We had spent a couple of cactus-less days now and had to break the trend. At least the weather was cooperating: bright but with a nice breeze and temperature around 20C.
The turn to the Presa Rio Gibara was not too far from our hotel. The Presa is a dam that had created a lake, with the type locality of Melocactus holguinensis at the bottom of it. Just before leaving the hotel, I received an email from Gerard Delanoy, one of the authors of the Melocactus of Cuba book, warning that the road from the main road to the Presa was a poor one, during his visit some years ago. After three months on Brazilian roads, the track was as good or better than most we had been on in pursuit of cacti, and very well sign-posted. We travelled past the usual collection of wooden houses with palm leaves as roofs, past bicycle- and horse-and-cart taxis and ox-carts with cargo such as sugarcane. After some 10 km (t seemed longer than the 8km indicated at the turning) our hearts sank. We had arrived, but the road was blocked by a gate and an unambiguous sign: ‘No Pase – Keep Out’.
I climbed a low hill by the side of the road, outside the fence, from where I could see the dam and a road disappearing over another hill. There were some Agave anomala here that had their picture taken, so that I have at least some plant pictures of this stop. From my vantage point, I could see people in some huts near the gate, standing in their yard and curiously looking at me and the car parked near the gate. The entrance to their yard was outside the barbed wire fence, but they seemed to be able to stroll into the fenced off area. In fact, there did not appear to be any officials from the Electricity Company that controlled the dam and lake. Time to try out my ‘Spenglish’.
I greeted the elderly gentleman standing in the doorway of his cottage and explained that I lived in England. Did he understand English? ‘Si!’ Great! Later it transpired that his response to most of our questions was ‘si.’ A young boy ran off and came back with a young man. I showed him the pages of the lake and dam plus of a Melocactus in the book. ‘Yes, I know these’ he said confidently. ‘Could he be our guide to the plants? Was that allowed?’ ‘Si!’
He disappeared, presumably to tell his wife that he was going to take us to the lake, and I got Cliff & Mike to join us. We waited and I began to get an uneasy feeling. I was right. He appeared with a big smile on his face and a large bag with three Melocacti, roots and all. Freshly dug up.
We exclaimed ‘Oh, no!’ and pulled sad faces, while trying to smile to say thank you, but it was not what we wanted! We somehow managed to get the message across that we would not be allowed to take these plants from Cuba and not into England. Not allowed. We just wanted to take their picture in their habitat. Was that possible?’ ‘Si!’ and another smile. But had he understood the question?
We stood around a while longer until I motioned that we should go up the hill from where he had come carrying the plants. He took the hint and took the lead with his young son and two dogs. The three of us followed a bit more slowly – this was a steep hill!. Ten minutes later we were on the shores of the lake (S1716), and there, between shrubs and bushes along the lake side, were the plants, just as in the book, but in much denser vegetation.
It was notable that we found the plants to up to ten meters from the water’s edge and just about two meters above it. Our guide told us that the water level was low and indicated that it had been about two meters higher, which would have just about reached the Melos. Yet there were none seen higher up where risk of flooding would be less. Why?
An hour later we were back at the car – great stop with plenty of time for exploring left. We drove north to the coast, hoping that just as in the south, there would be coral limestone terraces with more Melos. Not so.
The road took us to a gate and the sign ‘Parque Monumento Nacional Bariary’ (S1717) and an attendant who asked CUC$ 8 admission per person plus CUC$1 per camera. We agreed that I would be the ‘official photographer’ inside the Parque and paid for one camera. The purpose of the Parque turned out to be that the bay of Bariary was the spot where Christopher Columbus first landed on 28 October 1492. Baracoa has made the same claim for years but has now ceded their claim to Bariary. For all it’s historical significance there was not much tourist interest. A coach party of Dutch and German visitors left as we arrived and we met one Spanish speaking tourist who was being shown around by a taxi driver. There were probably more staff than visitors. Entertainment included a re-enactment of an Arawak tribesman stealing a wife from another Arawak village before the actors posed with us for pictures, invited us to visit the souvenir shop and suggested that we may pay a tip. Cuba will change a lot once the current regime changes further to a more enterprising economy, and not all for the better!
We did at least establish that the coast here is made up of coral limestone but very low and no cacti, accept the odd Opuntia stricta were spotted.