The French planted the first crops in the 19th century. Listed by Unesco, the remains of their farms are now the subject of recognition.
It is still a wild country. A tropical forest where the population remains scarce. The heights of Santiago de Cuba, in the south-east of the island, are not the privileged place of Cuban tourism, which prefers the beaches of Trinidad, further north, Baracoa, further east, or Varadero. , near Havana. It is however here, in the heart of the national parks of Turquino and Gran Piedra, that the French have, in the middle of the XIXe century, elected home to create the first Cuban coffee plantations. Fallen into disuse then into ruin, this heritage is now looking for a future in the green tourism to which the communist island is opening. In 2000, the fincas (farms) once owned by the French were included on the Unesco World Heritage List. Thus the organization considers these remains of the coffee plantations in eastern Cuba as “unique testimonies of a form of agricultural exploitation of the virgin forest, traces of which have disappeared elsewhere in the world”. At their peak, at the end of the XIXe century, there are up to 171 coffee farms in this small mountain area between Santiago and Guantanamo. They made Cuba the world’s largest producer of coffee. At the time, drinking a little Cuban black was so chic that Le Procope, known to be the oldest restaurant in Paris, offered it on its menu. From this superb weather, there are sometimes only low walls. Other farms survived the war better and the economic and social crises the country went through on the eve of its independence in 1902. Their remains still permeate the civil engineering of the time.
At Isabelica, where the austere farmer Victor Constantin Cuzeaux had settled, the heritage of the farm reveals the know-how in terms of water delivery and drying, but it also reminds us that the French of then were also slavers. Restored in 1961, the house notably brings together an impressive collection of restraining irons collected from the surrounding plantations. The guides’ stories are cold in the back… Fortunately, the garden today arranged around the property offers a glimpse of the rich flora taking root in these mountains and makes it possible to soften the visit. For example, some lumber is naturally adorned with tillandsias, plants that do not need soil to thrive.
At the top, the panorama offers both a view of the bay of Santiago and of the Sierra Maestra, a sumptuous mountain range cradle of the Castro revolution completed in 1959.
Nearby, a few minutes by car, rises the Gran Piedra, a huge rock. You can only access the summit on foot. The mostly gentle ascent comes at the cost of an ascent of some 450 steps. At the top, the panorama offers both a view of the bay of Santiago and of the Sierra Maestra, a sumptuous mountain range cradle of the Castro revolution which was completed in 1959. We explore in 4 × 4 these heights, where the population lives in poverty. land and which also shelter the remains of coffee farms. The most recently restored is also the most impressive in terms of its organization.
Exemplary in its irrigation system, this finca was equipped with an aqueduct whose arches remain intact in the middle of a green Caribbean landscape. At the time, this work of art had the role of conveying water to the mill, allowing the unstacking and pulping of the coffee before it was sent to the port of Santiago. It is all the complexity of this agricultural ensemble and the way in which the French have shaped the territory to produce quality coffee that UNESCO has in fact made sacred.
Picturesque hiking trails
In addition, the Fraternidad, the name of this farm once owned by the parents of the poet José-Maria de Heredia, a member of the French Academy, offers a more human face of the French agricultural presence than that conveyed by Isabelica. Wishing to promote this heritage, the local authorities, the European Union and the Malongo Foundation have undertaken to create easy-level hiking trails called los caminos del cafe (“the coffee paths”). These paths that producers used to take to bring their coffee to the city meander through the rainforest. They make it possible to apprehend the island far from the urban tumult and its inconvenient pollution. Along these picturesque paths, where you only have to bend down to pick up fresh mangoes just fallen from the tree, Cuba is revealed in a virgin light.
Its national bird, the Cuban trogon, lets see its blue, white and red feathers with patience. Less inconspicuous, the Turkey Vulture, also called Turkey Vulture because of its strong facial resemblance to the Gallinaceous, spins above the heads when not posed in flocks in the middle of the road. During these walks are also revealed plains of greenery towards which plunge the earthy paths. Never threatening, the sky can however turn angry in a few minutes to flood the forest with a hot and ephemeral tropical downpour while small plots of coffee continue, willy-nilly, to be cultivated by courageous peasants that one form of collectivism has not discouraged.
More authentic, right in the center, right next to Santiago Cathedral, Casa Dranguet
In Santiago too, we are working hard to bring coffee back to life on a cultural level. In his fondita (small kitchen), Compay Ramon plays coffee, in a very musical way, with a pestle which he says belonged to his ancestors. We don’t have to believe this actor with his belt adorned with a cutter and his mouth full of an enormous cigar, but the place is warm, the welcome just as much, and the prospect of roasting yourself his coffee – which Ramon does not hesitate to add powerfully to the rum – is delightful anyway.
More authentic, in the heart of the city, right next to Santiago Cathedral, Casa Dranguet, named after another French owner family, retraces Cuba’s coffee history in a small museum. The hope of coffee growers is to see a local roasting tool flourish within these walls. It would restore pride to producers and allow these caminos del cafe to come full circle.
With Air France, daily flight from Paris to Havana from € 500 (www.airfrance.fr). From Havana to Santiago, allow 12 hours by car or 1.5 hours by plane, daily flights with Cubana de Aviacion from € 300 (www.cubana.cu).
In Cuba, the Iberostar Heritage Casa Granda (www.iberostarcasagranda.com) offers a pleasant terrace and four-star comfort. From 65 €. In the Sierra Maestra, guest houses offer accommodation for 25 to 30 €. Near Isabelica (visit: € 1; right to take photos: € 5), the Gran Piedra lodges overlook the ocean. In the freshness of the eponymous mountain which rises to 1250 meters above sea level, an ideal setting to escape urban pollution. Count 28 € for two, with breakfast.
Access to wifi is limited on the island. Cards sold for less than one euro allow access to them near hotels for an hour.
The paths of coffee:
To access the Caminos del cafe by 4×4, the Ecotur company offers rental from Santiago with a driver-guide (one of them is French-speaking) for a price of € 75 per person per day. Coffee and “coffee arrangé” cost between 1 and 2 € (www.ecoturcuba.tur.cu).
Why Europe and France are funding Cuban projects
Beyond the aid from the European Union, granted as part of its development aid policy to create these coffee paths in Cuba, France has also decided to indirectly support this project by making a road leading to at the Sierra Maestra. Besides a more favorable access to the reception of tourists, it will allow above all the local populations, mainly farmers, to transport their production more easily to Santiago. This financing comes as part of the conversion of Cuban debt into a fund to finance projects on the island. A measure decided in 2016 by François Hollande, then President of the Republic. At the same time, the foundation of the Nice roaster Malongo works to develop local coffee cultures by regularly sending an agronomist. In a system where purchase prices are set by the state, Cuba has until now paid little attention to the quality of its coffee… which, however, made its wealth a little over a hundred years ago.