Topes de Collantes: To Tour or not to Tour? #AloCubano

Topes de Collantes - El Nicho 2

After a long drive from Viñales to Cienfuegos (detouring via Playa Larga – Why? It’s CUBA), we finally arrived in Cienfuegos. Six hours in a super cold car (I detest air conditioning) had left me super grumbly and determined to hustle the best tour we could find to take us from Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Topes de Collantes National Park the next day. After walking down the local Malecón 6 times, my sister and I finally found a tour to El Nicho waterfalls which looked good on paper. I remember thinking: damn for 72CuC a person it better be…

Here’s what really happened.

#AloCubano - The Ecotourist - short series on my trip to Cuba

In this short series on Cuba, called #AloCubano, the Cuban way, I will share my thoughts about authenticity, tourism, and my off the beaten path experiences as I travelled through this “pearl of the Caribbean”.

Our tour guide picked us up in a neat little red jeep and we started the drive to Topes de Collantes National Park. I felt really excited because the park is known for its waterfalls, mountain hills with lots of far-reaching viewpoints, caves, cool natural water pools, an underground river-system, coffee plantations…. I just had to see it! Well… the tour package from Cienfuegos to Trinidad (via de El Nicho trail)  we bought sure promised a lot at 72CuC a person. But did it deliver?

Topes de Collantes – El Nicho

After arriving at the beginning of the trail where a lot of taxi’s, tour buses, and other jeeps had already parked, we began the short “trek” to El Nicho waterfalls. So many people! It felt like a tourist factory.

While the waterfalls on the trail are beautiful, they are very much overcrowded. Every 15-30 minutes a new van load of tourists comes by. Don’t get me wrong, the falls are worth visiting just to sample the cold, sparkling turquoise waters, but there might be some less visited waterfalls in the park if you ditch the tour. At the same time, it was hilarious to see all the tour guides dutifully waiting in a row for their charges to return.

Topes de Collantes - El Nicho 1
Topes de Collantes – El Nicho

After about 45 minutes of swimming in the cold water, taking each other’s pictures, we got back in the jeep with the promise of learning more about the history of coffee in the region.

Jardín de Variedades del Café

You would say that a garden with over 25 varieties of coffee plants can be an intriguing place where someone could fill you in on the boom-bust history of coffee in the region, right?

WRONG.

Arriving at the “coffee museum”, my sister and I were like *sigh* another Cuban money-making scheme. Let’s take a quick look around and be on our way. The “museum” itself was a bust. I do have to admit that this feeling mostly came due to our guide, who just left us to go wander the place without any context. He was just too busy sipping a cafecito with his amigos.

The thing is when you’ve been to a Guatemalan coffee plantation where they take about two hours to guide you through the whole coffee planting and making process, this “a lo Cubano” short cut won’t impress you.

La Casa Museo del Café

Even so, the coffee place in Topes de Collantes was gold! My sister and I had a great coffee called el potrerillo. Even I can see that the recipe (you’ll find it below – I promise) was invented by a coffee genius. (psstttt – what might also have helped was the rum).

Are we gonna hike now?

The rest of our trip through Topes the Collantes by Jeep from Cienfuegos to Trinidad was unfortunately somewhat disappointing. After the rum (uh I mean coffee) we swayed back to the jeep and continued on our way to eat lunch at an eco-hostel in the middle of the park. I still had hopes that this “tour” could be salvaged. We quickly ordered lunch before heading towards the “trail” (another 24 CuC).

I was under the mistaken impression that we’d actually have time to hike somewhere. Unfortunately, it seems that my definition of hiking did not compute with those of our tour agency or our guide. Walking a cutesy trail from the restaurant for 10-15 min towards some viewpoint and then continuing by jeep, is a stroll to me. 1 hour would have sufficed, but okay. I guess I was being unreasonable.

Look at the view though.

Topes de Collantes viewpoint near asa Eco-Alojamiento El Manantial
Topes de Collantes viewpoint near Casa Eco-Alojamiento El Manantial
To Tour or not to Tour?

From reading all the above, you might think that I hated the place. Al contrario. Absolutely not. My sister and I loved visiting Topes de Collantes National Park. I just wish we would have done it at our own pace and not rush through it by jeep. I missed truly feeling immersed in nature for a couple of hours. The reason we took the jeep tour was that they sold it to us as a means of seeing places in the Escambray Mountains you wouldn’t be able to get to by taxi. Which would be great if there was actually time to get out of the car and see the damn surroundings.

Be bold – go explore on your own

If you do decide to visit Topes de Collantes, which for its sheer natural beauty is worth it, I would recommend doing some research online (at home) and go at it alone. Take a taxi to the beginning of the trails. Pick one that suits your comfort level and just go.

Useful Information I wish I’d read before going there:
  • Cuba Junky gives a short overview of the different hikes
  • Indianajo – One Day Hiking in Topes de Collantes, Cuba. Her tip: take a taxi (!). Like us, she encountered some glitches, like missing out on the most beautiful waterfall on the Salto de Caburni trail. Our trip through the park felt the same, like we missed the best part.
  • Also check out Wikiloc, one of my favourite hiking websites with GPS trails uploaded by users sorted by different levels of difficulty.

A huge tip (if you do decide on a tour): be clear about what the tour actually includes. This also means finding out what Cubans define as hiking, as well as what time you’ll be finished. We thought we had until 6 o’clock to arrive in Trinidad! So I definitely tried to hustle some actual hiking time. But no. According to our guide, that’s the time he was arriving back in Cienfuegos. I mean whuuuttt? We were under the impression to have booked a trip going from Cienfuegos to Trinidad (ending in Trinidad at 6)… Guess I was wrong.

We did have fun BTW – just FYI

Despite some annoyances, don’t be under the impression that we didn’t have fun. All the mansplaining by our guide aside, we had a lot of fun. You just deal with the circumstances and what we were able to see in the National Park was beautiful. In the end, we could have prepared this leg of our Cuban journey a little bit better. We also should have allocated a little more time to explore the park on our own. You live, you learn.

The Recipe for “The Potrerillo”

Now for the coffee recipe. I have to be honest. I’m not a REAL coffee lover. I don’t go all goo-goo about the best coffee blend. I can be super happy with Senseo coffee. *all the coffee addicts just turned their heads and looked at me with disbelief in their eyes.* But there it is. This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good cuppa.

What makes it even better in some cases is a little upgrade called alcohol – she said, totally not sounding like an addict. 😉 In the heart of Topes de Collantes National Park, at a little coffee museum, I found the perfect blend of rum, coffee and honey.

Topes de Collantes - El Potrerillo (Coffee from Heaven)
My sister Marieke enjoying a cup of potrerillo (Coffee from Heaven invented by Yansel)

As promised, the recipe:

  • 1 cup of coffee – I know coffee lovers, it wasn’t just coffee, but a super special kind of espresso, but still… For the coffee laymen – like moi, we can improvise with Senseo)
  • a little bit of honey
  • 2 bottle caps of rum
  • A drop of lemon

Extra – to make it look fancy, but most of all for the taste finish: before you fill your coffee cup – dip the edge of your cup in honey and then into some ground coffee. Add the brew and voilá.

Muchas gracias to the inventor, Yansel, for bringing this delight into the world.

Have fun!

I hope this post helped you a little bit with your choice of getting there. Let me know in the comments about your trip to the Escambray Mountains. Next time I plan to do it differently – slower – so tips are welcome. I’d also love to know if you enjoyed the rum (I mean coffee).

Did you like this post, please share it on social media, and if you want to read more about my adventures in Cuba read the #AloCubano series.

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