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food / travel

In Cuba, Trekking Back To Where The Revolution Began

Fidel Castro’s jungle headquarters are a highlight of a trekking tour in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountain range, in the southeastern corner of the island.

Marea del Portillo, Cuba, with foothills of the Sierra Maestra in the background (Martin Cathrae)
Marea del Portillo, Cuba, with foothills of the Sierra Maestra in the background (Martin Cathrae)
Fabian von Poser

PICO TURQUINO -- "They have to have come through here somewhere," says Jorge García pointing a twig in the direction of the thick jungle. The 34-year-old is one of three park rangers who guides tourists to the Comandancia de la Plata – the place where the Cuban Revolution was launched: the general command of the rebel army led by Fidel Castro.

The ultimate victory of the Ejército rebelde began here in the Sierra Maestra, where – despite relentless searches, betrayals and bomb attacks -- dictator Fulgencio Batista proved unable to find Castro and his men. The rebels just kept gaining ground until Batista fell in 1959. Two years later, they founded a socialist state on the Caribbean island.

Through dense vegetation, Castro and his men hacked their way up the mountain. As they climbed, the fresh air that came in from the sea gave way to the cloying humidity of the jungle. But the men forged ahead, until they finally reached Pico Turquino, Cuba's highest mountain, and set up camp.

Five months before that, at dawn on December 2, 1956, a dozen kilometers further west, they'd landed back in Cuba by boat from their Mexican exile. Just three days afterwards the 82 men were ambushed, and most of them died. But brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro survived, along with some dozen other men including Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, "Che" for short.

It took a while after the attack for the men, split into three groups, to find each other. The weeks it took them to make their way up 2,000 meters were grueling, but the place they found in April 1957 on the green flanks of Pico Turquino was ideal for their camp.

Singing along with Quinteto rebelde

As we make our way with Garcia on the trail of the Revolution, the sky is overcast. A few meters after the Alto de Naranjo pass, the jungle gets too dense for our vehicles to pass. We learn within a few minutes what guerilla tactics mean as Garcia spurs us on. The path is incredibly narrow, a labyrinth of palms, ferns and roots. Our feet keep sliding in the slimy mud. We climb over fallen trees. The heat is torrid. The jungle soaks up sound like a sponge, so all we can hear are the slurpy sounds made by our feet in the morass.

After just over an hour we emerge from the sleepy jungle and reach the home of a farming family, the Medinas. As we sit on the veranda drinking tea, Garcia tells us that it was here that the revolutionaries found shelter, here that they were able to recover and get some of their strength back. "It was only with the support of farmers that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were able to build up a guerilla army," he says. "By 1958 they had some 300 men, while Batista's army was 10,000 strong."

It was here at the Medinas' home that the Quinteto rebelde (a band) played songs like "Batista ten cuidado" (Watch Out, Batista) and what has now become a classic: "Hasta siempre comandante." These were meant to motivate the men, and as history shows, they did.

We continue our march. The sun is peeking through the clouds and light streams down here and there through the thick foliage. Humming birds feed from the lush flowers lining the path. Again, the climb is steep, but we finally make it to Castro's historic headquarters. Protected by the trees, there are 16 huts built at some distance from each other in the jungle.

Everything is as it was then: the field hospital where Che Guevara treated his injured comrades, the radio station, the latrines, the kitchen. "They could only cook at night, so that the smoke from the oven didn't give their position away," says Garcia, as we enter the straw-roofed wooden shack.

There's a small museum, showing black and white photographs, Castro's fountain pen, a typewriter and some sheets of paper containing text for Radio Rebelde -- the radio station from which the rebels broadcast propaganda to the whole country.

A little higher up the mountain is the holy of holiest spot in all of Communist Cuba: Fidel's old hut. García opens the door. It's very drafty. Here too everything is at it once was: the bed, the kitchen table, the benches, even the large white refrigerator with a bullet hole in it that's supposed to have been made by one of Batista's soldiers.

This hut is also where, on February 17, 1957, Fidel Castro gave the interview to Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times that made Castro and his rebels famous around the world. "The interview was invaluable to the success of the Revolution – more important than any victory on a battlefield," Che is supposed to have said later.

Now we set off back down the mountain. It's raining again. Thick drops fall down on us through the leaves, and fog covers everything like a thick veil. The jungle is still hot and humid. "We should get a move on," says Garcia looking up at the dark clouds gathering in the sky. "Things could get seriously wet."

Up here, the life of the revolutionaries seems incredibly vivid even to us: the dampness, the mosquitoes, the relentless fear of being discovered. Of course, it would have been far more difficult for Fidel and Che in 1957. Back then there weren't any roads here. The first paved road dates back to 1987, built for the coming invasion of tourists.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Martin Cathrae

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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