The Sierra Maestra is the biggest mountain range in Cuba, containing the island’s highest point, Pico Turquino at 1,974m.
The Sierra Maestra were used as a base by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries.
Flora and fauna
There are about 80 bird species to be found in the national park.
Hot and humid.
There are two main bases for hiking in the Sierra Maestra, the village of Santo Domingo in Granma province, and Las Cuevas, a tiny Caribbean village in Santiago province on the other side of Pico Turquino. The two routes up Turquino start from Alto de Naranjo (altitude ~950m), 5km and 750m above Santo Domingo, and Las Cuevas (altitude 0m). The Commandancia de la Plata hike also starts at Alto de Naranjo.
To get to Las Cuevas, take a local bus or guagua from Santiago de Cuba to Chivirico (approximately 1.5hours), then change here for a guagua to Las Cuevas (approximately another 1.5hours). As of October 2015 there were two daily guaguas, one at 2pm, one at 5pm, from Chivirico to Las Cuevas. If you get to Pilar there are (probably) also one or two guaguas per day, call one of the casa particulars to find out.
You can also take a taxi from Santiago de Cuba or Chivirico - a good option if travelling in a group, expensive if solo. Never accept the first price offered, bargain hard (even a little bargaining should reduce the price you will have to pay significantly).
Santo Domingo/Alto de Naranjo
There is no organised or scheduled public bus service to Santo Domingo, and for the last 5km to Alto de Naranjo you will need a 4WD or modern taxi to make the steep ascent. You can get a guagua from Bayamo as far as Bartholomé Masó and hope to hitchhike the last 20km (very little traffic) or walk (the last 8km has several steep ascents and descents), or try to find a taxi colectivo in Bayamo - you will most likely need to do this the night before, ask your casa if there are others looking to go. The price is about $CUC20-25 per taxi (you will have to bargain hard to get this price), and you need to specify if this includes transport to Alto de Naranjo or just the Park HQ in Santo Domingo. If you are getting dropped in Santo Domingo then you are dependent on another guided group arriving & being able to use their vehicle to take you to Alto de Naranjo (talk to the driver, offer him a small tip) - amazingly the Park HQ has no vehicle capable of making the ascent (October 2015).
If you are in a newer rental car you should be able to get it up the hill, although you should check with the Park HQ if you are allowed on the road (which is fully sealed) and you probably shouldn’t tell the rental company.
Ecotur is a tour company with an office in Bayamo’s Hotel Sierra Maestra (and another in Santo Domingo) that seem to have a monopoly on the hikes from the Granma side. They are not particularly helpful to independent travellers, being set up for tour groups. They can offer tours including transport, it is worth asking them for a quote before heading out to Santo Domingo.
No entry without a guide, the fee depends on the activity.
On foot - hike.
Beautiful views from Alto de Naranjo and on the Turquino trail.
Commandancia de la Plata
If you are in Santo Domingo on the Granma (Bayamo) side you can hike to the ‘’’Commandancia de la Plata’’’, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s old mountain HQ - they fled here after the Granma disaster and used it as their base for a few years before launching the revolution. The hike is just 3km round trip, a bit muddy, slight incline, mostly shaded. The remaining buildings are pretty unremarkable in and of themselves, but steeped in history. You can arrange this trip in Santo Domingo for $CUC27 (October 2015) including: 4WD up the hill to Alto de Naranjo, guide, coffee/tea at a house along the way (where you are asked to pay a $CUC5 fee to use your camera, although this is lightly enforced and you may be able to get away without paying it if in a large group) and a light snack afterwards. However, be prepared to have to join whatever tour group is arriving that day - unless you get lucky there will be a large group of package holiday tourists arriving from Bayamo.
Hikes to ’’’Pico Turquino’’’ can be arranged with Ecotur in Bayamo, Bayamo Travel Agent in Bayamo, at the Park HQ in Santo Domingo, or with the ‘’Flora y Fauna’’ guides in Las Cuevas. Unless you are Cuban (or look Cuban and can speak Spanish with a Cuban accent) you will have to hire a guide, even though the trail is very well maintained and it is almost impossible to get lost. The hike is significantly easier from the Granma side, gaining a little bit more than 1,000m of elevation over 13km, whereas the trail from Las Cuevas begins at sea level and is much steeper, being only 12km long.
The guy at the Park HQ in Santo Domingo is very unhelpful and difficult to deal with (October 2015), he doesn’t like organising solo hikes, so be prepared to spend a night or two in Santo Domingo (although it is still possible to arrange a solo hike). Cost for a hike beginning at Alto de Naranjo and finishing at Las Cuevas including park entry fee, with one night in Aguada de Joaquín, lunch, dinner, breakfast, guides is CUC$57 (October 2015). It was not possible to arrange a one-day hike due to the attitude of the government official at the Park HQ and lack of transport to Alto de Naranjo until 9am. It was also not possible to hike to the Commandancia de la Plata in the morning, then continue to the Aguada de Joaquín in the same day due to said official - although it might be possible to organise this with Ecotur in Bayamo. The guides are happy to do whatever, they make good money from tips - it is the official in Santo Domingo who is the main obstacle.
From the Las Cuevas side you need to contact Flora y Fauna whose HQ is located at the trailhead. It should cost about $CUC20 for a (very strenuous) one-day hike. You will meet many Cubans hiking from this side (without guides). There are two Aguadas (overnight shelters) along the route, Aguada Manajua just 4km up the 12km trail, and the much better located Aguada de Cuba, at about KM10, just before Pico de Cuba. Unfortunately as of October 2015 only Aguada Manajua is open.
Some distances with estimated hiking times:
Alto de Naranjo-Commandancia de la Plata-Alto de Naranjo: 3km, easy, time dependent on size and average age of your tour group
Alto de Naranjo-Aguada de Joaquín: 8km, 3-5hours, 400m elevation gain
Aguada de Joaquín-Alto de Naranjo: 8km, 2-3hours, 400m elevation loss
Aguada de Joaquín-Pico Turquino summit: 5km, 2-4hours, 600m elevation gain
Pico Turquino summit-Aguada de Joaquín: 5km, 1-3hours, 600m elevation loss
Pico Turquino summit-Las Cuevas: 12km, 3-5hours, 1,972m elevation loss
Las Cuevas-Pico Turquino summit: 12km, 6-9hours, 1,972m elevation gain
One day hikes
The cheapest option for hiking Turquino is a one-day hike, you will need to arrange this in advance with the guides. From Las Cuevas expect the hike to take over 10hours.
A one-day hike should also be possible from the Santo Domingo side, either up and down via the same route, or down the other side, but the official at the Park HQ in Santo Domingo will not issue a permit for this (October 2015), you will need to try to negotiate with Ecotur in Bayamo and will need your own transport to Alto de Naranjo for the early start required.
Get your water and sunscreen in Bayamo or Santiago de Cuba, not much to buy here.
There is a restaurant in Santo Domingo in the hotel, and if you stay in a casa particular they will also offer to cook you dinner.
There is a bar at Hotel Santo Domingo.
It is possible to stay in Bayamo or Manzanillo and arrange day trips.
There are a few casa particulars in Santo Domingo (at least two on the side with the road, at least one across the small footbridge over the river), but none in Alto de Naranjo (it is just a mirador with a few orange trees and the trailheads to the Commandancia and Pico Turquino up the steepest road in Cuba). Expect to pay CUC$15-20 per room, bargain to have breakfast included. There is also a hotel in Santo Domingo, although it may be booked out with package holiday tourists.
‘’’Aguada de Joaquín’’’ is a shelter located 8km from Alto de Naranjo at an elevation of approximately 1,350m. There are two dorm rooms here, one with 6 beds, the other with 8. There may be blankets available, but it is better to bring your own sleeping bag. Showers are of the bucket of captured rainwater variety, bring your own toilet paper. Three park rangers live here on a 15days on/15days off roster, they will cook you lunch, dinner and breakfast should you stay here, and you might be able to get extra water for free or for a few $CUC. It is a further 5km to the summit from here - the trail is steeper, but there are also some long descending sections.
On the Caribbean side there is a single room for rent to foreigners in Las Cuevas, although it might also be possible to stay at ‘’’Aguada Manajua’’’, 4km up the trail (contact Flora y Fauna in advance to enquire). ‘’’Campismo La Mula’’’ is an excellent option, it is located 12km along the coast from the trailhead (Santiago de Cuba side). Cabins can be rented here for $10CUC/night, there is a small bar and restaurant. There is also a large well-preserved 1897 Spanish shipwreck lying just 20-30m offshore and about 10-15m underwater, perfect for snorkelling/freediving - ask the guys at the bar and they might even take you spearfishing (bring your own gear if you have it). You can arrange a moto taxi from here to Las Cuevas departing early in the morning, returning in the afternoon ($CUC5 return). They can also call ahead to Flora y Fauna in Las Cuevas to arrange a guide for the next day. There is a limited bus service, one leaves Las Cuevas at 12pm for La Mula (October 2015), so if you have hiked over from the other side it is better to take this and stay at La Mula instead of Las Cuevas.
Camping is not allowed in the national park.
You will be accompanied at all times by a guide - except possibly for the first few kilometres of your descent if you choose to hike up from Alto de Naranjo, ovenight in Aguada de Joaquín and descend via the other side (this is because the guide from the Las Cuevas side would have to start extremely early to reach the top at the same time as you and your other guide, and the Granma guides do not continue down the Santiago side).
It is important to carry lots of water - it gets EXTREMELY hot and sweaty on the trail. Buy several large bottles in Bayamo or Santiago de Cuba, as you won’t be able to find large bottles of water in Santo Domingo or La Mula/Las Cuevas and will end up overpaying for small bottles. Sunscreen is also an absolute necessity - there are some sections of the hikes without shade, especially on the Caribbean side.
If hiking up and down by the same route it might be a good idea to leave unnecessary luggage in Santiago de Cuba or Bayamo, rather than taking it to Las Cuevas or Santo Domingo. Your casa particular or hotel should be able to store some luggage for a small fee (or for free).
From Alto de Naranjo/Santo Domingo, if you have stayed overnight and haven’t arranged a return taxi, you should be able to catch a ride back to Bayamo with a taxi or 4WD who has brought other tourists for the Commandancia de la Plata hike. These taxis/vehicles normally leave around the middle of the day/early afternoon, depending on how fast/slow/old the other tourists were. Negotiate directly with the driver or the tourists who have hired the car, not any middlemen. If you are unlucky you won’t find a space in a taxi and will have to spend another night in Santo Domingo.
From Las Cuevas there are two daily guaguas to Chivirico, both leaving early in the morning - the first passing about 5:30am, the next around an hour later at 6:30am (October 2015). If you have stayed at La Mula the buses stop at the bridge about 15minutes later (5:45am, 6:45am). Confirm times with some locals, there are also rumours of a possible later bus (5pm?) on alternate days. Both guaguas (converted cattle trucks) will be jammed to well over capacity. Catch the earlier guagua and stand near the front or on the right hand side to see a sunrise over the tranquil Caribbean. The road to Chivirico has been recently improved so the journey now takes around 1hr30mins and costs just $CUP2 (about US$0.08). From Chivirico there are many buses and guaguas of various comfort levels and prices to Santiago de Cuba.