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Pinar del Rio beyond Vinales: the pools of Rio San Juan in Las Terrazas

While everyone in the Caribbean is still very much on hurricane watch, keeping eyes and ears peeled for weather updates on Maria’s development, there is one sleepy, peaceful and wonderfully rural part of Cuba that Irma didn’t touch and that Maria is very unlikely to reach either. We’re talking about Pinar del Rio and its unassuming natural charms as we take a look at a slightly less-talked-about attraction of this vast Cuban province; the eco-village wonder of Las Terrazas.

Pinar del Rio beyond Vinales: the pools of Rio San Juan in Las Terrazas

 A good chunk of northern Cuba is still reeling from Irma’s aftermath, yet there is one region on the island’s northern coast that managed to walk out unscathed and unharmed: Pinar del Rio.

Lovely, peaceful, vast and green, Pinar del Rio might be best known to tourists for its number one geological attraction and UNESCO-listed eco-wonder, the Valley of Vinales with its karstic landscape and quirkily-shaped “mogotes”, aboriginal caves and outstanding climbing opportunities. Yet, a two-hour car ride east of this grandiose natural park you’ll find a peaceful eco-friendly haven, not as geographically impressive perhaps but moving and captivating in other contrasting ways.

The ecovillage of Las Terrazas promises a relaxing, invigorating nature escape full of charming discoveries and exhilarating adventures. What started as a pioneering community project in the late 60s is now hailed as a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and has incredibly risen in popularity among tourists as Cuba’s number one sustainable tourism project. Beautifully set on the banks of Rio San Juan, this paradisiac enclave offers more than one way to enjoy the spectacular nature that surrounds it.

The San Juan River and its cool pools

Known as “Banos de San Juan” (San Juan’s Baths), the cluster of pools adjacent to Las Terrazas are popular with local and tourists alike. This section of the San Juan river is of particular beauty given its natural terraces, into which a series of small waterfalls trickle down, giving way to crystalline pools, some deeper than others but all surrounded by a lush vegetation that guarantees pleasant shade and a cooling breeze.

The soft murmur of the river mingled with the melodious singing of the birds, the tree branches softly creaking in the breeze and the water’s pleasantly tepid temperatures make everything stop in time as you drink in its mystifying beauty.

Where to eat and sleep

When hunger pangs interrupt your reverie, it’s time to enjoy an al fresco brunch, lunch or mid-afternoon snack, and you can do so at a handful of small open-air, ranchon-style restaurants dotting the edge of the pools and tuck into fresh greens or fried chicken and rice. There’s even a few wooden cabins (no walls, just a thatched roof supported by four wooden poles) to spend the night if you don’t mind roughing it up a bit for the authentic rustic experience. These minimalistic dwellings are equipped with electricity, a fan, a shower and wooden picnic table on the ground (wall-less) floor. At night, you’ll have to climb to the triangular thatched roof upper floor via a wooden stair to sleep in a more enclosed and private area from where nature’s soothing sounds can still be heard. You sleep on mattresses on the floor (bedding is provided) and the experience is quaint and sweet if you’re into that sort of thing. If you’re looking for luxury, you won’t find it here, or anywhere in this eco-friendly community, although the onsite hotel is a step up from the cabanas. There are 11 of these cabanas, each named after different autochthonous Cuban birds: Cartacuba (Cuban tody), Tocororo (Cuban trogon - the island’s national bird), Arriero (Great lizard cuckoo), Sinsonte (Cuban mockingbird), Azulejo (Indigo bunting), Tomeguin (Cuban grassquit), Tojosa (Common ground dove), Pitirre (Gray kingbird), Colibri (Violetear), Catey (Cuban parakeet) and Ruisenor (Nightingale).

Alternatively, like I mentioned earlier, there’s the nearby Hotel La Moka, offering 42 air-conditioned rooms, one of which is a junior suite. Elegant yet unassuming, this four-star eco-resort also has an onsite bar, restaurant, BBQ area, laundry room and clinic. There’s a money exchange bureau, safety boxes, internet service and a desk to book excursions within Las Terrazas and beyond. It’s a leading example in sustainable accommodation with minimum impact to the environment that surrounds it, a rarity that stands out in stark comparison to some of Cuba’s other beach resort developments.

There’s also the possibility of staying in a room inside a guesthouse. There’s five of them at the time of writing, offering you the chance of sharing your space with a local host and allowing for cultural exchanges. These rooms have their own ensuite bathroom, telephone and TV (no cable though, so national channels will have to do) as well as authentic décor with local Cuban art. Speaking of art, three of these rooms are named after the family patriarchs and artist in charge of the decoration. Villa Mardu is a fusion of the names of countryman Margarito and painter Jorge Duporte, House CiriLes marks the union of labourer Cirilo and landscapist Lester Campa while ModesCo is the joint effort between Modesto and Cuban photographer Corrales, whose work features prominently in Modesto’s house. Whichever you choose, it’s sure to add an extra dose of charm and cultural flair to your stay.

Las Terrazas – an ongoing project that never stops evolving

Aptly named after San Juan River’s terraced pools, this sustainable village that grows its own crops and rears its own cattle also makes sure that a good portion of all tourism proceeds is reinvested in the community and environmental measures to keep the area as eco-friendly and self-sufficient as possible. 

Surprising flora and fauna

Las Terrazas is one of Cuba’s best protected natural areas, home to over 800 plant species, 117 different bird species (also serving as shelter to over 20 migrating birds in winter) and 13 lizard species, 10 of which are endemic to Cuba and three regionally autochthonous, like the water lizard, the harmless Maja de Santamaria (Cuban tree boa, which can measure up to six metres in length, making it the Caribbean’s largest snake) and the world’s second smallest frog, also known as Ranita Cubana or Cuban Robber Frog – they are less than 2-centimetres-long!

Mammals include endemic species like Jutia Conga (Desmarest’s hutia), Jutia Carabali (Prehensile-tailed hutia) and quite a few bat specimens that include Parnell’s moustached bat, the Common fruit bat, the Short-tailed fruit bat, Pfeiffer’s red bat (found in Cuba only) and the Eumops perotis gigas. As the latter are nocturnal animals, it might not be as easy to spot them on your own but local guides will be most helpful if you decide to make a quest for Las Terrazas’ batty inhabitants.

Birdwise, twitchers will have plenty to lust after with rare endemic species including the Cuban national bird (Tocororo or Cuban trogon) and all the species named in the Where to Eat and Sleep section where I listed the species of local birds the rustic cabins are named after. On top of these, there’s also the Sabanero (a Cuban subspecies of the Eastern meadowlark), Cabrero (Western Spindalis), Chinchila (Yellow-faced grassquit), the Juanchivi (Cuban Vireo) and Zorzal Real (Red-legged thrush). Of course, since there’s over 117 bird species this is just naming a few and grazing the surface.

Active pursuits – hiking, canopy tours and birdwatching

With thriving wildlife and evergreen forests, plus the fact that the area’s endemism is about 11 per cent, going as high as 34 per cent in elevated areas like Las Peladas, there’s no shortage of nature tours and excursions to embark here during a visit. You can choose to follow a variety of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty and length (between two to three-hour walking journeys requiring low to moderate fitness levels) or book a birdwatching tour where a local expert will help you spot the most colourful variety of winged creatures.

The most challenging hiking trail involves a 452-metre-climb to reach Las Terrazas’ highest point, from which you can drink in spectacular views over the Artemisa plains all the way to the Batabano Gulf, with the San Juan Valley on the other site. This six-kilometre, three-hour trail known as “Escalada al Taburete” ends in “Banos del San Juan” where you stop for lunch with ample free time at leisure to cool down and bathe in the natural pools.

But perhaps the most thrilling attraction of all is also one of the newest. Las Terrazas’ Canopy Tour sees participants literally fly over the landscape of this eco-village while suspended from a series of links extending over 1.6 km, taking “fliers” from dense forests to scenic lake glistening beneath your feet. Those staying at ether the Moka hotel or the rustic cabins by the Banos de San Juan will enjoy a reduced price on the canopy tours.

Revolutionary food – heavenly veggie delights

Las Terrazas also happens to be home to what they claim to be Cuba’s only authentic 100% vegetarian restaurant: El Romero. Led by Tito Nunez Guda, the man behind Cuba’s first ever vegetarian restaurant in Havana’s National Botanical Garden, El Bambu, which serves up edible flowers, nowadays he is manager and head chef of this creative, sustainable eatery.

At Cuba’s number one organic, vegetarian restaurant, where at least 70 per cent of ingredients are grown and sourced locally (with the remainder coming from within a 25-km radius), guests can feast on a super tasty root vegetable hamburger and a lotus ceviche while helping it down with a grapefruit, cucumber and mint smoothie. It took hard convincing to make locals try a completely meat-free meal (most Cubans island-wide are die-hard sceptics of non-meat dishes) but they soon saw the health benefits and many have now been, if not totally, partly converted. This revolutionary Cuban chef is also in charge of training community cooks and teaching school children about vegetarian food.

Oh, and then there is the coffee, the amazing coffee grown at the restored Cafetal Buena Vista, one of 70 ruined French coffee plantations that date back to the 1791. Today the plantation is back to life and a scenic place to view with its drying terraces and former slave barracks now frequented by hundreds of colourful birds. You can sip the end result at the Aire Libre cafe, close to the community library funded with tourism-generated income.

Taking a slice of it all back home

Art is really big here for such a small and rural town. There’s a really vibrant artsy vibe in the whitewashed village overlooking a small scenic lake with open studios, pottery workshops and artisan woodwork. Which means, there won’t be a shortage of places from which to get lovely souvenirs to remind you of your stay in this quaint little Cuban paradise.

Arts & Crafts – a myriad of shops and art studios to choose from

Breathing art through every pore, this little community is big on creativity and self-expression. Local artist Ariel Gato Miranda teaches local kids to make paper from petals, discarded paper, bamboo, banana leaves and dyes from tobacco, beetroot and bamboo with the finished product sold as notebooks in his open-house studio. Skilled carvers turn sustainably chopped hibiscus wood into salad servers while the fragrant “mariposa” (Cuba’s national flower, used to hide messages, is harvested for its essence and then sold as a perfume bottled in recycled medicine at the El Ilang shop.

With so much beauty all around to inspire, it’s not surprising perhaps to find so many homes turned into studios whose artists display their latest works through open doors and open windows. Landscapists prevail here (no surprise there!) and the art pieces vary in styles, size and subject so that even the pickiest art hunters can find something to move their soul.

Music heritage – birthplace of an international star

For such a small community, Las Terrazas has birthed its fair share of artists. These peaceful, soul-enriching lands were once home to Cuba’s most famous “guajiro” (a Cuban term for countryman), the now diseased composer, singer and songwriter, Polo Montanes, a.k.a. “Guajiro Natural” who had not just bewitched Cuba with his easy rhymes and country poetry but had also gotten big parts of Latin America under his spell. The community (and all of Cuba) still fondly and nostalgically remembers his lively songs that spoke of love, heartbreak and his pride on being a humble peasant. Just ask around for Polo Montanes and someone will play you one of his songs, most likely his most famous hit “Un monton de estrellas” while probably holding back a tear in their eye. He died at the height of his fame, in a tragic traffic accident aged 47, when he was about to release his second album “Guitarra Mia”. Despite his rocketing celebrity status and international tours, he remained a proud “guajiro” through and through and never abandoned his beloved Las Terrazas community. Many of his songs were indeed inspired by his rural surroundings, including one titled “Me gusta como canta el zorzal en el monte” (I like how the zorzal sings in the mountains).

If in doubt of this humble self-taught musician’s worldwide success, just look him up on Wikipedia. His song Flor Palida (Pale Flower) was recorded and included in Marc Anthony’s 3.0 album and won an Oscar in 2015, thirteen years after his passing. After a trip to Las Terrazas you’ll sure agree there couldn’t have been a more idyllic place on earth to inspire him.

Getting to Las Terrazas

Previously only shown to tourists, Las Terrazas’ reputation has reached the ears of domestic tourists who now arrive by the bus-loads for day visits and the occasional overnight camping-style stay. It’s a great place to stop for a day or two on your way to Vinales as it is an hour’s drive from Havana and two-hours’ drive to Vinales.

Will it ever change?

It’s a fact of life that everything is in constant, inevitable change and evolution. All things change over time but what matters most is how and at what pace. Little has changed in Las Terrazas community since it became a successful self-sustained village in the 70s except for its opening up to tourism in the 90s, and ever since its only had one hotel and a few rustic cabins to accommodate visitors. Beyond that, there’s only three rooms housed inside private houses where guests can book overnight stays. That limited number of private guesthouse rooms is unlikely to change in the future, given that Cuba’s recent economic reforms to allow locals to set up private businesses doesn’t apply in Las Terrazas. Here houses can’t be sold and the set up of B&Bs (or “casas particulares”) and private restaurants are forbidden inside “terraceros” homes. Not that these strict development rules affect locals much as the books are definitely balanced here thanks to tourism revenues.

As one local puts it:

“It’s an honour to live here because we have an above average lifestyle”

There are plans for a second hotel in the pipeline although since 2014 no further details on said new hotel have been released. For now, Las Terrazas’ 20-year-old Hotel Moka still welcomes a limited number of tourists (with only 42 rooms this place can never feel crowded) to its sustainably built structure, erected around a hundred-year-old rain tree that soars through the lobbly. Shrouded in nature from all corners, you can’t get more peaceful and idyllic than this. There’s a challenge for any new hotel to come. 

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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