The route to Pico Real del Turquino is one of the most physically challenging in Cuba. It definitely is a rewarding effort for the beauty of the landscape, the starry nights and the possibility to walk among the clouds.
Standing at height of 1,974 metres, this peak towers over the Sierra Maestra, a famous mountain range not only in the history of the island, but also in the continent. This range was the war zone of the guerrillas of the 26th of July Movement, led by Fidel Castro against the army of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Consequently, you will find war spots along the way.
The longitudinal layout of this range marks a clear difference between the leeward (south) or windward (north) routes. The leeward route goes through one of the most arid areas of Cuba in the Santiago de Cuba province. Due to this, the vegetation is less abundant than in the routes coming from the north through the Granma province. It's worth mentioning, that this aridity is pretty well compensated by the spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea.
|Location:||Sierra Maestra, Granma|
|Average duration:||A day and a half|
|Start point:||Altos del Naranjo in Granma province|
|End point:||Turquino Peak|
|What to see:||The highest mountain peak in Cuba and other high peaks of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, mountainous landscapes, pine and coniferous forests, stars on a clear sky.|
|What to take:||What to take with you: Shoes that can protect your ankles, pants, long-sleeved shirt, water (at least two litres), a sweater in the backpack; sweets and other energy food or drinks, canned food and other preserved food, a sleeping bag, a flashlight.|
I've always liked geography since I was a child. I used to spend hours reading the relief maps of the Caribbean and lamenting the fact that Cuba didn't have mountains as high as the Blue Mountain Peak in Jamaica, or the Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic. I deemed it greatly unfair that despite being the largest island in the Antilles, we didn't have the highest peaks. Long after, when climbing the Turquino Peak for the first time, I was overjoyed at the beauty of its accessible height.
As it turned out, climbing up the island's highest point was within the achievable limits of what a regular group of people, without any special training, could do. One just needs willpower and friendship. If it were five hundred to a thousand metres higher, that would turn it into a more challenging feat. Much fewer Cubans and foreign tourists could take pride on being high over the heads of the rest of the people of the island, at least for a while.
Accessing the route
The climb to Pico Turquino from Granma starts in Altos del Naranjo. At a thousand-metres-high, this is the last road link of the route. To get there, you need to buy a ticket for one of the four-wheel trucks that can go up the steep slopes. Many of them depart from the town of Pilon, but you can also arrange a tour with the Gaviota travel agency. Like with all long routes, it is especially important to start early in the morning.
The road to Altos del Naranjo is really breath-taking. There are slopes rising at angles of over 40 degrees, where the trucks have to go up at a funny speed and with great care. Fortunately, the cliff sides are well protected, and there are also some road humps to slow down in case of breaks failure.
When we arrived at Altos del Naranjo, the first thing on the agenda was to find a local guide, because climbing is not allowed without a guide. Thereafter, we started the route to Turquino. There are still 18 kilometres to go from this point, three crossing points, and you have to sleep overnight in the Aguada de Joaquin camp. We wont' be reaching the top until the following day, at 10:00 am.
The journey upwards and onwards
At about a couple of hundred metres from the start, you find the Comandancia de la Plata (La Plata Headquarters), one of Fidel Castro's former command centres during the guerrilla warfare at the end of the 1950s. Nowadays it's been converted into a museum and you can visit after a short detour from the main path. We didn't stay long, for every minute counts on the way up.
The further we walked on the main path, the bushier and more humid the forest became. The giant ferns and orchids embellish the journey under the shade of huge pine trees. There are some lookouts to the mountains of the range, in contrast to the leeward route in which all points look out towards the sea. The Monos (Monkeys) pass is the best known. On the way up, you take it downhill, but on the way back, when one is really tired, you have to take it uphill.
Since the start of our journey, we had formed a long line, women and men alternately. I happened to be lucky enough that the girl ahead of me was not very well-prepared for such a climbing feat which meant I had to carry her backpack most of the time, just after her first faint. Such events show that carrying high-energy food and drinks is not a waste of time; they are never dead weight. The line had already split into small groups, depending on their pace, and the guide was trying to prevent the more delayed from missing the path.
The goal was to get to the rest stop before it got dark, and we fully made it. In this area there are several rustic lodging places where you can rest overnight. This place is known as Aguada de Joaquin, because they say that in the bottom of a canyon there is a small brook that turns into a pool, cold as the icy early mornings in this area. At 1300 metres above sea level, it really gets cold when the sun sets, but this is compensated by the thousands of stars and nebulae you can see from here, free from pollution and artificial lights.
On the following day, we had to face the hardest part of the route, climbing to Pico Suecia. From then on it would be a piece of cake. But steps up the hill turned out to be a harder challenge than anticipated. It took us two hours to complete the 800-metre-non-stop climb, and we all were worn out. Once at the top, we were graced with a great view of the mountain range and realised it was all worth the effort. The Turquino Peak, a little higher than the rest was right in front of us; all surrounded with clouds.
This was my first time walking among the clouds. I was surprised by how wet you can come out of this adventure. The top of Turquino was awaiting us with the statue of our national hero, Jose Marti, raising his head high above all Cubans.
Making our way back
The short-lived triumph of reaching the top of the Turquino is dimmed by the overwhelming certainty of the return journey. This time we had to make the 18-kilometre way down in one go, without taking a break. I am ashamed to say that we were too slow in the attempt.
When we reached Altos del Naranjo it was nightfall already, and the trucks that were waiting for us had to leave. Barely able to move our legs, we had to continue for two kilometres more to a boy scout camp where we could stay for the night, until the trucks came to pick us up the following morning.
I had to cover the last 100 metres of the journey, including crossing a river, carrying my backpack, the girl's and she herself on my back. A chivalrous act that led to another story that has nothing to do with trekking ;)