My review below is intended as a guide for people booking the Topes de Collantes excursion, which my boyfriend and I did just over a week ago. It was a phenomenal day. Check out the "Topes de Collantes" Attraction page to see this review, and others, and photos.
TOPES DE COLLANTES
Also known as “forest/mountain adventure” “forest hike” “topes hike”.
Cost: 60 CUC
Book: With your provider (Transat/Nolitours, etc.) once you get to your hotel, in the lobby.
Runs: Monday and Thursday, depending on the season. We went on March 31, 2014.
Depart: 6:45am - 7:30am (from Cayo Santa Maria)
Bring: Light backpack, your excursion receipt/slip given to you by your rep, health insurance (just in case), water bottles, sunscreen, bug repellent, small cash for tips, camera, Kleenex + hand sanitizer (no toilet paper or soap in most restrooms) quick-dry towels (small/easy to pack, such as ones from Mountain Equipment Co-op) or resort towels, small snacks (energy bars/nuts) for the drive there/back, sunglasses/hat, swimsuit (wear it under your clothes, there is no place to change), and most importantly: appropriate footwear (sneakers, hiking shoes, “Barefoot Running” shoes, etc.)
*You do NOT need your passport as you will not be travelling by plane*
This is an all-day excursion to the Topes de Collantes mountain in the Sierra Escambray rainforest, also known as the National Park of Guanayara. It is 3 hours by bus away from Cayo Santa Maria. This was our favourite excursion (we liked it even more than Havana by plane!) and we can’t wait to go back. It was our only opportunity to see the vegetation and landscape of the island in all its variations.
The tour bus to the mountain takes you through past Santa Clara, Remedios, Caribien, and Trinidad, so it’s a very interesting ride. The bus’ ascent up the mountain can cause some motion sickness as the road is very windy and the incline is steep, so take Gravol if this will be an issue. Around mid-morning (10am or 11am), before we reached the spot where the tour would begin, we stopped at a rest-stop near the side of the mountain. There was a two-storey restaurant that provided the group with free sandwiches (ham and cheese) and 1 drink of your choice – anything extra (such as beer) will cost CUCs. This was an ideal spot to take some photos as the view is incredible. The bathroom I was told is pretty gross, so I’d advise using the restroom on the bus.
After this, the bus continued for 10 minutes or less and we reached the “hand-off” point. Here, the group meets the Collantes mountain guide – in our case, the incredible Louis! – and gets into some fun Russian army trucks for the further ascent up the mountain.
The ride is VERY bumpy – but fun and fast – and has lots of jolts so keep this in mind if you suffer from nausea or are pregnant.
After this, the Collantes guide (who is an ecological expert!) takes you on the hike, which is more of a leisurely walk, through the mountain on a very well-cleared path. Along the way you stop to look at coffee trees, learn about the flora and fauna on the mountain, and take photos at a gorgeous waterfall and inside a cave. The group will then separate: those who want to continue with a light or mild hike (again, more of an easy walk) will continue with one guide and spend the better part of an hour at a fresh-water pool for swimming. Those want to do the tougher “Rambo Tour” (their branding!) will continue with the Collantes guide.
This tour lasts approximately 30-40 minutes and it involves swimming, jumping into fresh water pools, and trekking down mild (not rushing) rapids/a stream. My boyfriend and I are in our mid to late twenties, in adequate physical shape, and had no issue completing this tour. We noticed older couples and people in a variety of shapes were up for the challenge and had a blast.
You MUST hand over your backpack to the half of the group who will not be completing this hike, as you cannot swim with it on. Trust me, they will be safe, and the walking group are good sports about carrying a few extra backpacks. My boyfriend and I stripped down to our swimsuits (which were under our hiking clothes) and I kept on my shorts, which turned out to be a good idea as we would be scaling over a lot of rocks/logs. We were told to keep our shoes on, so bring footwear that you don’t mind getting wet. We were wearing regular running shoes, but I noticed a gentleman with Barefoot Shoes (Vibram/Body Glove) had made the best choice – those shoes are ideal for navigating the slippery walks you walk in the stream.
Our Collantes guide, Louis, was with us every step of the way, helping us over rocks and offering assistance when needed. It’s not a fatiguing hike at all as you are slowly walking through water or swimming, and then waiting for the group to catch up. The real issue is the slippery rocks at the base of the stream, so just take your time. No one on the Rambo tour was hurt, but many slipped on their bums!
The final destination of the Rambo Tour was the fresh-water pool with small waterfall, where the other group is waiting. To get down there, you swing on a very study/supportive vine rope, Tarzan-style, into the water below! Incredible and fun.
After a quick swim, everyone towels off and puts their layers back on. We then walked another 40-45 minutes on a very clear and easy path (there are some slopes up/down) to a ranch restaurant. Everyone sits at long wooden tables and enjoys a Cuban repast of freshly wood-oven roasted chicken with mouthwatering BBQ sauce, and platters of salad, bread and butter, rice and boiled potatoes. You get two free drinks (a welcome cocktail and another beverage of your choice: beer, water, pop), and the meal is finished with cup of coffee. This was the best meal we had on the trip, and was the perfect end to the day. Highly, highly recommend this excursion, and you’ll be twice as lucky if you get Louis as your guide!