Uncouth ways of getting from A to B characterized our travels around Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province, from the very moment we left Baracoa… which is, incidentally, in Cuba’s easternmost province. Or, more accurately, from about two hours after we left Baracoa, at which point the bus came to a halt on the top of an idyllic mountain pass. The driver got on and off the bus several times, finally to conclude, in a succinct announcement to the passengers, “Estamos rotos.” We are broken. Talk about an existential interruption to an otherwise relaxing travel day!
Over the next half-hour or so the lingering effects of the bus’ air-conditioning began to give way to the piercing Cuban sun, and one by one we all got off the bus. Like the cast of Lost, our isolation brought out the best in us (this was the point, after all, where Sara started penning the first Cuban installment of our trusty blog) and the worst in us (like the Italian guys who immediately stripped down to their briefs and got unpleasantly day-drunk off their souvenir rum). Regardless, though, we all let out a cheer when, six hours later, the second bus out of Baracoa came into sight. Though it carried passengers of its own, it was still able to accommodate us all, even if some of us (read: one of us in particular) had to sit on the floor. (In all honesty, once I abandoned all sense of decorum and just lay down in the aisle I was actually incredibly comfortable!)
All of this to say that by the time we arrived in Viñales thirty-five hours later, we were quite excited for some alternative modes of transport. And Viñales delivered. What followed was, in the spirit of WestJet travel writing, ‘three perfect days’ of exploring this otherworldly paradise on horseback, bicycles, and cattle-trucks.
Day 1: Horseback
While the cycling culture of Viñales is what initially drew us there, it soon became apparent (though not entirely clear why) that certain trails on the map were not for biking. Instead, the local wisdom seemed to advise that horses were the best bet. Seeing as horses tend to be just as common on Cuban roads as cars (or bikes…or bicitaxis…or motorcycles with sidecars), we decided to go for it. Our very knowledgable casa hostess hooked us up with a friendly father and son, both named Eduardo, who took us out on a very comprehensive tour of the Viñales countryside. It immediately became clear why they had frowned at our idea of cycling these trails:
Viñales is one of those bizarre microclimates that gets a daily 4:00 pm thunderstorm. As such, paths like this one are perpetually running red with iron-rich muck.
Our faithful steeds for the day and our guide, Eddy Jr. (On the right. Obviously.) Eddy is 11 years old and more skilled working with horses than we could ever dream of ourselves. We also enjoyed swimming with him later in a beautiful lily-pad-clad lake as he challenged us to races and handstand competitions.
Our trek took us to a family coffee farm, much larger than the one we had stumbled upon in the Sierra Maestras. One of the (incredibly exuberant) employees gave us a detailed tutorial on the sorting, splitting, and roasting processes. He became a recurring character in our journey when he popped up that evening as the MC at a dance club across the street from our casa.
Sara trots past a secadora, the giant huts used to dry tobacco leaves.
Inside the secadora, tobacco leaves dry for months after having been sorted according to where they had been on the plant (top = more sunlight and older leaves = stronger flavour, but burn much faster. The balance of top-versus-bottom leaves is what creates the exceptional smoothness and even burning quality of hand-rolled cigars). 90% of the farm’s tobacco leaves will be sold to the government to become Cuba’s signature export, while 10% remain here, hand-rolled with no filler added, to make some of the smoothest and strongest cigars in the world.
Throughout the day (and in a few of the pictures above), we could see the legendary mogotes in the distance, giant limestone monoliths that look as though they were dropped out of the sky. I wondered if it was possible to get closer to these, to actually walk right up to the point where they rise abruptly out of an otherwise Manitobanly-flat prairie. The next day would answer my question.
Day 2: Bicycles
Our obviously-very-well-connected casa hostess somehow made two bicycles appear the next morning, pointing us down the street which would eventually turn into a highway that wound through the mogotes. We got out onto the open road and felt the familiar exhilaration of highway cycling, except that instead of the grain elevator-dotted cornfields of southern Manitoba we were surrounded by mogote-dotted tobacco fields.
Tinker Creek’s star cyclist brings her skills to Cuba.
Yep, you can! (Walk right up to the base of a mogote and touch it, that is). Most mogotes aren’t this vibrantly coloured…this one bears the Mural de la Prehistoria, a gigantic work of art depicting the evolution of life on earth.
As the heat was reaching its peak, we sought refuge in la Cueva del Indio, a magnificent cave that once served as a natural fortress for an entire indigenous people. Half of it is filled with water and requires a boat to navigate, giving it an eerie River Styx quality.
Day 3: Cattle-truck
The one typical Cuban treasure that Viñales lacks is a beach, but there are plenty of taxis willing to drive you the 2ish hours to nearby Cayo Jutías for a fairly significant price. When we asked our casa hostess (who by this point was starting to seem less well-connected and more positively magical) if there was a less expensive way she said yes, and that she would arrange it for the next morning. We just had to be at the door by 8:00.
While there were no cattle on the truck, it certainly could have served that purpose. About 15 of us cozied up on the bench that ran along the inside edge, and Sara was given the noble task of pulling the door shut as it swung open on every bump.
Who needs a resort when, as you lie on the deserted end of a remote beach, a friendly fisherman approaches you and asks if you’d like to buy the lobster he just caught? We went out for a quick pre-lunch dip, and five minutes later heard him shout to us, “I have your lobster! I’ll just leave it on your towel!”
The aforementioned 4:00pm daily thunderstorm, combined with some washed-up driftwood, provided a perfectly ominous photo-op.
While our days were filled with nature at its most gorgeous, our nights were filled with fascinating people, like our hostess’ husband Eddy (yes, there are apparently a LOT of Eduardos in this part of the world!) who worked at the local cigar shop, and two lovely German travellers with whom we spent the evenings eating, dancing, debating the complexities of Cuban politics, and sharing stories from the days’ adventures. ¡Muchas gracias a todos de ustedes para compartir estos dias lindisimos con nosotros!
Eddy instructs us on the finer points of cigar-smoking. “Don’t use the lighter, it’s too direct. Light this stick of cedar paper, and then rotate it gently.” “Ah, like roasting a marshmallow,” I say. He doesn’t respond. I should have known…marshmallows are quite an enigma in Latin America. (But seriously, it’s like roasting a marshmallow.)
Our Deutsche travel buddies, Steffi and Marta, inspired us with their own travel stories and the incredible work they do back in Germany, before a game of Dutch Blitz that lasted well past midnight.
¡Hasta próximo, Viñales!