Browsing through the web to find interesting blog pieces by fellow Cuban writers who report their accounts and experiences of living in the island, I came across this perfectly illustrated, highly evocative recount of a personal journey to the Escambray Mountains. It was written by local blogger and journalist from Las Villas, Giselle Morales, and it made me stop on my tracks to read it thoroughly and let my imagination run wild.
The blog piece that struck a chord in my heart is about Topes de Collantes, a place my grandfather always talked about and described, and one that I still long to visit. Through Giselle's words you go on a fully immersive and emotional journey where she paints the perfect picture of rural life in one of Cuba's most spectacular mountainous regions, the backdrop against which she weaves the perfect tale.
I liked it so much I thought it only fair that English readers should also have access to it and have proceeded to translating for an English's audience enlightenment about this little-known place deeply embedded in Cuba's central mountainous landscape. If you can read Spanish, you can find her original here.
What was I missing here? Well, I loved the way she described her journey to and from Topes de Collantes, how she made the locals a central element to the telling of her tale, but I missed the name of a few places, like the names of the mountains or peaks she climbs and describes along the way and above all I missed fact that she doesn't actually stop to describe Topes de Collantes or all that is there to see in this protected nature reserve once she gets there, it's almost left to the imagination on purpose - perhaps so that your dream surpasses any possible reality...I might have to ask her. But if you want to see for yourself then keep on reading and make your own mind up about it.
Here it is, translated to the best of my ability and aiming, above all, to transmit her impressions and feelings while navigating through language barriers to achieve the same effect for English readers. Enjoy!
Journey to the top of Las Villas
Exhausted by the uphill climb, the car stops after reaching a bend, one that fate seems to have planted there so that drivers don't give up half way. A local peasant shouts out at our press crew and surprises us with his tour guide skills:
"Freshen up the 'beast' with the water from that 'pluma' (a local word for tap used in some inland regions of Cuba) and keep going, you still need another push to get to the viewpoint and another one to reach the town. All of this here is known as Curva de Juana (Juana's Curve)"
He explains as he moves his arms in a circular motion to signal the only house in the area where he lives alone with his dog; the wired fence that surrounds it; and the water stream from which he has seen hundreds of cars struggling upwards and onwards towards Topes de Collantes.
Without saying another word he gets lost from our sight and disappears up the hill, making the same journey as effortlessly as he probably does daily, without the back of his knees hurting or his 70-something-year-old bones giving up. Like him, over 2000 inhabitants of this area are used to this daily uphill walks, almost inaccessible yet safely guarded from the fickleness of the plains.
The guajiro (you are probably familiar with this Cuban word for countrymen) was right, barely a kilometre separates his house from the famous vantage point...the luck of having that staircase embedded in the mountains with its mighty 149 stone steps that cannot be climbed in one go.
Panting and gasping you barely make your way to the top alive, just before your breath is completely taken away again, this time by a dreamy landscape that almost knocks you completely right out as you look on spellbound and stunned: the hills, carpeted in the perfect shade of green, painlessly die out against the winding line of the coast; the sea fades out in the distance, outlining the borders of the peninsula in a deep blue hue; below, lethargic as ever, forever trapped in its time warp of centuries and unshaken by the passage of time, stands the city of Trinidad, just as it must have been seen by the first Spanish conquerors to venture into these cliffs.
Thousands of foreign tourists making a stop here one their way to Tope, have photographed the striking features of a region that, whilst can't be compared with the astronomical heights of Aconcagua nor with the dormant volcanoes of Los Andes, has that charm of virtually virginal landscapes, unexplored even by their own people.
Judging by the variety of ferns that start to creep up by the roadside, a wide-eyed naïve traveller could be forgiven for thinking that it's only a short way from here to reach Topes. After the very last rough track on the way a small misty and still sleepy town unfolds, awakening from its early morning slumber and still numb from the cold temperatures at dawn, usually much lower here than in the rest of the province.
Some locals describe the harshness of the winter in this microclimate with a humorous phrase that most likely only other townsfolk and Cubans from elsewhere would understand: "This year we're going to be colder than a Chinese dog in a fridge". Then in their usual amusing manner they walk away, rubbing their hands vigorously as they head towards the coffee plantations.
This red grain and its crops have populated the hillsides of these peaks. Over 70 cooperatives in the area are responsible for keeping El Caserio's market stalls well-stocked up with a variety of vegetable produce; yet, the food provisions that must climb up from the plains are held back by the questionings of distribution, a journey it seems, far more strenuous than that of the town itself.
The pain is aggravated by the inconsistencies of transport, which is hardly sufficient with the scarce weekly trips. "Salvation comes in the form of tourist cars going up and down so frequently, and the big hotel coaches", a guajiro says as he hands out freshly brewed jicaras (small rustic cups) of coffee says. He seizes the moment to praise the socio-economic impact of these new tourism infrastructure; giving new life to the area "And I hope they don't ever dream of closing these down, otherwise we're isolated from the world up here."
On our way back, when we reach the narrow mountain paths and the Curva del Muerto (Curve of the Dead) draws closer, menacingly looming in the horizon with its zig-zagging profile, the warnings of the locals make perfect sense, "Careful - on the way down all saints help, but sometimes they help a little too much".
To overcome the fear it's better to focus on the verdant ferns, which turn smaller and scarcer as we drive further away from Topes; or turn our attention to the picturesque signs, like Polvo Rojo (Red Dust) and La Chispa (The Spark), which are irremediably left behind in the course of our journey back; or perhaps concentrate on the memory of its inhabitants, well-adapted to life in a virtually undeveloped mountainous environment, without the geographical delimitations imposed by maps and for whom, albeit new decrees and new measures, Topes de Collantes is still the top of Las Villas.