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by Ailyn Martín Pastrana

Eastern Cuba is probably one of the most interesting areas in the country. Visitors should be sure not to miss the natural, historical and cultural attractions it offers: Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba; the mountainous massif of the Sierra Maestra, the place that gave birth to the start of the Cuban Revolution in the 1958; and Gran Piedra, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest rock of its size above sea level and the third largest in the world.

At 1,234 meters above sea level, its natural elevation gives you an amazing view after you have met the challenge of climbing the 452 steps separating earth from the stars. From that vantage point, you can take great photos of the coast where the beaches and hotels of Baconao Park are located along with some tall buildings in the capital of Santiago de Cuba Province, the second largest city in the country after the capital Havana.

La Gran Piedra owes its name to a monumental piece of a rock of volcanic origin. It measures some 51 meters long by 25 high and 30 wide. Its weight is estimated at over 63,000 tons. It’s not hard to imagine why the focal point of the mountain range known as the Sierra de la Gran Piedra should be a place where tourists interested in Cuban flora and fauna make their pilgrimages.

Famous for being the largest rocky massif in all of the islands of the Caribbean, there are many theories as to the origin of that natural lookout point. The most imaginative versions talk about a meteorite that supposedly hit the Island millions of years ago. The more sensible speculations attribute it to the eruption of an undersea volcano. On the island’s southeastern coast we find the Bartlett-Caimán complex transform fault zone, an active tectonic structure having the potential for earthquakes that would generate geological phenomena of up to eight degrees in magnitude (however no such event has ever occurred in the area).

The Sierra de la Gran Piedra is one of the most extensive natural reserves in Cuba with a collection of eucalyptus, Maestrense and Cubenses pines, orchids and cypresses… The fauna is also abundant, home to endemic species such as the Tocororo, the Cuban National Bird that is difficult to find because it is an endangered species; the Gretacuba butterfly, almost invisible thanks to its transparent wings.

Besides the natural elevation, the Sierra has another attraction: the archeological remains of dozens of French-Haitian coffee plantations set up in the area in the 19th century. Hikers can stroll through the ruins and see first-hand the presence of a population that brought with them customs that survive today in the Caribbean area.

With the migratory process, more than 600 coffee plantations were set up, generating an economic and cultural boom. Living testimony of that period in history is La Isabélica coffee plantation, today a museum that can be visited by hikers. Visitors will be able to see the details of life in the Cuban countryside and discover how coffee production has become a basic economic pillar for eastern Cuba right up to the present day. In 2000, the archeological landscape of those early coffee plantations in southeastern Cuba, including El Olimpo, La Gran Sofía, Fraternidad, and many others, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Enthusiasts of nature tourism in all of its varieties, including hiking, mountain climbing and bike-tourism, have a world of enjoyment in the Sierra de la Gran Piedra. In a setting reminiscent of paradise, one–night stays are hardly enough. There is nothing more charming than to spend the night in a bungalow built on the side of a mountain. The site is perfect for meditation and for taking photographs and yet this haven of peace and tranquility is only 16 kilometers from the downtown area.

Tips For Climbing Gran Piedra:

Plan to go up in the morning, preferably before 11 am because the fog will affect visibility as the day wears on

Wear comfy shoes: the terrain has rough patches

Make sure to take liquids to prevent dehydration

Consume some energy-rich foods, such as candy, peanuts or chocolate

Don’t forget your camera to take some souvenir shots of the site (taking 360° panoramic views are a must!)

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