Now I’m relaxing and recovering at Juan and Barbarita’s casa particular. This morning I read in my guidebook that there is a trail up the peak just west of Nueva Gerona which provides a nice view over the town and much of the island. I love hiking on mountain trails, so I mentioned to Juan that I thought I would go for a hike. He said, “up the mountain?”, as if he wondered exactly what my plans were. I reassured him that this was something I wanted to do, even if it might be a bit challenging. I figured that if those paragliders could make it to the top lugging their parachutes, I could make it with a light backpack. My book said I just needed to take Calle 34 west out of town and I would find the beginning of the trail.
It only took about 15 minutes to get to the edge of town and to the base of the mountain, which looked rather steep, but I assumed the trail would switchback left and right to the top. I had trouble locating it, but a local guy came along on his bicycle and asked if I needed help. I mentioned the trail, and he pointed to some rocks right in front of me.
It turned out that the so-called “trail” was a cross between a steep hike and free rock climbing. I found myself on all fours climbing from boulder to boulder. The path was easy enough to follow, because there was jungle on both sides of the trail. There were some outstanding views as I crawled up the north face, then looped around to the west.
After about an hour of serious exercise, I scrambled to the top, which provided magnificent views in all directions of more than half of the island. There was nobody else around, except for some Cuban condors who always seem to be floating around mountaintops.
I really enjoyed the view and congratulated myself for conquering La Montañya. I thought about Columbus somehow discovering this island over 500 years ago. It is very likely that he would have circumnavigated it, located the Rio Las Casas, and sent a squad to climb this very peak to get an overall picture of this newly-discovered land. I thought about the pirates who must have climbed the peak centuries later to learn more about their Treasure Island. La Isla must have looked pretty much the same in those days, except for the present small town of Nueva Gerona down below.
I thought about how totally alone I was up there—how detached I was from others on the island, from Cuba’s mainland, and from my own country. It felt quite exhilarating, but then reality struck. I remembered that my flight back to Havana would leave that evening. All flights for the next week were sold-out. I decided that when it was time to climb down, I would do so very carefully and deliberately. One false step or slide could have been a disaster. I would have found myself in a really complicated situation. I finished my meal of granola bars, bananas, and water, and slowly retraced my steps down the mountain.
When I got back into town, I found a bicycle taxi that was powered by a wiry, rugged man who was probably in his mid-70’s. At first I felt guilty for not finding a much-younger athletic guy to pedal me back to my casa. But as we traveled through the streets of Nueva Gerona, he sang and waved to his friends. I quickly gave up my guilt as I realized that being a bicycle taxi operator not only gave him independence because of his business. It must have kept him in terrific shape—and he looked it. We arrive back at mi casa and he was breathing only slightly faster than normal. On the other hand, I was fairly worn out from my climb, so I went to my room and took a much-needed nap.
In the evening I caught a ride to the Rafael Cabrera Airport—apparently a full-service facility that handles only one or two flights a day to and from Havana. We went through the customary security procedures that would be expected at larger airports around the world: X-ray machines, hand-held body scanners, etc. This struck me as being unnecessary, but at least Cuban security seems to be generally consistent.
Once again, I didn’t observe any other passengers who looked like non-Cubans. This plane provided me with yet another unique adventure. In contrast to the modern Airbus that I flew on when I arrived in Cuba from Cancún a few days ago, our plane turned out to be an old Antonov AN-26 converted Russian military transport turboprop. It had two huge propellers, and we boarded from a ramp in the rear. My boarding pass said “Cubana,” but the aircraft was clearly marked with “Aerogaviota”—a subsidiary of Cubana that is operated by the Cuban military.
Before the back of the aircraft closed up, we could hear the twin engines of the propellers roaring—they were incredibly loud, and the plane rocked back and forth while just sitting on the runway. Finally the ramp was pulled up, decreasing the noise considerably. We bounced down the runway and lifted off, much to the relief of some of the Cuban passengers. I think I was too tired to care, and I’ve learned to not worry about things I have no control over.
Since there were no windows, we couldn’t see anything outside and had no frame of reference of where we were headed. The on-board refreshments consisted entirely of one attendant walking around with a platter of single pieces of wrapped candy about the size of a thumbnail. I chose my piece, then realized I couldn’t get it open. My fingers aren’t particularly weak. I glanced around to see other passengers trying unsuccessfully to liberate their candies from their wrappers. A few were trying to use their teeth to get a tear started, but without luck. I didn’t have a machete, or even scissors, of course, so I pocketed my in-flight candy and plan to take it back home as a symbolic souvenir.
Our flight only took 40 minutes. It seemed that the aircraft was moving up and down and a little sideways on its flight north. I don’t remember any warning before we landed—only a sudden “clunk” when we presumably arrived back in Havana. As on most Cuban fights, our cozy group of passengers broke into a round of applause—either because they appreciated a relatively smooth landing, or because they were really happy to just be back on the ground.
I caught a cab from the airport back to my friend’s place, where a delicious fish dinner awaited. I had accomplished one of my goals for this trip—to somehow travel to the Isle of Youth, and to arrive back in Havana in one piece.
I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth, formerly called the Island of Pines). Informally referred to as La Isla, it is located south of Havana, about 50-100 miles from various coastal areas of the western part of the main island. It is about 40 miles across, and is the second largest of Cuba’s 4000-plus islands. It is the only major part of Cuba I’ve never visited.
La Isla’s earliest know inhabitants sailed around the Caribbean in dugout canoes about a thousand years ago and lived on the island for several centuries, as indicated by remnant utensils and cave paintings. They disappeared from the island before Columbus discovered it on his second trip to the New World in 1494. Columbus claimed it for Spain, which had very little interest in it for the following four centuries. Apparently it was too far off the beaten path to exploit and pillage. It had no deep natural harbors, and the Golf of Batabanó separating it from the mainland was too shallow for the large Spanish galleons to navigate easily. Thus it became a haven for pirates such as John Hawkins, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, and the Frenchman Latrobe. It was perfectly located for them to raid mainland cities and escape to, after attacking Spanish treasure ships returning to Havana from Central and South America. Many historians believe it was the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
I had to be at the bus station at 7am this morning. While waiting in line I met a lady named Barbarita whose family owns a casa particular—a bed-and-breakfast place in Nueva Gerona—the main town on La Isla. She convinced me that it would be a nice place to stay for a couple nights. We rode the bus to the coast south of Havana and the port of Batabanó. I think I was the only non-Cuban on the bus. After arrriving at the port and clearing a security checkpoint, I bought my ticket for the large 300-passenger Russian diesel hydrofoil ship. The ride was smooth, but the only scenery was the open ocean. It took us three hours to reach La Isla at the mouth of the Rio Las Casas. We slowly cruised upstream about a quarter mile and docked. Barbarita’s daughter Juana met us and we took a local taxi to their home.
Right now I am resting in a nice room with a private bath. I’ll be served dinner on the patio later tonight by Barbarita’s husband Juan. I found out that there are relatively few foreigners who visit Nueva Gerona, and most of them are not Americans. Too bad—it really is a mellow, laid-back town. The pace of life here is even slower than on the main island. It seems that there aren’t any organized tours available, but my options include hiring a taxi for a full day, or finding a private car and driver. Juana made arrangements for her family friend to pick me up in the morning.