Kayaking Cuba Part Three: Guajimico and Hanabanilla

Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com
Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com

By O. Ross McIntyre and Helen Whyte

Southeast of Cienfuegos the mountains push up to the coast and the geography changes dramatically from that we had been paddling in. We turned off the highway to Trinidad onto a short gravel road that dropped fast into a thin strip of land along a diminutive estuary, Guajimico. At its upper end, hidden from the highway and casual viewers, a minute stream enters the sea from amongst the brush. A fine sandy beach that has resulted from its action lies at the head of the estuary. The sloshing of the incoming swells against the rocky sides of the inlet on their way to the sand was music to our ears, and we eagerly climbed the many steps from the parking area to a place where the full sweep of the estuary was visible as it meets sea beyond. Yes, this would be a different type of paddling.

Read Part One, the Bay of Pigs and Part Two, Guama and Cienfuegos.

Once at the top of the stairs, we were surrounded by a number of small cottages, one of which would be ours for the two nights we would be here. Below us on a small mostly level area was the building holding a restaurant and, of course, the bar. Just beyond it a small flock of chickens pecked away at the base of a tree in which some were already roosting. Beyond the tree the land dropped precipitously into the inlet that bent west in a gentle curve towards the sea.

We had a swim before dinner in the attractive swimming pool next to the bar. We found that the proportion of tourists speaking Spanish was higher than we had observed in other hotels, and though some of them were from other Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America, we learned that many of these visitors to Guajimico were Cuban. While sitting in the bar and drinking a Cuba Libre we were told that some of these Cuban vacationers have relatives who lived out of the country and remittances from them could be used for a vacation. Others have jobs in tourism where hard currency tips provide the wherewithal for vacations. A few had saved their meager Cuban salaries for many months and were now splurging it all on a vacation. The choice that these people had made for their vacations was justified. The scenery and the food in the restaurant was really very good.

The next morning we launched the kayaks in the estuary and headed out to sea where we followed the coast west. Assisted by a good breeze from the southeast we sped down the coast. From a few hundred feet offshore we watched the waves crash onto the heavily eroded coral of the steep shoreline. Even with the moderate swells this morning we would have had a difficult or impossible time coming ashore. After perhaps a mile we entered another inlet with a lovely sandy beach at its landward end. Here we swam, snorkeled, hunted interesting rock and set up a photo.

The last C&K article about kayaking Cuba included a photo of a couple dancing on a beach while kayaks were being unloaded in the background. With this in mind we suggested to two of our Cuban friends that they might dance on the beach so we could send the photo to the magazine along with this report. The pair, already showing signs of a serious crush, gladly complied. One might have anticipated samba or the like, but what we got was a Cuban version of Country Swing. Whatever it was we had a happy confirmation of young love, on a hidden beach surrounded by impressive cliffs, and with a great view out to sea.

While we spoke and snorkeled and watched the dance, the wind beyond the entrance to our retreat was steadily growing. Our plan was to travel further west along the coast to another similar protected beach, this one with steeper cliffs. As I watched the swells now with a superimposed chop with white caps I wondered what Jay would do when we departed. I was relieved when he told us to put on our spray skirts, that we would not be going further downwind but instead returning to Guajimico, We exited into the open water, leaned into our work as we cruised up and down on the swells and splashed through the breaking water back to our starting point. My philosophy holds that man is biologically prepared for such a trip while gyrating as a fetus suspended in the water of the uterus. The joy I felt this day confirmed that viewpoint. It was exhilarating for me and I think the entire crew felt that way as we slipped once again into Guajimico.

Led by Jay later that afternoon we climbed the steep hill behind the hotel and took a trail west toward the beach we had paddled to in the morning. Part way along we descended into the mouth of a large cave and walked in growing darkness amongst the various cave features until we found an opening with a view to the sea.

Descending steeply through the opening, we joined a trail leading west to an overlook from which we could see the beach. The trail we took wound around numerous sharp outcroppings of coral derived rock, bad stuff to fall on, but it was otherwise easy to negotiate. There was no opportunity to see if the trail continued onwards to the west from the beach at the head of the inlet. I could imagine a lengthy trail along this stretch of shoreline that would offer some of the features that make the Abel Tasman Track in New Zealand so attractive. There, campsites with available drinking water are distributed along the track at convenient intervals. The campsites are used by hikers as well as by kayakers who travel all or part of the track in their boats.

That evening there was a sudden cloudburst and the rain leaked through several spots in the restaurant roof. More rain fell during the night and the bedside table in our cottage took on water from a roof leak. Our bed and gear remained dry. In the morning I paid particular attention to the master omelet chef who presided over a large griddle with his tools of trade and delivered beautiful omelets with machine gun frequency. If only some of the other hotels we had stayed in could take lessons from this guy, it would improve the Cuban hotel experience. Guajimico, I want to come back, but would like to sleep in my tent if it rains.

After breakfast our bus headed north. Rice gave way to other crops – sugar cane, corn, and mango plantings – as we moved onto smaller roads with views to the steep mountains in the south. We began to cross small streams in deep cuts through the farmland. The water in these was clear and running over stony bottoms, but there were many fallen trees and other obstructions in the water, not prime kayaking sites. There were cattle in some fields. Most had Brahman features but from time to time there was a Holstein. There were also lots of horses in pastures and on the roads. One of these was pulling a wagon at a trot that would have produced a win at most of U.S. fairgrounds.

We turned off the highway at a steep uphill grade. Domaso, our driver, stopped the bus to shift the gearbox into a low range and then we crawled upwards. We encountered the embankments of an earth-filled dam and eventually arrived at Lago Hanabanilla. This lake results from the impoundment of three significant streams that flow generally north from the Sierra Escambre mountain range and are collected by a dam in a southeastern to northwestern running valley.

Lake Hanabanilla, Cuba. Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com
Lake Hanabanilla, Cuba. Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com

The lake is surrounded by a roadless preserve with a hotel and other facilities located at its west end. After a lunch at the hotel we put in the kayaks and headed down the lake into the face of an increasing afternoon wind. We were aiming for a restaurant, Rio Negro, located on the south shore about a third of the way down the lake. As we paddled, we were in the company of heavy fiberglass boats that had been fitted with inboard engines, small four-cycle air cooled gasoline motors, each carrying several passengers. Most of these were returning from Rio Negro where their passengers had been served lunch on a day outing. We were going to spend the night at Rio Negro.

After a tiring paddle into the wind we arrived at the covered dock for the restaurant and ascended the steep path to another example of a “Tahitian palm thatched” restaurant. The complex sits on a small plateau with a lovely view over the lake; it consists of several conical thatched dining rooms and bars on a concrete plaza.

Overhanging trees and flowing plants contribute nicely to the ambiance. Below there was a small marine railway with a flat topped four-wheel cart on it. The track, supported by steel columns, came up to the plaza level where a large electric winch was attached to a cable leading to the car. Although it was alleged that the system had “operated that morning and the car had left the rails,” the real problem was that the rails had left the car. The distance between the rails doubled between the shore and the top of the hill due to collapse of the steel support system. The large electric winch looked like it had not operated in years.

There was electricity, however. Off to one side of the steep path leading to the restaurant a small building contained a modern pre-packaged diesel generator of remarkable quietude. Next to it were the concrete foundations that had at one time supported a much larger generator and nearby was a huge motor connected to a pump that serviced a 4 or 6 inch pipeline. The control box of this motor was propped open and a mess of exposed wires lay against the pump pulley. An industrial archeologist would be need to be hired to tell us the full story of this assemblage, a story I’m sure that would involve the expenditure of precious public funds for a large project now forgotten.

Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com
Photo by Jay Mothersill, www.cubakayakadventures.com

On the path up to the restaurant we were able to spot the bashful Cuban national bird, the tocororo hiding one tree or more back from the forest verge and we heard its voice later from time to time. Flowers were everywhere. Evening came on and we had a good dinner. Someone spotted the miniature hummingbird, the smallest in the world, but it was gone before others could find it. The tree frogs began their song, (cicadas must have learned from them.) Then we had a rain shower and took refuge in one of the conical thatched roof dining areas. A one-inch high sill raised the floor under the roof to prevent water from the plaza from flowing over the floor. Water coming from our roof fell just inside the sill and flowed across the floor. I wondered why we had been told that it was preferable to sleep on foam mattresses supported on rows of opposed chairs. Now I knew why. I had planned to sleep on the floor.

I climbed onto my mattress and lay down without tipping a chair over, and remembered that in Huck Finn the coffin took only two chairs. I then switched gears and drifted off thinking about revolutions and their causes. As I drifted, I felt the sudden arrival of something that weighed a few ounces on my left upper arm. Lizard? I moved the arm and heard a flutter. In the low light I could see wings receding in the distance. They were bird-like, not bat. Then real sleep.

In the morning we awoke to wood smoke and kitchen smells. The result was a fine breakfast to prepare us for the morning paddle. Down the lake and into one of the bays we found the hills rising higher around us. Now the hills had stone covered slopes and exposed faces.

Foothills Escambre Mountains L. Habanillajpg(1)

On the right was a cave entrance, now mostly flooded. We sought some shade along the left shore. We paddled next to the vertical rock face. Clusters of bb-sized pearls attached to the stone attracted our attention. I pried one loose and popped it. Tiny yellow inside. Tree-frog eggs. The tadpoles must drop directly into the water. Fish food.

The end of the dry season water level prevented us from reaching our objective, the falls of one of the streams as it enters the lake. Instead, we landed and walked a marked trail to the falls. As at all such sites we signed in with the ranger.

Paperwork completed, we climbed a trail beside the water-worn rock cascade. It was a lovely spot but for the discarded cans, plastic and paper. Jay collected a bag full of trash and carried it out. The Cuban rangers should do less paperwork and spend more of their time educating those who litter, or maybe even picking up the litter. From a distance, it looked possible to slide down the rock for a drop into the plunge pool at the bottom. But the rock is rougher than it looks from afar – maybe one should don leather before trying it.

We climbed further to feel the cool air around other pools and slides. Less litter. The younger members of the team found a horizontal limb and hung monkey-like from it over some falls, while cameras clicked. Then more swims, burying heads in falling water, and we were done.

On the way back to the hotel and put-in the gentle breeze is behind us, the way it should be for the last paddle of the trip. As we go, we look up the steep hillsides into the dense tropical woods and see an occasional thatched roof, sometimes a bit of smoke. Who lives there? Year round? Where do they get their dinner? How do their children get to school? Do they vote? Questions for next time, this trip is over.

Read Part One, the Bay of Pigs and Part Two, Guama and Cienfuegos.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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