Little more than an hour’s drive along the Autopista, south-west of Havana, is a turn-off to the village of Las Terrazas. This strange and charming complex is skipped by most travellers who head straight for the better-known countryside around Viñales. Aside from the occasional guided bus tour, visitors are mostly Cubans escaping the chaos of the capital for a relaxing weekend.
On arriving in Havana, I was struck by the shocking amount of pollution. The beloved old American cars guzzle gas at an appalling rate, and buses spew out thick black exhaust fumes that even Castro has lamented for their impact on public health. Overturned dustbins on every corner and litter strewn everywhere mar the beauty of the cobbled colonial streets, and people happily lob empty bottles of rum off the Malecón at night. Next to the old fort across the harbour, the brightly burning oil wells are quite an eyesore.
All these gives rather a one-sided impression of the island’s relationship with the environment. Visitors who don’t stray from Havana and Varadero may wonder why on earth in 2006 the WWF named Cuba the world’s most sustainable country. A visit to Las Terrazas will correct any snap judgement made. In the late 1960s, when virtually nobody had heard of climate change, a plan was conceived to reforest a large portion of land in the western Artemisa province and create a self-sustaining settlement to house some 1000 inhabitants. Deforestation has been a nationwide problem since the damage of the colonial sugarcane industry, and Las Terrazas is perhaps the country’s biggest success story. Built around the ruins of French coffee plantations, its name refers to the terraced slopes, constructed to resist erosion, overlooking a reservoir and small lake. During the Special Period of the 1990s, the environmentally friendly Hotel Moka was constructed to introduce tourism in the area. Soon to follow was an ecological research centre, many artisanal shops and organic farms.
Another attraction is the eco-restaurant El Romero. Strict vegetarians are usually limited to pizza or fried eggs with rice in Cuba (and things must be virtually impossible for vegans) so this place is quite a treat. The staff proudly inform you that everything is cooked with solar energy, and all food waste is recycled. Most products are grown locally, and they even keep their own bees. A complementary ceviche made with lotus roots is served first, and options à la carte include a delicious bean pancake, pumpkin ‘steak’, and multiple soups and dips. It could rival any London deli without the pretension and inflated prices. Everything is healthy, tasty and creatively presented – you won’t want to eat anywhere else.
The village is stunning, with the whitewashed houses all offering magnificent views across the lush green landscape. Cork palms and trees bearing dozens of different fruits are scattered across the slopes. It’s so peaceful that after a few weeks in Havana, it seems unreal, even slightly spooky. Every now and then, an eerie humming sound breaks the silence as a tourist soars across the lake on Cuba’s only zip-lining tour. The land around the village, incorporated in 1985 into the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of the Sierra del Rosario, is ideal both for short walks and long hikes.
As if all this weren’t enough, Las Terrazas has lately developed into a prospering artistic community. You can visit a dozen artists at work in their small lakeside studios, including Lester Campa’s impressive and internationally renowned studio. His work includes rough sketches of female nudes, as well as many large-format landscape paintings. Particularly evocative is an untitled work representing a central waterfall flanked by two tall green mountains and two rounded hills in the background – a hymn, he says, to the female body.
At 90CUC for a double room, the impressive Hotel Moka isn’t for travellers on a budget, but it rents out rustic cabins a few kilometres away, opposite the natural baths of the Río San Juan. As families come to picnic here on weekends, the site becomes a strange mix of remote tranquillity, blaring music and rum, which seems to characterise much of Cuban country life.
It’s definitely worth sacrificing a night in Havana or Trinidad for Las Terrazas, whether you are interested in art, environment, hiking or none of the above. It’s an ethereal experience that dislodges any fixed opinions of Cuba formed elsewhere. Beware of the mosquitoes.