Parque Guanayara lies deep in the Escambray Mountains in Cuba. Apart from beautiful scenery and wild swimming, it’s a great opportunity to understand the daily grind of people working in the country’s coffee industry.
The military take an active interest in tourism in Cuba. Havanatur and Cubanatur – owned and run by the military – escort tourists on trips to natural parks, beaches, and places of historical interest. Under the banner of Gaviota, they run a line of hotels with interior decorating similar to that of a minimum security prison.
As good as the service on the state-run Viazul bus service was, we decided to explore the coffee plantations of Parque Guanayara near Trinidad with a private company.
Having located the address of Trinidad Travels to book our excursion, we found ourselves sitting in an old lady’s living room. She handed us her telephone so we could speak to her son to book the tour, then offered us a cup of tea. Such are the quirks of travel in Cuba.
Parque Guanayara is one of the most remote of the 5 parks within the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve. A beautiful part of Cuba that stretches across the Escambray mountains.
Walking trails meander through lush coffee plantations before dropping to attractive waterfalls and crystal clear pools. It’s a great place to explore the importance of coffee – Cuba’s 5th biggest industry.
It’s also a great way to test out Cuba’s number 1 industry: tourism.
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THE DREAM OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR
At 9 am on the dot there was a rap on our door and Lenya from Trinidad Travels stood before us. Self-proclaimed Queen of the Mountains, she was to be our guide as we headed into the jungle.
Originally from St. Kitts, Lenya’s parents came to Cuba and settled in Guantánamo. She learnt English from TV, picking up contraband stations from the nearby US naval base. She used her skills to join the tourist training program before being offered a licence to conduct tours of Topes de Collantes for state-run tour groups.
Recently the industry was deregulated, allowing for companies like Trinidad Travels to be established. With her sturdy government training, Lenya was headhunted and now works for them. An achievement she is clearly proud of.
“I made it” she proclaims. “It fulfils every dream I have ever had.”
Such is the perceived difference between private and public in Cuba.
Interrupting stories of her progress through the military ranks, the tour stops briefly at a raised platform with wide views over the town of Trinidad. Azure blue water and white sandy beaches shimmer in the morning light.
It’s a beautiful country, there’s no doubt about it. But, with military efficiency, Lenya had us bundled in the car to make our way to the jungle to start the Sendero Centinelas del Rio Melodioso hike.
THE GRIND OF COFFEE WORKERS IN PARQUE GUANAYARA
The hike began in an arabica coffee plantation. Coffee picking is the bread and butter of the 3,000 that live in these hills. But like everything in Cuba, coffee production is heavily influenced by the government.
Private coffee farms must obtain a license to operate from the local cooperative that monitors their production. The cooperative is supposed to help farmers, but with 1 tractor often shared between a hundred small farms, its impact can be minimal.
A whopping 80% of coffee grown on private farms is sold to the government well under market rates. Farmer’s generate their income by selling the remaining 20% at the local market.
But with Cuban’s earning around $30 per month, most of their food is purchased as a package of heavily subsidised goods from the government. Few Cuban’s can afford the private prices coffee farmers rely on for an income.
However, not all Cuban coffee is grown on private farms. In places like Parque Guanayara National Park, the coffee plantation is government owned. Here pickers are paid a salary based on how much coffee they collect. A day’s work picking will earn them about 110 CUP (US$4.25) – a decent salary in Cuban terms.
WILD SWIMMING AT PARQUE GUANAYARA
After a quick summary of the state of coffee in Cuba, we left the plantation and followed the trail that dropped down the valley. Grateful the muddy path was not too wet, we soon came to the 27m high El Rocio waterfall – little more than a light spray at this time of year.
The trail dropped again and we meandered back and forth across the river before arriving at a large natural pool. Shaded by trees rising all around, it looked a picture-perfect spot to swim.
It took us a minute to adjust to the chill, but it was well worth it. The wild swimming in Parque Guanayara is as beautiful as the nearby El Nicho, but a bit more remote.
Drying off on the banks our eyes turned to the trees. Cuba has a wealth of fascinating birds. In a matter of minutes, a green Cuban parrot darted past us. The tiny but colourful Cuban Tody flittered among the leaves, and a buzzing hummingbird tempted us to get up and grab the camera.
The path continues a further 2 km on to Casa de la Gallega, a house set deeper in the hills. There’s a government-run restaurant at the casa but the military are not keen on tourists on private tours walking back with full stomachs.
HIKING IN PARQUE GUANAYARA
The best walk in Parque Guanayara is the Centinelas del Rio Melodioso trail. The entire trail is 3km long (6km round trip). It passes the 27m high El Rocio waterfall (500m along the trail), followed by the Poza de Venado natural pool (1km) before reaching Casa de la Gallega (3km). It takes about 20 minutes to reach the pool and then a further 40 minutes to get to the casa.
The hike to the pool and a swim should take about 1 hour and 20 minutes, if you push on to the casa allow between 2 hours 30 minutes and 3 hours for the return hike. The walk is a little steep as it drops over the valley to the waterfall, but otherwise, it’s straight forward and easy to follow. The path splits a couple of times but all routes end up at the same destination.
If you’re happy to organise your own transport from Trinidad to Parque Guanayara, there is no need to hire a guide for this hike.
HOW TO GET TO PARQUE GUANAYARA
Parque Guanayara is a 1-hour drive from Trinidad deep in the Escambray mountains. As one of the most inaccessible parts of the Topes de Collantes nature reserve, it takes a bit of effort getting to as there are no buses or collectivos ploughing this route. Here are your options:
If you have your own car you can drive to the park entrance taking the road via Cuatro Vientos. The road deteriorates towards the end and is steep in places but at the time of writing, it was perfectly manageable in a normal car. After heavy rain it would be slippery and significantly more challenging. Please be aware that if you intend to continue on to El Nicho, the road deteriorates even more and may be impassable in some vehicles. Check before leaving.
Taxis can be hired from Trinidad. The driver will drive you 1 hour to the park entrance, wait for around 2 and a half hours while you explore the park, and then return you to town. Because it is a long way expect to pay at least 70 CUC for the return trip.
If you don’t have a hire car, Parque Guanayara is a good option for a private tour as the cost of a return taxi is quite high. The other benefit of getting a tour is to understand more about the way of life in Cuba’s coffee-growing regions.
TOUR OPTIONS TO PARQUE GUANAYARA
Trinidad Travels is a private company which provides excellent tours of the area with English-speaking guides. The tour includes a local guide, park entrance, transport, lunch, and stops at a mirador and coffee museum.
The hike with Trinidad Travels only goes as far as the natural pool (not all the way to the casa) so if you wanted to do the longer hike, you would need to organise your own transport from Trinidad.
Bookings need to be made in person at 613a Calle Antonio Maceo – a residential address where you can make the booking.
Cubatur, the government-run agency provide a very similar tour where staff will be paid much less. The benefit of the government tour is that the walk goes all the way to Casa la Gallega, where you have lunch. An option that wasn’t available to us on the private tour. As always in Cuba, check the details before booking. Cubatur’s office is at 447 Calle Antonio Maceo.
HELPFUL TIPS FOR VISITING PARQUE GUANAYARA
1 / Although there’s quite a bit of shade on the trail, the sun can still be pretty fierce – wear sunblock, bring a hat and take water with you.
2 / You don’t want to miss out on swimming in this beautiful natural pool so bring a towel and swimming trunks. There are two outdoor cubicles to get changed in but most people use a towel on the rocks.
3 / The path down the valley is a little steep in places so wear decent shoes with good grip.
4 / Many beautiful birds endemic to Cuba can be seen along the route so, if you are a twitcher, bring binoculars and a telephoto lens.
5 / There’s a small stall at the swimming spot which has some drinks for sale, however, there’s not always someone there so don’t rely on it.
6 / Casa de la Gallega has toilets, a bar offering drinks and small snacks and a restaurant. This option is probably only available if you’re taking the government-run tour (through Cubatur). If you’re going without a tour, check in advance if the restaurant will feed you.
7 / The park attendants will ask for your passport number at the entrance. Make sure you know it, or at least reel of the right amount of numbers confidently. They will also take a 10 CUC entrance fee.
8 / Download google maps for the area onto your phone. It lets you keep track of where you are and gives you the confidence you are heading in ‘roughly’ the right direction. Click on the star on our map to save to your places in Google Maps.
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
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