Wanna do something challenging in Cuba? Fancy following the footsteps of Castro and co? I don't mean start a revolution - I mean trek through the jungle to the summit of Pico Turquino! Here's how...
While Cuba's beaches may be gorgeous, lounging around on one for longer than a day or so is not everyone's... glass of mojito, let's say. Why not challenge yourself to something a little more taxing - but a lot more rewarding - with a trek across the Sierra Maestra mountain range to the summit of Pico Turquino?
Better still, you can also soak up some of Cuba's revolutionary history while there. Visit Comandancia de la Plata (see below), Castro's hideout in the foothills of the mountain, and learn how the rebels survived while being hunted by Batista's troops.
The Pico Turquino trek is generally rated 'moderate' for those who are reasonably fit. Just bear in mind that weather conditions can make it tougher.
Is it worth it? Gaze out across lush, vibrant green forests and distant misty mountains and the answer to that is easy!
Plus you'll feel pretty chuffed with yourself on making it to the top!
First things first...
1 - Seek out the best itinerary for you. Some tackle the trek in two days, some in three. Furthermore, the trek can be split in different ways, spending either one or two nights at a campsite.
My group climbed from our starting point, Alto del Naranjo, to our overnight campsite/dormitory Aguada del Joaquin (see below) , in around 5 hours. We rested in the afternoon before tackling the 1974m peak the next day, returning to Aguada for a second night. We descended back to Alto del Naranjo on the third day.
While you may end up twiddling your thumbs in the evenings at a campsite (your main luggage is stored in a hotel elsewhere while you do the trek) it provides valuable time to put your feet up! Spreading the climb over three days definitely maximises your chances of making it to the top.
We encountered other groups who compressed the trek into two days. It showed!
2- Don't attempt this trek without an official guide. Ours stressed that this is a military area. If you strike out on your own to explore... Well, the implication was that you'll end up in a whole heap of trouble!
3 - If travelling independently in Cuba, you should be able to find a guide to accompany you to the summit. However, if you'd prefer a guided tour of the country, check out companies such as Explore (http://www.explore.co.uk/holidays/walking-in-cuba) and Exodus (http://www.exodus.co.uk/holidays/tac/overview )
4 - In the weeks leading up to your trip, prepare yourself physically with aerobic exercise (such as running), plus something to strengthen your quad muscles. I did plenty of the former, but neglected the latter. By the second night at camp, it hurt just to drag myself up the steps to the dining room!
5 - Age doesn't necessarily mean a thing, providing you're reasonably fit. Our 'group elder' had just turned 70!
When to go...
The Caribbean hurricane season officially runs from June to November, with the peak often occurring in September. However, some travel companies run trips to Cuba during this time regardless. Hurricanes are hard to predict and vary greatly in intensity and frequency, they say. So it's up to you whether you want to take a chance. Bear in mind that the weather is hot and humid during these months.
November to April marks the dry season, with average daytime temperatures in the low 20s°C.
For further information on Cuba's climate click here: http://www.cubaweather.org/cuba_climate.php
Average temperatures in Cuba can be found here: http://www.cubaweather.org/cuba_temperatures.php
Where to sleep
While there are other campsites in the area, we stayed at Aguada del Joaquin (see photos), around 1364m above sea level.
Your place must be booked in advance (your guide or travel company will do this for you), as they need to know how many people to cater for. Supplies (i.e. food and drink for your meals!) are carried up the mountain on mules on a daily basis.
Facilities there are fairly basic, as to be expected when hiking up a mountain!
There are two dormitories with bunk beds and mattresses, but it's a good idea to take a warm sleeping bag (see 'What to take').
There are also basic toilets and a shower.
Meals are provided by the camp's cooks, and served in the dining room.
We certainly didn't go hungry! A typical meal would include plentiful helpings of soup, pork, rice, beans, local vegetables, fried banana chips or plantain...
Vegetarians, note that you'll be well catered for! Even our guide was impressed by the cooks' ability to rustle up interesting things for the two veggies in our group.
Flout everything you've been told about adding salt to food back home - out here, you'll be sweating so much you'll need it! (And boy, does salty food taste good!)
Drinks had to be paid for separately, but at 1 CUC (around 60p) for a can of lemonade, orangeade, or a local beer (the two options being the light Crystal or the dark Bucanero), you can't really complain!
What to wear...
While conditions on the mountain will vary depending on when you go, to sum up, think mud, sweat and a few mosquitoes during the day. And maybe biting cold at night.
1 - Wear sturdy walking boots with a good grip. Not trainers, not plimsolls, and definitely not flip-flops! Unless you want to break bones or commit suicide (yes, I saw people foolish enough to tackle the mountain in these..)
2 - Zip-off trekking trousers. Shorts are great during the day (plus washing mud off your legs is a heck of a lot easier than trying to wash your trousers!). Jeans are a bad idea (yep, some people were decked out in denim...)
3 - Also pack vests, t-shirts, a fleece, thermal top, thermal leggings, and waterproofs (including a waterproof cover for your daypack).
What to take...
1 - Walking poles. Unless you have the agility and sure-footedness of a mountain goat. They'll help you haul yourself up steep inclines, assist you in keeping your balance as you navigate slippery rocks and muddy, gnarled tree roots, and hopefully prevent you taking the quick way back down!
2 - Water purification tablets are handy. You may be able to buy bottled water at the campsite, but much depends on whether supplies have arrived on the mule! With the tap at the camp out of action during our stay, some of us clambered down to a nearby pool and filled our water bottles there.
3 - Mosquito repellent. There are lots of the little blighters, particularly at the campsite. I swear Deet acts like a mozzie-magnet on me, but with dengue fever a risk in Cuba, it's a good idea to try to prevent being bitten.
4 - Flapjacks or other sugary snacks - preferably ones that don't melt! You're gonna need that energy boost!
5 - Immodium, just in case. A couple of people in my group suffered. Particularly unpleasant in the absence of flushing toilets!
6 - A torch. If it's a headtorch, please remember not to face your sleeping dormitory mates when you get up for a toilet trip in the middle of the night!
7 - A 2-3 season sleeping bag. At night it can feel REALLY cold. I say 'feel' for a reason. How we chortled when our guide told us it'd be viciously cold at night, even though the thermometer may read 19°C. How I took back every chortle the next day, after a near-sleepless night huddled in every item of clothing I had with me...
8 - Wet Wipes are great if you don't fancy using the shower!
1 - Warm up for Pico Turquino with a trek to Comandancia de la Plata (http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/central-america-and-the-caribbean/cuba/santiago-cuba-granma/sierra-maestra/comandancia-la-plata-trail/), in the foothills of the mountain (around 1500m above sea level). This is the jungle base camp set up by the rebels in 1958, where they hid while being hunted by Batista's troops.
There's a post room, a small museum, a kitchen (apparently they cooked only once every 5-6 days for fear of detection), and Castro's 'house', complete with a bullet-hole resplendent fridge. Yes, a fridge. Carried through the jungle. Up a mountain. While being shot at.
Suddenly carrying your daypack while kitted out in Goretex and vibram-soled walking boots, pockets stuffed with sugary snacks, doesn't seem so bad...
2 - Pay to have a mule (or a person) carry your sleeping bag and overnight kit while you're doing the trek to the summit. It's very hot and humid, and extra weight is the last thing you'll want! A group of five of us paid 7.50 CUCs (around £4.56) each for a very athletic local guy to rocket up the trail ahead of us to the ovenight stop.
3 - If staying overnight in the dormitory at Aguada del Joaquin, opt for a lower bunk rather than a top one (for obvious reasons!). And if you have a choice, avoid the beds either side of the dormitory door. A chilly draught howls through the sizeable gap at the bottom of the door - and every time someone in your dorm gets up for a night-time toilet trip, you're gonna know about it!
This is a memorable, fun trek that you're sure to love. The spirit of cameraderie will keep you going when your legs start to feel like lead - and yes, it's all worth it! Even the tough bits!
Above all, just enjoy the adventure!