Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Cloudforests: Birthplace of the Cuban Revolution?

From the inside of a lowly thatched wooden hut in the humid cloudforests of Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra’s highest point in the far south of Cuba, the classic staples of the country—its rum, cigars, beaches and vintage cars—couldn’t feel further away. The hut, Fidel Castro’s former hideout and the birthplace of the Cuban revolution, bears a unique scar in the form of a bullet hole in the refrigerator, as well as no fewer than seven escape hatches.

A Mountaintop Refuge

Sierra Maestra’s lush, dense foliage had been a historic refuge for Cuban rebels since as far back as the 16th century when a Taino chief, known as Hatuey, hid there before being captured and burned at the stake by Spanish forces in 1512. Later, through three 19th century liberation conflicts (the third of which came to be known as the Cuban War of Independence), the rebels formed the heart of the insurrection movement against Spain. Indeed, the Cuban national hero and architect of independence, José Martí, is immortalised with a statue at the summit of Pico Turquino, indelibly cementing the symbolic ties between the Sierra Maestra and Cuban nationalism.

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The bust of José Martí, Pico Turquino, Sierra Maestra/Marius Jovaiša/unseencuba.com

Six decades later, Sierra Maestra also provided Castro and his rebels the perfect cover against forces from Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. It was here that the men hid after their covert return from Mexico in 1956. For a year, the rebels, including iconic Argentinian radical Che Guevara, had moved constantly throughout the extensive mountain range. In 1958, they built a permanent headquarters along a tree-protected ridge line of Pico Turquino, an area named for the different shades of blue on its slopes. It had been so inaccessible and well-camouflaged that it was never discovered, despite Batista’s troops roaming Sierra Maestra daily. Locals also played their part by protecting the rebels.

Today, La Comandancia de la Plata has been painstakingly restored and feels as if Castro himself could walk in anytime. Casa de Fidel sits on a steep slope reached via a clearing, before a climb through a thicket. Inside, seeing the simplicity of his bed and desk, visitors are amazed that it was where he oversaw one of the world’s most successful guerilla campaigns.

Another fascinating relic to be experienced on a visit to Cuba, Radio Rebelde played an important role in the revolution. Set up by Che Guevara, the station made daily broadcasts, despite Batista’s efforts to silence him, and also, crucially, allowed the growing number of guerrillas to communicate. The station even ran live performances by a local peasant band who were sons of the farmer who gave Castro his land for the headquarters. The music helped to inspire the rebels and demoralize government soldiers in the process.

Guevara also set up and ran a humble hospital, deliberately located far from the base camp so that the screams of patients would not reveal their location. Similarly, the cookhouse was used only at night, namely when the smoke would be undetectable. Visitors can also see a museum with memorabilia of the guerrillas and a model of La Plata’s mountainous location.

Cuba’s Most Revered Site

Not far from the country’s second city of Santiago de Cuba, in the foothills of the same Sierra Maestra mountains, sits El Cobre Basilica. It’s another popular destination, one where the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint testifies to the nation’s deep-seated spirituality.

From afar, the Basilica of the Virgin of Charity (as El Cobre is also known) is stunning. Its cream exterior and red domes rise against the verdant valley of Maboa Hill and tower over the quaint, picturesque town named for the copper that was previously mined there.

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An aerial view of the iconic El Cobre Basilica/Marius Jovaiša/unseencuba.com

Inside the Basilica, the Chapel of Miracles captures the people’s devotion towards the Virgin Mary, a figure whom Cubans affectionately call Cachita. At the feet of her statue sits an ever-changing treasure trove of offerings. It makes for a moving sight, seeing the prayers and blessings sought through clumps of hair, crutches, sports medals and jewelry that are left there.

One of the most famous—although seldom-displayed—offerings to her is Ernest Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize medal for Literature. Hemingway, who lived in Cuba, had included Cachita in his novel The Old Man and the Sea and chose to offer the medal to her rather than to a museum.

Icons and Images

To this day, Cachita is revered and celebrated in much of Cuba’s folk and popular culture, across pop songs, on taxi dashboards and even in tattoos. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cuban natives and slaves identified with her because of her dark skin and made her their symbol of emancipation from slavery. The most well-known of her devotees were the 19th century independence fighters, known as mambises, who carried her image aloft during their battles and, after winning the war against Spain, asked that she be proclaimed Cuba’s patron saint.

Affection for Cachita never seemed to waver, even when Castro took power and suppressed Catholicism. In time, he allowed Catholics to join Cuba’s Communist Party, before eventually declaring himself a Christian based on its “ethical values” and “sense of social justice.”

Cuba is clearly comfortable with such visible contradictions. After all, a certain Lina Castro worshipped the fertility goddess Oshun and offered her a small statuette of a guerrilla fighter—her way to seek protection for her sons. Those prayers were clearly answered, as her boys—Fidel and Raul—would come to define Cuba like no others.

Full of spirituality, remarkable characters and tales, the hills of Southern Cuba are the perfect destination to uncover unique and compelling sides to a country which never ceases to amaze visitors.

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A glimpse of the bust of José Martí on Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba/Marius Jovaiša/unseencuba.com