Getting Closer to Heaven

By Dariela Aquique

Marvin Rodríguez Torres

HAVANA TIMES – Located in the heart of the Sierra Maestra, the largest mountain range in the country, the Turquino has the highest peaks In Cuba: Real (1974 mts.) Cuba (1872 mts) and Suecia (1734 mts).

The first reported visits to the summit date back to 1915 when it gets a passing mention and in the late eighteenth century it appears as “Tarquino” on a map drawn up by the Flemish geographer Gerard Kramer.

Our guest is Marvin Rodriguez Torres, a young, self-taught photographer and adventurer who has just had the wonderful experience of climbing to the highest point of the island. His photos and views accompany this interview.

HT: It is said that up climbing to the summit of Turquino is an enormous undertaking; to get there you have to go up and down some very steep slopes and inclines. What induced you to undertake the ascent? The love of hiking, finding beautiful views to take photos or some other reason?

The La Mula camp.

Marvin Rodriguez: Well this is the fifth time I’ve climbed the Peak. For over five years I have been hiking regularly; I did the Gran Piedra,  the Manolitos. And the first time I decided to climb the Turquino, it was very demanding, but tempting enough to try it again four months later. The third time was more like an excursion: I camped on the Peak of Cuba.

The fourth time was with some Argentine friends who wanted to see the Sierra Maestra and this fifth and last time, I did the same with some Brazilian friends who are keen hikers like me. So hiking is the main reason why I keep doing it, getting to the top makes me feel closer to heaven.

HT: There are two typical approaches for the climb, one from the province of Santiago de Cuba and other, less cumbersome, from the province of Granma. Which approach did you and your friends take?

From a previous hike up Turquino.

MR: The five times I have been up was from Uvero, the route from Santiago, although the Granma route really is less rugged, but the objective is to face the hardships of the climb.

I think the route from Santiago is more interesting; just think from the moment you’re on the highway till you reach the site from where you begin the climb, the journey is pure adrenaline; the poor state of a very dangerous road, along the coast, with cliffs looking onto the sea. The views are also better, beautiful beaches. The Santiago route is definitely fascinating once you arrive and you’ve climbed an average three or four thousand stairs, it’s like practicing a top sport.

HT: Is the landscape an attraction for taking photos?

MR: I think the landscape is what interests you least, it’s all about the path, the landscape becomes monotonous with vegetation such as ferns you find in lower temperatures. Actually the photos you tend to take are group photos, the climbing efforts you’re making, documentary photos.

The path upward.

You might be lucky and get a shot of a rare bird you don’t normally see. I don’t think the landscape of Turquino has the same charm as Soroa or Viñales, for example. The photos I take aren’t of much use for the work I do as a photographer. Also, the climate is unsuitable for the camera because of the condensation on the lens, there is too much moisture.

HT: They say that many of those who attempt this climb give up half way before they get to the summit. Do you think climbing the Peak is a test of aptitude or physical ability?

MR: I think that’s basically what it is; the first time, it was extremely exhausting and took me 8 hours up and down, so I went back to make a better time, it was like a physical endurance test for me. The ascent is really very demanding; it’s a test of physical endurance and staying power. This last time out of the 27 people from Havana who tried it, only 8 got to the top.

Biologica Station.

HT: From the summit, the view of nature is impressive and what you see includes about 50% of the native flora of the country and over 600 species including birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, but mostly insects. Was the climb also inspired by enviornmentalist motives?

MR: Yes, for me there were environmental reasons: the silence, direct contact with nature, the absence of contamination, studying the floral and animal varieties, which is less varied in fact than EcuRed says (digital Encyclopedia Cuban), perhaps on the route from Granma you see the biodiversity better, but on this route, the continual humidity, fog and exhaustion prevent you from paying close attention to details like that. Sure, you see spiders, centipedes, lizards, grasshoppers, cockroaches, but the higher you get up you only see insects and ferns.

HT: Anywhere in the world, climbing to the summit of mountains is a fairly uncomplicated affair for enthusiastic climbers but making the ascent of getting up to Turquino requires official permission, the presence of a guide. You mentioned this, why do you think that is?

Brazilian at the Peak.

MR: Well it seems that the intention is to make the Peak a tourist destination. Let’s start on that because this is a trip you can’t make without preparations. You have to reach the base camp at La Mula with a reservation. For Cubans the price is 10 Cuban pesos a night, for tourists it’s 10 CUC and you have to remember few services are provided. When you get there you have to show your ID and when you get to Las Cuevas pay the assistance of a guide and the right to a meal (only for tourists), tourists pay 20 CUC and Cubans pay 5 pesos.

The guide is one for the different groups that go up and, of course the guide can’t be with everyone at the same time; you get mattresses and a thatched roof and they tell you that if you want to stay overnight at the biological station of the Peak of Cuba (which is not much more than an empty wooden house without drinking water provisions of any kind) you have to pay 25 CUC more per person so the right to the ascent, the toll charge you pay, is quite expensive for tourists. And you can’t even look upon it as eco-tourism, because that has different features and requirements that are missing here.

HT: This site is closely linked with the history of the battles the Rebel Army waged in the Sierra Maestra. So mainly for that reason the ascents to the Peak are managed by institutions and student organizations, activists, etc. and not spontaneously by friends or families. Do you think the location and accessing it has been politicized?

MR: I’m sure it is, in fact in all my five climbs, the groups I encountered were all base committees of the UJC (Young Communist League) or foreigners; I never met a group of friends or families. There are always climbs commemorating patriotic or political events. I have not seen any inspired by public considerations such as the delight in the ecology, hiking, all I’ve seen are planned events lacking any sense of spontaneity; it’s something that is imposed and since these are managed events they are accompanied by logistics, transportation and equipment. It’s a political commitment.

Turquino Peak

HT: At the top of Turquino is a bust of Jose Marti placed in 1953 by Celia Sanchez. It is the work of Jilma Madera the sculptor and at the base of the monument there’s a saying of the Master: “Scarce as mountains are the men who know how to look from them and feel involved in nation or humanity.” How did you feel in front of the obelisk?

MR: Celia’s initiative is worthwhile, but I don’t know, there are two busts there, one of Martí, it’s perhaps an allegory of our national hero literally located at the highest point of the country and a good idea, but there is also a bust of Frank Pais who wasn’t even in the Sierra, perhaps it would be better if there was a statue of Antonio Nuñez Jimenez, an explorer and ecologist. And as far as the inscription is concerned, that’s nothing; it’s as if the Indians had suddenly got the idea of putting a saying of Tagore at the top of the Himalayas.

Marvin is an adventurer and many reasons led him to climb the highest summit on the island: hiking, ecology, the challenge but none was stronger than the one that drives the mountain enthusiast: being alone and closer to heaven.