Fireflies appeared like sprites within the forest once we have been nonetheless a great distance from house. The solar had gone down in a burst of brilliance over the mountains, together with the thickly wooded slope the place, 61 years in the past, Fidel Castro and a small band of guerrillas had taken refuge to arrange a revolution. Darkness was stealing by way of the timber, beautiful however scary.
It had taken us far longer to succeed in Cuba’s highest level – the 1,974-metre summit of Pico Turquino – than anticipated, and now with a moon that was little greater than a sliver of a smile, we’d been caught on the mountain.

My girlfriend and I had pushed 500 miles from Havana, gently southeast alongside virtually three-quarters of the island. It’s a journey the place a sidewards look could make you’re feeling like you’re within the late 1800s, what with the horse-drawn buggies, the campesino farmers in sweat-rotted straw hats and the clapboard homes.
We handed by way of Santa Clara, the place kids take rides around the city sq. in a shrunken model of a horse-drawn carriage pulled by a billy goat. And Camaguey, the place the residents carry themselves with the dignity of cattle ranchers. On the street, we handed a rusting truck releasing hundreds of racing pigeons.

Hen of paradise … the fabulously feathered trogon. {Photograph}: Glenn Bartley/Getty Pictures
Come the third night time, we headed south and mountains rose out of the rice paddies. Lastly we reached Santa Domingo, a farming village within the eaves of deeply wooded slopes. It’s the principle entry level to the Sierra Maestra from the north.

I’m unsure the place the concept to climb the mountain had come from, maybe it was as a result of it’s a ceremony of passage for Cubans and my girlfriend had by no means executed it. Wanting up was daunting so as an alternative we sought out our cabin on the government-run Villa Islazul. Constructed within the 1980s, it was set subsequent to a wonderful babbling brook. Not that we’d know; the hut had no home windows and only one brilliant overhead mild, nevertheless it was a paradise in comparison with what was coming.
Earlier than heading for the mountain itself, we visited the comandancia the place in 1958 Fidel, Che and Celia Sánchez hid out, a simple hour-and-a-half stroll from the road-head (a street that wasn’t constructed again then). We peered into the assorted wood buildings hidden underneath the timber. I imagined the rebels listening to the bombers flying over.

Toes up … Ruaridh Nicoll soaks up the night solar
As we turned in the direction of the mountain, we have been joined by a hummingbird and a Cuban fellow walker made a type of little quips that signifies the revolutionary fervour has dimmed a bit of. “Sure, Cuba,” he stated. “House to world’s smallest orchids, hummingbirds, butterflies and wages.”

La Platica, the place we put up, is magical. From a terrace the place a rooster is in a perpetual territorial battle with two cats, we regarded out on essentially the most good tree fern. Plain meals was cooked on open fires. However in its lack of consolation, it challenged my love of the country. Within the morning, whereas consuming a breakfast of unidentified fried objects, one of many cats emerged from our bunkroom with a rat. Companionably, it determined to eat it beside us.
At 7.30am we began to climb, our information now Miguel Gonzalez Garcia. His great-grandfather had been one in every of seven farmers summarily executed to discourage others from serving to Fidel’s rebels. We adopted the path between wild banana timber and underneath hovering royal palms, as Miguel performed Title That Tune, essentially the most lovely of which was that of the solitaire, or Cuban nightingale. He additionally identified the bijirita, a black-throated blue warbler, and the famed nationwide fowl, the tocororo. The final appeared within the excessive tops, in its good crimson, white and blue outfit.

Traveller’s relaxation … the beautiful seashore at Gibara. {Photograph}: Getty Pictures
At lunchtime we stopped on the refuge the place we’d sleep that night time for a fast lunch of tuna, rice and beans, after which ploughed on, beginning with a climb up one in every of Pico Turquino’s little sisters, rising almost 1,000ft in lower than half a mile. In all, the day would see us stroll 11 miles, which doesn’t appear so dangerous till you’ve confronted the trail’s rickety ladders, its each treacherous, rocky, cliff-edged step. The park employees have planted indicators to encourage walkers on. One reads, Arriba Corazones – Come up Hearts.

With every footfall, we pushed additional into cloud forest and the view, already heart-stopping in its scale, turned better nonetheless. In chill air not like any I’ve identified in Cuba, I watched the east confide in reveal the Caribbean hundreds of ft under.
Nonetheless on we went, following a ridge up and down over peak after peak, till a final brutal climb led us to the highest. Absurdly, the thick forest signifies that on the very prime there isn’t a view, solely a statue of the poet hero José Marti. We have been too drained to rejoice. As a substitute we checked the time, and located it was now 5pm. After consuming a bit of what my girlfriend had offered to me as an incredible delicacy of the Camagüey area, and which turned out to be fudge, we hurried again down the path, with three onerous miles to cowl earlier than darkish.

Shack up … a wood hut close to Pico Turquino. {Photograph}: Rafal Cichawa/Alamy
After the explosive sundown – a sight solely a fortunate idiot sees from the highest of a mountain – the sunshine evaporated from underneath the forest cover. As we picked out our path with rising issue, I considered Giselle, the ballet the place fireflies are the spirits of ladies wronged in love, come to actual revenge. It caught in my thoughts as Miguel guided us down the vertiginous, muddy and rocky steps by the sunshine of a cell phone, my girlfriend gently singing to calm her nerves.
We made it to the refuge, after which, the subsequent day, down the mountain. To get better we drove two hours to the north, stopping within the picture-perfect coastal village of Gibara, not removed from the place Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. We ate octopus, drank piña coladas, listened to salsa and swam within the sea, so very grateful that we’d by no means need to climb that mountain once more.
Method to go
Journey Latin America presents a 16-day self-drive vacation in Cuba that features the trek to the Comandancia and up Pico Turquino, from £2,670pp. The worth contains flights from Gatwick, automobile rent, lodging on a B&B foundation in cities equivalent to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camagüey, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba and Santa Clara, in addition to excursions and a Cuban vacationer card visa