Viñales: Up-close and personal
The fields of green tobacco, almost obscuring the quaint farmhouses, were our first signals that we had entered Viñales. For hours we had pushed the little car and ourselves. We didn't stop for lunch choosing instead to gorge on the goodness of local fruits we had bought. It was mid-afternoon. Our passenger was a high-school baseball coach on his only day off, he had said. We had picked him up from the roadside a mile aback. He was very neatly attired and bespectacled and appeared non-threatening to us. He guided us through the final twists and corkscrew turns on the precipitous mountain road into town and straight down Salvador Cisneros street. Once there, we easily avoided his persistent and transparent attempts to hustle us into accommodation of his choosing and went, instead, to grab some grub.
Viñales was a small, rural municipality in the Pinar Del Río province in northwest Cuba. Originally settled by the Taino Indians, the area boasts rich and arable land, bountiful rainfall and cool temperatures making it lush and tropical and ideally suited for farming. It was colonized in the early 1800s by tobacco growers from the Canary Islands. The
Indian population was decimated and those who could, fled into the heart of the mountains through a series of caves unknown to the massas. The town center itself was an attraction - a tidy, well-laid-out locale with a bustling main street, plenty of quality restaurants and accommodation and oodles of charm.
A few km away was a national park - Parque Nacional Viñales - a picturesque landscape of amazing natural beauty - lush, green and fertile hills and valleys. It was well guarded by two sisters: Mogote Coco Solo
and Mogote La Esmeralda.
They were towering peaks of craggy, limestone mountains called Karst, littered with caves, bat holes and mystery. Between them was the aptly named Valle del Silencio
- a place where the cool afternoon breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and the occasional caw of some bird of prey could be heard. Just beyond was Rancho San Vincente - the hotel we had splurged on, probably overcompensating for the previous night. A lovely hotel it was with standalone wooden cottages tucked away on a tree-covered hillside and open-air breakfast. This was divine. We strolled the little nature trails off the hotel and then along the quiet
countryside road at dusk in the Valley of Silence enjoying the feeling of freedom and escape, togetherness, joy and peace.
The next day we followed the narrow, winding road through the valley with no destination in mind - windows open, listening to bird calls and smelling the fresh, crisp air. An even narrower turn-off led to a mountain road where piglets roamed free and uncertainty loomed large. The car was low on gas and this desolate mountain road was no place to get stuck but mystery and curiosity drew us deeper and deeper still. Just at the point when we started seriously considering turning back, a cluster of small houses appeared. We drove cautiously forward. This place seemed to us to be a valley within a valley. This was road's end. We watched a strange-looking, wooden sleigh-like contraption pulled by two sturdy-looking bulls and on which stood a man with an impressive mustache and a well-worn cowboy hat, sidle up to one of the houses. He noticed us. We seemed well out of place and this certainly was not a place where tourists frequented. He hopped off and tied the bulls and then started striding over to us, his
face stern. We stopped and before he could reach the car we called out:
"What's the name of this village?"
"Valle Ancon", he replied, not breaking stride. By now he was at the car window and placed his big, calloused hands - a farmer's no doubt - on the door.
"Welcome. You come my house now".
We looked at each other uncertain whether it was an invitation or an instruction. In the entire two seconds that it took for us to look back at him, the serious face was replaced with the biggest, most inviting and reassuring smile. Yes, this was an invitation and one we were definitely going to take. We scrambled up the small slope to his house - a smallish, regular structure overlooking a field of coffee plants. The kids playing 'horsey' in the front yard with sticks between their legs, stopped to scrutinize us. His wife met us inside the impeccable abode with an offer of coffee which we politely declined. But Grandma, who followed, was insistent and after tasting the goodness in the toy-sized 'cup-lets'
, we were glad she did. Ty traded some toys for a 'horsey' stick and was soon galloping outside
with the kids making us wonder why we ever buy manufactured toys at all when a stick and imagination could suffice. Nobody wanted to rush this moment. This was priceless and memorable up-close-and-personal interaction with the locals. There, in this stranger's house we sat, laughing and talking like old friends, signing when vocabulary failed and savoring this most fortuitous and enjoyable experience.
On the way out, we visited two caves. El Palenque, the first, was a massive cavern which doubled as a bar and nightclub. Off the main cave were dark and tiny passages tunneling deep in the belly of the mountain above. These had made excellent escape routes for the slaves. The other cave, Cueva del Indio
had a pleasant surprise at the end of a wormhole: a cool, mysterious underground river crowned by an immaculate natural cathedral ceiling from which stalactites of all shapes and sizes precariously dangled like the Sword of Damocles. A boatman awaited to guide us up and then down the river and then out.
We were running on gas fumes when we made it back to the miniature gas station on the edge of Viñales town. It was mid-afternoon and time to
head back to Havana but instead of speeding along the Autopista, we chose the backroads - a serpentine route with unbelievable elevations and equally unbelievable views on Cuba's eastern mountain ranges and its countryside. This route would add hours to the drive and would ensure that we couldn't make it back before dark.
So, we picked a random midpoint and set off. 😊
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