Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes
Five kilometers west of Trinidad, a turnoff from the coast road leads north and begins to climb into the southeastern Sierra Escambray, whose slopes swathed in Caribbean pines and an abundance of ancient tree ferns, bamboo, and eucalyptus are protected within Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes. The area is tremendous for hiking and birding.
Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes is divided into a series of parks, administered by the Complejo Turístico Topes de Collantes (tel. 042/54-0330 or 042/54-0117, fax 042/54-0272, www.gaviota-grupo.com, daily 8 a.m.–7 p.m.), located at the entrance to Topes de Collantes. Maps are available, and excursions and guides are booked here or with agencies in Trinidad.
Parque Altiplano is the core park, containing the Topes de Collantes touristic center, is the most developed site.
At its heart, at a refreshingly cool 790 meters, is Topes de Collantes, a spa-hotel complex 21 kilometers from Trinidad and dominated by a massive concrete structure—the Kurhotel—designed in 1936, when it served as a sanatorium for victims of tuberculosis. Following the Revolution, the disease was eradicated in Cuba. The structure was then sanitized and turned into a teacher-training facility. The complex, which includes smaller hotels, was developed as a resort area in the late 1970s and now focuses on nature and health tourism. A guide is compulsory.
The Topes de Collantes section is the most developed site. Here is the Museo de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo (no tel., daily 8 a.m.–8 p.m., CUC3), in the former home of a Cuban senator; later it served as a “protocol” house for Communist Party members—where VIPs are housed during visits. Its four rooms of stunning art include works by Flora Fong, Esteban Leyra, and other big names in Cuban art.
The Casa de Café (7 a.m.–7 p.m.), 400 meters south of the Kurhotel, is a delightfully rustic coffee shop selling locally grown coffee drinks. It has historic photos plus simple tools of the trade, and demonstrations of coffee production. A stone’s throw away, nip into the Plaza de las Memorias museum (Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–5 p.m.) to learn about the history of the Kurhotel and Topes de Collantes. A 10-minute walk leads to the Jardin de Gigantes (CUC3), with towering trees.A trail that begins beside Villa Caburní, east of the Kurhotel, zigzags steeply downhill and leads northeast two kilometers to Salto de Caburní, a 75-meter-high waterfall (CUC6.50); in dry season the falls can dry up.
From the Casa de Café, Sendero La Batata (CUC3) leads west to a cave system with underground river and pools good for swimming. From La Batata, Sendero de Alfombra Mágico (CUC5) continues to Finca Codina, an erstwhile coffee estate that serves as a post for bird-watchers and hikers. Luncheons are laid on for tour groups, with roast suckling pig. After a couple of toddies, you may feel brave enough to wallow in a pool of medicinal mud. Codina has an orchid garden with trails that lead to waterfalls and caves.
About 10 kilometers northwest of Topes, Parque Guanayara’s highlight is the Sendero Centinelas del Río Melidioso (CUC7), which follows Melodious River to the Cascada El Rocío waterfall, where you can swim in a chilly pool.
Parque El Nicho
El Nicho, reached via the Sendero El Reino de las Aguas (CUC5), is perhaps the most beautiful site of all, with its spectacular cascades; a trail leads along the creek above the waterfalls. A 4WD is required to drive there via Crucecitas. Tour groups are often present; opt for an excursion.
Accommodations and Food
The massive, overpriced, Kurhotel Escambray (tel. 042/54-0180, from CUC33 s, CUC43 d low season, from CUC38 s, CUC48 d high season) has a Stalinist aesthetic and is reached via a stone staircase on a Siberian scale. The 210 air-conditioned rooms and 16 suites boast the essentials, including modern bathrooms. It has a modest restaurant, gyms, beauty salon, movie theater, and a thermal swimming pool where massage and therapeutic treatments are offered. But the overriding feel is eerily clinical. Priced similarly, the hotel’s Villa Caburní has apartment cabinas for up to four people.
Hotel Los Helechos (tel. 042/54-0330, fax 042/54-0272, from CUC33 s, CUC43 d low season, from CUC38 s, CUC48 d high season) hides in a cool valley below the Kurhotel. The shocking pink-and-green exterior belies a pleasing restoration inside, with bamboo decor in spacious air-conditioned rooms with satellite TVs and modern bathrooms. Take a room in the front; the rest are poorly lit. It has a swimming pool, restaurant, and bowling alley.
The traditional Restaurante Mi Retiro (no tel., daily 10 a.m.–9 p.m.), on a hilltop overlooking a vale about three kilometers south of Topes, is limited to fried chicken or pork.
Getting to Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes
A camión runs between Topes and Trinidad. The road rises in a steep, potholed, badly eroded switchback that eventually drops to Manicaragua, on the northern slopes. Drive with utmost caution! Stop at Mirador de Hanabanilla, eight kilometers north of Topes, for the spectacular views over Lago Hanabanilla; the roadside café (daily 7 a.m.–7 p.m.) even has beers and cappuccinos.
All other routes through the mountains are suitable for four-wheel drive only.
Tour operators sell excursions by truck to Topes from Trinidad (CUC55). A taxi will cost CUC15 each way.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition