This is meant to be a tourist-oriented town, but it’s not supported by the documentation: there appear to be no local maps available showcasing the area’s attractions. Our first stop is with Yoan and Yarelis, the local area managers for the casa particulares in Vinales.
Lonely Planet advertises them as the go-to people for tours of the local area. It’s four o’clock and the place is teeming with young adventurers, waiting for their sunset tour of the Valley of Silence. We are shown a hand-drawn map on a crumpled piece of paper. This venerable document is being shown to all the tourists who arrive here.
We’re more concerned about finding a casa for the night…. Yarelis makes a call and our sleep is assured – or so we think. Our accommodation is located on the main road, San Vincente, but we take a narrow walkway between two houses out front, and three dwellings in, we find ourselves in a concrete courtyard in front of a lurid pink building with two rooms – both with prehistoric air conditioners which grunt into life and slave for an hour to cool the room, their labours not made any easier by the flat concrete roof which radiates heat like Chernobyl.
Our rooms are 25 CUC each, and breakfast is 4. Senora is deeply disappointed when we revise our stay to two nights, not three. She asks if we want one room or both – thinking maybe if we three squeeze into the two double beds in one room, she can rent out the other room to more people…. Nah, we’re not twenty-something backpackers any more. She removes the lurid sateen covers and reveals two one-sheeted double beds with one pillow on each. The shower head is such that you twist a dial for hot water: trouble is it seems to only provide either cold or scalding, nothing in between. The toilet seat is too small for the unit, so perching is a bit precarious as the seat slides around underneath the derriere. Furry lid cover adorns, with matching carpeting.
We sally forth for dinner in one of the LP suggestions:
The steaming evening requires seating selection for the greatest amount of flow-through breeze. W has a shrimp and lobster cocktail, reminiscent of the ones we had in Brisbane as an exotic appetizer in the 1970’s: cooked pink seafood in a cocktail glass, though here it is accompanied by aioli not the ketchup-mayonnaise sauce we used to have.
S and I have the specialty of the casa, yellow rice with pieces of fish, lobster, pork and chorizo. A bit like a Cuban paella. It’s tasty enough, though some of the meat pieces are cold, and one has the impression that it’s been put together from pre-prepared ingredients. A couple of beers, a couple of cokteles, and a flan (creme caramel) complete the meal.
A small tour along the street up to the main square completes our evening’s entertainment.
The houses here are mostly single storey, each one has a small veranda out front where the locals sit on their rocking chairs to take advantage of the cooling breeze and check out the action on the street. The few restaurants dotted along the road all look much alike and serve a variety of local dishes; meat grilled over charcoal or stewed, rice with beans and some vegetables. The cocktails are only 2-3 CUC each, but vary in quality from place to place. The local drink is Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) consisting of rum and their version of cola. The pina coladas are blended with real pineapple which are excellent.
It’s so hot, I’ve taken to beer.
The next day we contemplate what to do.. Choices are mostly around hiking; the photo of Yoan’s hand drawn map shows two main trails: National Park and Valley of the Silence. Both traverse the valleys between the mojotes, the limestone carsts (hills) that have been carved out over millennia. They are very similar to the carst formations in Halong Bay or parts of China, minus the rivers. But by 9.30 am it’s already hot and steamy, and I have no appetite for a four hour bushwalk, even if it is mostly flat terrain. We go to the beginning of the two walks, and Edgar shows us there is a local tobacco farm.
They also provided guided horse rides through the national park, but I have decided to do the horses a favour and not ride.
They all look on the under-nourished size, and I have a policy to not ride a horse that has a smaller butt than me. As we walk on to explore cigar production, three tourists are mounted and ready to go, but then there is a commotion and a loud thump – the guide’s horse has taken exception to something and has bucked him off, right over the Beetle standing in the car park. It seems nothing is hurt except perhaps il cavalleros‘ pride, so we all carry on.
Cigar making 101; from sowing to rolling, to smoking. It’s interesting: the seeds are tiny; smaller than a grain of sand, so they scatter them on a germinating area and when the seedlings grow they are planted into the field. Each plant has leaves with varying tobacco strength from top to bottom, and are harvested and hung for months to dry. When they are fully dry, the farm sells 90% of their crop to the government inspectors who more or less dictate the price. There is a little negotiation as the farmer tries to get more for higher quality, but I gather there’s not much leeway. After all, this is socialism.
The government then takes the leaves and mass produces cigars using a chemical process that shortens the curing time by three months.
The farmer, on the other hand, still uses the traditional method. The dried leaves are then soaked in a mixture containing a blend of water, herbs and most importantly, rum. The lot is then wrapped in banana leaves and allowed to marinade. Once that is completed, the leaf feels like very thin chamois leather, soft and pliable.
The leaf vein has so much nicotine in it, it’s toxic to consume, so they strip it out and use it to make an insect repellent to use on the crops. The collection of remaining leaf isthen rolled together in the hands and a flat leaf used to enclose the whole lot; a bit like rolling sushi. Clip the ends of the cigar by hand, take another special leaf, wind it diagonally around the cigar, and the tail end is twisted closed. The government uses chemicals to glue it closed, but here they use an organic glue. The whole process takes 12 months.
The young man pulls out cigars and tests them by sucking on an end – it appears that air flow is important to the quality. He finds one he’s happy with and clips off the closed end, dips it in honey and hands it over. Though I don’t like cigars, this one is appreciably better than the ones I remember trying before: smoother, milder and lacking the acrid taste of most others. Regrettably (for the farmers) we cannot buy any; for one thing none of our friends smoke cigarettes, let alone cigars; and secondly, importing one cigar to Australia would use up our entire duty free tobacco allowance… I think they have enough Aussies visiting to appreciate the situation, so there’s not much attempt to strong-arm us into buying.
After this, we decide to check out The Cave of the Indians, a limestone cave chamber which the indigenous Indians of Cuba used as living spaces. Outside is a tepee and a couple of indigenes, complete with loin cloths and tattoos.
They show us a young raptor, which I get to hold, some rodent-like creature about the size of a guinea pig which I also get to hold, though my furry friend really just wants to run back into the shade of the tepee. A conch blowing demonstration ensues, calling all the tourists far and wide to come. W and S have a go, W managing to make a rudimentary noise of some kind, but S manages to look like one of the cherubs one sees with cheeks expanded, but no noise.
The cave exploration is short, with interesting limestone stalactites and mites, well lit. The boat ride on the subterranean river is short and sweet, our capitan pointing out cute formations that look like sea horses, crocodile, snake and Columbus’ three galleons. Quite fanciful, but entertaining none-the less.
Time for lunch, so we find the restaurant perched on the side of a hill with balconies with a view.
The meal is a repeat of all the others, I have grilled chicken, S has whole fried snapper; a better choice. It comes with some tomato, cabbage and cucumber, plus rice. W’s pork sandwich is 2/3 pork, 1/3 bread, the meat delicious and tender. We figure we could come back for the sunset, since none of us have the energy for a 4 hour trek through the Valley of Silence. I think the silence would have been spoiled by my huffs and grunts and curses as I suffered the heat.
Our driver, Edgar, takes us to the end of the walk, and shows us here is the organic farm where we can watch the sunset, and have a drink and a meal. Much better than paying to suffer on foot.
Even now, at 7 pm the sun has a bite, so we slap ourselves on the back for choosing the lazy option. By 8 all the trekkers and tour buses have arrived, so we forgo the set menu of soup, stuffed plantain, and stew, and debunk to a LP recommended restaurant, Il Olivo. When we get there, it is full, with a line of other guide-book readers with the same idea. We wander all over the small town looking for the other recommendation, La Cocinita del Medio. Hah, closed on Sundays. We settle for a quasi-Italianate restaurant not far from the main plaza where they are playing Michael Jackson in celebration of 1st May, the worker’s holiday. We settle for spaghetti with garlic and parsley, which makes me burp for the rest of the night. We repair to our hot room and try to sleep to the wheezing of the A/C.
The next day we forgo Luis Miguel’s network for our next accommodation: our last two nights are not a recommendation for quality control. Instead, we ask driver Edgar if he knows any places in Playa Larga, and can he call on our behalf. Of course he can – five steps from the beach ok? Ooh Yeah!!!
Leaving Vinales, we divert to Pinar del Rio, which is the capital of the province. Edgar counsels that there is nothing there to see, though LP suggests four or five points of interest. We wind our way down the hill, when suddenly, Edgar has to throw out the anchors because the car in front has braked suddenly to avoid a chicken. Accompanied by the smell of burning rubber, we skid to a halt – collision avoided but I can hear Edgar’s galloping heart from the back seat. Our road takes us down out of the hills and onto flat terrain again; fields, fields and more fields. Cattle and horses are tethered everywhere there is a patch of grass, though it can’t be very nutritious considering how their ribs jut out of their bodies.
We arrive at Pinar del Rio, with the intention of finding a bank to replenish our dwindling stash of CUCs. Oy weh – it’s a public holiday and the banks are all closed. The one and only main street is barricaded off by a wooden stage left over from the 1st May celebrations, and Edgar tells us that this is it. The only interesting building we’ve seen is the Guasch building, so we decide to continue on. One last attempt at the ATM outside the closed bank only provides us with noisy clanging from the machine as it tells us in Spanish that the transaction is cancelled.
So, we hit the autopista again, the four-lane highway that runs along the centre of the island via Havana. It’s remarkably good, and we can make good time. Every now and again we need to take evasive action as a cart pulls onto the road pulled by a small pony trotting unshod along the bitumen, blinkers preventing it from seeing anything around it except a bit of the front.
On either side stretch fields, dotted about by cattle, goats and horses. A farmer ploughs his field using an ox-drawn plough. Vultures soar in the air above, drifting on the thermals on the lookout for a snack. Sometimes a small bird takes offence and chases them away.
Just before we get back to Habana, we have to stop for fuel. I’m a bit puzzled, since all I can see is a small brick house, and not a bowser in sight. Refuelling consists of a funnel and a plastic container of petrol. A few shakes of the car to remove any bubbles, and we’re done…
On the outskirts of Havana we pull over to the side of the road where a pretty young woman and child are sitting. Turns out it’s Edgar’s wife and daughter, and he hands over a bag – presumably his washing. The little girl is gorgeous, and gets one of our koala souvenirs; we are graced with a smile, and then, like children all round the world, she goes back to her i-pad (or a local version there-of).
We spend about 4 hours on the autopista, flat, flat, flat, with a short stop at a road side sandwich bar. More ham and cheese toasted, and cold drinks, but quel horreur, the coffee machine is broken. Ai ai ai…