A few days in the city of Havana inspired us to spend time away from human-made environments and venture out to the outskirts created by the raw hands of the Earth. Our visit to Las Terrazas and its surrounding areas was an excellent day trip. We were assisted by our casa particular host, Jenni, who helped us arrange a driver named Armondo.
Las Terrazas is a nature reserve and small communal town in the Artemisa Province of Cuba, west of Havana. It is located on the Sierra del Rosario mountains, and has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1984.
Armondo, our tour guide through Las Terrazas is a self-employed driver who guides tourists and locals around their desired destinations. In his old sky-blue 1950’s American car, the steel frame rusting, the vinyl white upholstery aging in a yellow fade, Armondo provided a well-informed tour while we bounced along Carr Panamericana road from Havana without any seatbelts.
He not only pointed out noticeable features of the island as we drove, but also provided background about his life as a Cuban. Many Cubans he says are struggling in the country trying to make ends meet. Armondo works daily, sometimes entire days, and his wife owns a hair salon. They have a 3 year old girl who is learning ballet at school. He discussed with us his struggle to save money while the price of groceries continues to increase. Armondo prefers to leave Cuba, however saving money for visas is an endurance test.
Despite the nationalization of many industries and services in Cuba under Castro’s presidency, and certain benefits Cubans acquire from Socialism, there are still aspects of Capitalism which Cubans might prefer for a more comfortable life. A balance is yet to be reached by the country as the future approaches. In our previous post, we briefly outlined Cuba’s long history which you can read here for more background info.
The laid-back atmosphere of Las Terrazas is a welcoming respite from city travel in Havana. It has many options for hostels and casas particulares for those with a meditative rhythm in their heart, and a bohemian sensibility.
We first stopped for some local Cuban coffee at a cafe overlooking the hills dotted with houses. From there we drove along a road shrouded by trees and shrubbery, up a hill to Cafetal Buenavista, near the town of Las Terrazas. The site of the Cafetal Buenavista is the first ever coffee plantation in Cuba. French refugees from Haiti nurtured and built the plantation in 1801.
On the site you can see the old stone mill once used to grind and extract the coffee bean from the husks of its shell. The plantation has since been abandoned, and is now an attraction for tourists to visit a remnant of Cuban history, as well as dine at Cafetal Buenavista which was remodeled into a restaurant from ruins. The backyard patio of the restaurant suspends you over a hill with an excellent view of the surrounding forested area where the plantation once lived.
Once we drove into Las Terrazas and hiked through the forested area we saw a clearing where the glassy green waters of the San Juan River wound in between trees, and where many locals bathe on hot days. Nearby is a rustic campsite with tall huts under a thatched roof made of straws. The small huts sit on tall stilts, and above is a platform which you climb to by using a ladder. These humble huts, named after different Cuban bird species, can be rented out, offering a cozy enclave under a dark night scattered with star light.
It was here where we rode horses through the forest, passed the huts. Although we wanted to visit the current coffee plantations near Las Terrazas, our limited time prevented us from taking the two hour trip. A one hour session was made available to us, so we climbed onto our sturdy horses and rode through the narrow pathways of dense foliage, periodically pricked on the shoulders by branches and twigs. Apart from seeing some stone ruins, the guided walk on horseback was uneventful. We would recommend taking the longer ride to peruse through the coffee plantations.
The Botanical Garden of Soroa, Orchid Garden
Soroa, south of Las Terrazas is a wondrous natural landscape. Here, we walked through the Soroa Botanical Garden. The garden is 35,000 sqm and dedicated to preserving and nurturing 700 different species of orchids. In 1943 Dr. Tomás Felipe Camacho, a lawyer from the Canary Islands transformed the fertile hillside into a garden, and cultivated it for nine years. When his daughter died at the age of 21 he named the garden after her, Rancho Pilila.
It wasn’t until the death of his wife when he decided to dedicate the garden to flowers, especially orchids which were her favourite. After Camacho’s death in 1961, the garden was taken over by the Academy of Sciences of Cuba and declared a National Heritage site. The garden has since become a research centre for the University of Artemisa.
For an in depth informational visit, it is best to go with a Botanical Garden Horticulturist who can provide background info on how each of the orchids differ from each other in their characteristics and cultivation. A beautiful waterfall in the area called Cascada Soroa tempts visitors to remove their clothing and take a dip in the clear water.
Castillo en las Nubes
A short drive from the orchid garden stands the Castillo en las Nubes, a spectacularly designed and colorful castle on the top of El Fuerte mountain. Built by Pedro Rodríguez Ortiz in the early 1940s, Castillo en las Nubes means “Castle in the Clouds.” Rodríguez was a Spaniard born in Cuba who imitated the design of his grandparents’ village in Andorra. His vision was to create an eye-catching medieval castle with breathtaking views of the mountains surrounding the area.
A man who liked to keep himself busy, Rodríguez owned other properties in Havana, such as a power plant, refinery, Crown Cola soda factory, and a rum distillery. The Castillo en las Nubes was used as a spiritual sanctuary for his heart problems and growing stresses. He died in 1952 from his heart condition and his wife Mercedes Martínez sold the Castillo in 1977 for 50,000 pesos to the Revolutionary government.
The authorities at the time decided to turn the Castillo into a tourist hotspot, capitalizing on the increasing number of visitors to Las Terrazas. In the ensuing years, several hurricanes wreaked havoc on the castle and left it in ruins. In 2014 the castle was rebuilt and turned into a mini hotel for visitors to experience the unique architecture and stunning natural greenery below.
Don David Restaurant
Towards the end of the tour, our stomachs empty with the faint memory of a coffee and biscuit from our morning cafe visit, Armondo took us to a restaurant called Don David, a favourite among the locals.
Halfway between Las Terrazas and Havana, Don David is perched on a hill near the town of Bauta. Frankly, we were very surprised because thus far we had experienced not only the same type of Cuban dishes, but very mediocre ones which included flavourless meats.
Although Don David served typical Cuban dishes, they were absolutely mouthwatering. I ordered a dish with spiced pulled pork served on cups of deep-fried plantain. Chris ordered a delicious fried chicken dish seasoned perfectly which was called a “fajita”, but different from a Mexican fajita. On the side they served the usual dark rice cooked with pig grease, and black beans. The prices were in CUP, and ended up being the cheapest meal we ate in Cuba, at 7 USD for two entrees, and two beers.
Our day trip to quiet Las Terrazas was an excellent detour from the bustle of the tourist haven of Old Havana. For hikers and lovers of nature, Las Terrazas fulfills those peaceful connections you seek during travels to a foreign land.
If you are interested in hiring Armondo for tours, contact Rentalho.com.
Copyright © Beyond Here 2020
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