It was the photography of Raúl Corrales that inspired me to follow in the muddy footsteps of Fidel Castro’s rebel army. His shots, in particular the faded black and white photograph of Castro at the helm of a column of soldiers climbing a mountain path through jungle thicket to their guerilla encampment, evoke all the romanticism of the revolutionary struggle.
In 1956, following his return from exile in Mexico, Castro set up an encampment in the Sierra Maestra mountain range and from here waged guerrilla warfare on Cuba’s then dictator General Fulgencio Batista. The Comandancia de la Plata is now a national monument and the series of rudimentary clapboard huts hidden beneath dense vegetation are accorded a similar degree of political reverence – and protection -as you might find in an official state building.
Setting out under cover of darkness from Bayamo, about an hour’s drive away, endowed the trek with a sense of adventure that masked the more mundane truth – you can only go trekking with one of the official state guides who muster at the ranger hut in the foothills at first light. Our man Eduardo counted himself as a revolutionary success story, he told us, as we set off up the rubbly dust track. His father, like many other campesinos (peasants) was gradually won over to the rebels’ side during the revolution. To win favour the rebels offered medical support to villagers and deposed a despotic local official. In the wake of the revolution’s triumph Eduardo became his family’s first academic success, by gaining a biological degree and also by being the first to learn to read.
The headquarters are an easy three-mile climb west of the Alto del Naranjo lookout point and spread over a handful of sites, which helped rebels to hide from the strafing plane attacks by Batista’s troops. By the time we reached the checkpoint that marks the gateway to the sites the morning mist was lifting from the undulating emerald peaks. It’s photogenic territory but before we had much chance to snap it all up we were instructed to lay down our cameras – officially, there’s no photography allowed of the headquarters themselves.
The first site we came to was the very basic hospital (little more than a wooden shack) that Che Guevara founded and ran. The second site comprised a small but worthy museum, which was originally the rebels’ workshop where they sewed uniforms and tended weaponry, a modern-day helicopter pad (apparently until quite recently Castro liked to drop by for a nostalgic visit) and – more somberly – graves of revolutionaries who fell in battle. Most evocative are the huts where the rebels lived and ate, which were covered with branches to protect them from view of enemy planes.
All photos by Fiona McAuslan
Rising from a knotted mass of palms, vines and hibiscus flowers was the trek’s pinnacle – Castro’s thatched tree house headquarters. Seen from below they looked a little like a forest den clubhouse. We clambered up the wooden ladder to find inside a rudimentary bedroom, a kitchen, a study – and a secret trap door to escape through if Castro was under attack. While the struggle to gain control of the country must have been exhausting, terrifying, uncertain and desperate you can’t help but feel that the endeavour must have been accompanied by at least a small helping of gleeful boy’s own adventure. And perhaps it’s this that adds the site to the myth-making revolution machine.
Permits and guides are available from Parque Nacional Turquino at the foothills of the mountains next door to the Villa Santo Domingo (00 53 23/5368).