travelog 133

Cuba IV: Flora II

A day trip from Santiago de Cuba takes us along the coast to Baconao. First we quickly stop in Siboney to check on a restaurant serving excellent lobster according to Jean-Marc. We find the restaurant but there will be no food served today because the owners drove to Santiago to buy supplies. Along the coast there's Agave underwoodii, too. Most plants are green but right next to a green one you can see a nice blue specimen. Then there's Melocactus harlowii, Harrisia eriophora, Pilosocereus polygonus, Stenocereus fimbriatus, and a small Plumeria with narrow leaves and little white flowers. And much more. From Santiago we head to Guantánamo from where we try to go to Caimanero and Hatibonico for Melocactus evae, also a synonym of M. harlowii. Though Hatibonico is a protected nature reserve, it unfortunately is also a Cuban military zone. We see signs along the road mentioning the no-go area, and eventually our outing comes to a sudden, although forseeable, end at a small house with barriers. "No hay paso", no access! We explain our plan to the military guy but he says that we first have to get a special authorization in Guantánamo, then find a guy, then come back and try again. It all sounds pretty complicated. So we just want to turn around and drive back without having achieved anything, but first the guy collects all our four passports and they copy our data very thoroughly into a book. Back in Guantánamo we stroll through the local market where the selection is rather dreary. There are small mounds of vegetables on the tables, especiall stuff like potatoes, yuka, boniato and malanga, but also tomatoes and cucumbers. Spices are packed into tiny little plastic bags and seem to be extremely expensive. There's a guy in front of the market selling bananas from his bicycle. Another one offers limes from the trailer of his beautifully restored Chevy.

From Guantánamo we take the road to the ocean. Tortuguillas is our first stop to climb around the interesting calcarous rocks. Jean-Marc is looking for his Melocactus borhidii, another synonym of M. harlowii, while we take pictures of Agave albescens. This one definitely does not fall into the "big and green" category! There are green plants, though, but most of them are of a beautiful gray-blue to steel-gray color. The landscape with the ragged rocks, cliffs and little rock towers, the view down to the blue ocean, the flowering Agave albescens and the blue-leaved palm trees are quite the sight. There's Melocactus harlowii near Mayambo and east of Imias we see M. acunae, another synonym of M. harlowii. Or in other words, there are melocacti en masse along the coast and one day somebody came along and described a new species for (almost) every bay. This stretch of coast is one of the most beautiful places we have seen in Cuba! Agave albescens is by far the most beautiful agave of the island; the melocacti are sometimes growing so close to each other that you need to be careful not to step on them, and then there are many other interesting plants growing here. From Cajobabo we drive to Playita de Cajobabo and then follow the road to La Maquina and Maisí, the easternmost point of Cuba, for a few kilometers. The road goes high above the ocean and we have spectacular views far along the coast line and vertically down the cliffs into the surf. Melocacti and agaves grow in the cliffs and right next to the precipice - paradise for us amateur photographers. To Jean-Marc's delight, we also find Mammillaria prolifera ssp. haitiensis (Haiti, btw., is just 90 kms (56 miles) away from here). Supposedly this species is extremely rare, but we think the plants are rather very well adapted to the surrounding dry leaves and brown underground. Unfortunately, we have to turn around because we'd like to get to Baracoa in time. The road snakes up into the mountains passing Altos de Cotilla and La Farola, a light house, and then goes down again in more curves. First we stop for Melocactus acunae ssp. lagunaensis, the gentle readership will have anticipated by now that this is again another synonym for M. harlowii; then, a few curves further up, we take a break for the breathtaking views and Selenicereus pteranthus seed. As soon as we get out of the car a Cuban, draped with bags and pouches, appears out of nowhere. He sells small carved wooden boxes with cacao butter, but also chocolate, cacao powder and coffee. We take pity on the poor guy all alone and buy something. After driving on we soon realize that he was just the first, or probably one with more entrepreneurial spirit because he placed himself ahead of the throng, of a whole mob of street vendors. Getting out of the car is almost impossible until past La Farola because these vendors are incredibly tough and keep insisting that we have to buy something.

Baracoa is a city on the coast, pretty isolated from the rest of the island and reachable only over a terrible "carretera". The little town has a nice center with a shady main square and colorful houses, but behind that there are many ruins, rickety wooden houses, run-down buildings. The sad "Malecón", the local beach promenade, makes the biggest impression on us. A wall protects this promenade, a word evoking palm trees, benches, sun, and souvenir vendors, from the surf. Run-down, gray multi-story houses defy the elements in the first row, the street surface is full of holes, traffic - on foot or motorised - is completely absent, the only life here are a few barefeet kids playing football. To get out of Baracoa we have to take the famous "carretera" to Moa. This road is part dirt road, part washed out earth, remnants of asphalt, rocky road, but mostly potholes that can reach the size of a small car. No wonder Baracoa is isolated from the rest of Cuba. After the first stretch we need a coffee break, then a photo break for a purple flowering orchid in a palm grove. Soon we reach the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001 and one of the most biologically diverse tropical island sites on earth. At last we also get to the habitat of one of the most interesting plants around here, the endemic Dracaena cubensis. The majority of the Dracaena species, or Dragon trees, are native to Africa, with a few in southern Asia through to northern Australia. Dracaena cubensis is the only species in tropical Central America. The plants are not as impressive as their relatives in Africa, in fact we can't see them at all because we're looking for the typical Dragon tree. Finally we get out of the car and have a closer look at the flora, and behold, Dracaena cubensis is a slender, delicate plant with thin stems and bushy heads. They grow together with Pinus cubensis, another endemic species, in extremely red soil (laterit with nickel) and were sometimes planted to control erosion in the area. This stretch of road is a testing of our Chinese rental car, a driving skills test for the designated driver (Julia), and a test of nerve of my more or less patient fellow passengers. The closer we get to Moa the more trees and bushes along the road are covered with red dust. The large nickel and cobalt deposits in this region are processed in huge, stone age plants, of course with impacts on the surrounding area. The river, the coastal waters and nearby land is contaminated by pollution from mines and processing plants. Everything in this city is dusted with red, houses are covered with red dust, cars are dirty with red dust, people breathe red air, their laundry dries red. We would see red in their place! Somewhere "near" here grows Agave shaferi, one of the species we don't visit. We would have to drive up to Mayarí Arriba (remember that Buena Vista Social Club song "Chan Chan": "De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané; Llego a Cueto, voy para Mayarí") into the Parque Nacional La Mensura and Parque Nacional Pico Cristal, something like Cuba's own 'Little Switzerland'. Lonely Planet advises that the access road is mostly a rough collection of holes with the odd bit of asphalt thrown in, just passable in a rental car if driven with care - that's exactly what we just had and so we let it be. Instead, we spoil ourselves to ice cream in Mayarí (most likely Bajo) which is not easy to find, of course. When we at last find a tiny store selling mostly alcohol, there's a huge poster on the wall with every kind of Nestlé ice cream (theoretically) for sale, but right now we can only have vanilla. The girl does not have plastic spoons, but fortunately we kept the ones from another ice cream splurge.

Our next destination is Agave anomala near Holguín. First we drive to the Mirador de Mayabe but this is just a hotel and restaurant, there's nothing left to see of the original flora. We see a couple of agaves but everything else is pretty much destroyed. Then we circle around on some dirt roads, thinking we could reach some of the original rocks. The undertaking is not crowned with success, instead we end up at a small house where a Dendrocereus nudiflorus is in full flower. Over some more dirt roads we get back to the main highway and find our way to Presa Gibara, of course on other dirt roads. Our search for Melocactus holguinensis, a synonym of M. curvispinus, is just as unsuccessful until we finally meet an old man to whom Jean-Marc shows a picture of the plant. Oh yes, he exclaims, he knows this plant, they grow right behind his house. "Right behind his house", of course, turns out to be a strenuous hike in the relentless midday heat without drinking water. After all, we find the melocacti and there's also tons of Agave anomala. In the first description, their leaves were described as not having any teeth, but we mostly see plants with teeth. The subsequent search for cold drinking water in 1.5 liter bottles turns out to be another odyssee, and we have to drive back into downtown Holguín to strike it lucky in a government-owned store.

Now we drive via Camagüey to Morón. There's no drinking water in large bottles in all of Morón either. There's beer, lemonade, rum, and small half-liter bottles of lukewarm drinking water. Morón is pretty ugly, but the Art Nouveau railway station and the hustle and bustle around it are really worth seeing. Arriving and departing trains are listed handwritten on a slate. There's a guard with a red and green flag on the main highway, stopping traffic when a train comes. Horse carriages are queued up in front of the station, waiting for customers. Huge busses are loaded up with people. They look like busses transporting prisoners with the passengers barely looking out through a slit high up on the side. A young woman sells soft ice from one of these prehistoric machines that are still operated with a gear wheel. We drive out to Cayo Coco in the afternoon, a mere 70 kilometers (43 miles) distance from Morón. Of course this distance can't be driven really fast on Cuban roads. Actually, we would like to go to Cayo Guillermo because, according to the guide book, it is one of the best beaches of Cuba. But since it is already afternoon, we don't want to drive an additional 30 kilometers (19 miles). For 26 kilometers (16 miles) you drive on a causeway, of course paying a toll and including passport control. The water on both sides looks grayer, dirtier and with whitecaps, the closer we get to Cayo Coco. You can even smell that the waste water is not going through a sewage plant but issues directly onto the bay behind the hotels. Guests, us included, are swimming in front of the hotels. We drive to the first beach and even find some deserted lounge chairs in the shade of a palm tree. The water is marvelously clear and of an incredible turquoise color. Then there's the white sand and the deep blue sky. And just around the corner we're able to get some ice cold beer, there's nothing we'd like better!

Leaving Morón, we drive past banana and coconut plantations, corn and sugarcane fields, some calcareous hills with agaves until we reach Remedios. We instantly like this little town. Downtown is beautifully restored, the houses are painted in bright colors, churches are renovated, there are outdoor restaurants and bars, and significantly less tourists than in Trinidad. There's a small souvenir market in one of the side streets, selling the same things as in every other touristy Cuban town. We head to Santa Clara from here, where we visit Che Guevara's mausoleum, a rather hideous monument, towered over by a seven meter tall Che bronze statue with his motto "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until victory, always!).

In the vicinity of Matanzas we try to find Valle de Yumuri and Melocactus matanzanus. After some back and forth we find the turn-off and drive down into a valley on an almost completely destroyed road that was once paved. We reach a better road, turn left and end up at some kind of visitor center at Chirino only to find out that we should have turned right. We turn around and head back until we find the correct turn-off to the "Estación Tres Ceibas Clavellinas". We leave the car because the track does not look really well-travelled at all. We hike on, passing many Agave legrelliana, another one of those "big and green" category species. Soon we reach a little house where a few Melocactus matanzanus are planted in the front yard. The guard, an unfriendly youth, has to go to Matanzas with his horse and wagon right now and right away. It is thus impossible for him to guide us to the plants but at least he allows us to take pictures of the plants in his front yard under his wife's watchful eyes. From Matanzas we head to Jaruco and on to the Escaleras de Jaruco to see Agave jarucoensis. The place is a small amusement park for wealthier Cubans. There are several restaurants, BBQ stations, a children's playground, music is booming out of a cave and you can rent horses too. There's a spectacular view far over the green plains all the way to the coast. There are little roads and you can reach every corner of this place in your car. On a small side road we finally get to the Autopista Nacional #1 to Havana. This freeway ends completely unexpectedly and we're already trying to find our way through the chaos of Havana. Traffic here is a strain on the nerves but we manage to get into the center of town and even find our hotel on the first try.

Havana is special and you can spend days in the city seeing something new every day. You need to love to walk, though, or hire a bici taxi which is not very cheap. A bici taxi driver, or more adequately the pedal pusher, may earn between 5-20 CUC per day, but has to hand in 10 CUC monthly to the government. The young men have to sweat and slave a lot, not much fun in the summer heat, yet earnings are better than somewhere else; however, competition is also much fiercer - and so you always find one who offers you the trip for a better price than his friend. Downtown streets and alleys are narrow and as soon as you leave the center everything becomes really lively. Colorful clothes hang to dry from every window and balcony; people live directly out onto the street, sometimes in "caves" on the ground floor; a woman with her hair in curlers serves at the corner store; barefeet kids play football in the streets, two rocks serve as goal; somebody's hair is done on a street corner; men typically wear shorts, go topless and have a beer belly; women also wear shorts and a tank top, their skintight clothes clinging to their often well-rounded bodies; facades and frontages are completely run-down and long, pitch-dark corridors lead deep into courtyards from where people reach their apartment over steep stairs; a neat pile of mangoes on a chair in front of a door is for sale. One evening we sit down at one of the many restaurants on Plaza Vieja. They serve Austrian-style beer and atrocious food, portions are ridiculous and the price, of course, is way over the top. Another attraction is the Mercado de Artesanias, a huge building where paintings, wood carvings, the usual Che Guevara t-shirts, cigars and "humidores", etc., pp. are sold. A sales person earns 10% of the total daily amount, so it's no wonder that you will not be given any peace. At a small market in one of the narrow alleys we see prices for fruits and vegetables. You need to remember that 1 CUC = 25 CUP (= 1 US$). One lime costs 1-2 CUP, a large mango 5 CUP, a bundle of bananas 10 CUP, a cucumber 2 CUP, and an avocado 5 CUP.

There's so much more to write about and of course you can't do justice to the Cuban flora talking mainly about agaves an melocacti. We have seen palms en masse, and orchids, butterflies and lizards, spectacular coast lines, ragged calcareous rocks with an incredibly varied flora and green mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. Now we have only two more travelogs in petto, one about the propaganda, the other one about the Cuban vehicles. Of course we hope to have given you a little peek into this magnificent island world which will certainly change a lot in the coming years - for better or for worse has to be seen.

August 2016

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen