Cuba’s highest peak is found in the Sierra Maestra Range, in the Eastern part of the island. Its official full name is Pico Real del Turquino (Turquino Royal Peak) and the surrounding National Park is named after it. It stands out as one of the few mountainous areas in the country where height causes significant climatic changes that account for a very different flora to what you find in other of the island’s mountain ranges. It also has one of the greatest orographic unevenness in the Caribbean, creating a remarkable landscape with spectacular sea views to be enjoyed as you make your way up.
The Caribbean Sea from a changing lookout point
I have climbed the Turquino twice to put to the test the two available trails to do so. The first climb I did from Granma in 2005, and the second one from Santiago de Cuba in 2013. This second experience, which I will be detailing here, was the most challenging in spite of the fact that it is only 11 kilometres long, which is 7 less than the other one. On a subsequent post following this one, I will focus on the first climbing route through the alternative side; an 18-kilometre route from Altos del Naranjo in Granma province.
The Turquino is 1,974 kilometres high. The main difference between the two routes lies on the fact that Altos del Naranjo in Granma stands at 1,000 metres above sea level, while the one from Santiago de Cuba starts at sea level, practically on the beach. In the Santiago route you have to climb the whole height through an 11-kilometre path, while on the 18-kilometre Granma route you will only have to climb the last 974 metres. Another important feature of the latter is that it takes two days to climb, while the Santiago one can be done in one day.
As you can easily deduct from the details I shared above, this isn’t a very high mountain and you can climb it by foot with no need for any specialised climbing equipment in spite of the fact that it is very steep. The road from the city of Santiago de Cuba to the point of departure is very rugged and goes through a narrow track between the mountains and the sea with many steep slopes. If you are not familiar with this road, you shouldn’t drive through it at night. Along the way, there are several hotels (like the one in the town of Uvero) where you can spend the night and these convenient lodging also offer tours to climb the Turquino.
The ascension - challenges and rewards of making the way up
To climb the Turquino from Santiago you have to get up before dawn, otherwise you won’t have enough time to do the full ascent and descent in one day. The local guides, without whom you are not allowed to climb the mountain, say that if you have not reached Pico Cuba by 11:00 a.m. (which you’ll find on Km 9 of the route) you should make your way back.
Going up these mountains has become a tradition for third-year students in my faculty at the Technical University of Havana. When I did it in 2013, I went along with some Telecommunications Engineering students - very good students across all subjects, but not particularly brilliant in geography. They had naively mistaken the first mountain they saw at the beginning of the route, barely seen in the dark of dawn, for the Pico Real and so they made their way up very fast, believing they could reach the top by snack time.
This first part is really tough as the path is very steep and full of small rocks that make it very hard to walk. I told those willing to listen that it was an endurance race, not a sprint, so we should slow down our march. At daybreak, my small group was at Km 2 and we began to move ahead of most of the enthusiastic sprinters who were taking a break on the sides of the road. From this point, the route began to get easier and better, and so did our pride, for we were no longer the last ones trailing behind everyone else.
The flora in this part of Sierra Maestra is very beautiful and peculiar. It’s impossible not to stop and admire the ferns and the orchids hanging from almost all big trees on both sides of the road. You might even get lucky enough to take a glimpse (or a snap) of the elusive national bird, the Tocororo, easily identified by its distinctive birdcall: “to-co, co-ro-ro”.
One of the most extraordinary parts of this trail is the Paso del Cadete (The Cadet Cross) in which the path turns into a narrow pass. The local guides tell the story of a cadet who fell off this pass and, luckily, cushioned the blow by bouncing off the trees and managed to roll down unharmed at the bottom of the gully. Don’t be scared or put off, this part is easy to go through provided you take the necessary precautions: not sticking your head out over the edge of the cliffs too much, not losing balance and absolutely no crossing with your eyes closed.
Reaching the deceiving Pico Cuba
The next significant ascent takes you to Pico Cuba (Cuba Peak), the second highest mountain in Cuba. The guides advise to take a 10-minute break on the road benches before continuing the journey and starting the next challenging portion of the climb. My advice is not to sit on the ground, but rather on the benches, they are much more comfortable and do not tense your muscles that much.
This has to be a short rest, don’t linger for too long and don’t relax too much, otherwise you might get cramps and muscular aches.
This is one of the most demanding parts of the route but also one of the most beautiful. It is a several-kilometre-long zig-zag climb through the slope of the mountain during most of which you can actually see the top of the Pico Cuba, something that proves very deceiving as it appears to be closer than what it is in reality. It always looked as though it was just a few metres ahead when suddenly the road twisted and turned, taking me far from my goal again.
When you arrive to the Estacion Experimental you are at cloud-level. From here, Pico Cuba is just a few metres ahead, and once you reach it you’ll be able to discern the top of the Turquino among the clouds. From this point on, the weather changed abruptly: it became cold and humid so I had to put on a long-sleeve sweater.
A change in weather and wild strawberries
Unfortunately, after you pass Pico Cuba there are no great views to be enjoyed or lookout points towards the valleys. Vegetation changes drastically and it turns into a mountain forest. Clouds pass through the road and make it dark as if under a thick fog and the clothes and backpacks get wet. This is the most exceptional part of the route because it is very rare to find a view like this in Cuba. The giant ferns and the conifers become the predominant plants overtaking the landscaping, together with some low shrubs, and you can even find some wild strawberries. Fortunately, the last two kilometres of the ascension are not done under the sweltering weather conditions typical of the eastern region.
Reaching the top of the mountain, as with any other climb, causes a joyful feeling. Once they had made it, many were so exhausted that they threw themselves to the ground and massaged their legs. Others managed to keep it together, soldiered on and continued for another 400 metres down the road to Pico Suecia (Sweden Peak), the third highest point in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Others took pictures posing next to the bust of José Martí, Cuba’s National Hero, as proof that validated their arrival to the highest island’s highest point. This bust was made by sculptor Jilma Madera and was placed there by Celia Sánchez (a former guerrilla fighter) some years before the whole area was taken as the bulwark of the guerrillas led by Fidel Castro, which ultimately defeated the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The way back down - the challenge is not over yet
After enjoying the conquering of the top for a while, it’s time to head back and start the descent. Cubans have a saying that goes: “para abajo todos los santos ayudan” ( “when going down you don’t need help from above”). However, this does not apply to the descent from the Turquino which can really be harder than the climb, partly because you are tired and a little bit desperate to get down. Also, because in trying to slow your pace when going down you use muscles that are less trained than those for going up. They get tired faster and start to ache. That’s why it is important not to ‘cool down’ while resting on the top, but keep walking so as not to let your muscles relax too much.
At dusk, we arrived to the station from where we had departed at dawn about 12 hours before. The sunset changed the colours of the Caribbean Sea while we drenched our bare feet in the beach full of small round stones. Someone once said: ‘climbing mountains bonds men together” and that is the feeling you have when your legs begin to relax in the water while you exchange playful jokes with other fellow climbers. It’s an excursion from which you return with pride, a heightened sense of self-esteem, new anecdotes to cherish and nice memories. If I was ever to plan a hiking trip in Cuba to go with my best friends, I will most probably choose to climb the Turquino Peak.