Right at the heart of the majestic Escambray Mountain range, a place as scenic as it is historic (Fidel Castro’s guerilla fought here during the Escambray Rebellion, which took place from 1959 to 1965) rises an exceptional hotel and unique vantage point, giving visitors the most jaw-dropping views over one extraordinary lake and putting them right next to this natural marvel.
Hotel Hanabanilla is the only high-rise building to tower over Lake Hanabanilla, a stunningly beautiful man-made reservoir encircled by lush mountains and tall palm trees. That the views to be enjoyed from the hotel are uniquely breathtaking is a bit of an understatement, but this is also a great base from which to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, from trout-fishing and boating to hiking and horse riding or bathing in a crystalline waterfall at Cuba’s highest cascade system. Completely removed from every tourist trap imaginable, you won’t find a trace of urban development beyond the hotel (unless you venture into the nearby village) and if you choose to spend the night here or linger for a few days, your fellow guests are most likely to be locals, which gives you a fantastic opportunity to mingle with average Cubans.
A drop of blue in the midst of green mountains
Yes, this blog is about no more no less than a dam, but not just any dam, as the Hanabanilla is so much more than a colossal water reservoir. It’s a jaw-dropping man-made lake fringed on all sides by verdant mountains and undulating hills - a sight that looked will take your breath away.
Its size is certainly impressive. Withholding up to 286 million cubic metres of water and spanning over 232, 000 acres, this is not just one of the island’s biggest lakes but also Cuba’s largest hydroelectric power station, with an installed capacity of 43 megawatts (MW). Initially built to provide water for municipal uses and irrigation, the dam also generates power for the region, so it is as much as a vital necessity breathing life into the area as a beautiful landscape feature. It looks dramatically beautiful from any point you look at it, from any angle, so opportunities for taking stunning photographs abound.
There’s nothing stopping you from bathing in the dam and cooling down in its calm waters, in fact, many locals do so and there are some shallower areas among beautiful rocks where the water is shallow enough for non-swimmers. You can easily spend an entire day climbing up an down little hills surrounding this vast embankment as hiking opportunities are ample and varied.
Should you linger for an overnight stay? I think reasons abound for you to stretch your visit a bit if you can, before heading to other of Villa Clara’s landmarks, especially in recent times when after hosting FITCuba 2018 it has received a series of renovations, like the refreshed and renovated colonial town of Sagua La Grande, and a series of new hotels that just opened. In fact, it’s a great way to combine an enriching city escape with some green.
Whilst not luxurious by any means, the Hanabanilla hotel is a solid choice for those venturing this far into the Escambray region. It has every essential mod-con you would expect of a relatively modern hotel and the best views over the lake from its rooftop pool. Nothing beats the views to be enjoyed from here (most of its rooms overlook the lake, as does its rooftop pool) and the hotel’s close proximity to the lake as well as the many recreational attractions on offer, from boating to fishing to hiking, all of which can be easily arranged from the lobby, either at reception or at the tour desk.
The best base for exploring this lush mountainous area, it’s also a great stopover if you’re doing the Carretera Central journey through Cuba.
Getting here is nothing short of adventurous and if you’re making the journey on your own, you can expect to get lost at least once, even more so if you arrive at night. Nevertheless, the getting lost part shouldn’t be too much of a worry since there always seems to be a local around happy to point you in the right direction. The tricky part has nothing to do with winding parts and is more about the dam’s water levels, as depending on them the road to the road might be drowned and found some metres below the lake’s surface. If such was the case and, supposing you don’t come too late at night, you will be ferried to the hotel via a small boat (you, not the car). If not, you’ll have to find your own way and follow a short path that weaves around the lake.
With 125 air-conditioned rooms, the hotel’s design and style might remind you of the Soviet era blocks of flats built during the early years of the Revolution, but inside it’s perfectly comfortable, airy and spacious. The rooms are pretty basic but all essentials are included, from satellite TVs (some of which are flat-screen as the resort has received recent refurbishment works in some areas) and telephones to private ensuite bathrooms with hot water. It’s not the latest cry in fashion nor the epitome of luxury or modernity, but the views alone make everything feel much grander than it is. And, to be fair, those spending the night here don’t come to be lavished in manmade luxuries and creature comforts but to engage with the surrounding nature and the humble locals. To expect sophistication would be missing the point entirely.
Managed by the Islazul hotel chain, a Cuban, government-owned brand, the hotel puts you in direct contact with the surrounding nature, a protected nature reserve full of trails and jaw-dropping encounters.
Hotel Hanabanilla has two onsite restaurants, neither of which are too recommendable as frequent visitors coincide in the lack of variety and freshness. Instead, you should ask around to dine at a local’s home or at privately-owned restaurants like Paladar El Mirador, from which you can enjoy the most sublime views over the lake. There are a few good “paladares” to be found in the hotel’s vicinity, offering consistently good food at very reasonable (cheap by European standards) prices. Also, some of the houses found alongside the Atalaya trail (Sendero Atalaya) function as private restaurants, giving hikers the perfect excuse for a refuelling pit-stop.
The hotel’s single best feature is, doubtlessly, its rooftop pool, a beautiful recreational space with the most breathtaking views you could imagine. A poolside bar offers refreshment in the form of beers and soft drinks as well as some snacks and light bites, but the choice is limited. Those who come here do so to sunbathe, unwind, take a cooling dip and enjoy the glorious sunsets.
Freely roaming around the resort’s verdant grounds you can expect to find chicken and chicks leisurely pecking at the grass, adding a touch of rural authenticity to the experience.
Weekends are the busiest times to visit as many national and foreign tourists, as well as locals, make it here to enjoy the rooftop pool views (the majority don’t spend the night) and grab lunch.
All in all, its remote location is Hanabanilla hotel’s greatest redeemer. Don’t come thinking you’ll enjoy five-star service (its official category is 3-stars) but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how welcoming it is and the many possibilities it offers for countless excursions. The entire hotel’s design and layout were carefully thought out to cater for visitors without negatively impacting in the mountainous ecosystem.
Next door to another natural - El Salto del Hanabanilla
Sitting on the edge of a wondrous little town, the Hanabanilla lake is not the only attraction to be found in this recondite, virtually untrodden part of Cuba.
Also known as the Hanabanilla Dam, the lake sits next to the quaint village of El Salto del Hanabanilla, a remote rural town that’s authentic as they come. With fewer than 400 inhabitants, this place is found some 288 km east of Havana, in the municipality of Manicaragua, the largest in the Villa Clara province.
Home to Cuba’s highest waterfall system, after which the town itself is called, this is an escape artists’ ultimate dream, a far-flung enclave where you can do some pretty amazing trekking, hiking and, most importantly (and most awe-inspiringly) one of the most stunning waterfall dippings you’ll do in your lifetime. Seriously, climbing to the top of El Salto del Hanabanilla is no mean feat, as the island’s tallest waterfall system it stands proudly at 364 metres tall. Shrouded in dense vegetation, this paradisiac haven is worthy of as many shots as your camera’s memory can handle. In fact, a Cuban website claims this natural attraction is one of the island’s three most attractive of its kind, in a mountainous region furrowed by three rivers - the Arimao, Caonao and Mabujina. The region is blessed with a micro-climate that ensures balmy temperatures throughout the year. Thermometers hardly ever go above 28 degrees Celsius and rarely drop below the 20-degree mark. So, weather-wise this means absolute perfection all-year-round.
Another draw to this beautiful natural enclave is the amazing bird-watching opportunities to be enjoyed as this place is home to the largest registered population of the beautiful Cuban trogon or tocororo, Cuba’s national bird.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that this pristine mountainous region is home to thriving wildlife as its virginal state has received minimal human impact. This translates into raw wilderness you’ll want to be a part of. Whether that’s through hiking, mountain biking, boating, boat-fishing or waterfall diving, it’s up to you to decide.
With a depth of some 40 metres, you can safely dive from one of the surrounding rocks for an exhilarating experience. Precautions must be taken with children and youngsters so that they can enjoy the waterfall pools safely.
What to do in Hanabanilla
Now that you have an idea of what this wonderful place is all about, let me give you some tips on how best to enjoy it and what do during your time here. This is the list of top activities to enjoy.
The best place for trout fishing in the world
Yes, I’m serious. Lake Hanabanilla’s healthy waters are home to a considerable population of Cuban trout, a local variety is also known as “perca bocona” and which is often translated in English as big-mouthed black bass. Its scientific name is Percichthys colhuapiensis and I’m as astounded as you’ll be to find that it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page in English (at present you can only find it in Swedish, Dutch, Euskara and Spanish). The largest specimens ever caught in the island come from this lake and an annual national competition takes place here to see who can catch the biggest “trucha”, which is later released back into the waters.
Sports fishing enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy a boat-fishing journey along this subtropical lake.
Amazing hiking opportunities
With the dense vegetation surrounding the lake, there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Royal palms dot the jungle-like landscape. The stunning flora and fauna include an exceptional population of birds, from parrots to ivory-billed woodpeckers, colourful ducks and the famous Cuban trogon (or Tocororo) the island’s national bird due to it boasting the same colours as the Cuban flag.
Eat at a paladar in the mountains
Yes, unless you have a pre-booked meal as part of an excursion, do try and eat at a local privately-owned eatery (a.k.a. paladar) in Hanabanilla. It will be set in the mountains, will offer amazing views and a tasty menu to match the superb surroundings. And do try fried trout. A local delicacy made with the freshest ingredients, most notably the freshest catch of the day, coming straight from the dam to your table!
A fantastic stepping stone
Hanabanilla is so much more than a tourist destination (although it doesn’t quite feature on the island’s official tourist trail yet) but it’s also an ideal stopover on your way to other landmarks in central Cuba, most notably Villa Clara’s colonial towns of Sagua La Grande and Remedios, Santa Clara’s colossal Che mausoleum and the idyllic offshore enclave of Cayo Santa Maria, which just welcomed a new five-star luxury resort, the Sercotel Experience Cayo Santa Maria. That goes without mentioning the new first-class marina being built in Isabela de Sagua and the development of Cayo Ensenachos, said to have one of the world’s best beaches. Before you get to all this, Hanabanilla is the green respite that will uplift your soul and enchant your senses so that you continue your discovery of Cuba with renewed batteries.