There is nothing more smug-making than going to a touristy spot and finding a more picturesque vista than that seen by the maddening crowd. A more unspoilt pool to swim in, a path less travelled. This is one of those stories, though we can't claim any kudos; it was quite accidental. Which is also perhaps the best way.
El Nicho is the name of a waterfall in a national park area an hour or so into the hills behind CIenfuegos. It's one of the local recommended trips; you go through a green, jungly area with coffee plantations, small settlements, and lots of macho-looking guys on horseback with wide hats, spurs, and lassoes they actually use to catch cows.
You can get a government tour up there, but our house mother Carmen had a friend with an elderly but relatively workable car - a Lada with a refurbished Toyota engine, a welded-on Suzuki dashboard, and a gear stick that stuck visibly straight out of the car workings - no trimmings in between.
We stopped in the carpark, where Carmen's mate opened up the bonnet and worryingly started tinkering with the car. He was soon to surrounded by other drivers with helpful suggestions - which presumably worked, as we rattled home at a fine pace.
We left them to it and followed some local day-trippers down what we assumed was the right path to the waterfall. 100 metres or so downstream, the locals were already setting up their picnics, opening their beers, turning on their music (no Cuban day out is complete without lots of music), and jumping into some surprisingly cold river pools - for Cuba, at least. In pioneering fashion we decided to continue down the river, reached the end of the track, and started exploring further down, clambering over rocks and past waterfalls in search of other pools to swim in. And we found them.
First a fine deep pool, with a rock to jump off, and further down, accessible only via a cave, possibly the best swimming hole in the world, a large pool fed by a waterfall, and with an amazing view of vast swathes of forest below.
We were the only people there, and might have been the first discoverers ever, except for Yelena, who had carved her name in big letters into the rock.
We passed a happy couple of hours there, only to discover when we got back to the top, that the official "El Nicho" track to the waterfall goes upstream, not down. And instead of our blissful, empty pool, the real El Nicho involves a large entrance fee, a 1.5km track shared with lots of other day-trippers, and a crowded (though beautiful) waterfall pool, with no real view.
Oh we were so smug!