III. THE COUNTRY
Description of the physical features of a country seldom makes highly entertaining reading, but it seems a necessary part of a book of this kind. Some readers may find interest if not entertainment in such a review. The total area of the island, including a thousand or more adjacent islands, islets, and keys, is given as 44,164 square miles, a little less than the area of Pennsylvania and a little more than that of Ohio or Tennessee. Illustration of its shape by some familiar object is difficult, although various comparisons have been attempted. Some old Spanish geographers gave the island the name of La Lengua de Pajaro, "the bird's tongue." Mr. M.M. Ballou likened it to "the blade of a Turkish scimitar slightly curved back, or approaching the form of a long, narrow, crescent." Mr. Robert T. Hill holds that it "resembles a great hammer-headed shark, the head of which forms the straight, south coast of the east end of the island, from which the sinuous body extends westward. This analogy is made still more striking by two long, finlike strings of keys, or islets, which extend backward along the opposite coasts, parallel to the main body of the island." But all such comparisons call for a lively imagination. It might be likened to the curving handles of a plow attached to a share, or to any one of a dozen things that it does not at all clearly resemble. Regarding the Oriente coast, from Cape Cruz to Cape Maisi, as a base, from that springs a long and comparatively slender arm that runs northwesterly for five hundred miles to the vicinity of Havana. There, the arm, somewhat narrowed, turns downward in a generally southwestern direction for about two hundred miles. The total length of the island, from Cape Maisi on the east to Cape San Antonio on the west, is about seven hundred and thirty miles. Its width varies from a maximum, in Oriente Province, of about one hundred and sixty miles, to a minimum, in Havana Province, of about twenty-two miles. It has a general coast line of about twenty-two hundred miles, or, following all its sinuosities, of about seven thousand miles. Its north coast is, for much of its length, steep and rocky. Throughout the greater part of the middle provinces, there is a border of coral reefs and small islands. At the western end, the north coast is low, rising gradually to the eastward. At the eastern end, the northern coast is abrupt and rugged, rising in a series of hills to the elevations in the interior. Westward from Cape Maisi to Cape Cruz, on the south coast, and immediately along the shore line, runs a mountain range. From here westward, broken by an occasional hill or bluff, the coast is low and marshy.
Probably the best description of the topography and the orography of the island yet presented is that given by Mr. Robert T. Hill, of the United States Geological Survey. In his book on Cuba and other islands of the West Indies, Mr. Hill says:
"As regards diversity of relief, Cuba's eastern end is mountainous, with summits standing high above the adjacent sea; its middle portion is wide, consisting of gently sloping plains, well-drained, high above the sea, and broken here and there by low, forest-clad hills; and its western third is a picturesque region of mountains, with fertile slopes and valleys, of different structure and less altitude than those of the east. Over the whole is a mantle of tender vegetation, rich in every hue that a flora of more than three thousand species can give, and kept green by mists and gentle rains. Indenting the rock-bound coasts are a hundred pouch-shaped harbors such as are but rarely found in the other islands and shores of the American Mediterranean.
"But, at the outset the reader should dispossess his mind of any preconceived idea that the island of Cuba is in any sense a physical unit. On the contrary, it presents a diversity of topographic, climatic, and cultural features, which, as distributed, divide the island into at least three distinct natural provinces, for convenience termed the eastern, central, and western regions. The distinct types of relief include regions of high mountains, low hills, dissected plateaus, intermontane valleys, and coastal swamps. With the exception of a strip of the south-central coast, the island, as a whole, stands well above the sea, is thoroughly drained, and presents a rugged aspect when viewed from the sea. About one-fourth of the total area is mountainous, three-fifths are rolling plain, valleys, and gentle arable slopes, and the remainder is swampy.
"The island border on the north presents a low cliff topography, with a horizontal sky-line from Matanzas westward, gradually decreasing from five hundred feet at Matanzas to one hundred feet on the west. The coast of the east end is abrupt and rugged, presenting on both the north and south sides a series of remarkable terraces, rising in stair-like arrangement to six hundred feet or more, representing successive pauses or stages in the elevation of the island above the sea, and constituting most striking scenic features. About one-half the Cuban coast is bordered by keys, which are largely old reef rock, the creations of the same coral-builders that may now be seen through the transparent waters still at work on the modern shallows, decking the rocks and sands with their graceful and many colored tufts of animal foliage."