Into the Sierra Maestra

Tuesday 19 May, 2015

We rose before dawn to finish packing and found some fresh fruit in the fridge that our host, Arnulfo, had kindly prepared for us the night before. Unfortunately there was no time for coffee. When the taxi showed up at 5:30 a.m. we exchanged warm farewells with Arnulfo. The driver was the same guy who had taken us to the airport and waited patiently while we talked Clare into the departure lounge.

It was only a short ride back to the bus station. It took us a moment to locate the Viazul office. It was still steeped in darkness, but there were people waiting inside. Susie minded the bags while I queued for a ticket. We did not have a reservation, but I managed to secure two tickets to Bayamo. From Bayamo we planned to make our way to the village of Santo Domingo, which lay at the entrance of the national park in the heart of the Sierra Maestra. Inside the park was the hideaway where Fidel Castro based himself during the revolution. We had read much about the revolutionary battles in this area, and we were keen to make the pilgrimage.

While we were seated in the bus station a station attendant asked if we wanted a coffee. I gratefully accepted the offer and she vanished. While we were settling into our seats on the bus, she suddenly reappeared beside me with a plastic cup full of hyper-sweet Cuban coffee. To me at least, the world suddenly looked much brighter.

The trip to Bayamo was slow. It took at least a couple of hours to go 130 km due to the poor condition of the roads. The view from the bus was always interesting, however.

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Dawn on the road to Bayamo

As we drove into Bayamo, we clocked the Hotel Sierra Maestra; and when we exited the bus station, a taxi driver latched onto us. We insisted on walking to the Ecotur office at the Hotel Sierra Maestra, but the office staff there only told us what we already knew: we would have to pay for a taxi to take us to Santo Domingo, and it would cost about 35 CUCs. So we took advantage of the nice baños in the hotel and asked the persistent taxi driver (who had followed us there) how much he was charging. We beat him down to the going price, and then a dilapidated Lada appeared next to us like a rusty genie. It became clear at this point that we had been dealing with a tout and not directly with a driver.

The Lada gunned along at speeds that seemed to far exceed the ability of the car to hold itself together. As the Sierra Maestra Mountains loomed on our left, we veered towards them and started climbing. The slopes were truly terrifying. I started to smell something inorganic cooking under the car, and I hoped that it was not the brakes. At one point we had to get out and walk because the incline was so steep that gravity prevented the fuel travelling from the petrol tank to the engine. The driver stopped, lifted the bonnet, pulled fuel line apart, and sucked petrol though it to prime the carburettor. The tout located a large rock and placed it behind a rear wheel. Once the fuel line was re-connected, the driver cranked the engine and the geriatric Lada chugged back into motion. We walked behind the taxi for a while, ran to catch up, and then jumped into the rear seat while the car was still moving. I wondered about the rock that was left back on the road, and what kind of damage in might inflict on a vehicle that chanced upon it in the dark.

The taxi laboured up and down more hair-raising inclines until we finally crossed a river and pulled into the hamlet of Santo Domingo. The tout demanded we pay a higher fare because of the wear and tear on the car, but we stood firm on the agreed price, reminding him that we had not expected to complete a section of the journey on foot.

We checked into the Villa Santo Domingo, a collection of wooden buildings that resembled Swiss chalets. Susie rested while I went out to wander around the town like a lost goat.

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Chalet, Hotel Santo Domingo

There was not a lot to the hamlet. I wandered back along the road to the bridge that we had crossed to enter the town. There was a health centre, a school and a paladar on the main drag. The other buildings all appeared to be private dwellings. I was soon back at the hotel.

We occupied a well-appointed room on the second floor of a chalet. It had a small balcony that overlooked the Rio Yara and the steep slopes of the mountain range beyond. The room was filled with the sound of running water and birdsong. We took a nap and then went to the bar which had tables that also overlooked the rio. We had a light lunch and then a quiet afternoon to prepare for our trek to Fidel’s hideout in the mountains the following day. It rained on and off, so I finished reading the history book we had purchased in Santiago, and Susie watched television shows in Spanish.

In the evening, Susie ordered an undrinkable mojito at the restaurant and we both ordered fish for dinner. It was served with lashings of carbohydrates in the form of rice, bread, and plantains.

After dinner, Susie watched American baseball games on the telly.

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