I was excited to finally find myself standing at the bottom of the trail that would lead up to the actual encampment where Fidel Castro lived in hiding while gathering his troops in preparation for the fight 47 years ago.
The name of this place, Sierra Maestra, still evokes mystery and the romance of the revolution that would ultimately put Fidel into the presidential seat and dramatically change his country.
I was travelling with my friend Miriam and we figured that having survived the road that led to the bottom of this mountain we could conquer anything. The Sierra Maestra mountain range rises like an enormous green caterpillar at the eastern edge of Cuba and the road to the storied hideout is riddled with potholes the size of small caves that threatened to swallow our rental Gilly, a Chinese built sedan. Our destination was the tiny, picturesque town of Santo Domingo, which is the jumping off point for hiking in Parque Turquino, a federal nature reserve that honours the mountain, Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak. There is hiking for every level here in the park but we are all about exploring the historical roots of Fidel’s journey.
After a night in our simple but lovely casa perched above the river, we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace. We watched school children nimbly hopping the river stones like young goats, to start their school day. We made our way to the park entrance by crossing the river albeit not as gracefully as our young companions.
Now we are about to climb to EL COMANDANCIA DE LA PLATA, a 6 km round trip trek through tropical vegetation to the secret lair of the revolutionaries with our guide, Enrique, a local with a lazy eye and a laid back demeanor. The crammed jeep’s engine revved wildly and climbed straight up a vertical road in a heart thudding ascent to the plateau, Alto de Naranjo, where we began our hike.
With every step along this humid the jungle path, the towering history of this secret enclave became more real. Although not a long climb, the rocky terrain makes it somewhat challenging so I was glad to have my good hiking boots.
The landscape was spectacular tropical tableau, alive with bird life humming and flowers bursting all around us.
I pictured the devoted men and women hauling everything up this mountain under the cover of darkness, including refrigerators! medical equipment, teaching materials and secret files. It was nothing short of a miracle that they managed to keep the rebels whereabouts secret while keeping the school, clinic and headquarters working. Peasants, who for generations had been ignored and remained on the bottom rung of the social ladder were welcomed, taught to read and write and treated for maladies. No wonder the support for the revolutionaries was so strong that thousands of poor Cubans could keep the location of the Commandancia a secret for so long.
The cluster of restored wooden buildings revealed an orderly if spartan world where, despite hardships, the inhabitants maintained order and exhibited patience while biding their time to strike. A faded wooden building camouflaged beneath tumbling trees, housed the hospital and another was the home of Radio Rebelde, the illicit radio station that sent the rebels message out to the people.
Fidel’s personal house, shared with Celia Sanchez, had an escape hatch in the floor where he could hide and make his way to freedom. He never had to use it because the Commandancia was not discovered before the rebels made their way down the mountain and marched to victory on New Years Eve, 1959. And the rest is history. Is it ever!
Even 60 years later, the lure of the struggle is compelling. To be able to see the place where it all happened provided considerable food for thought.
Back down in Santo Domingo we slugged back a cold Bucanero and made our way down to the river where the curious children watched as two ‘extranjeras’ swam in the refreshing pools asking themselves, ‘What if we’d been in this same place six decades before????”
Originally from Budapest, Gabriella Klein divides her time between Vancouver and Havana where she is affectionately called CasiCubana (almost Cuban). Gabriella Klein’s 24 years of living and performing in Cuba makes her the ideal guide for your personalized journey to the island. Visit her website at cuba4u.ca and design your own adventure.