Monday, April 11, 2011

The Road to Baracoa

We have less than a week left in Cuba and the experiences far out-number the space left on this page, but it is essential that we tell you about our favorite place in Cuba that we have travelled to so far: Baracoa. Inspiring Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Baracoa is nestled in the largest, most biologically diverse rainforest region of the Caribbean. Prior to the 1960s, Baracoa was only accessible by sea and today to reach the town by car, one must be prepared for the roller coaster road called La Farolla. Baracoa has been home to the native Taino peoples of Cuba for centuries, and today their descendants still practice traditional, Taino agriculture in this region.  A land of our dreams, with such a rich history, where we will be returning pronto.

The landscape of Cuba is strikingly diverse. This morning we were in a desert land, watching south swells of the Caribbean in front of the military check-point at the Santiago-Guantanamo border. Cactus plants, wild aloe and red-rock limestone caves were the backdrop to the turquoise sea.
As our tandem wheels took us farther west, the desert dryness evaporated into misty mountains so lush and green. The hairpin road nicknamed La Farola guided us from sea level to 2,000 feet as we twisted and turned, following the contours of these mighty mountains. Around each corner were vistas of deep canyons, wild river gorges and tropical plants new to our eyes. The cool yet humid tropical air made us inhale with patience to take it all in. We finally arrived in the isolate northeastern Cuban village of Baracoa as night engulfed the day and misty mountain clouds floated below the canopy of stars. We have arrived in Baracoa.

Arriving in Cuba by canoe near 700 AD, the Taino People originated in the Rio Orinoco region of Venezuela. With them in their canoes, these people brought with them their staple crops: Yucca (cassava), Boniato (sweet potato), Maize, Calabasa (squash) and Frijoles (beans). Similar to the Tres Hermanas (Three Sisters) form of traditional agriculture found in many regions of the Americas (corn, bean and squash are inter-planted to take advantage of their positive ecological interactions) the Taino also had a three-crop inter-planting system which incorporated Maize, Boniato and Yucca. The Taino also used ground corn and corn husks to make ‘Hallaca’ or Tamales. Tobaco, coca and clarinocampana, a hallucinogenic flower, were all plants sacred to the Taino and used to help chiefs communicate with their gods. Taino farmers placed special ‘energetic rock idols’ in the middle of their fields to help protect their crops.

Baracoa is the land of three rivers, Rio de Miel, Rio Duaba and Rio Toa, the most voluminous. These freshwater lifelines begin their journey to the tropical Atlantic waves high in the lush mountains above Baracoa. They provide needed water for the Caribbean’s largest rainforest, irrigation water for the diverse plantations of platanos, cacao, coconut palms and mangoes, and an important tranquil inlet for the curious and gentle manatees of Cuba.

Polimitas: These Cuban endemic land-snails are vibrantly colorful, delicate and beautiful. Becoming endangered due to their illegal poaching for the tourist trade.
Roof Top Garden: Luis and his family began this rooftop garden ten years ago when the Baracoa Urban Agriculture Program gave out an urban growers handbook. Today, they produce medicinal herbs for use in teas and bushels of lettuce which they sell weekly to their neighbors. Luis says his son, Yeser, has loved to garden since he was a little boy.

On the last day of March we made some great friends who offered to prepare us a fresh meal, Baracoan style. We met this young group of guys at their home and they were carrying a string of congrejo (crabs). Next we picked up a bottle of rum, and headed to the beach. The most spectacular beach, miles of soft, black, glistening cobblestone, arching into a protected bay, backed by the tropical forest, and not another person in sight. We felt like they had led us to a secret beach. The boys climbed the coconut trees to cut fresh cocos, which we spike with Cuban white rum, for the freshest Cuban cocktail possible. They built a driftwood fire in the sand between the Caribbean Sea and the flowing river Duaba, and as the sun set we feasted on crab, vegetables with rice, mangoes and more agua de coco. Our best Cuban dining experience so far...

With the lushness of Baracoa and the white sand beaches of Playa Maguana behind us, the road west quickly turned devilish. The banana groves, waterfalls and fern-lined creeks quickly vanished, and we were pedaling up steep hills covered in an endless Pine Forest. Temperatures were pushing 100 degrees and the road would challenge even a professional downhill mountain bike racer. Huge potholes, steep descents and agonizing uphill climbs had us cursing the midday heat, each other and bike travel all together. We stopped in a small sliver of roadside shade, drank our last drops of water, and watched as dozens of vultures circled in the scorching thermals above us. Bumping down the dusty road, a truck slows to a stop and signals for us to hop in. Cubans pile out of the truck to help us lift the bike in, and we are off again, heading west, in the shade of a truck’s canopy. We pass through Moa, a land of environmental destruction, the island’s largest nickel mine, where factories puke with smoke, roadside pipes drip neon yellow sulfur dioxide and the barren land is devoid of vegetation. The tropical beauty of Baracoa is in our lovely memories.

The truck dropped us off here in Moa, where we had already missed the only bus out for the week. As has been the motto here in Cuba, if we go with the flow, great opportunities and wonderful friends emerge. Within ten minutes we find another ride in a truck, heading to the town of Holguin. The fare is reasonable and we hop aboard. The truck is filled with thousands of cartons of farm fresh Cuban tomatoes, and the turquoise tandem, Kati and I and three farmworkers fit snuggly as we again continue west into the sun. After the truck stops and unloads the tomatoes, the farm manager having sold all his crop, the celebration begins with a bottle of rum. For hours we pass the bottle around in the truck, the evening breeze blowing in my face, the Cuban countryside whizzing by in its greenness and expansive beauty. Spanish flows from my tongue easily as the truck picks up and unloads many interesting travelers.  This journey has been so  rich and full of adventure and learning.....our internet time has run out for the more stories when we see you soon.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Enchanted ‘La Costa Sur’

Where Cuba’s Rugged and Lush Land Meets the Sea
We have heard stories of a hidden coastal landscape along Cuba’s southern coast, where the road is perched between rock cliffs and the crashing surf, where the ruggedness of cactus plants and nearly impassable roads blends seamlessly with lush beach-side mango orchards and the rhythms of a tranquil turquoise Caribbean Sea.
The Turquoise Tandem loaded, we depart from Santiago de Cuba, heading west towards an unknown land, on the eve of Spring’s Equinox and the rising full moon.

Day 2
 The ‘Mountains to Sea’ beauty is a mixture of Big Sur, California meets the Tropics.  The rugged road is tamed by our hardy Turquoise Tandem and each pedal stroke brings us more fascination with La Costa Sur. We ride for hours without a single passing car or truck. Small communities of grape growers (Cuba produces both red and white grapes for their wine), banana farmers and mango orchards speckle the hillsides and beach. We follow the contour of a small bay, climb a gravely ascent. Behind us are the dry, parched mountains and ahead, deep green fields of fruit and an endless horizon of turquoise. We spot a building perched on a hillside and Kati knows it’s the place to stay for the night. Motel Guama is the name, and we are the only guest. We head straight for the sea to snorkel and explore the reefs. When we return, the sun is setting and I write a poem: 
From where we sit, a gorgeous golden trail of sparkling sea leads towards the setting sun
Towering mountain summits plunge steeply towards the coastal forests of fruit
Where mango trees bask in the hot spring sun, their branches hanging heavily with ripe jewels
Offshore mangrove islands are havens for baby fish, shaded undersea mazes of roots into the sea
Coral gardens are shallow and bright, brain coral glistening in their turquoise bath, butterfly fish, blue tangs and more
Fourteen frigate birds circle in the sky, herons squawk from the mangroves and egrets search for dinner
Clouds are pink and mango orange, and this is where we sit
Day 3
The similarities with Big Sur, California are stunning. Around each turn we imagine the vistas of the Pacific Ocean, and instead of redwood trees we see towering Palmas Reals. On the road, a young man is walking his bike with a flat tire. We walk with him and he tells us we are in El Papayo, where mangoes can be harvested while riding a bike along the road. He takes us to a beachside tire repair hut where a grandfather and his grandson are harvesting from the sea grape tree in the shade of midday. They offer us fresh coconut juice and Kati plays with three year old Jose Angel (trying to catch baby pigs). They take us on a walk to their beach, miles of arching playa, white sand, rocky headlands and turquoise waves.
Day 4
We arrive at La Mula campground just five minutes before the area’s first rainfall in three months. The parched arroyos fill with water, the sea turns a strange, ominous grey and huge raindrops fall from the sky for hours. We bathe in the river. Popo, the campground chef and also an excellent fisherman, prepares us covo, conch that he has picked from the sea. He tells us stories of the many species of sharks, tiburones, he has encountered offshore from the protected reefs where he fishes. The storm clears and before we sleep, stars are shining bright overhead.
The morning is fresh and we imagine the giant ferns and endemic orchids hidden in Pico Turcino's cloud forest 6,000 feet above us are shimmering from the night's moisture and the morning's brilliant sun.

For hours we explore the dry river bed, and follow the cobblestones from the canyon to the sea. By mid-morning we are back on our bike, encountering bridges cracked in half from raging rivers during Hurricane Dennis of 2005. We stop for lunch in a town where 200 year old mango trees provide shade for the entire community, as well as ample fruit by the warmer months of May
After a long day of climbing and descending our way through this wondrous place we pass a small town where we ask for a place to buy water and food.  We were pretty low on energy and the old woman that met us invited us to stay over at her house.  She quickly whipped up the best meal that we had eaten in weeks and introduced us to her amazing family.

We felt instantly at home and it wasn't long before all the kids in the town knew we were there and came to check us out.

That evening when the husband of the family came home, we learned that he is the president of the Cooperativa of 37 farms along the southern coast.  We were thrilled to meet him and he was similarly excited about us and our project.  He guided us out into the fields to see all of the things that were growing.

The next morning we set out to the beach with all the kids in town and also encountered a new animal which we have yet to identify.
WE picked tamarindo at the beach and learned to make this delicious juice!

A truly incredible journey along Cuba's Costa Sur. Mangoes in March, baby goats and such welcoming, generous, beautiful people. We dream of returning here again, to see if the seeds we traded have yielded colorful beets or bright crimson sunflowers. The familiar mixture of mountains and sea reminded us often of our family and friends who gathered together six months ago in coastal California, where this fruitful journey began.