The weather windows from Havana to Miami have had tight shutters on them since our arrival at Hemingway Marina so we decide to take a road trip to Viñales, 120 miles east of here. We waffle over renting a car but we hear that the road to Viñales is pretty bad so we opt for an air-conditioned bus there for $12 each. Our experience with buses in Havana so far has been pretty positive so we’re optimistic as we stroll up to the pickup area in the resort next door at 8:15 am Thursday morning. We’ve pre-paid for two return tickets to Vinales and we’ve even pre-booked a casa particular that has come highly recommended by the tour agent at the resort.
The bus is scheduled to pick us up at 8:40 but we’re early just to ensure we don’t miss it. Buses come and go, picking up folks heading into Havana for the day or to the beach but there’s no sign of our bus. Around 9 am we start pestering the resort desk but they are no help and finally the tour agent arrives at her desk in the lobby. She calls the head office for us and relays that it’s on its way and we need to wait. At 9:45 we are severely PO’d because the bus is still not here yet the tour agent is still telling us that it is coming and we should still wait. At 10:30 I ask her if we need to get a refund and simply call a taxi to go to Viñales. She tells me there are no refunds and we should still wait. At 10:45 Blair is grinding his teeth and I tell him that he should stay put while I go talk to the tour agent. She dials the head office again and tells me that it is coming that we should still wait but she has no credibility with me and I’m wondering if that bus is already in Vinales as it is only a 2 ½ hour ride and the bus is almost 2 ½ hours late. Eureka! At 10:55 the bus arrives to pick us up and it seems that the bus driver didn’t show that morning – what can I say…this is Cuba and we’re probably lucky that it wasn’t a case of mañana. It’s 31 Celsius outside but the bus is wonderfully cool so we settle into our seats and a few hours later we’re climbing up a series of small mountains and then coasting down the other side into Viñales.
We arrive in the center of town, the bus pulls over and the door opens but it’s not a simple matter to step down. Our path is blocked by at least 10 Cubans at the foot of the stairs flashing 8 x 10 glossies of casa particulars (B&B’s), tours to this and tours to that. I squeeze out first and escape to the relative quiet of a group of tourists waiting for a bus back to Havana. Blair it seems is far more polite than I and he stops to say ‘No gracias’ a few times and that’s pretty much done him in because a stout blonde woman with a big umbrella now has him in hand and she’s definitely not letting him go. I dig out the business card for the casa particular where the tour agent has secure reservations for us and I show it to the blonde. She shakes her head and shows us pictures of her casa but eventually gives up and graciously decides to walk us over to the place we’ve reserved.
We follow her down the main street and then a dogleg down a side street to the right and another to the left but then she stops and says she really wants to show us her place. We have a quick conference between the two of us and agree that if her place is really nice, we’ll ditch the other; after all, the casa we’d reserved was meant to have someone waiting for us at the bus. We reason that our blonde lady is working hard for us and deserves our business. She takes us over to her casa particular and we realize that it’s actually not hers….she’s just an ‘agent’ and for a fee she grabs the tourists off the bus and brings them to the various casas and, in return, they give her a half CUC (that’s 50 cents!) for the favor. She starts to show us through the casa but it seems that there is another tourista couple that has grabbed it already so she shrugs and agrees to take us on to the place where we had the reservation. When we get to that casa particular, we’re foiled once again as it appears that a reservation is not all it is cracked up to be and another couple has already grabbed our room. Our blonde lady is not at all concerned and she leads us to another casa particular that she assures us is ‘really clean’. The daughter of the house lets us in and we peek inside the room (it’s got a double bed plus a single and everything is red….curtains, bedspread, walls and yes it is very clean). I check the bathroom and it has a shower, sink, toilet (with a toilet seat!) and an air conditioning unit on the wall. Toilet seats are usually missing in most of the Cuban bathrooms so we take this as a good sign and agree to take it at $25 a night.
We dump our knapsack in the room and find our way back to the main street, ready to start exploring Viñales. This is the primo tobacco growing area in Cuba. As a bonus for us, it has a special designation where the farmers can only use traditional Cuban farming techniques. That means no pesticides, no tractors….just horse and oxen, manual labour and sun, rain and compost. We hike 4 kilometers up to Los Jazmines for lunch with a good view of the Vinales valley. It’s dotted with hump-backed sort of mountains and fertile fields in between and is so picturesque that we figure it’s good that we have a digital camera rather than using rolls and rolls of film to capture the essence of Viñales.
On our hike up to the top of Los Jazmines, men appear out of the woods (literally!!) and hold up big handfuls of fine cigars they’ve rolled. One guy has our attention and Blair calls out ‘Quanto questo?’ (how much). This guy holds up 10 fingers and Blair looks at me quizzically. I shrug and say that maybe he’d rather buy his cigars when we go for our tobacco farm tour the next day. Blair says ‘Gracias no’ and we continue on but the man calls out again and holds up five fingers so Blair hands over five dollars and it’s a done deal. We keep hiking higher looking for a good view but mostly we’re looking for somewhere to eat at this point. We eat lunch at the Buena Vista restaurant for $20 and agree that we won’t need to eat again until the following day. Our waitress sets out chicken and vegetable soup, black bean soup, BBQ’d chicken, arroz negro, stir-fried vegetable rice, salad, squash, fruit plates and cold Crystal beer.
After lunch we walk over to the Hotel Jazmines looking for a driver to take us on a tour of the valley the next day. There is a tour agent in the lobby who speaks excellent English and I tell him we want a driver who speaks good English to take us around. The tour agent says, ‘Oh you want a driver AND a guide?’ ‘Absolutely’, I tell him. He calls over Reiner who has a ’57 Ford in pristine condition and tells us that Reiner doesn’t speak English that well but he ‘communicates’ in English Very well. Hmmmm….we like Reiner’s smile and we really like his car so we agree that he’ll pick us up at our casa particular the next morning at 9 am.
Turns out Reiner is a pretty good guide and has no problem ‘communicating’ with us. He takes us to Cueva del Indio, a limestone-walled cave that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. Most of these rounded mountains (myotes) have caves in them, created by eons of rainwater and run off that wear down the softer bits of the mountain. There’s a trail through this cave system that ends at an underground lake where a motor boat picks us up to take us out to the other side. There are a few others waiting with us for the boat and we’re lucky to be first on. We scramble to the front of the boat and grab our seats and then all the lights are extinguished in the cave system. It is pitch black and I immediately reach out for Blair, calling his name. Our hands connect at the same time that a dozen iPhones are switched on as flashlights so everyone stays pretty calm. Reiner is waiting for us at the end of our boat ride through the caves and we climb back in the old Ford and he drives us deeper into the valley.
At some point in our tour is a stop at a tobacco farm that Reiner knows. The fields are green with tobacco plants in various stages of growth. We walk through an area of fresh-cut plants carefully because the leftover stalks are an inch thick and cut on an angle and are as sharp as a kitchen knife. To fall on one of these stalks would likely result in a pretty deep gash. The leaves from the harvested tobacco stalks are hung on long poles for drying. Our guide tells us that the leaves dry in the sun for two or three days and then are brought indoors for a few months of drying.
We make our way into the drying shed where our guide offers Blair a freshly rolled cigar. The guide speaks English fairly well and gives us a good overview of how the tobacco is processed once it is dry. The leaves are mixed with the farm’s special ‘marinade’ and packed tightly into bales to ‘steep’ until it’s ready for rolling into cigars. Each tobacco farm in Vinales has their own secret tobacco marinade which can consist of things like honey, oranges, caramel and other ingredients that provide a unique flavour to the cigar. The guide rolled a cigar to demonstrate the basic technique for us and stressed that, at his farm, they always stripped the main vein out of the tobacco leaf because that part has the highest concentration of nicotine. Removing this vein makes for a milder cigar. Apparently the cigar gets stronger and stronger depending on where the leaves are grown on the plant. Leaves from the bottom of the plant are relatively mild but the ones at the very top (the corona) are especially strong. As the guide demonstrates his craft to us, his little brother reaches up to take one of the newly rolled cigars. Our guide gently takes the cigar away from the three-year old and nonchalantly hands him one that was already smoldering in an ashtray. That little guy wanders around the drying shed for a good half hour, all the while puffing on that fat cigar; they start young in Cuba I think.
We stay two nights in Viñales and explore the area, walking mostly, sometimes with a driver. We eat dinners at a great Mediterranean restaurant we find on the main street and decide that we’ve now had the best dinner yet in Cuba. Our landlady at the casa particular is disappointed that we don’t eat dinner at her house but we find that most casas typically serve very bland meals of fried marlin (very dry), copious amounts of white rice and cabbage and tomatoes. We tell her that we would like breakfast both mornings though and she perks up at bit. Her breakfasts turn out a little odd though and one morning we are served hot dogs sliced lengthwise in quarters. She redeems herself just a little by providing huge pitchers of freshly-squeezed juice but we’re really glad we didn’t go for the dinner package here!
In Viñales, just like every other Cuban city or village we’ve visited, the dogs run the show. We’ve never seen so many dogs running loose. They lie all over the sidewalks and make drivers stop to let them cross the streets. They trot up and down the side streets in packs and even walk into restaurants and sit at your table begging for food! Blair keeps taking photos of them for some reason…perhaps he will mount a retrospective of Cuban dog shots in some gallery when we return. He keeps asking me why I don’t post any shots so I’ve given in for this post.
The trip is over now, we’re still at Marina Hemingway, still waiting for good weather to duck across the Gulf Stream to Miami, still warm.