Published: January 15th 2010November 24th 2009
Vinales town centre
this main street is pretty much it for the whole town
The best part of seeing all of Cuba from East to West was discovering how incredibly different every single square inch is from the next.
Not only were the Cuban people diverse, but the terrain of Cuba too. So far we have traveled through jungles, deserts, forests, cane fields, and now these fantastic mogotes (limestone pinnacles) that jut sharply out of red soddy earth. Breathtaking!
Vinales isn't just eye candy, it's a soul stealer.
I was already on a high from visiting a famous orchid nursery on the way in. Okay...yah I know. Yawn for most of you, but for me...crack! I won't go into morbid details, but it is worth the stop, even for the non-horties. This garden is perched precariously on a hillside, and the endless flora from around the world are so well tended. Amusingly, the caretaker rambles on in English but as soon as you ask him a question off his manuscript, he looks lost. I realize I just need to shut up and enjoy. And I do.
Vinales is the birthplace of our illustrious tour leader Natalia, so we are received like royalty by endless family members and friends. We settle into
vinales at sunset
at the tobacco homestead
our homestay in quite possibly the friendliest neighbourhood in the world. We gravitate to the old rocking chairs on the porch to watch the world go by.
Mirtha and her entire extended family are too good to be true. Their home is comfortable and busy. She presents us with amazing meals every day, including a lobster feast one night that would blow your mind. Served up with enormous plates of beans/rice, vegetables with fried manioc or plantains. Then flan for dessert. Best flan I'd ever had too.
"Is it time yet?" I ask Cindy early one morning through the giant barn door window of my room. Wiping sleep from my eyes and sipping a cuppa, we have made a ritual of watching this town wake up - from those front porch rocking chairs. Parents bicycle shuttle their children, perched high on the handlebars, off to school. Roosters rudely announce the day over and over. People with plastic bags zig and zag up the block showing off their goods to house owners, some socialize briefly. A family of pigs hustle down the street looking for snacks. The rattle of endless horse and carts whiz by. Gigantic farm vehicles belch
smoke. We get waved at. There is the smell of freshly baking bread somewhere in the distance.
I cannot wipe this grin off my face. I think I found my Nirvana.
Natalia knows every nook and cranny of Vinales, and on one of our endless hikes through the gorgeous mogote countryside, she has us clambering up a series of broken cement stairs leading to a weathered path that eventually reveals a cave entrance, we all blindly follow her in. Yes, I could hear bats about an inch from my head. But low and behold we come out the other side, and of course, another breathtaking vista view that could only be found in a coffee table book. Wow!
Because tourism appears to be the main industry here in Vinales (aside from tobacco of course), every single home in town is a homestay, the owners all wave and greet you as you walk by. They unabashfully know what side their bread is buttered on. We want to get a feel of regular Vinales life, so we hang out with the farmers who are drinking a few beers and gossiping at the local watering hole in the late afternoon.
just another day
lots of great walks along the backroads of vinales
They are a tough as nails bunch and flirt heavy with us girls. Suddenly a few guitars and guiro (cuban gourd-like instrument) appear and next thing we know we are in the middle of an impromptu concert. We all take turns salsa dancing and singing. We only know the che guavara song and guantanamera...but we amuse them by singing Lady Gaga and Pitbull. A few tourists stroll by and stop to watch, some brave enough to join in.
During our three day stay we participate in a few of the tourist activities around town, including the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, near El Moncada. This is the biggest cave in Cuba. You don a red stinky helmet and weak headlamp and go deep in to the cool dark. The cave is spectacular, especially midway where the roof has collapsed and you walk into a green jungle paradise sunk into a mountaintop. The two hour journey takes you through many galleries and levels. I actually learn the hard way why I'm wearing the stinky helmet when I bash my skull on the cave ceiling as I pull myself up a rope to yet another level. You emerge with your clothes
familia todos in Vinales
Mirtha's momma, husband, sister and brother in law, with of course Natalia hamming it up
dripping with sweat and thankful you didn't knock yourself out in the process.
I don't know what Fidel was thinking, but the Mural de la Prehistoria is butt ugly. He commissioned it in 1961, and it takes up an entire mountainside. I think it is supposed to explain evolution, but none of us care. After hiking all day, we were all thirsty for shade, so we wake up the bored bartender in his little hut and amuse him enough that he decides to whip up a bunch of pina coladas for us - then slyly sells us a cheap bottle of rum on the side, so we can make them to our taste. I have to admit, with a huge shot of rum causing me to glow, Fidel's weird mural did become slightly more interesting.
Since all the tobacco fields had just been freshly planted (and I could truly appreciate the back breaking work - having planted corn fields by hand many years ago) Natalia wants to pop in on her favourite family unannounced. We stroll up and down the endless red roads, it is peaceful and tranquil on the cool evenings. I knew we would end up
doing something like this since any travel show I had seen about Vinales had the "visit a tobacco farmer" segment. But I didn't care. It's just nice to see how people really live, and what a regular day is for them.
The family all welcome us into their tiny shack, offering up coffee they roasted fresh on a fire, then ground and press through a strain. It's actually the best coffee I've ever had. Take that Starbucks. Mum Lally and dad Ricardo live with their two grown daughters Julie and Lalita, and an uncle Pito who hovers in the backdrop pretending to putter. Their children are all currently attending university in Pinar del Rio, but recently had come home to help with the new planting. They are such proud, humble people, and I am so pleased I met them.
While having coffee and talking, I notice the coolest looking stone thing in the corner of their cooking shack. I ask Lalita - who explains it is their water filter. Apparently the well water on their farm was contaminated by the hurricane of 2008. This stone is made of limestone rock carved into a sink shape, the water slowly
caving in vinales
Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, near El Moncada was spectacular
drips through to a pot below. Ingenious. We all sit around and have a few laughs, the family shows pictures of their kids. Julie's husband pops his head in every so often, his skin is weathered a tobacco brown, same as the leaf his wife is rolling in front of us. She lets us have a go, and we all take turns rolling leaves that smell more like chocolate. I haven't touched tobacco to these lips for over 11 years, but I light up in the moment. We all do. A light breeze drifts through the windows and I am distracted by the baby ox they have tethered in the front yard, as it desperately screams to its mother who appears to be part of an ox-cart team about a mile away.
After some friendly goodbyes, rather large pigs chase us up the lane, and we were warned more than a few times by Pito not to go anywhere near the back-ends of any horses when they aren't carted. Cart horses are not friendly. Huge stressor on the unfriendly. Roger that.
Back in town, we have done all the touristy stuff. So we decide to crash the local
Jasmine Hotel for a dip in their unheated pool. The bored staff don't acknowledge our infraction, so we make sure to tip them large. I even get a few minutes on their internet before it expectantly dies. We whil away the hot afternoon on the lounges with a bunch of speedo wearing Europeans, taking in the amazing view of the whole town. Fidel had loved this view so much he announced there would be a hotel built here...and presto...a hotel was built. Oh to be a dictator. You get to dictate.
With nothing much to do our last evening, Cindy and I are rocking chairs at sunset. Back in Baracoa we had bought these really clever puzzle boxes that are near impossible to open unless you knew the trick. As usual, we were watching the street goings on and drinking our homemade cuba libres. Some of the neighbours our own age stopped by to chat about Canada, and we pursued them to try to open the trick boxes. Next thing we know, we have the entire neighbourhood at our porch trying. The challenge was on! One of Mirtha's sons, a physiotherapist, is turning bright red with frustration trying to
figure out his box. His girlfriend Marita, a newly graduated dentist, makes fun of him. Dad finally wanders by, he is a cranky tired farmer. At first he hovers around the background, picking his teeth and pretending not to be interested, but his son's frustration gets the best of him and next thing, he's in the mix. I pour everyone some of our rum. Who needs to speak the same language when you've got this kind of fun going on. We all sit and watch the electrical storm light up the nights sky in a neon purple.
Vinales is truly an authenic farming community with such an intimate charm. It will be forever in my heart.
There are more photos below