Cuba's other revolution is green, not red
Jane Owen, The Guardian
Birds and butterflies are swooping above us and, as our taxi reaches the summit of this forest road just 40 minutes from the heat and noise of Havana, the view opens to an undulating landscape painted every shade of green. Before Castro these hills were dusty yellow and brown scrub.
If Copenhagen needs a model, this is the most eloquent I know, a visionary example of reforestation and the long term benefits it brings. While the rest of the world is ripping up forests in the name of minerals and wood, Cuba has been replanting its tropical forests in the name of jobs, the environment and a lush holiday destination for decades. This policy has worked so well that in 1984 Unesco gave biosphere status to 26,686 hectares of forest in the western region of Pinar del Río, where I am heading to stay at Las Terrazas, 50km from Havana.
Our journey has taken us along an empty motorway, past plains with grazing cattle and sugar cane fields. Few Cubans can afford the petrol to make trips out here. Those who live here survive on smallholdings down dirt tracks that wind into the forest or in villages where the main employment comes from tourism at Las Terrazas.
We reach our destination, Las Terrazas valley, and drive across a lake studded with water lilies. Clouds of turkeys and chickens scatter in front of us and, above us, orange and blue shuttered apartments for local people curve around the hillside. Hotel Moka, and a host of restaurants, bars and attractions, are dotted discreetly around the community.
We check in and walk 40 minutes along a hilly track in search of a river to wash away the dust and heat of Havana. Steps lead from the track down to a river cascading from the hills into a series of natural pools. Above, sunlight trickles through bamboos, the orange-red blooms of hibiscus trees, teaks, royal palms and a tree covered in curly red seed pods. We plunge into the cool, clear water. Grey and red bromeliads and tiny orchids stud the trees above us. A large kingfisher swoops onto a rock a couple of metres away. Eagles circle overhead.
This is Castro's Eden, a paradise he dreamt up soon after the revolution in 1959, when he ordered a reforestation programme. Back then this place was grassland. Now it looks much like it must have done before European settlers cleared the forest for coffee and cattle. When Columbus arrived here in 1492 the island was 90% forest. By the time Castro came to power the figure had dropped to 11%. Now forest covers about a quarter of the island.
Later, we walk though the forest with curator Fidel Hernandez, who lives at Las Terrazas.
"The climate is cooler and the people are gentler than the rest of Cuba," he says, leading us through the cultivated edges of the forest past grapefruit trees, red ginger and Cuba's national flower, the mariposa. We walk uphill along one of the steep tracks that crisscross the area. Guides lead parties through the forest but it's OK to walk independently and the snakes, Fidel says, are not poisonous.
"Las Terrazas was made to create better conditions for the peasants here who were very poor. They had no water or electricity or medicine and so it was decided to build this community and give the people the work of replanting the forest. Between 1983 and 1990 we planted 8 million trees over 5,000 hectares. Now we have more than 500 plant species, 117 bird species, and 13 bat species, from tiny ones weighing four to five grams to fishing bats with a wingspan of 17cm."
Thanks to reforestation, Las Terrazas has become a tourist attraction. When the eastern bloc, Cuba's main trading partner, collapsed in 1989, the country was thrown into crisis as food and cash supplies dried up almost overnight. Tourism became crucial to the island's survival.
The Moka hotel appeared along with nine cafes and restaurants. We walk to one of them, Bamboo, upstream beside a river. We have a late lunch of classic black beans and rice, chicken and tinned vegetable "salad", a souvenir of Soviet-sponsored Cuba. I had heard a lot about Cuba's terrible food but most of the food at Las Terrazas is fine, although not always cheap. Main courses range from around £3-£10.
A Cuban carrying palm baskets of oranges passes our table. I offer money and point to one of the baskets but the orange seller looks baffled. In Havana there's pressure on tourists to buy CDs, cigars, food and souvenirs, but here we are offered nothing except conversation. Las Terrazas is pressure free.
In fact it is unpressured to the point of frustration, because Las Terrazas doesn't mention or sign many of its glorious attractions. It is a charmingly naive mix of being geared up for tourism and unaware of how to market itself.
By chance we find several beautiful mountain pools, complete with lifeguards and bars. These natural pools are picture postcard perfect and they are open to everyone. But, like the motorway, they are often empty. We come across one while trying to find the ecology centre. The centre -a small room with a few posters about the climate, creatures and flora of the forest- is closed so we join young Cubans partying along to deafening music on a lake with a floating trampoline.
In Cuba partying is second nature. While in Havana a car stopped outside our hotel at around midnight, pumped up the music and attracted dancing locals like moths to a lamp. The same thing happens when we visit Las Terrazas' Boat House restaurant.
The banging music is not as welcome at the homestay where we sleep (not a lot) for the first two nights at Las Terrazas. The homestay is a sort of B&B without the breakfast. It is thatched with royal palm and has balcony views over the valley on one side and a courtyard garden of roses and staghorn fern on the other. As the tropical night plunges us into dark, the crickets start… along with some of the loudest music I have ever heard. Next door parties all night, every night if the comments in the visitors' book are anything to go by.
We return to the peace of Hotel Moka across the valley. It is relatively luxurious although it sometimes runs out of hot water. Given our budget we should have booked into one of the permanent campsites or thatched huts a mile or so from the hotel - both have water and electricity.
And I should have worked on my fitness. The steep, precarious concrete steps between the home stay, the community and the hotel are reminding my calf muscles that they need more exercise.
We take another calf-aching walk to find the 900m zip wire "canopy ride". We can't find the ride but we find plenty of interest as we walk through the community: an old man roasting coffee, his wife making guava membrillo (quince). A group of handsome fighting cocks tethered in a garden. A family celebrating a birthday who invite us to share marshmallow-topped rum cake. And a handful of other tourists.
Visitors here are mixed. Older people come for the peace and the wildlife coach tours. Young ones are outdoor enthusiasts who want challenging forest walks, horse rides, canyoning, swimming and thigh-pounding bike rides.
We head up the valley past turkeys, ponies, dogs, cats, children and chickens to the spartan community museum. There are pictures of the area before reforestation plus a skeleton, three pieces of coffee machinery, some palm figures and a mood board about a local artist.
Art of all kinds gets state funding and respect in Cuba. At Las Terrazas it is supported by tourism as hotel manager, Lionel Guitierrez, explains through local guide and interpreter Emilio Jorge Arias: "100% of the profit from the hotel goes to the state and 35% from the outlying activities, rides and restaurants. The rest of the money goes to the community for repairing houses and encouraging art and music. Over 90% of the people who live here work here in the hotel or the forest."
The standard of living here is now far higher than many other areas as Emilio explains: "100% of the people have electricity here plus drinking water and gas to cook on; 80% have a telephone. In a nearby community of about 3,000 people there is one telephone."
There is a waiting list to live here and plans to build another hotel and community to provide jobs and income and satisfy the insatiable demand for beds at Moka.
I wish I could persuade Copenhagen's decision makers to book some of those beds and have a look round this pioneering community. And I wish that the world leaders who are flogging their forests instead of transforming them into places like Las Terrazas would come here too. It is an eloquent political statement: an exquisite destination providing a future for the Cuban people.
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