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We were privileged to go to an “ecologically protected area” known as Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). Our bus wound its way up a very rough dirt road (though our expert driver, Miquel, did a fantastic job of missing the giant potholes) to the field station. The area of Mil Cumbres is geologically varied, including large patches of serpentine soil. Serpentine rocks have a low calcium to magnesium ration and may have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other soils. Because of this, plants that grow on the soils are often highly specialized and endemic (found only there) to the region. In Mil Cumbres, there is a very high concentration of endemics, including Microcycas calocoma, a cycad found only in this area. There are only about 600 plants of this species – the only species in its genus – and we took a short hike along a lovely stream to see one. This forest was probably the best of the ones we visited, but even it was severely fragmented, with agricultural fields and houses throughout it.
We returned to the field station to find that a wonderful lunch had been placed for us. As with all our meals, local musicians played. This group was unusual because they included a flute player and most of their songs appeared to be original. We bought all the CDs they had. This was Iris and Ted Wagner’s wedding anniversary and the band played a special romantic song while they danced.
We left Mil Cumbres to head to Viñales, a lovely town that one of our group called “the La Connor of Cuba” (for readers not from Washington, La Connor is a scenic town north of Seattle that is a popular stop for tourists). The valley surrounding the town was incredibly beautiful, surrounded by mogotes, which are steep, flat-topped hills created by eroding limestone. We had several activities there, including visiting a garden created mostly by two sisters who lived there their entire lives and who had an interesting habit of placing doll heads throughout the garden. Over time, the hair on the dolls decayed, leaving a somewhat frightening discovery for the unprepared. The sisters grew many ornamentals there, but also fruit and other food plants, which they sold. As with all the gardens and hikes we took in Cuba, our guide was very knowledgeable about the medicinal qualities of the plants. In the absence of adequate medicines, Cubans have been very resourceful with traditional cures.
This is also a big tobacco growing area and we visited a tobacco farm. About 90% of the harvest goes to the government, but farmers can keep 10% for their own use. The tobacco was being harvested and we visited the curing shed. The farmer explained that the leaves cure slowly in the shed and that they are sprayed regularly with water containing honey, guava, sugar, and/or rum every few days. As they cure, workers – mostly women – sort the leaves according to their qualities. Different qualities of leaf are desirable for the wrapper of the cigars, to add different flavors and aromas, etc. We then went to another area where he demonstrated how to roll a cigar and most of us shared one (possibly the source of the cold we all left Cuba with!). You do not inhale cigar smoke, but savor the flavors in your mouth. It was interesting, but I don’t think I need to do it again.
The Valle de Viñales may have been my favorite part of the trip, but our last stop might be the most memorable. We traveled to the Zapata Peninsula, where there is a national park to preserve birds (65% of Cuba’s 354 bird species can be found there), as well as 1000 species of plants and 37 species of reptiles, including the Cuban Crocodile. Our hotel was on the Bay of Pigs and many of us swam in the shallow waters. The Bay of Pigs was the site of an attempted invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Castro was warned and prepared to repel the invasion at Playa Larga, which is where our hotel was located. It was not a good event in Cuban and American relations and it was so interesting to stand there and try to imagine it unfolding.
That night we attended an outdoor stage rehearsal of a group called the Korimacao Community Project. Young people from the area are selected and trained by well-known musical, dancing, and acting professionals. We were very impressed by their talent and it was fun to see the directors putting the students through their paces. There were some very talented young people – if they had more opportunity to travel, I have no doubt that some of them would be successful on a world stage.
We had only one night at Playa Larga and the next day, after a short hike to see some of the local birds, we headed back to Havana for a last chance to get souvenirs and for a very good dinner at an upscale private restaurant in the upscale section of town called Miramar.
As we prepared to leave Cuba – a place most of us never thought we would have the opportunity to visit – we reflected on our impressions. We had come with expectations and some of them were met (cool old cars everywhere!), but others were more…complicated. Complicated is a word that comes to mind often when contemplating modern Cuba. It is less than a month after we left, and I am still sorting it out in my head. I will try to pin some of these thoughts down in another message.