Day hike to El Nicho
The famed beauty of the cold waters of El Nicho makes it a spectacular and much visited spot by national and foreign tourists venturing into the breathtaking Escambray Mountains. It's a valley that has been officially declared a Fauna Shelter (a type of protected area), and it's part of the Guanayara National Park, about which I have written in previous blogs. Its beauty lies in the set of interconnected waterfalls and pools, located throughout the Mamey River, an affluent of Hanabanilla River.
El Nicho is probably the most impressive attraction in the whole of Escambray. This is why to get to it you won't find a barely trodden or virginal path where walkers can rarely be found. On the contrary, it is a recreational area for the nearby villagers, and in summer there are many people coming in trucks and vintage cars from distant places like Cienfuegos or Cumanayagua.
It is therefore not a place to go when seeking peace and quiet (that is if you go in the summer time at least when you'll find it at its busiest). This, however, doesn't mean there isn't a quiet spot to be found around there, but you have to search for it. After September, it becomes a less crowded trail.
|Location:||Escambray, Cienfuegos province|
|Distance:||Several kilometres, depending on the means of transport|
|Start point:||Hanabanilla Hotel|
|End point:||End of El Nicho trail|
|What to see:||Mountain landscapes, gorges, waterfalls, river pools|
|What to take:||A tent, supplies for three days, something to make water drinkable, bathing suit|
My last trip to El Nicho was marked by five life lessons I learned a bit late and which I will try to sum up and shre with you guys here.
Five lessons I learned on a magical hiking journey to El Nicho waterfalls
Trust locals when they give you a piece of advice
Let me explain: to get to our destination we tried to be creative. We wanted to go by the river and not by the usual road route. The Hanabanilla River whose waters are fed by El Nicho waterfalls, made things easier. It is wide enough and navigable for power boating until you reach a narrow reservoir. South of this dam, there is a fishermen village with all the necessary means for such a tour, and our plan was to get to the village by road and then continue by boat to our destination. This made us make a big round to get there from Cienfuegos.
We negotiated the fare for a boat trip with the fishermen, and managed to haggle the price down to what would approximately amount to £2.5 (4 CUC), because we were Cubans. Then, we decided to set up our tents for the night on top of a hill with a great view to the river. It was an almost perfect place: close to a trail and near a nice beach downhill. It was also close to the Hanabanilla Hotel (yes, you guessed it, almost every place in this area is named after that river).
We unpacked our stuff and set up the tents. When we were about to be finished with the last one, a local boy riding a horse passed by. He looked at us as if we were small kids playing on the street, and said:
"You cannot stay here because a tromba1 (waterspout) is coming and it will drag your tents."
Up until that very moment, the day was sunny with no signs of storm clouds. We were really sceptical, but he insisted:
"You'd better pick up your things and stay in my porch for the night."
At that very moment our scepticism turned into suspicion. The weather sided with our reasoning and so, we decided to stay put right where we where.
Not even 20 minutes had passed and the other side of the valley became overcast. In a few seconds we saw how the waters on the dam started to swirl under the rain and strong winds. It was too late to take any precautionary measures. The waterspout hit us, breaking off the rods of a tent.
Better to eat humble pie than go hungry
Our other two tents could barely withstand the winds, and we decided to take them down before they were torn to pieces. We were then out in the open under the storm, drenched to our bones, with no other choice than asking for help to the same guy who had warned us before. He gave us some towels to dry ourselves and let us take shelter under his porch.
Even after the darkest storms the calm always comes
In this case in the form of a beautiful moon that turned the waters of the river and the rain drops on the grass of a silver colour, an effect no camera could perfectly capture. Luckily, although folded up, the tents were really waterproof and we could sleep soundly in them.
The shortest way is not always the best way
The following day we set off north at nine in the morning. The trip was fine although we went against the current and the motor boat ran well. The views were great: in this area the river runs wide through a narrow valley, a pass in the Escambray range. If we had taken the traditional route, from Cienfuegos to Cumanayagua, instead of going to Hanabanilla Hotel, we would have missed this great adventure.
The boatman left us two kilometres away from the town El Nicho. We arrived there pretty fast by bordering the river. There are four kilometres of road from the town to the tourist trail that can be done on foot. There are no interesting views to be seen from this road, so we decided to take one of the trucks that go along this route.
In life, you always have shots to call
When you reach the path, there are two possible ways to go on. One trail leads you north and takes you to the most tourist spot, and the toll costs the equivalent to around £3 for foreigners. There are very beautiful waterfalls and the "Poza de los Enamorados" (The Lovers Pool), and the "Poza Cristal" (The Crystal Pool) where you can get away from the heat.
There is also a restaurant, expensive for Cubans, but affordable for foreigners. Fortunately, many locals offer relatively cheap creole food in improvised rustic restaurants.
The southern path takes you to a less touristy and wilder area. There is the "Poza de los Tres Deseos" (The Three Wishes Pool), so deep that you can jump from its 12-metre-high waterfall without fear of breaking your bones (well, the feat can feel a tad scary regardless). Of course, you have to know how to swim. Its name comes from the fact that the jump lasts long enough to make three wishes.
I confess that it was hard for me to make the first jump, and this I did just because a female friend told me:
"... if you don't jump, I won't dare to."
I only had time to make one wish, although I recall I said it over and over in my head while I was falling down:
"I wish I can dive straight into the water!"
If you continue walking south, you get to El Mamey River, an affluent of the Hanabanilla. There is a beautiful canyon with a big waterfall and several pools on the top side. This is one of the least visited places in El Nicho, so you can enjoy the privacy and quietness you can hardly find along the other paths of the route.
We had two choices for camping out that night. The first was to use the official camping site on the north path, and pay $10.00 CUC for a tent (about £6.5) with its main advantage being that you are in a protected area. The second choice was to camp out in an out-of-the-way place, far from most campers.
We ended up setting up our own tents at the end of the southern path in order to save some money. It is important to finish pitching up your tents before the close of the day, because chances are good that it will rain at nightfall.
What I took away from an unforgettable experience
I wanted to finish this post by pointing out that it was a great idea to combine the visit to El Nicho with the tour through Hanabanilla River. Locals told me that Hanabanilla Hotel offers this tour to its guests in some seasons. In any case, you always have the possibility of doing it on your own, and I'm sure you will have a great time sailing and walking through the Escambray.
1 Tromba: In Cuba we use this term to refer to a local storm with strong winds that break in narrow valleys, mainly in summer, and also to any local storm with strong winds.