I stood staring at the ruins of slave quarters on what had once been a 19th century coffee plantation situated in the northwestern part of Cuba ― Las Terrazas, in the Sierra de Rosario mountains. I was struck by the unabashed preservation of the old with the new. Slave quarters juxtaposed with Algarrabo cententarios trees growing up through the balconies and ceilings of La Moka, an ecological hotel. La Moka is a modern twist on old colonial architecture, with a multi-tiered atrium lobby built around trees that disappear magically skyward. We had journeyed 45 minutes from La Habana above the shores of San Juan Lake and beneath the mountains to another place and time.
Las Terrazas is a biosphere with a protected ecosystem, a buffer zone that supports ecological practices, and an area that fosters ecologically sustainable development. It combines a small community of about 1,200 people, many of them artists, with ecotourism. The hotel and the buildings seem to melt into the mountains by design. In those mountains, even with my Spanish proficiency, I struggled to understand Ariel Gato, in his artist studio, where hanging in the sun was his very own recycled computer paper for drawing, prints, and other art work. Later, I learned his accent was shared by many farmers, or campesinos, influenced by the Haitian settlers who brought coffee, and spoke the French language. Gato is renowned for his art work, but he is clearly more than simply an artist.
In 1968, then-President Fidel Castro founded a green revolution, making Las Terrazas a green project. Architect Osmany Cienfuegos mobilized work brigades that created terraces of timber, fruits, ornamentals and vegetables. Starting in 1971, the brigades carved roads through the mountains to build homes, schools, playgrounds and clinics all surrounding San Juan Lake. Owing to the success of the reforestation project, the biosphere came under UNESCO protection in 1984.
We walked through Las Terrazas and were treated to zip line tours, steel cables whisking people above Las Terrazas; enjoyed coffee that was muy sabroso; and learned something about the art of coffee-making along the way. In the old days, slaves had to turn the coffee beans― red in their original form― every 30 minutes. Still today, this dry method is used where water is scarce. Coffee beans are spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. Beans are raked and turned throughout the day and then covered at night or during rain, in order to prevent the beans from spoiling. From this vantage point on the ranch, we could see the port of Mariel, where the Brazilians and Cubans are building a major container terminal that will have the capacity to handle vessels deeper than Habana Bay, and will have facilities for offshore oil exploration. We are marching toward a new day for Cuba.
Small expressions of sustainable initiatives seem to be on the rise in Cuba. The day before visiting Las Terrazas, we visited a local permaculture project near Cojimar, a seaside village, best known for its setting in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea. Mosquitoes fell in love with me there, but we could have been in any 1950’s fishing village. Nearby, we encountered a family-run business –Planta de Fregado—an ecological car wash that uses plant solids, gravity feed and carbon filtration for a completely organic car wash. The owner was enthusiastically confident of replicating his system all over Cuba.
In Cuba, the legacy of slavery and the old African traditions blend seamlessly with so much of the new world. In some ways they are frozen in time and in other ways, not so much. Little Zika problem here, at least with standing water outside, as we witnessed systemized mosquito spraying throughout the countryside. However, the mosquito problem occurs with water indoors, as no amount of education convinces people not to keep glasses of water under their beds, in the corners of rooms and on dressers to ward off evil spirits or to bring good luck. Officially Cubans are atheists, unofficially Roman Catholic, but in reality most Cubans practice Santeria, a system of beliefs that merges Yoruba myth with Christianity and indigenous American traditions. The Cubans are unabashed in recognizing African influence in their music, their food and their religion. Perhaps it has, too, influenced permaculture projects, and the biosphere reserve ― Las Terrazas.