About an hour west of Havana, on our way to Pinar del Rio, we stopped at Las Terrazas, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Started in 1968, Las Terrazas is an eco-project initiated by the brother of Camilo Cienfuegos a central figure in Cuba’s revolutionary past. Now it is a lush complex with dense foliage, tropical swimming holes, waterfalls and 18th century abandoned coffee plantations. Las Terrazas is home to almost half of Cuba’s endemic birds. For the adventurous, there is also a thrilling canopy tour which whizzes you over six lines extending over lakes, a vibrant artist colony and much more. It is spectacular and a welcome contrast to bustling Havana.
We stayed at the Hotel Moka, the only game in town. It sits on a hill-top with a beautiful view overlooking the forest and the small village. In keeping with the eco-friendly theme of the location, the hotel has a tree growing in the middle of the lobby and serves only locally grown produce.
Although you can see Las Terrazas in a day, you may want to spend two depending on what activities appeal to you. Your best bets include:
SOROA BOTANICAL GARDENS. If you are into orchids, this is the place! The gardens are a short drive from the hotel. Taxis are readily available and reasonably priced.
SAN JUAN SWIMING HOLE. On the hotel grounds and a mere hike away. Swimming in a tropical water hole in what you imagine the Garden of Eden to look like is a memorable experience.
ABONDONED COFFEE PLANTATIONS. French immigrant planters established coffee plantations in the area in the 1700s. It is now long abandoned but you can see the ruins of the slave quarters and coffee processing sections. The “big house” has been renovated and serves a simple lunch overlooking the valley’s spectacular view . There is a guide to explain the history of the plantation. Check the opening hours at the front desk before you go.
TRAILS, TRAILS AND MORE TRAILS! The hotel maintains a very nice selection of beautiful trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Guides are mandatory but you will appreciate their extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna. I think they all have to be students at the biosphere to qualify as guides. Apparently good looks are also mandatory as there didn’t seem to be any average looking guides. The service is free but tips are appreciated.
ARTIST COLONY. The artists live in town and their workshops are in their homes. You are welcome to enter their homes and watch them work, browse their creations and possibly purchase some very nice and authentic pieces of art. There is a little coffee shop in the area, Café de Maria, that bills itself as having the world’s best coffee. With advertising like that and at about .40 cents a cup you have to try it.
ZIP-LINING. This was my favorite. I’ve been zip-lining in other locations but nothing like this. There are six lines stretching over lakes, the artist colony and forests. An exhilarating experience from an unusual perspective that leaves you breathless.
So, where to eat in town? This was an experience full of surprises. Two of the limited amount of restaurants in town are vegetarian. We chose one because it had a cool name, El Romero. Now, vegetarianism is by no means a hallmark of Cuban culture so I assumed this cuisine was going to be questionable at best. First, we arrived and there was a line to get in stretching out the door. This was surprise number one. Surprise number two was the maître d’ asking if we had reservations. Maitre d’?! Reservations?! We’re out in the middle of a biosphere in one of the most remote provinces of Cuba. I’m wearing flip-flops, a torn tank-top and a plastic nose guard to protect against the sun and this guy is asking me if I have a reservation! “Sorry”, I said. “We didn’t know we needed one.” This elicited a disappointed frown from the maître d’ but they were finally able to accommodate us. And surprise number three? The food. This was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Go figure. I’m still not sure what I ate, something to do with eggplants, I think, but boy was it good! Turns out the owner is also the chef from “Bambu”, the award winning restaurant at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. He is a natural food enthusiast who thought Las Terrazas was the ideal place to open a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently people come from as far away as Havana just to eat here.
What is your most memorable – good or bad – eating experience while abroad?