The Epic La Gran Piedra Adventure

Wildfires, tree rat stew, a fallen tree blocking the road, slavery, a butterfly with clear wings, and a ride with the Cuban Air Force, this December 2016 La Gran Piedra day trip had almost everything. La Gran Piedra National Park (Parque Nacional de la Gran Piedra) is named after the monolith at the top of the mountain about 28 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba.

Waking up early, our Santiago de Cuba hosts kindly provided a 6am breakfast. We walked to bus terminal near the port on Jesús Menéndez Avenue. Our options from hear were a bus to Siboney 1 hour later or a 10am bus direct to La Gran Piedra (The Big Stone).

The bus schedule to La Gran Piedra from bus station near Santiago de Cuba's port

The bus schedule to La Gran Piedra from bus station near Santiago de Cuba’s port; buses leave Santiago 6am Monday, Wednesday and Friday, returning from La Gran Piedra at 3pm. There is a 10am Sunday bus which I guess also returns 3pm but it’s Cuba so who exactly knows…

Instead of these options, we:

  • Rode moto taxis across town (20 CUP; US$0.80 each) to El Palo del Aura where more frequent transport departed towards Siboney.
  • Caught a bus for 1 CUP (US$0.04), exiting at the junction to La Gran Piedra. Here we watched lizards while waiting with others for a ride up the mountain.
  • Took a private car (organised by a man in a tractor) up the mountain for 20 CUC (US$20; negotiated down from 30 CUC).

This car should have delivered us to the top, however, we came across the following:

Our old US sedan ride to La Gran Piedra stopped abruptly by a recently fallen tree

Our classic US sedan ride to La Gran Piedra stopped abruptly by a recently fallen tree

The tree still had the newly-fallen smell and a sow pig and green lizard were investigating the scene. Obviously we could not continue so we paid 13 CUC (US$13) and bid farewell to the driver.

A small bromeliad on the fallen tree in front of the US sedan

A small bromeliad on the fallen tree in front of the US sedan

With several kilometres remaining, we began hiking to the top. At least the views were great.

One of the views on our hike up

One of the views on our hike up

Part of the way, a motorbike carrying a passenger passed us. Later, we both got on the same bike, paying 6 CUC (US$6) for the ride to Cafetal La Isabelica, a museum commemorating the former slave-using coffee plantation. La Isabelica entry cost 2 CUC each along with a 5 CUC camera fee.

Rocío and the guide at La Isabelica

Rocío and the guide at La Isabelica

La Isabelica is part of the UNESCO world heritage-listed Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba. These plantations were set up by French and Haitian coffee farmers fleeing the Haiti slave uprisings in the early 19th century. Our guide recounted terrible stories about how the masters abused their slaves.

Area for drying coffee at La Isabelica

Area formerly used for drying coffee at La Isabelica

After 1 CUC (US$1) coffees we wandered slowly towards La Gran Piedra, observing the flora and fauna along the way. I saw a wonder of nature and something I had never seen before – a clear-winged butterfly. Thankfully, I had time to take a photo. Unfortunately, Rocío wasn’t in the vicinity although she was genuinely grateful I had seen it.

The only clear-winged butterfly we (I) saw

The only clear-winged butterfly we (I) saw

A vibrant blue flower

A vibrant blue flower

Like Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, La Gran Piedra also has a unique ecosystem with endemic plants and animals.

Tree ferns

Tree ferns

The Gran Piedra monolith lookout later came into view. Near the lookout was a Cuban Air Force radar tower. Little did we know that this radar was to play a critical role in our day.

The Gran Piedra viewpoint and air force radar tower

The Gran Piedra viewpoint and air force radar tower

For lunch we ate fish with rice and salad at a paladar, an owner-run private restaurant, instead of going to the tourist complex. For 5 CUC (US$5) each we enjoyed fish with rice, potatoes and salad.

We could smell something cooking nearby and when Rocío enquired, we learnt it was local delicacy tree rat (hutia). One to push her boundaries, Rocío asked for a serving. The locals obliged and we tipped them 5 CUC.

Dragonfly

This dragonfly also has clear wings…

Behind the monolith several hummingbirds feasted on a blossoming tree. Watching and recording the hummingbirds filled Rocío with joy.

Hummingbird resting

A hummingbird resting

The path up to the 1,225 metre high viewpoint begins at the tourist complex and involves paying a 2 CUC entry fee. Instead, a local told us of the free back way to the lookout with panoramic views.

Rocío and I at the top

Rocío and I at the top of La Gran Piedra

From the top we had to go down. It was already after 4pm so the 3pm bus back to Santiago de Cuba was not an option. We began walking, hoping and expecting to catch a ride with a passing vehicle.

An intense orange flower

An intense orange flower

We had made it back to the fallen tree by 5:30pm and only 2 vehicles had driven down, both full. Amazingly, the large trunk had been split by axe. This was actually unsurprising for Cuba where a lack of fuel and equipment likely eliminated the chainsaw option.

The fallen tree across the road split by axe

The fallen tree across the road split by axe

The sun had set beautifully and we decided to pause from hiking and enjoy our tree rat stew with beans and rice. Honestly, I liked it. I don’t recall Rocío loving it but we had a long way to go and she felt obliged to eat it. Later on in the trip Rocío recounted that if she could eat tree rat then she could eat anything.

Local delicacy tree rat with rice and beans

Local delicacy tree rat (hutia) with rice and beans

The mesmerising sunset

The mesmerising after sunset glow

The light was fast fading and we still had many kilometres until the main road. Rocío began running down so I joined her. Later, I learned she was terrified of the bats flying around in the dark and ran as to distract herself from them. Distance and bats were not our only threats. Glowing on adjacent mountains were wildfires. I was 99.9% sure we weren’t in any danger but in the dark things literally weren’t clear.

Wildfires glow on adjacent mountains

Wildfires glow on adjacent mountains

Then, miracles. Only the third vehicle driving down since we began hiking was the first one to stop and offer us a ride. And for free. One of them even got out of the dual cab utility and sat in the tray so we could both sit inside. The men were from the Cuban Air Force and had been working with the radar up at La Gran Piedra. The journey back to Santiago de Cuba took some time and involved a few stops but we did not care. The conversation on the way was a bonus although, of course, it all remained diplomatic.

Arriving to our accommodation 7:30pm, we were exhausted from an epic day.

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  1. Pingback: Pinar del Río Chevrolets, Architecture, Art and Food | Where is Joe.in?

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