Slogging up to Castro's Secret Hideaway

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  2/18/1999

COMANDANCIA DE LA PLATA, Cuba - There's something alluring about secret hideouts, whether it's Batman's Cave or just Fidel Castro's former revolutionary headquarters burrowed high in the mist-shrouded Sierra Maestra mountains.

So after a few months lurking not far from the Maximum Leader's erstwhile nest of rebellion, I figured I'd check it out. My main mistake, however, was mounting the steep slopes in a pair of pricey running shoes.

I learned that a few minutes into the 4-mile trek up a winding, mossy-rocked trail.

First came the pelting rain. Then globs of oozing mud. Finally, a steady stream flooded the route leading up the mountain.

The gaggle of Austrian tourists
began to scatter about the trail like strewn bowling pins - teetering or supine in the muddy gutter.

"It was easier for the revolutionaries. They had combat boots," said Obi, our 24-year-old guide, who managed to keep his bright white imitation Nike's spotless. "They also used mules."

The journey to Castro's secret headquarters during most of his 1956-1959 guerilla war against then dictator Fulgencio Batista, who often sent U.S.-supplied B-26 bombers to strafe the rebel stronghold, began before dawn in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city on its southeast coast.

Wilfredo, our gray-haired former guerilla warrior taxi driver, whisked us from the hilly city's narrow streets to the Sierra Maestra's lush greens in a sleek, state-owned 1997 Citroen. The recent French import, though embarrassingly new in a country where many cars predate the revolution, proved worthy of its $100 bill as the rolling hills climbed into steep mountains.

"Batista's army couldn't defeat the revolutionaries because Fidel held the high ground," explained Wilfredo, cruising past an old Soviet Lada chugging up the precipitous grade. "The bombers couldn't find them because the Sierra Maestra is dense with foliage."

About three hours later, after passing scores of small mountain villages once won over by Castro's band of bearded rebels, a flimsy rope blocking the road halted the Citroen. Across the street a skinny man clutching a government receipt book was waiting for us in a small shed.

He said we had to pay $5 to continue. I asked him why the Marxist government was interested in profiting from one of its sacred symbols.

"If you go to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you have to pay $10," he piped back. "This is a bargain."

We handed him the dollars and Wilfredo steered us up near vertical inclines. A few minutes after passing another dingy Lada, whose passengers had already set out on foot to climb the several miles of slatted pavement, our squealing taxi reached a cement plateau called Alto del Naranjo.

Wood planks nailed to a post marked
the crossroads: Pico Turquino, Cuba's highest peak, 13 kilometers. A community called La Platica was 1.5. Santo Domingo, the largest of the nearby villages, was more than 5 kilometers downhill. The last sign pointed into the forest: 3 kilometers to Comandancia de La Plata.

The smooth dirt path enclosed by a variety of pine and palm trees quickly grew narrow and rocky. Large boulders left steep drops and mushy puddles at the bottom. Shrieking macaws, tree-rapping woodpeckers and a cacophony of less-friendly hissing and hoofing sounds made you wish you were carrying a machine gun.

The rain-drenched trail ended at a small shack. An elderly farm hand there told us we reached the halfway point to the Comandancia. Underneath the rest stop's beveled roof was a potpourri of plugs for the revolution: fraying posters of Castro and his guerrilla warrior pal Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Canadian flags and a sign-in book glowing with rebel sympathy mainly from European tourists.

Before setting back on the muddy trail, Obi informed us that we had to leave our cameras in the shack. Nearly forty years after winning the war, the government still maintained a semblance of secrecy about the commander in chief's main battlefront hideaway.

Maybe that was because the image-conscious leader preferred not to publicize the relative comfort he lived in during his more than two years cooped up in the Sierra Maestra.

We arrived at the Comandancia's first post after about another mile of slogging through tortuous trails. The thatched-roof hut served as a way station for visitors seeking to meet Castro, and also as a dental office.

A bearded dentist and guerilla officer named Luis Borges provided free dental services to peasants living nearby in La Plata. It was a way of impressing on the people the benefits of a social revolution, Obi said. Castro, plagued by bad teeth, was among the frequent visitors and Guevara, a trained doctor, sometimes tended patients.

Further up the hill, past a helicopter clearing where Obi said a CIA agent posing as a journalist guided planes to bomb the rebel headquarters, and above a crease in the mountains revealing the sea, lay the rebel leader's dormant camp.

A small house built after the revolution served as a museum. On display were several American Singer sewing machines used to stitch rebel uniforms, an assortment of rifles, battle maps and field medical kits, and a series of pious explanations about the rebels' heroic feats.

Past the grave of a fallen comrade, Obi pointed out the various look-alike wooden shacks camouflaged by a thick canopy of trees. One was called the Journalist's House. It served as everything from an ammunition dump to a place for Castro to meet the droves of international reporters who came to hype the rebel's cause.

The main attraction stood at the bottom of a log stairway: Castro's cabin. The two-room shed stood on stilts above a peaceful creek. Inside were comforts the rank and file soldiers didn't have: a double bed where Castro slept with his personal secretary Celia Sanchez and a gas-powered Swedish refrigerator. Near an escape hatch in the basement was the Comandancia's only outhouse, reserved for the commander in chief.

"Fidel would rarely sleep here; it was more a place to do work," said Obi, as several Austrians mentioned their surprise to see such comforts. "He would go and sleep on the front lines with the soldiers."

More than a hideout from Batista's troops, the Comandancia served as the revolution's staging ground. Castro aired verbal attacks against his enemies with a propped radio transmitter, soldiers learned how to shoot and guerillas would set out from the headquarters on their various missions.

The last building on the trail was the "civil affairs office for the liberated territories." It served as everything from a hospital, a shelter for a women's combat regiment to the site where Castro signed Revolutionary Law I, granting squatters, renters and tenants ownership of the land they worked.

The trip back to level land was a similar game of slip and slide.

Our small group had gravity to help increase the damage of our inevitable plunges. The rain picked up and the trail-level clouds fogged my glasses. A squishy sound of my $100 running shoes slapping the muddied trail clopped with every step.

Approaching the plateau from where we started, I squinted through my misty lenses in search for Obi. Scattered around me was a ragged group of previously primp tourists. The thought that we looked like we had just fought a guerilla war crossed my mind.

Then I found Obi. The young guide, who sometimes makes three trips a day to the Comandancia, had barely a speck of dirt smearing his American-imitation sneakers.

"I know the right rocks," Obi said. "It's my land."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.