Sunday, April 20, 2014

Soroa y Las Terrazas

After nearly a week in Cuba and the better half of $100 spent in wildly overpriced dropped calls and internet that makes your AOL dial-up in the nineties seem like a sexy speed demon, I managed to secure my departure flight out of Cuba. It took all of a half hour to book due to loading times, and it was completed with a narrow couple of minutes left before the hotel computer was to log me off (here you buy internet scratch cards with the codes you need to log-on at $8 an hour). Comically, the airline's page crashed to an error screen after I put in my credit info, but I was delighted to find a confirmation message in my email's inbox.

With that out of the way, Brian and I were free to explore Soroa, another beautiful outdoor destination in western Cuba. Soroa is up in the hills, is densely green thanks to high annual amounts of rainfall, and is frequented by fewer tourists than some of the bigger destinations nearby.

We started for a mirador (viewpoint) atop the sharp hooked peak of the nearest mountain. At the top we were greeted by a few dozen turkey vultures circling the peak sometimes close enough to see their individual feathers flutter. It was exhilarating to stand on the edge and let the jungle below fill your vision, and then see the breeze you just felt tug at your shirt alter a vulture's flight path. To share that same wind so intimately felt magical.

A river that cut around the base of the mountain led to a lovely thirty five meter waterfall where we drank rum from coconuts and stripped down to our underwear to swim in the water. I'm not sure anything makes me feel quite as happy or so at peace so quickly as a waterfall can, and I loved feeling its water beat down on me and blur my vision. We swam with enormous tadpoles, bigger than my big toe. I didn't think they could ever be so big, but we were endlessly delighted at how many surprises nature still has for us.

The family we stayed with was a very warm and cooked what were definitely the best meals we had in Cuba. They filled the dinner table with rice, beans, fried bananas, squash with onions, yucca and boniato (Cuban sweet potato), fresh salad, a tasty vegetable saute, and one night this weird fruit shaped like a giant scaly avocado but with flesh that while moist and fibrous like a pineapple, dissolves in the mouth with a slightly sandy quality like a pear, has giant black seeds, and a pleasant sweetness (I would later find out it is called a chirimoya).

Nearby Las Terrazas was our original destination, but as an eco-tourist village with only more expensive hotels for accommodations, we were advised to save money by staying in a nearby casa in Soroa. We took a car to Las Terrazas and were dismayed to find out it was prohibited within the park to hike any of the trails – none longer than just a few miles – without an expensive tour guide. We were a little burned out on the way we had already been dropping dollars, the requisite hand holding in Cuban parks, and had in the days prior logged a great many miles on the trails, so we discussed it and realized would be cheaper to hire the driver for the whole afternoon than to take one of the offered treks, so we did just that.

We started the afternoon by scrambling over the ruins of an old coffee plantation that had once been tended to by hundreds of slaves. A stray dog, perhaps the most charming I've ever met, kept us company and had us winded as we played games of catch and tag up and down the terraced rubble beneath a great stone tahona that had once crushed coffee beans. A restaurant there had rather decent coffee.

The hottest part of the day was spent in a wide stream popular with locals. While Brian and I were chatting up a couple of Candian girls while sipping on a Buccanero and Crystal cerveza respectively, I found a tick dug deep into my right side. I likely would have spent the rest of my trip paranoid about infection if it weren't for the fact that one of the Canadians had already looked into it and knew there wasn't lyme disease in Cuba.

Fire from a lighter did nothing to deter the little bloodsucker, but our driver stepped in and dug it out with his nails (I looked it up since, and learned you should save the ticks that bite you just in case). I ambled over to a bartender by the river and in broken Spanish asked for 'un poco de ron' to prevent infection. He obligingly poured some into my hand which I rubbed into the sore, then he insisted I tilt my head back so I could take some more medicine orally for good measure. What a good doctor.

For lunch, our driver took us to a place that would serve us in the infinitely more affordable pesos nacional. Parked outside was a hatchback full of well over a dozen goats. The owner of the goats we found in the back over a sandwich and I told him my cousin was in the market for goats and wanted to buy three. After lunch he took us back to the car and showed us there were in fact 20 goats total in the hatchback and perhaps two hand fulls of chicks in the front we missed. I promised to send his brother in Miami a photo.

Back in Soroa we went to the world's second largest orchid garden and there saw the world's smallest bird: the bee hummingbird, which is endemic to Cuba. We strolled home to finish the evening with another excellent dinner and then cigars and rum on the porch, which I think will become my principle past time when I become an old man.

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