Twenty years ago, a pioneering environmental project to protect Cuba's natural assets was opened up to tourism. Journalist Claire Boobbyer meets the lucky locals who call it home. 

“You reap what you sow,” Cirilo Martínez explains as we sit in his pine-roofed white house with tangerine-coloured shutters, overlooking his garden plot of banana fronds and football-sized avocados.

Martínez isn’t talking about his flourishing fruit; the 69-year-old is talking about a pioneering “eco-community” – a sort of Cuban Shangri-La – hidden in the precious wood forests an hour south of Havana.

In 1968, President Fidel Castro forged the idea of a green revolution: he would reforest the mountains that had been logged by Spanish conquistadors, plant fruit trees in areas destroyed by coffee plantations, and nurture land ripped up by hurricanes; and he would improve the lives of Cuba’s campesinos (in this part of the island, mainly illiterate charcoal makers) who lived in poverty in remote rural ridges of the Sierra del Rosario mountains.

Architect Osmany Cienfuegos mobilised work brigades (for which Martínez worked) to create 1,360km of terraces with six million cedar, mahogany and hibiscus trees, plus grapefruit, mandarin, papaya and avocado. They carved 170km of roads through the mountains; and built a village of homes, schools, playgrounds, and clinics which, today, ripple attractively around the curving contours surrounding the lake of San Juan.

The young community of Las Terrazas grew, its inhabitants known as terraceros. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and with it, Cuba’s economy. “We were forced to make ‘steaks’ from grapefruit rind, and ‘beef stew’ from banana skins to survive,” guide Leonardo Peréz explains.

With the fate of the community at stake, Osmany Cienfuegos opened Las Terrazas to tourism. Twenty years ago, the Hotel Moka received its first guests. It is a white multi-level structure, screened by teak trees and built around a 100-year-old rain tree that soars through the lobby. Since then, trekking trails, a zip-line route, a restored coffee plantation, artists’ studios and restaurants have opened. They cater for travellers who detour off the highway that slices past the Sierra del Rosario biosphere.

The biosphere came under Unesco protection in 1984, following the successful reforestation project. It is now home to 117 bird species, including 12 that are endemic. It contains more than 70 ruined coffee plantations founded by the French who escaped Haiti after the 1791 Haitian revolution.

Today, the restored Cafetal Buenavista with its drying terraces and former slave barracks, is a happier place. It is rustling with colourful birds: cartacuba, lime-green Cuban tody, tocororo decked out in the colours of the national flag, and zorzal with their melodious chirruping. The zorzal is immortalised in a song by the late local hero Polo Montañez, who lived in Las Terrazas until his untimely death in 2002: “Me gusta como canta el zorzal en la monte” (I like how the zorzal sings in the mountains).

Like the song of the bird he so admired, Polo Montañez is one of Cuba’s most adored singers. His melodic tunes are “poetry and music”, says local guide Idalmys González. His voice was “exquisite, a mixture of salsa, son, bachata and guaracha”, she explains before bursting into song as Montañez’s music plays out of his house-turned-museum down by Lake San Juan.

Overlooking the ducks and flamingos on the lake, I find another Cuban treasure. Tito Nuñez Gudas is Cuba’s veggie king. He opened Cuba’s first vegetarian restaurant, El Bambú, in Havana’s botanical garden in 1991, serving up edible flowers. Today, Nuñez Gudas is head chef and manager of what is claimed to be Cuba’s only authentic vegetarian restaurant, El Romero, in Las Terrazas.

We lunch on lotus ceviche, a “hamburger” made of root vegetables and banana, and a refreshing anti-hypertension juice of grapefruit, cucumber and mint. Nuñez Gudas tells me that it took a while to convince the locals of the benefits of a meat-free diet. Today, he trains staff from the community and teaches schoolchildren how to cook vegetarian food. Seventy per cent of the food served to diners comes from Las Terrazas, and the remainder from within a radius of 25km.

Artist Ariel Gato Miranda teaches local children how to make paper using discarded office paper, flower petals, bamboo, banana leaf, and dyes from beetroot, tobacco and bamboo. The finished product is sold as notebooks in his open-house studio. Creative locals also stitch ring-pulls from beer cans into stylish metallic  handbags. The local hibiscus wood is fashioned into salad servers. And the national flower of Cuba, the aromatic white mariposa, is harvested and sold as perfume in recycled medicine  bottles at the tiny El Ilang shop in the heart of  the community.

The income generated from tourism has funded the community library, the new Aire Libre café, a museum and the expansion of the Hotel Moka – and there’s a second hotel in  the pipeline.

Cuba’s recent economic reforms have barely touched Las Terrazas: private businesses such as B&Bs and restaurants are prohibited in terraceros’ homes. The houses can’t be sold as they are government-owned. The restaurants and the Café de María are all part of “Plan Osmany”, as it’s known in these parts. However, the books are balanced as a result of tourism. Moreover, there is a sense of contented isolation; nobody is itching to leave. Quite the opposite. There are not enough homes to accommodate growing families in the village of some 1,000 residents.

Leonardo Pérez explains: “It’s an honour to live here because we have an above average lifestyle.” This is evident at the San Juan Baths, which we reach via the skeletal remains of the French coffee compounds of San Ildefonso and El Contento. The natural terracing on the River San Juan allows the teal waters to spill over into natural pools.

After bathing in the river, Pérez and I head to the home-studio of the artist Lester Campa. Campa’s work features the fecund landscape of Las Terrazas with its flowing waters, soaring Royal Palms, and lush, rampant forests. One of his most celebrated works is Monte de Venus. It depicts the towering spread-eagled knees of a supine woman carpeted in trees between which cascades a gushing white waterfall.

As I sit with Campa on his terrace, sipping his home-brewed criollo coffee, I can see why Las Terrazas’s fertile bounty is his muse. A West Indian woodpecker swings into view in front of a backdrop brimming with forest. From the canopy soared the elegant pale neck of the Royal Palm, crowned by one of nature’s most beautiful headpieces – her long, perky fronds.

Article 'Cuba's Green Revolution: How Las Terrazas has flourished' featured on Tuesday 25th November 2014 in The Independent.

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