Intent on swimming by a waterfall anyway, Mr E Man then picked El Nicho, near Cienfuegos. As with our trip to Habana, we chose an organised tour - but in this case, it really was the only option as we were repeatedly told that most Cuban cars can't handle the road in, which is winding, steep, and in poor condition. Our brand new, Chinese-built minibus had enough problems, creaking and groaning its way up and down the steep grades. As it turns out though, the tour was great. We chatted to the other people on the bus (a mother and son from Ontario, two guys from Israel, and one German), to our wonderfully smiley guide, and to the musicians we picked up en route (no meal or other experience in Cuba is complete without a live band, and this was no exception).
The drive was amazing. On the bus down from Varadero we'd seen how lush and green the countryside is - and much wilder, less intensively farmed than I'd imagined. But this drive into the mountains was something else, and the driver stopped a few times for photo opportunities.
Upon arriving at El Nicho, our guide led us into the woods on a nature walk. She was an encyclopedic source of knowledge about the local plants and their medicinal uses, and local folklore about the plants and birds we saw. We ate fresh berries from the coffee plants growing wild in the reserve, and heard wondrous stories about the delicious fruit of the mamey tree:
"It is the most delicious fruit in the world. Everybody in Cuba loves it, we are so happy when the mameys ripen. It looks good, it smells good, and it tastes so very, very good. But it is not in season, so you can't have any".
Our new German friend said "do, please, keep telling us how amazing this wonderful fruit is that we can't have", and she waxed lyrical for another minute or two, laughing heartily at our jealous faces!
Luckily, the main attraction of El Nicho soon came into view, taking our minds off delicious forbidden fruit:
There's a series of pools, and we lost no time getting into the biggest, bluest, most waterfall-y of the group. Having told several Cubans where we were going, we expected the water to be extremely cold. Everyone had told us how beautiful it was, but said it was "muy frío" even in August, when most Cubans visit. To go in November? You Canadians are crazy! We were warned repeatedly by our hostess Esther and her daughter, and started to take the advice to heart.
But really? For Canadians? It barely even counted as "refreshing" (well, until you swam under the waterfall). Our German companion agreed with us, but our two new Israeli friends were significantly slower to get in!
Mr E Man took this photo of me taking a photo of the mother and son from Ontario
Our guide said that for those who can stand the cold (she couldn't get past her ankles), this was actually the best time of year to visit - during the rainy season, and for a few months afterwards, the pools are full of mud, vegetation, and other debris washed down by the rain. But we were treated to beautifully clear water.
We went from pool to pool for around an hour, before being summoned for lunch at the reserve's one and only restaurant. We sat in the sunshine and had a delicious meal of pork, potatoes, and salad, to the sound of a band playing that wonderful Cuban music, before getting back into the bus for a picturesque ride back to Cienfuegos. After dinner we met up with the German and Israelis for beers and more music.
The only low point in the whole day was the sorry sight of a female dog in the restaurant, obviously nursing, who was a pathetic mess of skin and bones. Every single one of us in the group took pity on her and fed her large chunks of meat. There was another nursing female too, less skinny than the other but not in good condition. She got some smaller pieces of meat and a couple of potatoes. There was also a happy, healthy, bright-eyed bushy-tailed male, who we thought looked rather pleased with himself.
We didn't give him anything.