Every year more than 1,400,000 Canadians head south to Cuba, primarily to take advantage of its gorgeous beaches and tropical temperatures. But while many of these visitors have been to different parts of the coast, most of them have never explored the island’s interior, yet it is here that you can get close to nature in an entirely different way, with a visit to Cuba’s Escambray Mountains.
It may come as a surprise to many that Cuba is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, an ‘Accidental Eden” (as National Geographic calls it) that is home to flora and fauna that you won’t find anywhere else. These plants and animals are found across the country in vast tracts of protected areas that cover 20% of the island, one of which is the Escambray Mountain region in south-central Cuba. I was lucky enough to join a group tour to discover some of what this area offers.
What I found was a pristine lake rivalling any in Ontario’s ‘Cottage Country’, rugged mountains offering spectacular views, hiking trails for all levels of adventure-seekers – and the chance to bounce through the hills in a former Russian troop carrier!
First Stop: Hanabanilla Lake
Hanabanilla Lake was actually formed in 1961 when Batista dammed the rivers feeding into it to create the largest freshwater reservoir and hydro-electric resource in Cuba. However, despite the helping hand of man in its creation, the lake itself is an unspoiled jewel in the centre of Cuba’s Escambray Mountains, and because of its unique underwater topography it has become an ideal habitat for freshwater bass. Above ground, the lush green landscapes that line the shores are a combination of evergreens, deciduous and tropical plants that give the lake a somewhat familiar look. (Think ‘Cottage Country plus palm trees’ and you’ll get an idea of what the scenery around Hanabanilla looks like.)
But with only one hotel (Hotel Islazul Hanabanilla) on the lake, and only a few hundred residents in the nearby town of the same name, Hanabanilla Lake is about as un-touristy as you can get. The shoreline is virtually devoid of buildings, there are no jet skis or speed boats disturbing the quiet, and unless you are an avid bass fisherman or a local who comes here to take advantage of the idyllic setting, it’s unlikely you’ll have Hanabanilla on your radar.
Case in point: on my flight back to Toronto, I spoke with a Cuban who has been living in Toronto for 12 years, who had spent his honeymoon at Lake Hanabanilla – he was extremely impressed that I even knew where it was!
Dining al Fresco at Rio Negro Restaurant
The Hanabanilla hotel offers different excursions on the lake, so our group hopped onto several boats and enjoyed some time cruising the lake and admiring the scenery. About 12 kilometres down the lake we pulled over to shore where we climbed up to an outdoor “restaurant” called Rio Negro. The restaurant was actually a collection of pretty, open-air thatched roof pavilions where a buffet lunch had been set up for us and where a chef was carving up two enormous roast pigs.
TIP: Roast pig is a favourite in Cuba, and you’ll see it served often with typical sides of rice and beans and roast yucca. For our lunch because it was a large group there was also grilled fish and chicken, a selection of cheeses and fruit, and of course a boozy coconut drink to wash it all down – my idea of a very civilized lakeside BBQ.
Trucking Through the Escambray Mountains
After lunch it was on by boat to the end of Hanabanilla lake where the Jibacoa embankment dam holds back the waters from the adjacent valley. Here, a fleet of former Russian troop carriers was lined up and waiting for us to climb aboard to explore more of the Escambray Mountains in the Topes de Collantes nature reserve.
Unspoiled Topes de Collantes
Topes de Collantes is located in the central-south part of Cuba where the landscape rises up in a series of rugged hills behind the city of Trinidad, some of which reach heights of 3700 feet or more above sea level. The higher altitude here means fresher, cooler air, and the landscape is peppered with caves, waterfalls, swimming holes and hiking trails for every level. There’s even a zipline for the Tarzans and Janes out there who are so inclined. (Sadly, this Jane didn’t have time or I would have definitely gone for a zip!)
Our re-purposed Russian trucks may not have been exactly eco-friendly with their diesel engines spewing exhaust into the air, but they were robust enough to transport us up the steep roads as we climbed to the highest viewpoint (mirador) in the park. Here we stopped to take in the spectacular views of the mountains and Lake Hanabanilla below us. Visitors can also use the restrooms or enjoy a drink at the bar while watching the play of sun and cloud on the landscape below.
Accommodations of a “Kur-ious” Sort
There aren’t many hotels in the Topes de Collantes area, but one of the stranger ones we saw has to be the Kurhotel Escambray, a former tuberculosis sanatorium built circa 1940 which has since been converted into accommodations for “medical tourists” looking for a rehabilitative retreat away from it all. I can’t say the hotel held much appeal for me personally, neither with its spartan Communist architectural style nor its off-putting medical history, but I did find a pretty photo op when the late afternoon sun hit the group of colourful houses on the grounds.
Unspoiled Nature Awaits in Central Cuba
Whether you are an adventure-seeker looking to hike to waterfalls or zip line over green valleys, or you just want a quieter escape in a Cuban version of cottage country, the Escambray Mountains offer plenty of ways you can get closer to nature in Cuba. If you’ve only ever visited the country’s beaches until now, this will literally be a breath of fresh air.
TIP: As the Escambray Mountains are a little off the beaten track, you are best to book any excursions to the area with a local Cuban operator like Gaviota Tours who can organize whatever you might need.
Special thanks to the Canadian office of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism who hosted me during my visit and organized our adventure tour into the Escambray Mountains.