by Rosa Jordan
As I climbed the thirteen-km trail on my way to the summit of Pico Turquino, I wondered if that distance was as the crow flies or for a person on foot. A reasonable question as the trail wound through heavy forest to the top of ridges, down into deep gullies, steeply up the other side, then down again, and again and again, so many times that I felt I was descending as many meters as I had ascended. However, when I reached the campsite of Aguada del Joaquín, that was proof that I had actually gained altitude and was, in fact, only five kilometers (about two hours’ climb) below the summit.
I’d left the office of the Sierra Maestra Parque Nacional in Santo Domingo with a guide named Miguel. Just as we arrived at the trailhead in Alto de Narajano, Miguel got a call asking him to wait for a group of twelve Germans. I walked on ahead, and although I dawdled to check out birds and to soak in views across other peaks in the Sierra Maestra, they didn’t catch up to me until I was in sight of Aguada del Joaquín, where we were to spend the night.
The Germans were middle-aged and fashionably dressed, with expensive hiking boots and top-of-the-line trekking equipment. They had not caught up sooner because as they were about to set off, Miguel had received another call asking him to wait for a group of eleven Cubans. The Cubans, none of whom seemed older than thirty, were shod in running shoes (and, I swear, a few in sandals), and wore everything from lycra shorts and halter tops to t-shirts and denim cut-offs.
I wouldn’t call the Aguada de Joaquín campground primitive, but it was basic: two dorm rooms with twelve beds each, and four toilets which could be flushed by carrying buckets of water from a faucet in the middle of the yard. While the Germans cleaned their boots and strung portable clotheslines to dry sweat-soaked clothing, the Cubans sprawled on the grass laughing and talking. They were all beautiful by virtue of being young, healthy, and happy to be on this holiday excursion organized by the Habana hospital where they worked. Speaking no German but passable Spanish, I gravitated to them. After exchanging the usual where-are-you-from questions, I asked how they felt about the large influx of American tourists following Obama’s opening of a US embassy in Cuba.
“It will be good for our economy,” said a radiologist.
“But hard on our culture,” said a psychiatrist. “They pay a lot of money to come here, and will probably criticize us when we don’t provide the services they desire as efficiently as they expect.”
“Or as cheaply,” murmured a nurse.
“That might cause us to lose our warm feelings, our natural openness,” continued the psychiatrist. “This is of great concern to us. It is being discussed at all levels.”
Several mules arrived from a village near the bottom of the mountain carrying recently-slaughtered chickens for dinner. These were fried on a propane gas range while rice was cooked in an enormous iron kettle the sort once used by slaves to boil sugar cane-over an open fire in the back yard. When I mentioned to Manuel that I was a vegetarian, he went to a slope covered with wild watercress and, using a lemon picked from a tree, presented me with delicious salad to go with my rice and beans. Followed by yerba buena tea made from lemon grass that also grew wild nearby.
This was, for me more than a gourmet pleasure. In dining as well as hiking, I was following Cuba’s three most iconic Revolutionary leaders: Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. Celia first climbed Pico Turquino to help the sculptor Jilma Madera install a bronze bust of José Martí on the summit. That was in 1953, three months before Fidel assaulted the Moncada barracks, a poorly-planned caper that cost the lives of half his followers and landed the rest, himself included, in prison. After being released, he returned to launch the guerrilla war known as the Cuban Revolution. Once again, most of his followers were killed or captured before they had fired a shot. Those who escaped–Fidel, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara, and a dozen others–wandered starving in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra until they were rescued by Celia’s network of guajiros (subsistence farmers).
During the next four months, Celia and her clandestine organization recruited and trained fighters for Fidel, making it possible for him launch successful attacks on a few small military garrisons. Nevertheless, Batista kept insisting that Fidel was dead. To prove Batista was lying, Haydée Santamaría (who had participated in the assault on Moncada and spent time in jail for it) brought two US reporters to document the fact that Fidel was alive, well, and far from alone up in the Sierra Maestra.
The ideal spot to film the TV documentary, they decided, was in the shadow of José Martí’s bust on the summit of Pico Turquino. To install that bust, Celia had climbed the mountain’s south slope, via a 12-km trail that that rose steeply from sea level to the 1,972 summit. That was a far more difficult than the climb she, Haydée, the film team, Fidel, and his men would make up the north slope–the slope I had just climbed– as the north side trail starts at Alto Narajano which is already over 900 metres up the mountain.
Their trek, which took place in April 1957, lasted the better part of three days. It was raining buckets, and Che Guevara was hit by a severe asthma attack. Although barely able to breathe, he refused to give up. One of Celia’s guajiros took Che’s pack and his ten-pound Thompson sub-machine gun, and Fidel called a halt after a couple of hours. The next day’s climb was also short, only as far as Aguada de Joaquín. There they rested for a day, eating beans and rice, wild watercress salad, and lemon grass tea.
On the third day the party made it to the summit. The first thing Che did was check his altimeter. It measured the altitude at 1,850 metres. That’s less than the official altitude of 1,974 but who am I to question a revolutionary icon like Che Guevara? Maybe Pico Turquino has become 124 meters higher in the six decades since he was there!
About Rosa Jordan
Author and journalist Rosa Jordan grew up in the Florida Everglades, attended university in California and Mexico, and emigrated to Canada in 1980. Rosa authored several books about present-day Cuba. Her novel Woman She Was is told from the point of view of five contemporary Cubans and reveals how they experience and feel about their country. Non-fiction Cuba Unspun covers Rosa’s many travels all over Cuba between 1997 to 2017. Together with her partner Derek Choukalos, Rosa also wrote two travel guides to Cuba: Cycling Cuba and Cuba’s Best Beaches. One section of Rosas autobiographical travel narrative, Dangerous Places: Travels on the Edge, is also about Cuba.
More about Rosa Jordan’s books and articles can be found @ www.rosajordan.com.
If you are planning a trip to Cuba and want to learn more about the country? check out our recommendations on books, films and documentaries about Cuba.