This majestic mountain range runs along the entire south coast of Oriente province and measures some 30 miles at its widest, north to south. It contains a diverse range of flora and fauna, much of it endemic to the area, nestling under the dense undergrowth and cloud forest on the higher peaks. Whilst there are few mammals, the mountains teem with reptiles, amphibians and large numbers of tropical birds, whose calls can be heard clearly ringing out across the jungle.
The Sierra Maestra is also famous as the hideout of Fidel Castro and his followers between 1956 and 1959. The impenetrable terrain gave them perfect cover against the army of Fulgencio Batista, and by 1958 they had control of most of the mountainous areas of Oriente. Many of Batista’s demoralised troops switched sides and soon after their retreat Castro’s rebel army entered Santiago to accept their surrender at the Moncada Barracks, on 2 January 1959.
Hiking in the Sierra Maestra
For independent travellers, it is important to note that certain parts of the mountains are sometimes closed due to rockfalls or dangerous trails. The best place to gather information and to start hiking is at the Villa Santo Domingo [link to hotel], in the foothills of the mountains some 40 miles southwest of Bayamo [link]. Hiking must be undertaken in the company of a guide, which can also be arranged here.
The main trail begins at the lookout point of Alto de Naranjo and from here you can either attempt the climb to Pico Turquino, a strenuous trek to Cuba’s highest peak which can be completed in a day, or the less arduous climb westwards towards Comandancia La Plata (approximately 2 hour round trip). The former rebel headquarters has been preserved as a museum where you can see Castro’s quarters, the camp hospital and the place from which Che Guevara broadcast messages on Radio Rebelde.
Anyone attempting these climbs should be reasonably fit and well equipped: walking boots are a must, together with sun protection, sweater for the higher altitudes and waterproofs for the high level of humidity and frequent rainshowers.
Places to Visit
The main attraction of this imposing basilica set high up in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra is the statue of the Virgin Mary, inset with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, which is the object of pilgrimages from all over the island. The legend goes that in 1606 three slaves working in the nearby copper mines were saved from drowning by the madonna, whose statue is actually of Spanish origin and is today contained in a glass case behind the altar. Offerings left to the Virgin include Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize medal.
Baconao National Park
This extensive UNESCO biosphere reserve east of Santiago covers over 200,000 acres with the Sierra de la Gran Piedra sweeping through it. The mountain range takes its name from a huge monolith rising to over 4,000 feet from which on a clear day you can see as far as Jamaica. Other attractions in the park include La Isabelica, the remains of an 18th century coffee plantation and estate; Granjita Siboney, where Castro and his rebels gathered in preparation for the attack on the Moncada barracks, containing a small museum; and Daiquiri beach, which gave its name to the famous cocktail.