10 Apr 2012

Trekking to Pico Turquino - Cuba's Highest Mountain

An image of Pico Turquino
Nearing the summit of Pico Turquino (1974m) - Cuba's highest mountain.
I travelled to the Sierra Maestra in Eastern Cuba in April 2012, with 3 friends (+Anita Dantas, Natalia, and Yosenki) to do the trek to the summit of Pico Turquino - Cuba's highest mountain. My aim was to investigate the feasibility of incorporating the trek it into a regular tour itinerary for my travel business Cuban Adventures. I loved the trek so much that I designed a tour called the Eastern Cuba Tour, that we now operate with Cuban Adventures.

Read below my impressions about the trek, the destination of the Sierra Maestra in Eastern Cuba, and how you can do the trek it if you are traveling independently in Cuba.

Day 1 - Havana to Santo Domingo

Today was a long travel day from Havana all the way to the Sierra Maestra and the town of Santo Domingo.

Flight from Havana to Holguin, Cuba

We took an early flight from Havana to Holguin. There are twice daily flights between Havana and Holguin. You can buy these on the internet, including from our own Cuban Adventures website flight booking engine - http://www.cubagrouptour.com/information/cuba/flights/#booking engine. Cost was 120cuc per person.

There are 3 airlines in Cuba and they all fly this route between Havana and Holguin - Cubana, Aerogaviota, and Aerocaribbean.

Holguin to Bayamo, Cuba

Our flight arrived to Holguin at 8:30am. We then caught a bus from the airport which was able to drop us near the bus terminal in Holguin. At the bus terminal we asked around for the cars that go to Bayamo. I can't remember the cost of the bus but it was virtually free. The car to Bayamo was 60M.N per person (or about 3cuc per person).

                 Boarding the car from Holguin to Bayamo                  


Bayamo to Bartolome Maso, Cuba

About an hour or so later we arrived at the bus terminal in Bayamo where we asked around for the cars that go to Bartolome Maso. We had to wait a bit longer this time for the car to get enough passengers, but after about half an hour we were back on the road. It took another 2 hours to get to Bartolome Maso.
Boarding the car from Bayamo to Bartolome Maso, Cuba


The car broke down on the way - but just momentarily.

Maintenance on the way from Bayamo to Bartolome Maso
We got the driver to drop us at the intersection where the road from Bayamo meets the road that goes from Bartolome Maso to Santo Domingo. The cost of the car was about 80M.N per person (or about 4cuc per person).

There was a roadside shop at this intersection with only 2 items for sale - cigarettes by the box (7M.N.)  and cigarettes (0.35M.N. each).

Roadside shop in Bartolome Maso, Cuba


Barotome Maso to Santo Domingo, Cuba

Getting transport from here to Santo Domingo was the the most difficult part. Its only about a 30min drive, but the road from here to Santo Domingo is very steep in some places and only certain vehicles will make the trip. We waited for a couple of hours until a car came past that was willing to take us for about 5cuc each to Santo Domingo.

A section of the steep road between Bartolome Maso and Santo Domingo, Cuba
The cement road is made with corrugations so that cars can get traction.

Here are some travellers in the back - sleepy from the early start in Havana...


Arriving in Santo Domingo, Cuba

Finally we arrived in Santo Domingo! A village in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Eastern Cuba, that is next to a beautiful river.

The Village of Santo Domingo is next to this beautiful river - Sierra Maestra, Cuba 
In Santo Domingo there was only 1 hotel at the time we were there - the Villa Santo Domingo. The prices are 30cuc per room including breakfast. Tel: +53-059-565635

Villa Santo Domingo, Sierra Maestra, Cuba
Villa Santo Domingo, Sierra Maestra, Cuba



Villa Santo Domingo, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

By all reports, the hotel is quite ok.

We noticed another hotel being built nearby which looked like it would be quite good. It was being made mostly from wood.

However we found a great homestay (casa particular) across the river from the Hotel, which cost us 20cuc per room. Adding breakfast, the cost was about the same as the hotel but the food and service is much better! At the time the casa only had a cold water shower.

Casa Ulises Junco - Santo Domingo, Bayamo, Cuba
Mobile: +53-52-487811 / +53-52-610846

Casa Ulises, Santo Domingo, Cuba

Casa Ulises, Santo Domingo, Cuba

We celebrated arriving to Santo Domingo after a long travel day from Havana with a swim in the river and a delicious home cooked dinner at Ulises' house.

Bathing in the river - Santo Domingo, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

Day 2 - First day of the Trek - Santo Domingo to La Aguada Trekking Hut

The trek to Pico Turquino (Cuba's highest mountain) starts at Santo Domingo.

We first had to walk across the river from our homestay to the national park office.


Crossing the river in Santo Domingo, Cuba

The office manager explained to us the trek. It was going to be 2 days trekking with 1 night in the trekking lodge at La Aguada, which for us would serve as a kind of base camp.

The Park Manager explain to us the trek (Santo Domingo, Cuba)
The cost of the trek to Cuba's highest mountain cost us 50cuc per person and this included a guide, 3 meals, lodging at the trekking hut, park entry, and jeep transport to and from the trek start point at a place called Alto de Naranjo.

We carried our own food and clothes, as well as some extra food.

We met our guide (centre) at the park office. A very nice guy from the local area with lots of experience taking tourists up to Pico Turquino.

Meeting our guide for the trek to Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba
At the park office there were also some mules that they use to transport food and supplies to the trekking huts. These mules take a different trail to the trekkers - a shorter but steeper route. Here I am giving some love to one of the mules.

The mules carry supplies to the trekking huts on separate trails - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

Jeep ride from Santo Domingo to Alto de Naranjo

The first part of the trek was actually a 15minute jeep ride up a very steep concrete sealed road to a place called Alto de Naranjo.

Walk from Alto de Naranjo to La Aguada Trekking Hut

8km, about 6 hours walking
The walk to the trekking hut was only about 8km, but it took us nearly 6 hours. We are average healthy people aged 25 to 40. We are reasonably fit people with some trekking experience, though not regular hikers. The first day walk was pretty much ALL uphill. There were just a few flatter spots, but mostly just slow, sweaty going.

The first day of the trek to Pico Turquino is steady uphill - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

We found the trail to be extremely well maintained by the park staff, with hand rails along many sections.

The steeper sections have a well-made handrail - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

We eventually reached La Aguada trekking hut around early to mid afternoon, very sweaty and extremely tired!

Day 2 - La Aguada Trekking Hut

We arrived early to mid afternoon to the "base camp" at La Aguada. We were very sweaty and very tired. Considering this, and the fact that there were plenty of clouds over the mountains and some light rain, we decided to not attempt the summit of Pico Turquino this afternoon, but to get up very early the next morning.

Trekking hut was in excellent condition! A couple of large rooms with about 6 double bunk beds in each. Each bed had a foam matrress. There are some blankets available, but if the place is full its better not to rely on there being enough blankets.

Despite Cuba having a tropical latitude, because of the high humidity, it can get very cold at any sort of altitude. Pico Turquino's altitude is 1974m and that of La Aguada about 1500m.

La Aguada Trekking Hut - Sierra Maestra, Cuba
La Aguada Trekking Hut - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

We had a basic lunch cooked by the staff at the trekking hut. However it was fresh food and warm and due to our fatigue and hunger, it tasted absolutely delicious!

The sun came out briefly later in the afternoon and we enjoyed a small dose of rum and a game of dominoes.

La Aguada Trekking Hut - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

After another delicious and gratefully received meal for dinner we went straight to bed.

La Aguada Trekking Hut, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

Day 3 - Trek to the Summit of Pico Turquino

We started trekking this morning at 5am. It was still dark! But soon enough it started to get light to reveal an extremely lush subtropical forest, and again an extremely well maintained trail.


The excellently maintained trail leading to the summit of Pico Turquino, Cuba

Since our return from the summit was going to come back along the same track. We left most of our luggage back at the trekking hut.

The trek from La Aguada to Pico Turquino is about 5km and took us about 3 hours.

Our luck was that this morning the skies were clear and we soon got our first glimpse of the summit of Cuba's highest mountain - Pico Turquino.

First glimpse of Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

We were elated to have made it this far and to have such a beautiful day, and we were excited about reaching the summit. The views along the way were spectacular!

Spectacular views on the trail to the summit of Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

At about 8am, after 3 hours of steep uphill trekking through beautiful lush forest with some spectacular mountain views we reached the summit of Cuba's highest mountain!

At the summit of Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba




Day 3 - Trek from the summit back to Santo Domingo



Pico Turquino to Campamento La Aguada 

5km, about 2.5 hours
The first part of the trek down the mountain was the steepest and most exhilarating. We needed to use our hands a lot to balance ourselves on the tree trunks, tree roots, rocks, and hand rails that we were most grateful the park guards had made and kept so well maintained.

Beautiful views on the way down from the summit of Pico Turquino - Sierra Maestra, Cuba

Campamento La Aguada to Alto de Naranjo

8km, about 5 hours
After reaching our trekking hut, we picked up our backpacks and started the long trek down the mountain.  We got some heavy rain on the way down which made it slippery in some parts. +Natalia de la Cavada got to use the umbrella she had brought along and was bragging about the intelligence and practicality of her decision to bring it along.

I found the downhill part of the walk very tiring. This would have been certainly due in part to my fatigue at this stage of the walk, and also to the constant and unrelenting downhill nature of the trail.

My leg muscles were extremely sore the next day!

Alto de Naranjo to Santo Domingo

15min jeep ride
Shortly after we arrived at Alto de Naranjo the jeep arrived to take us back to Santo Domingo. We stayed the night in Santo Domingo at the homestay and bathed in the river. The next day we headed back to Holguin.


My overall impressions of the Trek

I think the trek to Pico Turquino is an excellent activity to do in Cuba, especially for people who don't mind a bit of physical exertion and who enjoy nature.

The mountain scenery is spectacular and the thick sub-tropical forest, especially in the upper reaches, is lush and beautiful. I got the full sense of being immersed in nature.

Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra, Cuba
The hot and humid conditions, along with the steep slopes, make the trek sweaty and more difficult than the distances might indicate. Rain is frequent.

I was extremely impressed at the organisation of the trek by the national park staff. The trekking huts provide relative luxury compared to camping and the food they provide at the campsites is excellent - freshly cooked.

Despite the high rainfall in the area, the trail is also excellently maintained with hand rails fashioned from local natural materials along the steeper sections of the trails.

At around 50cuc per day, I think that its also excellent value for money.

I only met a couple of the local guides, and they both were excellent company. The park staff that stay at the trekking huts were all friendly and pleasant fellows.

I feel that our group did get a bit lucky with the weather as we had fine weather for the most spectacular part of the trek including at the top of the mountain. I can imagine if the weather wasn't so pleasant (which would be common) the enjoyment level may decrease significantly.

It can get very cold at night so a good sleeping bag (or at least lots of blankets and a warm sleeping companion) I think is crucial to enjoying the experience.

I have great memories of the experience. I got a great deal of satisfaction of having completed the walk and I feel I got a deeper appreciation of Cuba and its environment. I'd love to go back one day and do it all again. :-D


Who to contact to arrange the trek

There are a few agencies online that have tours of Cuba that include a trek to Pico Turquino. My own company offers such a tour - the Eastern Cuba Tour - however we haven't had much success selling it.

The local operator in Cuba to use is ECOTUR. They have offices around Cuba. If you can find the office in Santiago, you can most likely arrange a (2 day / 1 night) tour to Pico Turquino starting and ending in Santiago.

I particularly enjoyed staying a night before and after the trek, in the village from where the trek starts and finishes - in Santo Domingo. Its a beautiful little village next to a mountain stream.

The contact for the ECOTUR office in Santo Domingo that they gave me was:
Tel: +53-23-487006
Email: reserva@ecotur.grm.tur.cu