Traveling in less than an hour from the urban bustle of Havana to the green peace of Las Terrazas may be surprising for those who know little about distances within Cuba and the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, which are very close to each other in the island. It is impossible to be more than 100 kilometers away from the sea in Cuba. The same thing happens with the places of high natural value: they are never too far away in this Caribbean country.
The trip from Havana to Las Terrazas lasts no more than any trip within the capital since the Pinar del Rio highway allows traveling at a higher speed. But the change is noticeable: when the car turns right at the 52nd kilometer and leaves the main road, the secondary road soon starts to zigzag, and the first elevations appear.
Only 8 kilometers further you can feel that the air becomes cleaner and the temperature goes down. There are high mountains. And after a soft curve in the road, the ecological complex of Las Terrazas appears: you only have to cross a bridge to reach it.
The project of this community started in the late 60s as an experiment in forest development and environmental preservation. In 5,000 hectares wide territory hundreds of kilometers of terraces have been dug, six million trees have been planted, and a village was built, following the method of mountain flattening. Then, in the 90s, they built an eco-friendly hotel, and Las Terrazas tourist complex appeared.
Now 1052 people are living in the community, almost half of them working in areas related to tourism. The rest works in forest fostering and services associated with every population: medicine, education, pharmacy, culture, currency exchange, etc.
What are the first impressions? Houses distributed on terraces on concrete piles with blue or orange doors and windows, contrasting with the green that is everywhere, tall trees full of Curujeys and Bromelias, and high mountains around, totally covered in vegetation without a single blank spot.
Sounds? In the middle of the predominant silence, there are two outstanding sounds which, while becoming habitual, never stop to draw your attention. One is the buzz of the Canopy (one of its routes passes above the town towards the lake) and birds’ tweet.
The Moka hotel, leaning on high columns over several levels of terraces is located on the highest spot of the town. It is an excellent viewpoint that allows you to get a complete image of the place. There are 42 rooms with panoramic views of the town, even from bathrooms. The trees that have been there before the construction remain intact and the space that was opened for the building was chosen so that it would not harm, or even touch them. For example, in the middle of the lobby, there is a huge Carob tree emerging from the floor and going up to the next level.
There is a shop, a bar on one of the terraces, a cigar shop… The terrace where the restaurant is very close to palms, teak, and other kinds of timber growing on the slopes. Sometimes you can hear quick and short knocks: a woodpecker doing its work. Sometimes the sounds indicate that there is a tocororo or a thrush nearby. Sometimes they are a few meters away, easily visible; sometimes you have to look for them between the tree branches for a while.
There are more than a hundred different bird species in the area, from woodpeckers, tocororos, and thrushes, to todies, Cuban grassquits, muleteers, and bee hummingbirds.
Aside from Moka, there are other inhabited villages in the community. Three community rooms have their names derived from the combination of the name of the family patriarch and the artist that decorated it. The MarDu village – for a peasant called Margarito and a painter called Jorge Duporté; CiriLes – for the workman Cirilo and the landscape painter Léster Campa, a local painter who carried out the work; and the ModesCo – for Modesto and the Cuban photographer Corrales, whose work decorates the house.
In the suburbs of the community there are several Casas Particulares, and on the San Juan River (bathrooms, bar, restaurant) there are rustic huts on piles, with guano roofs. There are 11 huts few meters away from the river, with the names of Cuban birds: Tocororo, Cuban Tody, Muleteer, Bluebird, Colibri, Pigeon, Mockingbird, Nightingale, and Cuban parakeet; along with a free space where the visitors can put up tents that are available for rent.
24 hours of Nature
It is important to remember that Las Terrazas is for those who love nature, quietness, countryside, trees, birds, landscapes… Yes, there is a discotheque in the town, but, obviously, it is not the main attraction of it. At night there are small music bands (trios or quartets with guitars, a drum, and a bass), performing on the terraces of the hotel bar. They do great work.
One of the musicians has perfect English, and between songs jokes with the increasing public. Most of the spectators are young people. There are mojitos in their glasses, and cigars fuming, laughter and a very good atmosphere. Some eventually try to dance to Cuban music, guided by the musician who cheers them up in English and shows them the correct moves.
During the day it is different. All options are open, and there is a lot of things to do. Some of the young people who have tried to dance in the bar of La Moka last night bring their bikes; others walk carrying backpacks. In Las Terrazas they offer various routes for tracking: La Serafina is 6.4 kilometers long and lasts 3 hours, with a medium-low level of difficulty; El Contento, 9 kilometers long, is 3 hours and a medium difficulty; and Las Delicias, 3 kilometers long, lasts 2 hours and has a medium-low level of difficulty.
Routes follow evergreen woods, mountains, and ruins of former coffee plantations, founded by the French who came from Louisiana in the XIX century. There are more than ten tour guides in Las Terrazas, and all are prepared to identify and give information about a variety of plants; recognize the voices and localize birds; explain the history, etc. But also, specialists from the Ecological Station (the community and the tourist complex belong to the Serra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve) can work as specialized guides.
Photography, bird observation, exploring the ruins of half a hundred coffee haciendas that had prospered in the area, swimming in natural pools of the San Juan river, climbing mountains, such as El Taburete (a route of 6 kilometers, three hours, a medium-high difficulty and reaching 452 meters high) – all of these are some of the activities that may be pursued during the day.
Buenavista, 4½ kilometers from the village, is the best-conserved coffee plantation. You may reach it by a narrow road that goes up in some zones. The beautiful house is a restaurant; it has conserved the kitchen and the bakery (a mill formed by a tree trunk and a heavy round stone that ran a circular duct full of coffee seeds), the stone walls of the warehouse, and the bunkhouses where slaves slept.
The former coffee plantation is located on a high point where starts a wide valley that reaches the sea on the northern coast of Cuba. But if you follow a path that leads to the highest point of the mountain and walk for half an hour between the trees and ferns, you will reach the Buenavista viewpoint, at the height of 340 meters. There you can see the Las Terrazas community, far away between the mountains.
Some decide to go to the forest, but others take a boat trip, or get to know the people of the community, or try canopy. The canopy has six routes, each with a start and a finish on strong wooden platforms. All of them make a 1,600 meters journey. The last two routes are the longest ones: from the square of the community to the Pinetum, above the lake (356 meters), and from there to the last platform, going above the bridge that crosses the lake (274 meters).
There are cellular network and Wi-Fi all across the community and the tourist complex.
Creole stew, vegetarian, seafood, pasta, and coffee
If you are looking for a place to eat La Casa del Campesino (The peasant’s house), three kilometers away from the community, is a hut with a ranch, where they serve creole food: exquisite black beans and meat, thin and crunchy malanga toasts. The host, Mrs. Raquel, is paying attention to everything. After lunch and black Cuban coffee, you can take a short walk to see the ruins of the La Union coffee plantation near the restaurant.
Within the community, there is the restaurant of the Moka hotel (El Balcon de las Tecas, Cuban and international dishes), and the vegetarian restaurant El Romero. La Fonda de Mercedes, found in the terrace adjacent to the house of this lady, specializes in Creole food; in La Casa de los Botes on San Juan river you can eat fish and seafood; in El Curujey, very close to the community on the bank of the other lake, Cuban sandwich, pasta, and pizzas; and El Macurije, on San Juan River offers creole food.
In El Café de María, and its extension Café Aire Libre, you can enjoy 13 different types of coffee, including the Café Terraza: coffee, chocolate, cocoa liquor, milk, and ice. They also sell bags of coffee powder produced in these mountains.
There are festival days, called revels by the population when they spend time with the visitors while enjoying traditional music. They remember fondly a local singer who gained international fame years ago – Polo Montañez and sing his songs.
There are good musicians in Las Terrazas, who know the forest well and are very hospitable. Nature is full of life, which is proven by the continuous singing of the birds. Without any doubt, it is a perfect place to slow down the rhythm of your life for a few days before coming back to the bustle of the city.