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).
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:
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.
With several kilometres remaining, we began hiking to the top. At least the views were great.
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.
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.
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.
Like Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, La Gran Piedra also has a unique ecosystem with endemic plants and animals.
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.
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.
Behind the monolith several hummingbirds feasted on a blossoming tree. Watching and recording the hummingbirds filled Rocío with joy.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.