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Rise of the Artists: The Fascinating History of Las Terrazas

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The words “purpose built community” can conjure up a variety of images. Bland suburbs on land carved out of swamps, filled with buildings that look alarmingly similar. Not exactly somewhere you’d want to visit while on holiday. One particular planned community will shatter any preconceived notions that you might have about this sort of place. Drive south out of Havana for an hour or so and you will come to a village called Las Terrazas (The Terraces), nestled in lush green hills. The planned beauty of Las Terrazas is in sharp contrast to the rest of hectic Cuba, but the planned nature of the area doesn’t reduce its authenticity.

Over the Centuries

It’s not as though Las Terrazas was a hidden oasis in the middle of nowhere that was developed in order to provide infrastructure and housing for the people of Cuba. The area has been utilised for various purposes for centuries, and it was some of these uses that were almost the undoing of the region. Interest in the hills around what is now Las Terrazas can be traced all the way back to when Cuba was colonised by the Spanish. Wood was needed to build their fledgling settlements across the country, and the forests of the hills in the area were a valuable resource in this respect. Sustainable harvesting was a concept that was still some centuries away, so countless trees were chopped down and removed with little thought for the future wellbeing of the environment. A number of coffee plantations were established in the area over the centuries too, much to the detriment (and outright destruction) of what little of the landscape was still intact.

A Town is Reborn

The environmental decline of the region did not go unnoticed, and a drastic intervention was planned. In 1968 then-President Fidel Castro ordered the rejuvenation of the area. This was not a plan to turn it into a bustling metropolis, but instead to return the hills around Las Terrazas to their former glory. Extensive replanting took place, and the land was cultivated with the addition of the terraces that give the town its name. These were added to the hills themselves, creating farmable land in a way that could be contained. This land was not used for generic crops either, and were largely used to plant tropical fruit trees. These were trees that would thrive and produce an income while still rejuvenating the area. Roads were improved upon and expanded, and a number of homes and other buildings were constructed in way that they could exist in harmony with the surrounding land. A number of original structures were retained, and some of these date back centuries. This was not intended to be a new, sprawling town. The efforts were so successful that it was designated as a UNESCO preserve in 1984.

Another Decline

The rejuvenation of Las Terrazas continued until 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart. The economy of Cuba was linked to the USSR, and this meant that the country’s finances needed to be redirected to more pressing matters. Once again, Las Terrazas and the area around it was in jeopardy. Cuba had always been popular with tourists (with the exception of Americans who could not visit quite so easily), and the 1990s were no different. Slowly but surely, Las Terrazas was opened up to visitors and positioned as a unique slice of Cuba. There is a range of accommodation on offer, both private homestays and some sublime ecolodges.This is convenient, since you might want to hang around for a few days. Las Terrazas is undeniably Cuban, and yet is so different from the rest of the country.

The Artists of Las Terrazas

As is often the case with such a unique community, Las Terrazas became a magnet for certain types of people. Over the last couple of decades a huge number of artists have settled in the town, giving it another distinctive layer to its already fascinating character. There are a lot of galleries and workshops crammed into what is a fairly small town. This is yet another reason why visitors flock to the town and a day tour in Las Terrazas is highly recommended. The art on offer ranges from kitschy stuff that seems to be geared towards visitors, along with more substantial original pieces. The town’s green credentials continue to grow, and this is largely why many visitors come to Las Terrazas. It offers a welcome piece of serenity when contrasted to the delightfully hectic experience that is common in the rest of the country. It’s not a place that would spring to mind when you think of the typical Cuba, but the town is a planned community where everything went very much to plan. And the whole country is richer for it…

 

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