We were joined by a local guide Luise. Luise has a degree in journalism but is a fountain of information regarding the flora and fauna of the preserve, as well having a fabulous command of the English language.
Our day was spent in the Topas de Collantes Natural Park in the Guamuhaya Mountains. This 200 square kilometer area is a protected landscape. The area was first explored in the 1930s when Batista decided to build a TB sanatorium in the area. In 1961 the sanatorium became a teachers training school and then in the 1980s a hotel.
Upon its transformation to a hotel this area began its tradition of Eco-tourism. Originally the first visitors were from the Soviet bloc but since the 1990s there has been an increase in tourism from other countries.
The park itself has its roots in the Batista era. 1 square kilometer, the Jardin des Gigantes, was planted with 273 tropical plants by a botanist friend of Batistas. The intent was both research and pleasure.
It is thought that when Columbus landed in Cuba it was 95% forest. Thanks to hacking down trees for sugar production by the 1960s Cuba had only 13% of its original forest, the replanting efforts coupled with the attempt at ecological education has brought that number up to approximately 30%.
Sadly there is a long way to go. The Cubans still come into the protected area to capture parrots when they are very small and sell them in Havana. There is also an active trade in the native ferns, orchids and bromeliads. This is all illegal, but difficult to police.
Our walk through the Topas de Collantes was a fascinating education in the use of the local plants. Since the embargo and exit of the Soviet Union, medication is near non-existent in Cuba making the knowledge and use of herbal remedies a necessity.
We saw plants too numerous to list but they included the Prunus occidentalis a very dense tree whose bark is used to make tea to help cure the common cold.
There was the rat pineapple, good for curing parasites, an African cactus used in treating diabetes and the wandering Jew, used for liver disease and hepatitis.
Then there is the Melastomataceae also often called miconia, the presence of this plant tells you the acidity of the soil, the greater the number of plants present, the higher the pH. Melastomistaceae is also the number one toilet paper in Cuba. One must be careful if you are to adopt this usage, as it is also the home to very tiny fire ants.
We learned a bit about the woods of Cuba. There are three woods used in Cuba, mahogany, cedar and granadillo. While we saw African mahogany we were shown how much straighter and knotless the Cuban mahogany grows.
The soil of this area is highly acidic making it perfect for growing coffee, bananas and pine trees.
Approximately 2% of Cuba’s arable land is used to grow coffee. There are two types of coffee grown in Cuba the Shade Arabica and the Robusta. The Shade Arabica is grown in the mountains where we were visiting.
It is expected that by 2020 coffee will be a major crop for Cuba.
In Cuba the farmers grow the coffee and they are called coffee collectors. They grow the beans and then harvest and dry them, they are sent to the government for roasting and distribution. The coffee, called Crystal Mountain Coffee is sold primarily to Japan and France for approximately $7–9,000 per ton. This money is then used for the Cuban redistribution program, i.e. social welfare.
The coffee is by default organic. This is simply because when the Russians left, fertilizers and pesticides became so expensive as to be essentially non-existent. The Cubans would like to reintroduce fertilizer in order to boost production. They also have a problem with nematodes, something they desire to cure with pesticides.
Berto Colorado and his beautiful wife Maria own the farm that we visited. They have four boys and four girls and 16 grandchildren. Berto owns his farm, however, his son Homer is a tenant farmer. Originally all of the land would have been owned and run by the government but in the 1990s the government realized that tenant farming could produce more food and cut down on the country’s dependency for imports. Eventually the laws allowed for a tenant farmer to oversee 65 hectares.
We enjoyed a repast with the Colorados of guava paste, a peanut butter sugar concoction, oranges, lemons and bananas. Cuban citrus is very sour due to the high acid soil. Cubans usually juice their citrus and then mix with water and sugar.
During this time Louis showed us hand woven baskets called guaniquiqui. The baskets are named after the vine they are woven from and that grows all over the area. I believe that the Latin name for the vine is Trichostigma octandrum
Lunch was at a restaurant, Mi Retiro, that was originally the home of one of Batista’s banker friends. It consisted of unlimited sliced pork, rice and beans. The location was lovely and the food fairly good.
The night was again at Los Helechos.
Meet local guide at park headquarters for orientation to the park
Visit a small coffee house for discussion about coffee growing
From the coffee house walk on the Jardin de Gigantes trail with the local guide
Lunch at Restaurant Mi Retiro
Visit the Art Museum
Visit a local farm to visit with the farmer and family