only the hardiest would jump into the icy water, but in the summer it is pleasantly cool and the setting of tall flowering trees and vines, emerald green bamboo and sparkling waterfalls is paradise. You can bring your own picnic or food to barbecue, or order a scrumptious lunch of chargrilled chicken or pork with beans, rice and salad with cold beer from the little restaurant amongst the trees. After lunch, fathers relax in the shallows with a bottle of rum and mothers and babies splash in the shallower pools, while older children happily show off to one another diving off rocks into the deeper water, frolicking in the waterfalls or hurtling around the fields and hillsides on the peppy little ponies available for hire behind the restaurant.
On Sunday evening, everyone heads back to Havana, sated, sticky, sunbaked and sleepy, leaving Las Terrazas empty and still, with only the sound of the waterfalls and shafts of sunlight gilding its green pools.