Jack said this on Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain, nearing the summit. I asked him why. He said because he dragged me up the mountain.
How sweet is that?
Truth, I was so excited. I thought it would be a great experience. It was, don’t get me wrong. It was amazing. But holy shit, did I suffer. I constantly felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was dizzy. My head kept pounding. My legs were never tired or felt like they couldn’t continue, I just felt winded. It was like a giant tree had settled onto my chest and wouldn’t move, no matter how much I tried to breathe. I’ve climbed quite a few volcanoes, mountains, hills and nothing could have prepared me for this. But I think I’m ahead of myself. I forgot to talk about the debilitating waiting room at the Santiago bus station, or the super sexist casa owner or the lovely and wonderful Portuguese couple we met.
This story starts in Santiago. As we were thumbing through the Lonely Planet guidebook, we came across the section of climbing Pico Turquino, the highest mountain in Cuba. For $68.00, you spend two days hiking to the summit at 1972 metres above sea level. Also, next door, you can head to the headquarters of the revolutionaries when they hid in the Sierra Mestra mountain range and planned their attack. Jack and I were very interested in this. Our friends were not. So we decided to separate and meet in Barocoa for a few days of beach fun.
From Santiago, we took a bus to Bayamo. Please see below for the story Santiago’s Viazul office and its horrible, no-good, very-bad workers.
We arrived in Bayamo around 3:00 a.m. We stumbled out of the bus station and were greeted by a bicycle taxi who offered to take us to the nearest casa for 4 CUC. He said it was quite far. We said no. And then walked literally 30 feet and found a casa. I am not even kidding. We felt a slight hesitation at knocking at 3:00 a.m but we needed to sleep. So we knocked. A guy answered and told us that a room was available. And he turned out to be completely in love with Jack. No exaggeration. It’s like I didn’t even exist. He would speak to Jack, who in turn would look to me for confirmation or translation. When I would be the one to respond, he would disregard me and focus his attention on Jack. He toured the room for him, showed him the bathroom, all while completely ignoring me. I was infuriated. Jack thought it was funny. In the morning, he just kept talking to Jack like I was not even there. In fact, when I came out and asked if there was another bathroom, he looked at me like he couldn’t remember where I came from.
After a brief nap (because when you go to sleep at 3:30 and wake up at 7:30, that’s a nap), we left the casa and headed towards the bus station, looking for a taxi driver who would drive us for 30 CUC. The first guy we chatted to told us 60 CUC which we flat-out refused and told him we weren’t willing to pay more than 30 CUC. Which is what our casa owner had recommended and what the Lonely Planet guide had confirmed. He agreed, and brought us to his car which had….a Canadian flag (for me!) and an Israel flag (for Jack!)
The drive to the village was stunning. We could see the mountain range just on the left and we passed through some very small villages. I was constantly amazed by the amount of propaganda in this country. This village we were heading to was quite remote and even so, tons and tons of billboards featuring their heroes. THIS PLACE LOVES THEIR HEROS! We even saw a pig get slaughtered. Now, this would be the second pig that gets slaughtered in my proximity. And I wanted to cry. Jack called it Bacon.
The last few kilometres were just treacherous and our car broke down! (If you’re counting, that’s car #2) The two drivers just kind of left of us in the car and headed towards a house to grab some tools and water for the radiator. At least, I think that’s what they did.
Finally, we get to Santa Domingo, which is where the hike would start. We stumbled out of the taxi and were met immediately by the owner of the Villa Santa Domingo. He asked us if we wanted a villa or private housing to sleep at. We picked the private housing. (Though, in hindsight, I wish we had picked Casa Sierra Maestra.. next time). The house was allllll the way up a giant set of stairs. We climbed up, dropped our bags, confirmed the price of 25 CUC for the both of us which included breakfast the next morning, and went out to explore.
The whole vast of nothing.
I’m lying. There’s not nothing. But it is quite small. Maybe a kilometre of road. The Villa. The two private houses. The Casa Sierra Maestra. A creek. Some trees. An entrance to a national park. We very quickly regretted not having stocked up on supplies in Bayamo. Take note. Get water, snacks, and whatever else you need in Bayamo. While there was a store at the Villa, it was closed when we discovered it. We had lunch at the Casa and it just the most amazing setting. Beautiful views of the creek. A balcony overlooking the village where we watched children hurry home from school and visitors doing horse-back riding. And the food. Probably some of the best food we had had on this trip so far. We confirmed with the guy at Casa Sierra Maestra that we wanted to climb the mountain tomorrow. He checked for space, told us the cost and told us to head to the house with the green roof tomorrow morning.
I swear, Cubans are wonderful but holy hell, their sense of time and directions and space is appalling. Regardless, that was the plan. After lunch, which was absolutely delicious, we wandered around the creek and made plans to return to this watering hole to swim and read books. Which, of course, didn’t happen, because we napped instead. I was exhausted. I cannot sleep on moving vehicles and so I hadn’t slept on the bus to Bayamo. Thank god I didn’t, because when we stopped at the bus station, one of us was sound asleep and one of us had to shake the other to wake up.
After our nap, we ventured out to the Villa to have dinner. And just talked. Hung out. Watched a group of Italian tourists take pictures and dance and smoke cigars. It’s nice, these moments. Jack told me about his crazy adventures and being a best man at someone’s wedding and all these other stories that are not mine to share and it was just.. Nice. To sit for a few hours and be still, preparing ourselves for the next day. My favorite memories of Cuba are of sitting and doing exactly that.
And the stars. They were clearer on the mountain, but I just can’t get over the stars. So many. Such clear skies. It was just beautiful. So bedtime. And tomorrow. Pico Turquino!
** The Santiago Viazul Bus Station aka. HELL ON EARTH
The first time we got there, we waited in line for two hours. Two hours to buy our tickets for the 7:30 bus to Bayamo. The French couple in front of us bought their tickets and then it was our turn. The ticket guy decided that it was time to take a break and that he was no longer selling tickets. UM excuse me? We just waited two hours. His response: check-in only. Not tickets love. Jack and I, furious, walked away and came up with a plan. Let’s go buy our tickets online! So we walked a few hundred metres to the harbour where the public wifi was available, and logged onto the Viazul website. Oh, sad news. You could only buy your tickets if your date of departure was 7 days away. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO PLAN THAT FAR AHEAD?
So, we sat and came up with a plan. Jack left to get us pizza. We decided to walk back to the bus station since we knew the 7:30 buses had left. Maybe we could get on the 12:30 bus. So we head to the ticket booth. And the ticket guy tells us that he cannot sell us tickets and we had to come back at 11:00. Why though? He kept repeating no tickets, no tickets. So we settled in to wait until 11:30. Jack, ever the intrepid traveler, unrolled his sleeping bag and took a nap. I snuggled up to our backpacks and tried to read. Oh, let’s add some more facts. The ticket guy kept the room at a balmy 17 degrees. Two air-conditioners blasted the cold air and froze us. The TV monitor was so loud, I could barely hear myself think. Then, the ticket guy came and sat down and watched the movie with us. HE SAT WITH HIS VICTIMS AND ENJOYED IT. At 11;30, we got in line. And waited. Waited. Waited. At 12:15, a new ticket guy came, processed all our tickets and we got on the bus. It was that easy. We made it to Bayamo in less then 2 hours.