Alexander von Humboldt National Park, in the eastern part of the island, covers almost 300 square miles on the border of Holguín and Guantánamo provinces. Driving there, we go through what must be one of the least built-up parts of the Caribbean, and the experience is disorienting. The few cars we see are well-preserved relics, long gone from their country of origin: DeSotos, Studebakers, Willys, Nashs and many other extinct models. If Cuba is a center of endemism for wildlife, it might be called a center of end-upism for cars.
Along the road, billboards stand vigil. “Socialism or Death.” “Men Die, the Party Is Immortal.” The slogans might seem outdated four decades into Castro’s regime, but for many Cubans the Communist fervor still runs strong. Accompanying Perera and me on this leg of the journey is Alberto Pérez, a white-haired information officer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He says that he grew up rich in Cuba, that his father owned 16 houses and that his family lost virtually everything when Castro took power. But he swears it was all worth it because of what Castro has done for the poor. Apparently, not everyone in his family agrees. His sister fled to Florida.
We pass through a village and Pérez sees anon, knobby pink-fleshed fruit also known as sugar apples, at a stand by the side of the road. We buy a bunch of them as well as cups of fresh sugarcane juice. The fruit has a vanilla-like flavor and would make excellent ice cream. The sugarcane juice is cool and refreshing, not overly sweet. Around a neatly trimmed fence post made of the cactuslike euphorbia, or milk bush, we watch an old man pull pieces of sugarcane through a metal device that strips off the outer layer. He’s wiry and fit and cheerfully offers his age—81—adding that “the work isn’t hard, but this hangover is.”
Pérez buys out the stand’s supply of sugar apples for friends back in Havana. On the road, we go through Marcané and Cueto, villages immortalized in song by the 95-year-old guitarist and singer, Compay Segundo, known to many Americans from the Buena Vista Social Club movie and sound track.
Having traveled through many poor rural villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America, I’m amazed at the cleanliness, orderliness and the seeming functionality of these towns. Luis Gómez-Echeverri, former director of the UNDP mission in Cuba, says the poorest Cubans have a better standard of living than poor people in any of the 82 countries he has visited. Though Cubans have little economic freedom, the U.N.’s annual Human Development Report ranks Cuba among the top five developing countries in terms of education and access to clean water, medicine and housing.
At the same time, nowhere do people in elite professions such as medicine and science make less money than in Cuba. A physician typically earns no more than $100 a month. Bartering is common. The Cuban term is resolver (to resolve), and the word might describe the juggling act by which a mother with a new baby will trade a dress for a hen to lay eggs, and then trade the eggs for goat’s milk.
We stop for lunch in Moa at a paladar (a private home that sells meals). The house, simple in the extreme and spotless, would make an Amish farmhouse look like TrumpPalace. A lunch of grilled swordfish for four people costs $12.
As we wend our way toward the Humboldt rain forest, Perera spots a rare plant by the road, Dracaena cubensis, which has adapted to a type of rocky, nutrient-poor soil called serpentine that contains levels of magnesium toxic to other plants. This shrub-like plant is so specialized to serpentine formations, Perera says, that botanists have not been able to grow it in the botanical garden in Havana.
Leaving the road and plunging into the park in the SUV, we ford a couple of streams and negotiate a dirt path. Perera and I then hike past thickets of delicate and seductively fragrant mariposa (Cuba’s national flower, a designation that disturbs Perera because it is not native to the island) until we come to a ledge where I see a vista of rain forest-carpeted slopes punctuated by waterfalls. Some parts of the park are so remote that they have not been systematically explored.
Perera was largely responsible for the park’s creation. While most of the nations that attended the United Nation’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro forgot about its commitments to halt the destruction of species, reduce poverty and prevent climate change not long after their jets left the runway, Perera and the Cuban delegation have sought to preserve the island’s biodiversity. And the logical place to start was in the eastern forests that became Humboldt. With 905 plant species, Humboldt contains 30 percent of Cuba’s endemic plants, and also has the most plant diversity in the Caribbean. The park also provides habitat to many birds, including the bee hummingbird. Most intriguing, if the ivorybilled woodpecker still exists anywhere on earth, it is likely to be atop the plateau deep inside the park. The large black-and white bird has near mystical status among ornithologists, not least because it may have gone extinct despite feverish efforts to save it. The last confirmed sighting of the ivorybilled woodpecker in the United States was five decades ago. But scientists working in eastern Cuba came upon a pair of the birds in 1987, and the government moved to protect the area, setting aside forest that would become the core of HumboldtPark, named after Alexander von Humboldt, who explored the island 200 years ago.