Cuba: Viñales dreams

I had high hopes for Viñales, it sounded like the kind of place that would be right up my street. Country air, calm streets and plenty of outdoor activities to keep me occupied. As it happens I wasn’t wrong.

Scenes from a Colectivo, part #1 of #1053

It was a pretty long schlep to get there, although still a good couple of hours shorter than the bus trip would have been. Probably 5hrs in total. Our trusty steed was a circa 1990 vintage Peugeot 405, of the sort some of my sixth form friends were driving. A warm wave of nostalgia, then. Our driver, the strong silent type. My fellow passengers, another Italian couple.

Scenes from a Peugeot

Our route followed the entirely deserted main highway in Cuba, which runs along the spine of the country. Sporadic other cars to pass, the odd horse and cart and lots of people hitchhiking, some with money in their hands, as seems to be the custom. A lot of the people along the road just seemed as if they’d wandered out from their land adjacent to the road, and I wondered how long they were set to wait.

Once we reached Pinar del Rio, we left the highway and hit the considerably more windy/potholes Viñales road, arriving in the mid-afternoon. I had a casa recommendation but to be honest I was done with recommendations. My only criteria again were a peaceful location and a dog, if possible. The busy main street of Viñales definitely wouldn’t provide the former, so I headed up a side street towards the hills, starting my search for a room from the farthest possible point. Sadly there was no room at the inn with the first few places I tried, so I moved back towards town and luckily a small place called Casa Ismary did have room for me. It looked reasonable enough and after a light bit of bartering I got the price down to 20CUC per night, which seemed to be the going rate around here. Ideal.

The main street does not disappoint with its remarkably rural prohibition signs. Sure, it’s a bit of a tourist trap but also a fully working local town, with Cuban life carrying on unaffected (other than for the odd taximyfren’ nuisances)

Plaza Principal

The centre of the town has a pleasant enough Plaza Principal, which played host to several memorial events during my stay there as well as the usual crowd of Cubans and tourists using the civic wifi. All of the usual shops and services are lined up along there too. Throughout the time I was in Vinales there were memorials for Fidel Castro including a live television feed with all sorts of obscure African dictators paying tribute, and also a static memorial.

Village memorial with citizens standing guard

My sole tourist act that afternoon was a visit to one of Lonely Planet’s weaker recommendations, the “Botanical Garden” at the edge of town. As you enter you are warmly greeted by a guy who tells you to feel free to wander, and to make a donation at the end if you so wish. Great! All very jovial at this point. Lovely.

The garden is not much to write home about, in fact there’s very little there, just some very ordinary plants and trees as well as odd dolls interspersed every now and then. In fact, I photographed the only 3 interesting flowers in the Jardin, You can see them below. Basically, my considered advice is not to bother. Sometimes Lonely Planet doesn’t quite ‘get it’.

Now, even more than general tourist ripoffs I seriously hate passive-aggressive ‘donation’ situations. As I came to exit the garden I was quite closely herded to a table where the ‘donations’ went and then had an unfriendly woman stand over me making sure I ‘donated’. There was a laminated 3CUC note in the collection box but bollocks was I paying that for such a lame attraction, so left a  1CUC note to visible and audible annoyance from the overseer.

I hate these kind of things- If you want to charge an admission fee then do it. Just put a sign on the door as you ENTER, don’t ask for ‘donations’ and then browbeat visitors into handing over more cash at the end. It’s extortion. 

I didn’t manage much more in the way of exploration on my first evening, just a spot of food in town and plans laid for exploration the next day. You can rent bikes from a place next to Don Tomas restaurant- 10CUC per day, and that’s what I was planning on. An early night at the Casa and I was good to go.

Heading out of Vinales

Lonely Planet has a great section on Viñales with plenty of activities and routes laid out, as well as good area maps, although in reality it’s very difficult to actually get lost and just seeing where you get to is really fun. My first stop was the huge and frankly awful psychedelic rock painting a few KM out of town. It really is quite something.

I’m not entirely sure why such a major piece of environmental vandalism has become so popular but hey, there it is. I was about to cycle into the park where it’s located until I saw the pay booth. 3CUC or so to get in. To basically a tourist compound with a souvenir shop and, er, the exact same view from outside. So NOPE to that.

From there I just decided to see where I got to. If you’ve got any sort of basic navigational sense (I’m practically Bear Grylls now, so I was fine) then it’s very easy to find your way back to Vinales by keeping an eye on which valley you’re in, and following it. So, that’s what I did. Wandered. Following the rusty red tracks out into the farmland.

Past huge fields of sugar cane, one of Cuba’s main exports. Dwarfing the farmer himself. Further along.

I passed lots of organised tours, groups of people out on horses with guides, and one pair just on the back of a small horse buggy. That’s great, you can pick them up from within the village, but it really isn’t my style. I like to take my time, take my own pace, go where the mood takes me. 

Exploring hidden corners.

Making new friends.

…and just generally marvelling at the unspoilt countryside, everywhere. 360 degrees of sky, valleys, limestone mogotes and a way of life that hasn’t fundamentally changed for generations. Subsistence farming on the fertile soils of this hermit island.

Pretty much any crop seems to grow well here, from the vast swathes of sugar cane to the neat serried ranks of recently-planted tobacco fields. But when I later talked to a new friend, all was not rosy. Weeks upon end without rain was starting to wreak havoc on the crops, and when you’re a subsistence farmer here there’s no Plan B. A tough, tough life.

Before long I’d reached the end of the valley, which marks the other side of Viñales  Lonely Planet signposts loads of attractions at this end of town, such as the Cueva del Indios and the Cueva de San Miguel. I figured I’d take a bit of a cycle out there and see what’s what. They are all along the road to Puerto Esperanza.

Sure enough, I found the attractions but I’ve still not entered full tourist mode so they didn’t look wildly attractive. Just basically along the lines of “see a fairly unexceptional cave and buy stuff in our restaurant” So, I decided to carry on for a bit.

The road out of town

Very soon, you’re right out in the countryside. It was pretty pleasant, so I decided to carry on a little bit more. Strangely the countryside in this area is quite reminiscent of home, rural Somerset in England, with commercial tree plantations, cows and lots of greenery. Past horse carriages and…onwards.

I was, by this time, definitely considering a return to Viñales,  it seemed like I’d come a long way. But then there was a guy gliding along on an electric motorbike. I thought he’d run out of power, and we started chatting. For quite a distance in fact. But hey, I had daylight, a half decent bike and to be fair, very little else to do with my day. He worked in a bar up at Puerto Esperanza on the coast but they’d closed for the mandatory mourning period so he was ‘at leisure’. 

The road ahead….on and on…

I’m terrible for doing stuff like this. “I may as well…” should probably go on my tombstone. Just like my current trip started as South America, and then ended up being around the world by train because, well “I may as well”. So, after Armando turned off at his aunt’s house, I asked him how far it was to Puerto Esperanza. “Oh, about 9km”. Well, I certainly hadn’t intended to go to the coast today but it sounded fun. He gave me a recommendation for a restaurant… basically the instructions were to follow the road until I hit the sea, and then to turn right, more or less.

Llegamos a Puerto Esperanza…

As I entered the village, I passed an organised cycle tour group in a restaurant. I quite enjoy being the black sheep in situations like this, the entirely unprepared underdog on a shite Chinese clunker bike, clocking up some serious KMs.

End of the road- The fishing fleet moored offshore

As I reached the end of the road and was regarding the sea ahead, a man walked up to me. “Sam?” “Er, yes. I guess you’re Tony then?” One of those moments that just makes you grin, the bush telegraph working its magic. It’s probably lucky he found me, as I would never have found him. A small casa particular a few streets away. I was the only guest, it was just me, his wife and his disabled daughter. What’s on the menu? Lobster. 10CUC. Yep, sounds good.

Man, what a meal. I think I’ve managed *not* to actually photograph the main attraction here, but nonetheless it was epic, from a starter of fried plantain chips, through an enormous and lovely avocado salad, onto piles of rice and beans, and most importantly incredibly fresh lobster in a creole sauce. Tony said that he couldn’t sell me anything alcoholic, however ‘gifted’ me a generous tot of throat-warming rum. Yep.

Sooner or later it was time to leave, for the 25km back to Vinales. This was not going to be fun. As I left, slightly bizarrely Tony told me that, if asked, I should say that I had eaten vegetables and not mention the lobster. Odd. Anyhoo… Sorry Tony but I’ve told people now.

Charcoal production beside the road

I took it VERY slowly on the way back, stopping and walking at the slightest provocation of an incline. I was both stuffed and knackered and besides, there was plenty of daylight left, so time for the odd collapse.

One of the symbols of the Cuban countryside is the sillon, the rocking chair. A key feature of the little wooden houses that you see dotted around is the verandah with one, two, three or four chairs on it according to the family size. It’s such an institution, all of the houses have one and it’s invariably immaculate, and more often than not the chairs are colour-coded to the brightly painted houses. This forms the evening’s activity, a place to relax and to discuss the day with neighbours. A good tradition. No matter how big or small the house, no matter how grand or modest.

The venerable verandah, and sillons

Coming back into town, and to use a somewhat coarse expression “Blowing out of my arse”, I came across a posh hotel, run by the Cuban Government consortium. Great. Bike wheeled in, 2CUC entrance charge no doubt straight in the pocket of the barman and time to relax by the pool a while…

I again reluctantly dragged myself back t the bike and back into town. The last few kilometres really did me in. But hey, it had been a productive day. Eat, rehydrate, collapse. I’d planned another day on the bike tomorrow so needed to rest my bones a bit.

Back out into the countryside. After breakfast I hopped on the bike, and set off on the road from town, aiming to find Los Aquaticos, the site of a now-defunct small community centred around natural springs with curative properties. And if I didn’t find it well, no worries. So, back out into the fields, buying a few bananas en route from a nice bloke who probably hadn’t earnt much more money that week.

The directions in Lonely Planet were somewhat vague, basically to head for the blue house on the hill. I found the path at first but then it all became a little less clear. I happened across a farmer who invited me to leave the bike with him. “No, no, I’ll be fine”.

Destination Los Aquaticos, up there…

Yeah right. After a relatively mellow approach the way up to the hill community turned out to be a steep, rocky path. Even the horses had been struggling up it, going by the look of the hoof scuffs. Jeez, and it wasn’t the lightest of bikes either however Sod’s law would have dictated that wherever I left it, it WOULD have got stolen. Onwards and upwards…

The views were at least worth it. When the clouds cleared you could see for miles over the incredible landscape, studded with the trademark limestone mogotes everywhere. A really lovely spot. Some would say slightly overshadowed by the large French tour group, however this would be uncharitable.  Nonetheless once peace had descended again I had a good chat with an American woman now living in Cuba and the farmer himself, who commented that it was the first time “in 15 years” that anyone had been stupid enough to drag a bike up here. Haha!

He showed me the actual source of the water, caves behind the farm in the hills. This then gets piped off to all the, presumably thoroughly healthy (miracle water, see?) smallholdings.

Walking back to the farm

Good ‘ole hump

Back to town for a spot of lunch. The way down was rather easier than up with our old friend gravity to assist. Viñales does lunch, and general loafing very well, with a plethora of small restaurants and bars on the main street. Some are actually pretty good value, you just have to seek them out. During my time there I managed a 3CUC burger and chips, and indeed today’s lunch of decent pasta with garlic sauce and a drink for under 3CUC. So, Cuba’s not always ruinously expensive but you do have to do the legwork.

Afternoon loafing

Great view from La Ermita

I have to pay thanks to Lonely Planet for suggesting my afternoon activity. La Ermita is a very nice Government hotel on the hill overlooking Vinales, an easy couple of km ride up from the town (Passing all of the optimistic guesthouses on the way up, with varied names not a million miles from La Ermita, such as Finca Ermita or Casa Ermita on the way up. I’m sure someone falls for it!)

This is a great deal, and one I wholeheartedly recommend. You pay 8CUC for access to the facilities and pool. OK, not bad. But it also includes 7CUC of bar credit! So, since this is one of the very well priced Government places you can also enjoy either 5 beers or 2 mojitos by the pool. Mustn’t grumble! I enjoyed a hybrid of the two. I’m glad it was downhill back to town!

The barmen were good guys, slightly surprised that a guest was trying to chat, much less that it was in half decent Spanish. We talked about travels, and I mentioned that my next destination was Miami, where there were ‘lots of Cubans’, which caused them to grumble and change subject rapidly. Then I twigged- The Cuban community in Miami is made up mainly of ‘exiles’ who chose to leave with the Mariel boatlift in the bad old days of US/Cuban relations. They are effectively considered traitors by many…

Just time for a quick run up to the edge of town to see sunset and to return my hire bike, before returning to the Casa for dinner. Viñales…Done!

I was quite warming to my Casa owner until she presented me with the bill. Thankfully she had at least kept the bargained price of 20CUC per night. But then at the bottom of the bill… 15CUC for laundry. That’s 16 dollars, nearly thirteen quid. For 6 t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts and some socks/pants. Less than a carrier bag full. That hasn’t cost me more than a fiver or so for a load anywhere in the world. The one time I take my eye off the ball and don’t ask the price in advance, because I stupidly assumed they wouldn’t rip me off. Screw you, Casa Ismary.

Onwards and upwards. Next stop, La Habana. Havana. The legendary capital of Cuba.