A new dawn: sunrise trekking in Cuba

The alarm bleeps me into consciousness at 4am. Blurry-eyed and half asleep, I wonder why I’m crawling out of bed at such an ungodly hour. Slowly, the haze of sleep fades and I start to recall: the night before our homestay hosts insisted that we take a hike to see the sunrise over the Viñales Valley.

Outside, Rai, our guide, stands smiling at the gate. He’s bright and cheerful, even at this time. He immediately begins to apologise for his English, which is near perfect. An ancient Oldsmobile grumbles gently by the side of the road, waiting to take us to the start of our hike.

Viñales is one of Cuba’s most captivating landscapes. Huge green mogotes stick up from the surrounding forest, creating a serene panorama of uneven valleys. Amidst these gigantic limestone kharsts, farmers ply their trade growing tobacco and coffee. Travellers come here in search of all three.

After a short ride, the hike begins. The early morning darkness is complete and, combined with the humidity, it feels thick and tangible, like I could physically peel the night right off my sweaty body. We trudge on blindly behind Rai, the tiny halo of his torch barely making a ripple in the black ocean around us.

As we march through the inky darkness, I ask Rai’s thoughts on Cuba’s current situation. A lot has changed, not least a slight thaw with long-time foe and neighbour the US, and the death of the island’s iconic, divisive leader Fidel Castro.

Rai is optimistic about Cuba’s chances: “Cuba needs more friends in the world. Not many Americans come to Cuba, but that could change. It would be positive for tourism but better on an economic level in terms of trade.”

Like many people in Cuba, tour guide is not his only job. By day, he’s a reporter in nearby Pinar del Rio, the biggest city in the region. Rai believes that Cuba’s long-documented economic woes could change if the island embraced an international foreign policy.

“The state wage isn’t much. Most people have two, maybe three jobs to get by,” he explains. The state wage is in fact 300 Cuban Pesos a month. That’s just under £25. After this hike, Rai will return to the city to start work at the radio station.

The early morning darkness is beginning to recede by the time we reach the viewpoint, half way up a rocky hill, surrounded by forest. The faintest shade of light blue begins to seep across the sky from a crack somewhere on the horizon; the mogotes cut an ominous silhouette, like enormous hump-backed beasts dozing in the early morning gloom.

With the night receding, the Viñales landscape creeps slowly into focus. Thoughts of Cuba usually conjure the crumbling facades of Havana or the white beaches of Varadero, but here in the valley the scene is pre-historic. There’s plenty of talk about Cuba’s future: how it will change for better, for worse, and who will really benefit. I doubt this view has changed for a hundred years, and hopefully, it will stay the same for many more.

Soon, the sun is up. The deep greens of the valley flood into life in the bright morning light. There’s a feeling of vibrancy in the air, and I’m glad I didn’t let the early wake-up call put me off.

As we look out over the new day, Rai tells me he plans to embrace internationalism with an open mind – he’s already learning more languages in addition to English and Spanish.

The journey to Tayrona Park

The street in Santa Marta is bubbling over with the clamour of early morning life. Open-front shops spill out onto a dirt road, their  keepers hawking fresh fruit and fake Colombia football shirts.

Rusty mini-vans and cars bump past us on the uneven road, honking incessantly at whatever they pass. Faded by years of fierce heat, the brightly painted walls of the low-rise buildings look dull in the sun. The air smells like gasoline and dry earth.

Two youths are swinging wide laps around us on a motorbike. It seems a little odd until they screech to a stop. The one on the back hops off and walks over to us. His friend parks the bike, the engine still idling.

“Gringo, gringo, dinero!”

The boy is brandishing a knife at me. “Dinero, Gringo”, he shouts again. After six trouble-free months in South America,  over confidence seems to have led us astray.

Strangely though, we do nothing. No one panics. No one immediately grabs for their wallet. We all just look at each other, blankly.

Our attacker does the same. After a few minutes of shouting at us, he looks perplexed, like he’s deciding what to do next; we’ve been held up by the most inexperienced bandito in Colombia.

I’m not scared. More uneasy. One thing is for certain: I do not want to give this boy all of my money. We are on our way to Tayrona National Park and I need it for beer, food and hammock rent.

Finally, after a few seconds of our standoff, the boy with the knife regains some composure and shouts again for our money, this time waving the knife with all the menace he can muster. The blade catches the morning sun, an ugly light glints off it as he stabs the air.

My stomach lurches into a small back flip. Now, i’m scared: the grace period is over. It’s time to take the sage advice that every travel guide ever seems to offer; “always give the mugger what they want.”

But just as we start to get out our wallets, a commotion begins to happen. The youth with the knife starts to look worried, almost concerned. An old man has come out of his shop and he’s dressing down the boy, gesticulating wildly as he walks towards the scene of the almost-crime.

Our mugger, who can’t be much older than 15, half-heartedly tries to argue back, but to no avail. His elder is angry and the boy, despite holding us up at knife point, obviously has enough common sense not to mess with the bellowing shopkeeper.

Slowly, the wannabe robber admits defeat and lowers his knife, his friend and getaway driver on the motorbike looking on. I almost feel sorry for him, so humiliating is his failure. The old man motions for us to get out of here and we hurriedly offer him our thanks in Spanish.

The boy looks on helpless as we walk away.

Peering over my shoulder, we make it to a main street and I spy a police officer. Wanting to avoid any more attempted hold ups, I ask directions to Santa Marta’s station. Thankfully, it’s not too far and at the terminal we pile onto an old sun-scorched single-decker that says “TAYRONA” in big yellow letters on the front.

After a short ride, the breaks of the bus hiss and we bump to a halt. The driver looks back and nods to a track off the main road: this is our stop.

Once we’ve paid our entrance fee, we look around for some idea of what to do. Sign posting does not seem to be Colombia’s strong point. Tayrona National Park covers 150 km² of dense forest, coastline and mountain foothills – wandering off with no idea where to go isn’t really the best idea.

We have two options, hike for three hours or pay for a horse ride. We opt for horses. Skinny and hot, they are the kind of horses that make you feel a twinge of sorrow but our lack or preparation leaves us without choice. It’s saddle up for the world’s saddest pony ride or find your own way.

An hour’s trek through dense jungle later, our guides drop us off in a clearing and usher us away from the tired animals. They don’t speak English, but it’s clear what they mean: you’re on your own now.

Which way? I ask, in basic Spanish. A knowing point through the trees to an opening a few metres away shows us the way. I shrug, pick up my bag, and troop on.

Brushing past lush foliage, we head towards a sandy path that our now departed guides gestured towards in haste. Breaking out of the tree line we discover why we made to journey to Tayrona.

Hills covered in trees back straight out onto the deserted beach. Blue-gray clouds tumble over their tops: a lone jet ski rests on the shore as pre-storm waves take turns crashing onto the soft sand.

It looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Safe in the knowledge that there are no dinosaurs in Colombia, we just stare.

The peace of noise in Pontone

Sitting in Pontone’s small square, there is little else to do but listen.

The clamour of excited children, the explosive strife of a couple at odds, the gentle chatter of old friends; the noise flows together in a rhythmic symphony, the kind that only the Italians know how to create.

As the night passes, each wildly gesticulated conversation takes a new tempo. Kids’ games, identical to the evening before, take a dramatic, unexpected turn. Peroni flows, pizza is served. The same scenes play out every night, and despite the village’s predictability, nothing seems dull. Nothing seems boring.

One pair seem to know, resent and judge all comers to the square; a frosty gaze hangs across their faces, but it’s hard to tell whether this is genuine contempt or features permanently etched through years of graft.

A group of old boys sit clacking dominos in the corner. Tactically they watch each other, eyeing up the ivory slabs as they make their moves in slow, unhurried gestures.

Straight ahead, the Gulf of Salerno twinkles in the dark. To the left, the lights of Ravello ebb and flow in the night’s tide. Pontone’s clock strikes curiously at 15 past the hour and, one by one, the locals bid each other good night with ritual ease. Before the clock’s bell has finished ringing, the square falls almost quiet. The sound of children protesting in vain for five more minutes’ play time signals the evening’s end.

If you were told that the Amalfi Coast’s oldest village had not changed in its 900 years, you would hardly be surprised. Far above the crowded streets of Amalfi, the simplicity of a tiny working village offers insight into the lives of those who call this dramatic stretch of Italy home. Entertainment like this cannot be bought or sold, only heard.