Reforestation and ecotourism at Las Terrazas

Cuba is definitely one of the world’s rising travel destinations, and the money brought by foreign tourists is a significant source of revenue for the isolated island nation. One of Cuba’s less well-known destinations is Las Terrazas, a community of 1200 people located in the Sierra del Rosario mountains, less than an hour’s drive from Havana. These mountains were the location of a massive reforestation project 50 years ago, and today the area has been transformed into Cuba’s premier ecotourism destination. But tourists and the environment are not the only ones benefiting from the project; more important has been the improvement of the lives of the rural people living at Las Terrazas.

View of Las Terrazas
Las Terrazas – Cuba’s premier destination for ecotourism – is a small community surrounded by reforested mountains.

Reversal of deforestation and the creation of Las Terrazas

It has been estimated that 90% of Cuba was covered by forests before the arrival of the Spanish, but by the time of the Cuban revolution in 1959 this figure was less than 15%. The reforestation of Cuba started in 1968 when Fidel Castro envisioned his Green Revolution, a project well ahead of its time globally. Castro wanted to reforest the deforested areas and at the same time he also wanted to improve the lives of rural people living in poverty.

The most famous result of this Green Revolution was the reforestation of the Sierra del Rosario mountains. The mountains had been largely deforested by the French who came there in the 18th century to build coffee plantations. The local people – living in extreme poverty with no running water, electricity or medical care – were surviving by producing charcoal, causing further deforestation.

Coffee farm ruins in Las Terrazas
The major cause of deforestation in Cuba has been agriculture, including sugarcane and coffee plantations. Today the ruins of more than 70 French coffee plantations are scattered in the reforested mountains around Las Terrazas.

The mountains were first terraced in order to prevent erosion, and millions of trees were then planted on these terraces. The people living in the mountains had to be relocated and thus the village of Las Terrazas – named after the newly terraced landscape – was born. The lives of these people improved, as the community of Las Terrazas had clean water, electricity and a clinic, making it a much more desirable place to live than other similarly sized communities in the area, even today.

Hiking through these mountains today it is hard to believe that the forests have been planted by people and that it was done less than 50 years ago. Indeed, the reforestation project has been so successful that the area was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1984. The previously bare and nearly lifeless mountains of Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve are today home to more than 500 species of plants and 117 species of birds. In addition to this, Cuba started another reforestation project in 1998, which has further reforested other parts of the island – making over 30% of the land forest again.

Forest around Las Terrazas
The reforestation of the Sierra del Rosario mountains has been so successful that the area is today a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

The arrival and rise of tourism

In the 1990s Cuba’s economy started a downfall when the country was virtually isolated from foreign trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a food crisis as Cuba struggled to export its sugar and grow enough food to feed its people. One of the results of this crisis was that Cuba opened to tourism, hoping that the revenue from tourism would help the country to survive. This is also when Las Terrazas was transformed into an ecotourism destination and Cuba’s first eco-hotel, Hotel Moka, was opened in the village.

Hotel Moka in Las Terrazas
Hotel Moka blends in with the surrounding nature, and this 100-year-old tree bisects the lobby.

Tourism has since kept the community alive, and today 90% of the residents of Las Terrazas work in tourism. Tourists can take one of the many hiking trails in the surrounding forests, visit ruins of coffee farms, swim in natural pools, and even try Cuba’s longest zip-line route. The community is also home to plenty of artists and studios, some of whom make art out of recycled materials like beer cans.

With all this to offer it is not surprising that more and more tourists are discovering Las Terrazas, and there are already plans to build another hotel to meet the rising demand. Hopefully, this growth in tourism can be managed in a responsible way that keeps benefiting both the ecosystem and the village community, as it has done so far.

Baths of San Juan in Las Terrazas
The natural swimming pools of San Juan are one Las Terrazas’ main tourist attractions.

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