Author’s Note: This adventure is almost a year old as I hit the ‘publish’ button. From arriving home in January to this day in December, I managed to update once a month until June. Then, I got quiet. For those of you still following, thank you, and for those of you just joining, please feel free to comment, follow and engage wherever you may find me! I may go quiet, but I will still work on one of my favorite past times!
For those of you just joining the journey, welcome! I always do my best to link back to other parts of the story if I allude to them. The Cuba tag now includes my experiences in Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos, and Playa Ancón, and will conclude with location-based posts with the one you are currently reading. Be sure to check for the tips, history and opinions that are already blended into the same tag, and will continue to be updated as time goes on.
From the very first planning stages of this trip I wanted to include Jillian, my girlfriend and travel partner for Cuba. She had never left the country before, and the planning aspect of backpacking was completely new to her. Additionally, I knew she’d be nervous, especially with everyone chirping away about how its irresponsible to go to such a dangerous place (my eyes rolled right out of my head at the time, don’t get me started now that the trip is over). I told Jill, “I’ll get us everywhere in one piece, but you need to pick one place that is yours.”
After some research, she came to me and told me that El Nicho was to be added to the itinerary. She is living proof that experience doesn’t make you “better” at this travel thing: Jillian struck gold with her interests.
Good Morning, World
As was the case each morning during our trip in Cuba, we were up with the sun and ready to rock. We had purchased tickets for a guided tour of El Nicho when we first arrived in Cienfuegos. The meeting place was close to our apartment, in the lobby of a local hotel. Naturally, we raided some of the breakfast bar in exchange for a few cucs, and made sure to stash away some bread just in case.
After learning that you could also go on tours to meet alligators in Cuba, we went outside to wait for the tour to leave. This was where we were fortunate enough to meet Luis, who I speak about at length in my The People of Cuba post.
The short version tells of a short, round Cuban man who is happiest while learning, and turning around to teach his lessons to those fortunate enough to be welcomed to the beautiful island by the short, round Cuban man in question. National pride has its perks, and such a warm welcome is certainly one of them. Endless curiosity is also inspiring, so the journey of the day alongside this man was truly memorable for more than our destination.
After loading us, and a few other small groups, into a van, we were on our way through the infamous roads of Cumanyagua – ‘tienes mas curvas de la carretera por Cumanyagua’ or ‘you have more curves than the road through Cumnayagua’ is apparently a compliment to women in the region.
These curvy roads lead right through the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, and the mountains and valleys along the route provide so many incredible views that they justify the price of admission all by themselves.
By 10 am, we had arrived at the gates of Parque Natural Topes de Collantes, the national park that houses the gem of El Nicho.
Chasing Waterfalls Up a Mountain
Since we were a part of a tourist-filled guided group, we were given lunch with our excursion. The first thing we did was put in our order. The restaurant seemed super out of place in the greenery on the side of this mountain, considering that there was literally no possible way to eat there unless you were on your way to this national park. Like, we were even super far from locals that may be interested, and 90% of them wouldn’t have the transportation or the funds to make a meal out of the opportunity anyway.
From there, we met our nature guide and began our journey upwards. There are a few levels of pools as the river flows down the mountain, essentially creating the constant waterfall that is El Nicho.
As an example of one such pool, in this case the first pool, you’ll even notice the safety railings in the back of the photo as an example of the structure of this park and excursion overall.
As we climbed ever upward (at the time it felt like a lot, but apparently it was only like 1.5 km or roughly 1 mile), we learned about the different plants in the region, as well as a bit about the crazy Australian duo also on the excursion with us. Those two alone inspired a possible “backpacking in Cuba” post on this blog.
The grand climax arrived with the final, highest pool on the trail. At this point, we were given a set amount of time (which we definitely stretched far beyond what we were told, thanks to the group enjoying the area so much).
Pro tip: Go on the earliest excursion possible from Cienfuegos – this will give you a much better chance of taking advantage of an empty park, empty pools, and being able to disrupt the schedule, rather than being affected by a group that did the disrupting.
You’d find it hard to believe if I told you that Jillian almost didn’t swim in this beautiful waterfall. Between the cold, and the uncertainty of our surroundings, she did give pause, but after some prodding and a promise to follow her into the water, we did it.
We were given warnings that our time was coming to an end by a lifeguard (seriously, red cross t-shirt and all), but most of our group didn’t pay him any mind. A decent chunk of time passed before we noticed the area was becoming crowded with another tour, and then the majority of us dutifully left the pool, changed and dried what we could, and awaited further orders.
The previously mentioned Australian duo, however, were off pretending to be jungle folk way beyond the enclosed area of the park we were allowed to be in. They apparently attracted another young male in our group, and we had to wait for the three of them to be reigned back in before beginning our descent.
Back at the surface level of the park, we were brought back to the restaurant that we checked in at, and were given our promised lunch. The food was good, natural to the point we’re pretty sure it was the same group of chickens we saw on the way to the park, and supplemented with a live band.
Lessons of a Tourist Experience
Sitting at the table with our mismatched group of tourists was rather amusing, because we finally got background on the strange characters we had just spent the morning with. It turned out the Australians didn’t even know each other until one was lost in the Havana airport. A family in the group disappeared almost immediately after arriving, and a few older Spanish family groups capped out our group.
In addition to our fantastic tour guide, Luis, we met some pretty interesting people. I see people shy away from “tourist” guides, for they wonder if they’re just being dragged into a trap. I wondered if El Nicho was a trap when Jill brought it to the table. At the time of researching, I couldn’t find any confirmed information on this area. I’m thankful I took the leap of faith!
I learned it before this experience, I learned it from this experience, and there’s even a chance I’ll realize it again: Do not shy away from a “tourist” experience. There are ways to acquire local knowledge without them, and I do prefer and encourage these methods myself. However, the social nature of a tourist excursion makes it so you are forced to interact, rather than hope for the best and never actually talk to anyone but you and your travel companion.
Right in the same theme: Do not question your interests, nor your instincts. Jillian wanted to do El Nicho, and was thoroughly passionate about her interest. I trusted her, we went through with it, and it became the best part of our trip.
To the reader,
And finally, always keep an open mind. To ‘Explore the Horizon’, as this blog encourages all to do, you must truly keep an open mind. For those on the road, try that strange thing you’ve never heard of, or be sure to be as cliche as possible in that tourist trap – it is your adventure to dictate. For those at home, the same idea applies – try that business plan you’ve been wondering about, or visit that new restaurant your friend mentioned. Question, explore, and give whatever your interests are a try.
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