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By Marie-Lais Emond

Beguiling and intensely entertaining as Havana can be, when we head for the Cuban hills, the silence rolls in and a lush beauty starts looming large.

Just an hour's drive on the highway west from the capital carries us into a completely new kind of thrall, that of the Sierra del Rosario.

The "mountain of flower-gathering" or, as in a Spanish dialect, the "mountain with backbone" is not particularly high by our standards.

However, one can see both the north and south coasts from the top, Cuba being wide, not tall.

Twenty-two percent of Cuba is given over to conservation, and this 26-hectare Unesco biosphere is the smallest on the island. Sierra del Rosario incorporates Las Terrazzas, an eco-reserve with an astonishing hotel, an extraordinary restaurant, vivacious people and plenty of worthwhile things to do and see.

As the car climbs, the air becomes more humid, my hair curls, birds in bright colours chirrup encouragingly and I have my first sight of Cuba's national flower, the Mariposa, or butterfly flower.

It is a gorgeously scented white ginger bloom, the inspiration for and essence of one of Cuba's famous perfumes.

During the revolution, when Cuban fighters were held in not these but other hills to the east, young women would wend their way to visit them, wearing sprays of the white flowers in their hair, innocent and empty handed to the eyes of the Spanish forces.

In among the flowers, the women were carrying to the revolutionaries vital messages on little folded pieces of white paper on their heads.

Luxuriant forests and orchards cover this part of the Sierra del Rosario range, and from the parking area you don't even notice the hotel itself.

As the porter takes our luggage down the steps, La Moka reveals itself as a hacienda style building with the trees growing right out of it.

The indigenous trees were not chopped down to make way for this eco-hotel. It was built to accommodate them.

Specially designed rubber flanges hold the branches as they flourish through the glass windows and the roof. Inside, it's high and airy with accommodation galleries. The far side of the entrance hall is open and unwindowed, and from there one can look way down to the valley.

My bath also looks out over that breath-catching view and there are eco-soap, eco-toothpaste and goodies provided. On the other side of the hotel, pools, ferns and lilies surround the building.

The ambient sound, apart from birdsong, is the gentle drip of steam condensing over the vegetation.

La Moka is named after the Cuban coffee bean. Next day we meet the impish and loquacious Lázarro Fiallo of the Bureau of Ecological Research in the biosphere, at Las Terrazzas. The area was badly denuded in colonial times, to make way for coffee plantation terraces.

It is now replanted with the original trees, 6 million of them, as an ecological feat of preservation by Fidel Castro's brother, Raul.

It's a very appealing place for horse riding, cycling, hiking or just walking and bird watching among the sparkling little waterfalls, the spa springs and curative waters.

Of the rivers that wend their way through the landscape, the San Juan has the sulphur springs and the Bayate is potably fresh and clear.

With Lázarro, we go to the open-air coffee museum, once one of the estates.

On the way back down the coffee-drying terraces we come to a covered enclosure where the crossed boxer-mastiffs are kept for hunting runaways. Just then a tocororo - the red, white and blue Cuban trogon - flies overhead and things look brighter.

The Buena Vista restaurant there specialises in beef dishes. Being on an eco-reserve, the meat comes from the Las Terrazzas farmers.

It is a beautifully restored 19th century building, full of gleaming wood and brass. It features an enormous kitchen garden as all the vegetables and herbs are grown there - organically, of course.

Lázarro calls himself a farmer of men as he "grows" the 1 000 people employed and housed in the Las Terrazzas 11-year old pilot programme, now one of a few in the reserve. Las Terrazzas is like its own village of red-tiled buildings surrounding a little lake. Even the pharmacy is "green".

The mail plane drops the postbag into a paddock. It is the people of Las Terrazzas who maintain the woods and livestock, just under a third of whom are employed in eco-tourism service. Then there are the arts and crafts workers dotted around the reserve, who also hold workshops for visitors.

Wandering through the village we see groups of Las Terrazzas men lazing in the holiday heat, playing what must be Cuba's national game, dominoes.

Our noses find Maria, who has a little orchard of coconut and mango trees, pineapple plants and a coffee bush that is more like a tree too. However, she gets her coffee beans from other growers in the reserve and roasts and grinds them herself.

We sit at her kitchen table while a cartoon cheese-mad mouse pranced manically on her TV screen and we sip the good Cuban coffee that smells a little of loamy earth and tastes a little of bitter black chocolate. (I have one little sack left in my fridge, marked in brown with her name and then CAFÉ spelt out as Caliente (hot), Amargo (bitter), Fuerte (strong), Espresso (thick)).

Near lunchtime we climb a spindly hill where another restaurant balances atop, overlooking indigenous carob and hibiscus trees.

There are restaurants throughout the reserve, some of them farmer-style restaurants that smoke butterflied lean pork slowly over charcoal, and roast the long-legged local chickens.

Our restaurant, called El Romero (rosemary), makes use of the ecological produce gathered round about as the basis for a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming experience of stylishly presented, avant-garde food, every flavour-bursting bite of it vegetarian!

Even the table water served at El Romero is exquisitely flavoured with choice combinations of tastes like crab apple, rosemary and lemon grass.

Mine is flavoured with casaimon - a sweet herb often used in the Cuban religion of Santería and which tastes a bit like toothpaste - and mint, and features a giant wild cherry skewered on a piece of bamboo.

El Romero's owner, Tito Nunez Gugás, has attracted great international interest to this his third vegetarian restaurant.

A row of enormous gold medals hangs grandly just next to what Lázarro keeps calling the kipshen. One of Gugás' other restaurants, El Bambú, in a Botanic Garden, is entirely vegan.

On our eco-restaurant's English menu is printed the endearing and oddly punctuated legend: "So that the cows. the chickens. the lobsters. the jutías, the male goats. The fish and all our relatives live."

A jutia is a tree racoon, favoured in rural areas for its lean meat but heavy protein. Eleven years ago Gugás cured himself of ailments that had been dogging his life by changing his eating habits. At El Romero, every eco-consideration is made. The food is grown organically, the waste is recycled for fertilisers or animal fodder, the heating is solar powered.

The surreal picture above our table by Lester Campa, the artist brother of one of the other diners, as told me by our tall, handsome and softly spoken waiter, seems to indicate that even stones can convert to live a green life.

Within striking distance of the reserve is Soroa. Another scenic wonderland, with a picturesque waterfall, it is famous for its orchid garden - or park, rather - containing 700 species. The park was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, who has become one of the national icons of Cuba.

Continuing on the highway, a little way west from Sierra del Rosario you enter a beautifully strange landscape.

It is the Valle de Viñales, full of mogotes, which are karst formations that look like dark-green sugar loaves on the rich red soil. The mogotes are ancient rocks remaining from what was a limestone plateau millions of years ago. Today, it's fertile farming territory. The towns of Viñales and Pinar del Rio are vibrant and well preserved, full of interesting buildings and music, of course.

There are caves to explore and another outdoor restaurant serving good Creole food. The restaurant is laid out according to the Santerían pantheon of gods and goddesses, who all have different foods and tastes that they "like".

This is the sort of travel I love most, where every day's experience is completely different to my own and utterly fascinating. Yes, Havana is unforgettable and Cuba's beaches are the ones in our dreams, but there is a lot of happiness to be found inland.

Source: IOL

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