At 6:00 a.m. this morning, twelve sleepy-eyed teenagers stumbled towards our daily promise of delicious, sweet mangoes with an underlying fear of our upcoming adventure. As we enjoyed the fresh fruit and coffee for one of the last few times, we also mentally geared up for what was rumored to be one of the most physically demanding and challenging things that we would tackle on this trip: a hike through a valley that would lead us to the base of a waterfall and back up again. With bellies full of whatever magic Carlos produced from the kitchen and eyelids still heavy, we boarded our air-conditioned bus to begin the two-hour drive towards what, at the time, seemed like a death trap.
As soon as I woke up from my cushioned, air-conditioned nap, I was met with a view of gorgeous green mountain scenery and pure untouched wilderness. It was the same lush landscape I’d experienced, but never quite grown accustomed to, for so many of the days I’ve spent here. It was something too beautiful and too breathtaking to ever lose its luster; the thousands of shades of green never ceased to amaze me. I quickly snapped out of my dreamy-eyed state when I realized that the rather large bus we were riding in was driving up a winding dirt road next to the edge of a cliff that seemed to whisper of imminent death. Fortunately, we safely reached the peak of the mountain without any headline-worthy incidents. We savored the last few seconds of air conditioning and luxury and climbed out of the bus with bated breath.
We were fed pineapple and mango and treated to coffee that was grown on-site as soon as we arrived. I took three cups of the delicious coffee in the hope that it would give me a boost of energy; in reality, I was just left with what seemed to be a mild form of epilepsy as the caffeine coursed through my veins and made my limbs shake. Afterwards, we were able to climb to the “Mirador,” which was a balcony from which we could see the entire valley we would soon be trekking down. The view was incredible. From our vista point, we could see the gorgeous waterfall and the green tropical paradise that surrounded us. The moment of silence that followed was a combination of awe and horror as the realization that we would be scaling up and down the seemingly vertical incline crept up on us. Nonetheless, being the big, brave adventurers that we are, we all put on brave faces and prepared ourselves for the experience of a lifetime.
In single file, we followed our guide down a narrow, almost completely untouched path. The first few minutes consisted of laughter and a few startled yelps as our feet learned to fit into muddy hiking boots as opposed to Sperrys and stilettos. As we continued to follow our amazingly nimble guide, Alex pointed out what he claimed to be a fifteen-foot-long yellow snake in our path, which turned out to be entirely harmless but still caused my adrenal glands to go into overdrive. Eventually, everyone began calling out some helpful nuggets of wisdom that would ensure a safe journey down the valley (helpful tree is helpful, slippery rock is slippery, deceptive rock is unstable, etc.) We also came across a number of animals and creatures during the hike, including the fifteen-foot long snake, numerous lizards and geckos, far too many biting ants, and two river crabs (yes, they exist) whom we named Jeremy and Jerome. We kept spirits high as we continued to hike lower, largely due to the chorus of laughter that lasted for the entire hike down. Our first glimpse of the base of the waterfall was nothing short of miraculous. With that carrot dangling so closely in front of our faces, we found a new spring in our steps as we quickly rushed towards the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
With red faces and sweaty bodies, not a single person hesitated to get into the water. The refreshing water cooled us off, and the beautiful waterfall made every ant bite worth it. We were even able to sit on a ledge under the waterfall, which was probably the best and cheapest massage I’ve ever gotten. Even those who were wary of doing the hike expressed how glad they were that they’d chosen to go. As the orange mud stained our skin (and gave us some artificial bronze glow) we sat in the water, listened to the crashing of the waterfall, and admired the hidden paradise that we were lucky enough to find ourselves in. The high walls of the valley surrounded us with untamed green plants and rocky ledges – the same ledges we’d just hiked on. Nothing I’d ever seen before could possibly compare to this amazing microcosm of nature at its finest.
We were forced to reluctantly climb out of the pool and begin the harder part of our hike: the climb back up the valley. Faces were stuffed with prepackaged artificial protein and wet hair was flung in a frenzy. We picked up our walking sticks and followed our trusted guide back onto the ‘trail’ (Cubans use the word ‘trail’ much more loosely than Americans do.) I pretended that my thighs didn’t hurt and attempted to hide my shortness of breath as we hiked on and on. On our way down, we walked with the fear of falling, but on our way up, we hiked with the fear of sudden cardiac arrest. The same rocks we were sliding down on became helpful footholds that anchored us upwards. We came across a few more lizards and exotic birds and learned to gracefully avoid the anthills as well. I continued on with the best lower body workout I’ve ever experienced as I began to breathe harder and blamed it on the thinner air and higher altitude.
By this time, we’d all gotten used to being drenched in sweat and caked in mud, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who considered applying for some sort of Man vs. Wild reality show. Eventually, we saw the top of the mountain, which came as the biggest relief, as I wasn’t sure how much longer I could pretend that I wasn’t tired. After the last few steps, a couple of Tarzan yells and cries of joy were shared as we basked in the glory of our latest accomplishment. Additionally, when we learned that we’d spent a mere 30 minutes scaling that valley, as opposed to the suggested 90 minutes it would take us, the glory intensified even more. Parents: you’ll be happy to know that we survived the journey without any broken bones or venomous snake bites.
Luckily, there existed a natural pool in which we could cool off that was only a short hike away from the top of the mountain. There, we met up with Fran and a couple of students who had decided to stay behind and enjoy the waterfall and scenic nature from above. This pool was no less beautiful than the one we’d just seen, and we were all grateful to be able to spend a few more minutes in the cool water with our entire group. After I was able to cool my body temperature back down to a normal level, we walked back towards our much awaited lunches. Although the rice and beans, roasted pork, and plantain chips were nothing short of delicious, they paled in comparison to what Carlos whipped up every day.
As our bodies continually produced lactic acid, we boarded the bus to head back home. Although we say ‘home’ loosely, this church and this community have made a much appreciated effort to ensure that we felt like we had a home with them. As I dozed off into a much deserved nap, I couldn’t help but feel regret that we’d have to leave this beautiful country and its incredible people in just a few days.
PS. To my family: I may or may not choose to defect from the United States and stay here in Cuba (only kidding.) I miss you all very much and I pray you haven’t converted my room into a home gym just yet.