The Country That Has It All


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Published: June 13th 2016
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Valle de SilencioValle de SilencioValle de Silencio

Beautiful valley of tobacco farms just outside of Vinales.
The fear of expensive Cuban prices, the fear of expensive near-future European prices, the fear of getting ripped off by Cubans and my personal financial situation, all combined to make me try to do everything as cheaply as possible – to save money at any opportunity. Basically, I was petrified to spend money here. I’m not normally a scrooge abroad but needs must.
Which was why I found myself waiting at my hostel in Havana for the four Dutch guys I’d been drinking with the previous night. They could possibly give me a free ride to Vinales, but it depended on the kind of rental car they could get and how big it was. Mindful of wanting to catch the last bus to Vinales however, I could wait no more and I shared a taxi to the bus station with an American guy in my dorm, cutting the fare in half.

So. My first bus ride in Cuba with Viazul, the state-run tourist carrier.
Well, I’m not sure what else to say about it other than that it was a complete and utter shambles.
First of all, there is zero signage telling you where you needed to queue for what; you seemed to need to purchase
Secadero, VinalesSecadero, VinalesSecadero, Vinales

The drying house on a tobacco far just outside of Vinales.
your tickets more than an hour before your bus left – a matter made complicated when there isn’t anyone behind the desk half the time; you need to have your ticket ‘checked’ an hour before departure although all this consists of is a guy merely giving your ticket a quick once over – the same guy who sold you your ticket in the first place, so I’m not sure what purpose this check serves; there are staff lazing around everywhere, not being helpful or even remotely useful; I gave up on lunch since there seemed to be no system at all for taking orders – not that the staff at the Viazul café seemed too interested in taking them anyway, despite the ‘queue’ of customers waiting to order in front of the bar – and they only had one item available from their entire menu which was roast chicken for CUC$5.50; oh, and I am going to spare you the horror that was the state of the restroom.
It might have been worth paying CUC$3 extra to take one of the colectivo taxis outside to save myself all of the waiting and hassle. This is Cuba. No motivation whatsoever to
Bahia de los CochinosBahia de los CochinosBahia de los Cochinos

Just look at that water. Also with a coral reef, no wonder this is such a diving and snorkelling hot spot.
do anything efficiently. I mean, I know about Latin American time but this was another level.

Arriving in Vinales, the bus was greeted by a horde of casa particular owners, all literally mobbing you as you got off the bus. Lonely Planet had warned me about the jineteras – women who assume the identity of a casa owner you have booked with who then lead you to another casa. With one woman in particular claiming she knew where my casa was while leading me there, I was suspicious and didn’t actually believe her. Turns out she was good friends with my casa owner, which left me pretty embarrassed! You can’t really blame me though. It’s a shame that the whole situation had to arise in the first place.
“Oh, el chinito!” she tells me, thankfully with a laugh. I don’t normally like being called “The Chinaman” to my face, but this nickname – “The little Chinaman” – was cute in a way that can only come across in Spanish.

There aren’t really hostels in Cuba apart from in Havana and even the hostels there aren’t really hostels as you know them. Elsewhere in Cuba, tourists stay at casa
OzOzOz

One of the Dutch-Turkish guys I hung out with in Vinales tests out the local product at the tobacco farm.
particulares – people who have government permission to open up a room or two in their house to guests.
As a result, the good casas make you feel like one of the family which can either make the place feel like your home away from home, or just a bit awkward. It was a bit like Smith’s Cottage in Durban or a family bed and breakfast.
Most casas offer you meals as well and my one – which had a reputation for big feeds – well and truly stuffed me for dinner. At CUC$8, I did pay more than four times what I paid in a local restaurant in Centro Habana – but I seriously got about four times the food. A nice, slightly spicy black bean soup and a plate of fried plantain for starters; a full plate of rice, a baked, quarter-chicken and a full plate of salad for mains; and a small plate of fruit salad for dessert. Even though I hadn’t eaten all day and even with my famous, ferocious appetite – this banquet defeated me, although I gave it a damn good try, with just half the fried plantains and a quarter of the rice going uneaten. I
Balcon de Valle, VinalesBalcon de Valle, VinalesBalcon de Valle, Vinales

Dinner with a view. A specatacular view, over the Valle de Vinales.
was so stuffed that I literally couldn’t move properly afterwards. Just a shame that it wasn’t the tastiest of meals – it was much the same (apart from the size of it) as all of the other Cuban meals I have had so far and I am beginning to detect a trend…

Before dinner, I had managed to squeeze in a 6km walk to a mirador which looked over the countryside that was the Valle de Vinales, featuring farmland and tobacco plantations on the valley floor flanked by gorgeous mogotes – limestone mountains – in a landscape not like any I had seen before. The vista was stunning and worth the hike.
At the mirador is a restaurant – not a bad place to dine at all.

Also before dinner, I managed to run into the four Dutch guys at the general store where we agree to meet up again the next day.
Well, I say “general store” but there is usually a lot more stuff in a general store.
Selection is pretty dire in these state-run stores – take soft drinks for example. Occasionally you might find Coke or Pepsi drinks – providing that there are any
Casa Particulares, VinalesCasa Particulares, VinalesCasa Particulares, Vinales

Typical rural houses in Vinales. More often than not, they will have a room to let for tourists to stay. A front porch complete with rocking chairs are standard features.
soft drinks in the store at all – but in terms of the state brand Ciego Montero, there are only four flavours; cola, lemonade, pineapple and orange. And that’s if you’re lucky. The pineapple one is particularly hard to find.
That is because, more often than not, things have run out. “No hay” is something that you will hear at every café, bar, restaurant and shop that you go to. You soon learn to ask “que hay?” every time you receive a menu.

One thing that is always in stock however, is ice cream.
For some reason it’s ridiculously cheap in Cuba – MN$1 (CUC$0.04) will get you a cone in some places. Ice cream on sticks is not always in stock however – but there are always 450ml tubs available for just CUC$1.35. It might seem like a lot so smash in one sitting but believe me, it can be done, and it can be done regularly.

Unlike the stock in their store however, I have so far found Cubans to be like Brazilians in terms of the variety of root ethnicities there are here and the fact that there isn’t a typical Cuban ‘look’. You have
Tobacco, VinalesTobacco, VinalesTobacco, Vinales

Inside a secadero in Vinales, where tobacco leaves are dried before being rolled into cigars.
African Cubans, Cubans that are blonde and European-like, typical ‘Latinos’, Spanish-looking Cubans with blue eyes and just about everything else in between. It’s fascinating and is the result of all the cross-pollination down the centuries of diverse ethnic groups.
On a side note, Cuban guys aren’t shy about simply asking you to give them shit – my FC Barcelona cap is pretty popular, I’ve had more than half-a-dozen takers since arriving in Cuba.

The next day, the Dutch guys – Ozkan, Oz, Ilan and David – and I visited a tobacco farm where we tried-and-buyed some unbranded cigars that were sold at less than half the price right at the source. We were also invited inside a secadero, a drying house where they dry out the tobacco leaves before they are rolled into cigars. We disappointingly however, didn’t get a tour of the farm or a demo on how everything is done as one might’ve expected but then again there wasn’t an entrance fee to pay so perhaps it was fair enough. It did seem that the farmers were more interested in flogging off cigars than they were in anything else though.

We then went to visit a
Tobacco Field, Valle de SilencioTobacco Field, Valle de SilencioTobacco Field, Valle de Silencio

Just outside of Vinales where the red earth is looked down upon by the giant, beautiful mogotes.
prehistoric mural which from the name, you’d think was some sort of cave painting. What greeted us instead was a colourful and gaudy 120m-long painting across the face of a tall cliff.
“It looks kind of ridiculous”, remarks David in his funny Chinese-Dutch accent.
The guy had a point though.
We then literally climbed up the side of it to the mirador though I’d say the previous day’s vista was much better.

It was nice having the guys’ car to zip around the valley’s different sights – and we needed it for the next place, as it took some finding. My Dutch friends gave up in the end as the place sounded obscure but I was more determined and got them to drop me off on the side of the country road some 3km outside of town.
And I have to say that I’m not sure I would have found it if I didn’t speak any Spanish. It sure was obscure – I was told by locals to look out for a pink house with a ramp which would have a dirt road going seemingly into private property right beside it and sure enough, this was the road that
Cueva de Palmarito, VinalesCueva de Palmarito, VinalesCueva de Palmarito, Vinales

Massive cave at the end of which is a natural swimming pool.
led into the Valle de Silencio, which is named as such for a reason.
The landscape was quite stunning and unique with the red clay contrasting against the green tobacco farms, wooden secaderos and the red-grey mogotes in the background. It was peaceful and beautiful, a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Havana,
Off the main dirt track was then an unmarked trail leading to the Cueva de Palmarito – a huge cave of stalactites and stalagmites with an underground pool in which you could swim. There were guides waiting at the entrance with lamps to take you 200m into the pitch black for CUC$2.
The size of the cave was impressive although I have probably seen bigger and more interesting ones in the past. Nevertheless, the whole experience was a cool one and I believe I got to see the real essence of the area that day.

My last night in Vinales was fun and I ended up drinking way more than I had planned or expected.
My friend Kelly had told me that I had to go to the Centro Cultural Polo Montanez while in Vinales, an open-air salsa club complete with live band and a big, fun crowd.
And it really did have all
Centro Cultural Polo Montanez, VinalesCentro Cultural Polo Montanez, VinalesCentro Cultural Polo Montanez, Vinales

The liveliest spot in town has what seems like professional dancers strutting their stuff.
of the above.
I started off as a casual observer before meeting Eddy, a guy I had met in the bus station back in Havana and then in the street in Vinales earlier in the day. We then started getting hit on not-so-subtly by a hooker. Three of the Dutch crew then showed up and with drinks getting poured at 80/20 rum/mixer ratios, things got lively and fun as we all started talking to everyone around us.
I had had a couple of salsa lessons when I was in Barcelona where it was evident that this was something I couldn’t do. With proper professionals out on the dancefloor, I wasn’t about to go and embarrass myself even after two mojitos and three Cuba libres.
We continued the party at another bar after the Centro closed were we had yet more hookers try it on with us.
Knowing I had a long journey the next day, I decided to call it a night around 2.30am.

I think that my body is definitely processing alcohol a lot slower these days. Getting up at 8am, I was still drunk.
I managed to inhale my breakfast before jumping into a ubiquitous old Cuban
50s Scene, Vinales50s Scene, Vinales50s Scene, Vinales

In the back of my taxi to Playa Giron. This picture could well have actually been from the 50s, such is the old school all around us.
taxi for my ride to Playa Giron. I couldn’t get a bus out of Vinales as they were all full – and I would’ve had to have changed in Havana anyway – so I instead got into this direct colectivo taxi for about CUC$2 less in price. And I actually felt fine during the ride as I slept and listened to music.
We then had to change taxis halfway there where I managed to nab the front seat of our 1950s truck which unfortunately, was installed with a modern sound system playing the driver’s reggaeton full blast. It was a long ride to Playa Giron.

Described as a “one horse town” by Lonely Planet, you could also describe Playa Giron as a ghost town, particularly behind the beach which is full of abandoned beach homes. Further giving the impression that this was a place whose halcyon days are well in the past, were several empty, crumbling buildings that were once restaurants. The owners of the roadside food stalls and cafeterias that were still in business yell out to me desperately to buy something. Anything.
As for the beaches themselves, they were disappointing. Playa Giron itself – backed by the
Taxi To Playa GironTaxi To Playa GironTaxi To Playa Giron

I had to change into this classic truck for the remaining two hours of my journey from Vinales to Playa Giron.
tired looking Villa Playa Giron resort that has also seen better days – has had any charm it may have had killed by an ugly, concrete sea wall about 60m out to sea. The water did not appear as clear as promised either although perhaps I’ve had my expectations unfairly raised after visits to both Roatan Island and Caye Caulker.
Further down the mostly rocky coast is another beach which is shadier and longer called Playa Los Cocos. Apparently the snorkelling here is good but the stones beneath the water would make going in without shoes of any sort a painful affair for the feet.

Arranging accommodation in Cuba is old-school. With no internet, there is no Hostelworld to look up, compare and book – for a start, there aren’t even any hostels – so you’re relying on your casa owners to delve into their network of casas across the country to book you in somewhere good and cheap at your next destination. Better them than me anyway, given their relationships with the other casa owners and their fluent Spanish. Well in my case, what I thought was Spanish. My casa owners in Vinales, sweet and friendly as they were, were
Playa los Cocos, Bahia de los CochinosPlaya los Cocos, Bahia de los CochinosPlaya los Cocos, Bahia de los Cochinos

A better beach than Playa Giron but still not great, what with all the stones underneath the water.
on the older side and they spoke fast, slurry and with subjunctives laced throughout their sentences. Basically, I found them really hard to understand – and rather unusually, they found me quite hard to understand as well. My Spanish is better than no Spanish, but it definitely was a challenge.
Anyway, I managed to get a room with the same quality and layout here in Playa Giron as I did in Vinales – but for double the price. CUC$20 however, was probably the best price I could get here in a town with no casas offering shared rooms or dorms. All the hard-earned savings that I had made in Havana were now getting chewed up pretty quick. CUC$20 a night for accommodation, CUC$12 for dinner at the casa, CUC$30 for the taxi here – my expenses were racking up big time.

I spent CUC$12 I spent on dinner however because I had crocodile meat! They have a few in the area and they’re a culinary specialty. I have a feeling that I’ve had it before but nevertheless I found it similar to pork. It was spiced well, although there may have been a tad too much salt. I was intrigued by the option, so I took it.

As well as good diving and snorkelling, Playa Giron is also famous as being the place where “the Cold War almost got hot” according to Lonely Planet.
In 1961, the CIA sponsored a covert invasion of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. Playa Giron was where the main drop off point for troops – all exiled Cuban mercenaries – was meant to take place.
The operation was an absolute fiasco.
Castro knew of the invasion plans and positioned his forces accordingly. Aerial bombings of Cuban air bases before the troop landings failed to hit many of their targets and as a result, the Cuban planes that the US failed to take out were the ones that sunk two of the invading forces’ supply ships, leaving over a thousand troops stranded on the beach.
114 were killed and the rest imprisoned, only returned back to the US once the US handed over US$53m of food and medicine.
The Cubans are pretty proud of this defence, “el primer derrota de imperialismo de Estados Unidos en America Latina (“the first defeat of US imperialism in Latin America”), as they call
Museo de Playa GironMuseo de Playa GironMuseo de Playa Giron

Museum celebrating the most famous victory for the Cuban army over US forces, who unsuccessfully tried to invade Cuba here at Playa Giron.
it, and fair enough. This slogan is plastered across a couple of billboards in town as well as at the Museo Playa Giron, which recounts the events on both sides leading up to the invasion, displays Castro’s successful military tactics during the defence on very detailed maps, and honours the Cuban victims from the skirmish with photographs of them all and with the stories and personal belongings of some. Particularly moving was the soldier who wrote “Fidel” with his blood on a wall after being mortally wounded. Many a patriotic quote is displayed throughout the museum which hammers home just how proud Cubans are of their country and their ideology. It would appear that the US still aren’t favourites of many Cubans and it may take longer than you might think for things to really change here in terms of relations with the US, despite the recent progress made with the lifting of the embargo and the relaxing of travel restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba – of which I have surprisingly met a lot of. I’ve met far more Americans than I had expected here in Cuba.

Well, I had come to Playa Giron to snorkel, so I thought
Crabs!Crabs!Crabs!

They are simply everywhere in the Bahia de los Cochinos. And I mean everywhere.
it was about time I actually did some.
To do this, I had to cycle 11km from Playa Giron to a spot called Punta Perdiz.
It was bloody hard work. I was still feeling the effects of my big night out in Vinales and I was cycling during peak heat in the middle of the day. My legs were weak – the result of averaging 13km of walking every day since landing in Cuba (!) – and I had to stop to rest a couple of times. The exercise was even making me feel nauseous.
The most interesting thing about the ride out there though was the number of crab corpses I had to dodge on the road. The whole road smelt of cooked crab roadkill. There are literally thousands of them in the Bahia de los Cochinos (“The Bay Of Pigs”) – I even saw a posse of about ten of them in my casa the previous night – and some of them are really big. When peeing in the bush I even accidentally pissed on a poor wee fella as they all like hanging out at the base of trees for some reason.
It’s a shame they can’t
Clear Water, Bahia de los CochinosClear Water, Bahia de los CochinosClear Water, Bahia de los Cochinos

Looks a little like Powderfinger's album cover for Odyssey Number Five.
be eaten – these types of crab make you sick apparently.

Once I arrived at Punta Perdiz, I then realised why the Bahia de los Cochinos is touted as a snorkelling and diving destination; the water was clear and a beautiful shade of green/blue.
Further out to sea, the water turns sapphire blue which is due to a sudden drop-off on the sea floor as the reef gives way to a 300m drop. Snorkelling over it was a pretty cool sight as the reef suddenly falls away into a blue abyss.
Closer to the shore, the reef is teeming with fish and coral and the snorkelling was about on par with what I experienced on Roatan Island and Caye Caulker. It was cheap too, as I paid just CUC$3 for an hour, which is about as long as I can snorkel for anyway.
Perhaps Caye Caulker just edges it since I saw sharks and stingrays there but overall, all three destinations were otherwise equally as good.

It was perhaps a result of low season and Cuban non-commercialism, but post-snorkelling I sat myself down under a small shelter made of sticks with two sun-loungers underneath it which seemed to
Punta Perdiz, Bahia de los CochinosPunta Perdiz, Bahia de los CochinosPunta Perdiz, Bahia de los Cochinos

After snorkelling in crystal clear waters, I had these sunloungers in this rather idyllic spot all to myself for the rest of the afternoon.
be free for anyone to use. There weren’t a lot of people at Punta Perdiz that day and by 4pm I was the only person left as I enjoyed a chilled afternoon with my headphones in and a beautiful view of the water in front of me. It was perfect and it was another reminder about why I am doing what I am doing.
From the beautifully lively streets of Havana, to the beautiful countryside of Vinales, to the beautiful water of the Bahia de los Cochinos – Cuba seems to have it all and has been outdoing itself so far, big time. It has already been my favourite country of the trip so far and there is still almost three weeks of it to come!

Hasta luego,
Derek


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Main Square, VinalesMain Square, Vinales
Main Square, Vinales

Vinales's cute little main square, home to the town's church, an art gallery and the town's liveliest salsa joint.
Tobacco Plant, VinalesTobacco Plant, Vinales
Tobacco Plant, Vinales

What the actual plant looks like.
Entrance To Cueva de Palmarito, VinalesEntrance To Cueva de Palmarito, Vinales
Entrance To Cueva de Palmarito, Vinales

Entrance to a massive cave in the Valle de Silencio.
Dancing In The MoonlightDancing In The Moonlight
Dancing In The Moonlight

Salsa dancers hit the open-air dancefloor at the Centro Cultural Polo Montanez.
Mural de la Prehistoria, VinalesMural de la Prehistoria, Vinales
Mural de la Prehistoria, Vinales

Massive mural painted onto the side of a cliff just outside Vinales.
Playa GironPlaya Giron
Playa Giron

Beach in the Bahia de los Cochinos which is somewhat ruined by the ugly concrete sea wall on the right.


13th June 2016

Awesome work!
Very interesting article indeed! Thanks for sharing your insight about this topic. Very helpful thanks!
14th June 2016
Valle de Silencio

Yikes, those prices!
Pretty interesting that it's so outrageously expensive and still your favorite place so far! Those casas particulares that charge by the room instead of per person really hit us singles pretty hard. While I like my independence, I just might try to find someone to share rooms and travel with. Love the color of that fab snorkeling water and the landscape at the Vinales mirador! Hope you don't go broke by the end of the journey here.

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