Word of Fidel Castro’s death reached our hiking group in a bunkhouse in the Sierra Maestra mountains, just a few miles from the jungle command center where Castro led his guerrilla war against a US-backed government 60 years ago. Our local guide got the news on a crackling two-way radio, our only link to the outside world, before dawn on Saturday, several hours after the Cuban leader’s death in Havana. Castro had been ailing for several years and his death at the age of 90 did not come as a surprise. But our guide, Jorge Garcia, age 39, was subdued. He had only known life under Castro, and from 2008 on under Castro’s younger brother Raul.
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“It is very difficult to know what will happen in the future,” said Garcia, who at the age of 4 had met Castro. Some in our 16-member group said they felt privileged to be in Cuba at such a historic moment. Castro’s wartime headquarters, known as La Plata, was on our itinerary for the following day. It was from this compound in the Sierra Maestra mountains that Castro directed the guerrilla war that drove out the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista. The remote area’s canopy of trees provided cover for a hideout of several wooden shacks scattered over 400 hectares (988 acres), connected by narrow paths of steps dug into the soil and reinforced with wood planks.
Known as La Plata, it can only be reached on foot along a rocky 3-kilometer (2-mile) trail. Our drop-off point was a parking lot, and from there we walked to a shack once owned by a local farming family that was among the first to support the guerrillas. The old farmhouse marks a midway point where visitors pay a few dollars for a permit to take photos in La Plata. Our journey took us down a slope to a thatched hut that had served as a lookout point. Garcia said Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a physician who was Castro’s dashing comrade-in-arms, used the space to perform dental treatments even though he had no training as a dentist.
The next stop was a wood structure serving as a museum. It contains artifacts used by the rebels: a Remington typewriter for the hideout’s small office, a sewing machine for mending uniforms and Castro’s pen, which he later used to sign the first agrarian reform decree. The compound also has a kitchen near a small creek, a ridgetop radio station that sent broadcasts all over Cuba and a guest shack for potential recruits. The centerpiece is Castro’s shack, furnished with a double bed given to him by local farmers, a desk, shelves and even a refrigerator. The appliance has a palm-sized hole on one side, torn by shrapnel during an attack by government forces on those carrying it up the mountain.
Next to the fridge is a trap door to another hideout, to be used in case Batista’s forces had discovered the command center. “Here in this place, started everything, started … the revolution,” said Garcia, who holds degrees in history and accounting. “Everything we have today,” he added in halting English, is connected to this place. For some in our tour group, which included travelers from England, Ireland and Germany, the visit to La Plata was a highlight of a two-week trekking and sightseeing trip. Elaine Hendrie, 52, an accountant from Cambridge, England, said the command center was exactly as she had imagined it, though “the fridge came as a surprise.” “I loved the fact that I am in Cuba on this weekend,” she said. “I will never forget it.”