Rising high above the archipelago of islands that constitute Cuba is the Sierra Maestra coastal mountain range in the southeast region of the island. Many tourists do not think of Caribbean countries or islands as mountainous but the Sierra Maestra but the Sierra Maestra and other linked ranges make Cuba truly dramatic, providing rich landscape, colorful foliage, intriguing fauna, bountiful minerals and healthy doses of mystique.
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Mountain climbers, hikers and naturalists can have the trip of their lives in the cozy confines of Cuba’s mountain chains. The Sierra Maestra runs west across Cuba’s southern tier from Guantánamo Province to Niquero. The mountains often seem to provide a natural shelter for southern cities like Santiago de Cuba or Pilon but exceptional degrees of separation from the mainstream.
The Sierra Maestra chain is closely connected to other ranges, including Vela Sanata Catalina, Quemado Grande and Duna Maria, which in turn connect with other mountains to the west. The Sierra Maestra is Cuba’s highest range and is rich in copper, magnesium, chromium and iron.
The tallest peak in Cuba is the Sierra Maestra’s Pico Turquino (6.650 feet or 1.974 meters), which Yordi and Dave describe as breathtaking. The Parque Nacional Torquino (229 square kilometers) is a remarkable tourist attraction featuring something for everyone. A bust of Jose Marti and sculpted by noted artist Jilma Madera was placed at Pico Torquino’s summit as a centennial memorial.
The grand peak’s name is derived from Spanish “turqui,” an adaptation of turquoise that was intended to depict the stunning blue hues visible from the peak’s summit. The mountain was first mentioned historically in a map created by Gerardo Kramer in the late 18th century. Like most of the Sierra chain, Pico Torquino is located in the municipality of Guama, Santiago de Cuba Province.
Another mountain of interest is Pico San Juan (1,160 meters) on Cuba’s central coast. Pico San Juan, Cuba’s second highest peak is part of the Sierra Del Escambray range, one more popular hiking destination.
Cuba rides a tectonic Caribbean Plate that was originally situated in the Pacific Ocean. After crossing the ocean, the Plate collided with what is now Florida. Volcanic eruptions on the Canary Islands, the crash of the comet Chicxulub and a series of earthquakes helped give the island its distinctive and unique topography. On the Caribbean Plate, the Sierra Maestra is north of the Bartlett Deep or Cayman Trench which is accentuated by huge slabs of rock. Scientists believe that series of tsunamis and volcanic aftershocks carved great steps along the island’s coast.
The Sierra Maestra has always been blessed with astonishing forestry. Early volcanic aftershocks created abundant caves throughout the chain. The mountains were divided by deep river basins and accented by what were once impassable rock areas. The chain’s abrupt fault lines present dramatic cliffs.
All these elements have always made the Sierra Maestra home to guerilla fighter groups. The first resistance fighters to use the mountainous caves were the Taino tribes under chief Guama, who died in 1532. As slaves were imported to tend the country’s rich agricultural crops, escaped slaves often sought refuge in the Sierra Maestra, where the climate welcomed those who sought refuge and the terrain offered great cover.
During the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) and in minor conflicts like the Race War of 1912, the Sierra Maestra provided sanctuary to rugged resistance fighters. Antonio Guiteras trained his fighters in the mountain range, resided in the caves and eventually led an uprising against Cuba’s President Gerardo Machado (1925–1933).
In early rebellions against President Fulgencio Batista, the Sierra Maestra caverns were safe havens training grounds. After his failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, Castro quickly retreated to this region and established his roots. When the exiled Fidel Castro returned from Mexico, he assembled, expanded and trained his resistance forces in the safety provided by the dramatic mountain surroundings. Eventually, Castro would join forces with other guerillas located in the central foothills in Escopeteros and would eventually overthrow Batista on January 1, 1959.
The Sierra Mountains, Gran Torquino Nacional Park and Gran Torino itself are more examples why it is so important to get out and about when touring Cuba. It seems there are history lessons at every turn. The more you see, hear, taste and touch in Cuba, the more you will be rewarded. Travelguidcuba.com is not a licensed People-to-People tour provider but works closely with licensed providers. Complete Cuba People-to-People tour is licensed (CT-2013-299822-1) by the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to engage, organize and conduct authorized people-to-people travel to Cuba that engages participants in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.