A guerrilla hideout

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

We had restful night with the sound of running water coursing through our sleep. We rose at 6:15 a.m. for an excursion up to Commandancia la Plata, which would require a return trip up the steepest road in Cuba. Some of the other tourists there were hiking to Pico Turquino, the highest peak in Cuba.

Sometime after 10 a.m. we were bundled into a 4WD people-mover. We picked up a tour guide on the way and then ascended a concrete road that was scarred with striations to give the tyres extra traction. The gradient was sometimes 45°, which was unnerving.

When we arrived at Alto de Naranja, the air was cooler and much less humid than it was in the valley below. There were spectacular views spanning the provinces of Granma and Santiago de Cuba.

View from Alto de Naranja

Our tour guide spoke English and he carried a copy of The Birds of Cuba and a vast tome by Fidel Castro about the strategies that were used to win the guerrilla war.[1] The latter had many interesting photos, some of which were taken over 50 years ago in places we visited that day.

The trek to Fidel’s hideout was a 6 or 8 km round-trip depending on whether you believe the guide or the guidebook. It took at least four hours with stops for commentary on bird and animal life, flora, and historical events. The tour guide had obviously studied Fidel’s book and was knowledgeable about the events of the late 1950s that led to the defeat of Batista’s army.

It was hard to believe that a ragtag army of about 350 guerrillas defeated a force of 10,000 soldiers in what was at the time one of the best equipped conventional armies in Latin America. Furthermore, the guerrilla casualties were surprisingly low. We saw the graves of five of them up near the old field hospital en route to the hideaway. Four had been disinterred for reburial closer to home. We heard a detailed account of the fifth soldier, whom Che Guevara had not been able to save and who asked to be buried in the mountains as his dying wish. The historical commentary was certainly romanticised, and told from the perspective of the winning side; but the revolutionary forces had surely earned this right. Theirs must count as one of the most unlikely military victories of the 20th Century.

Much care had been taken to preserve Fidel’s hideaway. As you would expect, the structure had been rebuilt several times, since a wooden cabin has a limited life expectancy in a rainforest. Due recognition was given to the crucial support that the campesinos provided to the guerrilla army: the house of the Medina family en route to the hideaway had also been carefully preserved to show the basic living conditions for those who worked the land back in the 1950s. Mind you, things did not seem so different in the surrounding houses, although there were several trappings of contemporary modern life in evidence, including solar electricity cells and a satellite dish.

Medina homestead

We were unable to visit the small museum in the guerilla compound because it was closed for renovations. The guide’s commentary and photos from the book he carried served as a substitute. We were more impressed by this guide than any other tour guide we encountered in Cuba. He was especially kind to an English woman who struggled to make the journey due to a medical condition. The trek was arduous for her, but it became clear after a while that, like us, she and her husband were there because they were interested in the social and political history of Cuba. Her husband was an organiser in an electrical trades union, and I enjoyed chatting to him.

The guerrilla compound was spread out between the shoulder of a hill and a hidden gully behind it. It included a primitive field hospital, a guard’s outpost at a choke point in the track, a small graveyard where casualties had been interred, and a diminutive kitchen and mess hall furnished with tables and benches hand-hewn from rainforest timber.

The farthest outpost in the compound was Fidel Castro’s hideaway. It had five or six exits in case it was discovered by Batista’s troops, but this never came to pass during the guerrilla campaign. Castro had prosecuted the war from this location until he emerged to claim victory in 1959. The conditions must have been harsh beyond belief. The single modern convenience was a kerosene fridge that had acquired a large bullet hole as it was carried up into the mountains by a couple of soldiers who decided that their load would be lighter without a layer of camouflage. They had fled for their lives after being strafed by a fighter plane, and returned later to retrieve the damaged item.

It started raining as we headed back down the mountain—not heavily, but enough to make the track treacherously slippery. Banks of cloud rolled in from the Granma Coast between the peaks. Luckily we had reached the bottom of that steep road from Alto de Naranja before the heavens opened up, just like they had the day before.

As arranged, a taxi turned up at 3 p.m. to drive us from Santo Domingo back to Bayamo. It looked a lot more promising than the vehicle we had arrived in, although the suspension wasn’t much better.

When we arrived at the bus station, the taxi driver pointed out a diminutive Viazul office and from there we located a place that we could leave our packs for a fee. We wandered into Bayamo along a street that had had a makeover by contemporary artists. Stobie poles had been transformed into giant paint tubes and pots and paint brushes. The street had been re-paved and was closed off to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles, and there were numerous public art installations along the way.

Public art, Bayamo

We located a tavern where beer was served in large ceramic tankards for 10 pesos a draft. It was drinkable and refreshing.

After the Taverna we continued our walk into the heart of Bayamo until we reached a pretty square with trees adorned with large pink flowers that caught the afternoon sun. We found a restaurant that was recommended in the guidebook. Susie ordered garlic prawns, I ordered a Creole dish of stuffed chicken, and we shared a plate of rice and veggies between us. The meal was delicious, and for once we were served just the right quantity.

While we dined, the sky turned from grey to dark purple and it started raining heavily. When we set out again for the bus station in the late evening, we were forced to take shelter on the front porch of a house for a while. When the rain abated, we argued about whether to press on or wait it out. I won the argument but made the wrong call, and we arrived at the bus station sopping wet. My penance was to venture out in the rain again to buy some water for the all-night bus trip that lay ahead. We waited in the tiny, air-conditioner Viazul office in the hope of drying off.

Eventually the bus pulled in and we boarded at 9:50 p.m. The journey was long and uncomfortable. The aircon turned the bus into a fridge, and even though we had prepared, we were still chilled to the bone over the next 10 hours. Worst of all, there was a screen at the front of the bus that played sexist American movies full of gratuitous gun violence and overinflated characters. There was no way you could turn the sound off. We vowed never again to leave the ear plugs stowed in our luggage.

[1] Castro, F. De la Sierra Maestra a Santiago de Cuba: La Contraofensiva Estratégica. 2010: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado de la República de Cuba.

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