After our experiences in Havana and the small towns that sit beside it, Dani and I were wanting to wonder farther afield and find a “rustic” Cuban experience. I had many thoughts on this and our cruising guides offered a bewildering number of suggestions but a discussion with some other Americans that went rock climbing near Vinales in the Pinar Del Rio region sealed the deal. These guys told me the prices and how much fun they’d had there over the course of a couple of beers. I had ants in my pants type excitement as I skipped home to the boat, popped my head in and announced to Dani, “We’re going horse back riding in Vinales!”
Dani is a detail oriented type of gal and so such an announcement with no background doesn’t always go over well with her but I think she saw the glow of genuine excitement in my face and so she smiled real big at me and said “Great!” And then we started talking about it and sorting through the details.
There were two powerful reasons that I was thrilled that Dani was on board with this plan. One is that I’d always wanted to see Pinar Del Rio. (I’ll get into why in a bit). The other is that Vinales turned out to be the jewel that we sought in Cuba. A surreal type of experience that you know will linger in the halls of your mind where you keep the really precious memories. But so often I get ahead of myself…
The Americans had given us the name/number of a taxi that brought them the 200km to Vinales from Havana. (2.5hr) They had paid 15CUC per person for a one way trip. We had one of the super helpful bartenders at the yacht club call and arrange transport. We were to meet at the front of the marina at a time. We packed our bags and got there and stood beside the rode where many taxis stopped and tried to get us to take them. Finally one very old Buick (guessing a 1953) stopped and said they were the guy (but there were two of them) so we negotiated a price (40CUC para dos – or 40 bucks for the both of us) and we left. The trip there was beautiful, if not sketchy due to substandard roads.
Horses and buggies are running along major highways. People on bikes are pedalling. People stand on the highway near overpasses. Like 30-50 people per intersection all waiting for rides. We never figured out where they were going on how they were going to get there. Our car just kept going past it all except for a few stops to refill the radiator.
Finally we arrived at the Casa de Pedro y Elia. A “Casa de Particular” which is a private home that has a room to rent for tourists; this distinction is denoted by a blue anchor like symbol. If the symbol is red it means only Cubans can stay in that room for rent.
Upon arrival our drivers demanded 80CUC. This was our first real international broken language attempt at a rip off. Dani and I said almost in unison “40CUC PARA DOS”. I think the guys understood we weren’t having it and I gave them 40. They grumbled and got back into their car and then one actually said to us, “Call for ride back.” Stress was a little high even though this seems a piddling incident. It was the first time for us.
Luck was on our side though because Elia, the house’s matron, came right out, hugged us, kissed us, negotiated a price (20CUC/night – The negotiation started at 25CUC), showed us the room and then immediately brought out some glasses of some sort of juice that was fantastic. Oh by the way, the view instantly removed stress and zen was attained almost instantly.
The casa had another little building on the side with more rooms. And some really swank lawn art. Check out that Cohiba Cigar bench.
By Cuban standards, the room was also excellent. Two beds with a full shower and the HOLY GRAIL, a toilet seat. It also had a working AC unit. We were told later by some other people staying there that the Casa de Particulars all over the country are homogeneous in amenities but that the state of repair is different and this was the best they’d seen.
After settling in and getting our bearings, Pedro, the man of the house, showed us a little excursion map on the wall. He spoke slowly and I was actually able to converse with him in my broken Spanish and my phrase book. We pointed to the horses and he told us he’d arrange it for us. We agreed on a price and a time. (20CUC/person for 4 hours of riding).
Dani and I grabbed a beer. Sat on the rooftop for a while and conversed with the parrot while soaking up the scene from the casa. We were really in Cuba proper now.
We spent the rest of that day touring the small town. It is full of Casa de Particulars and is obviously a tourist destination despite it not being crowded. Most of the people we saw wandering around who were clearly tourists were French with a sprinkle of Canadians and some Aussies were in the room next door.
We shopped. We ate, we just sort of bummed around. We walked down the road to where there were farm houses.
And we returned that night to have dinner which was served at the Casa for (12CUC for the entire meal). This meal was enormous. It was like Thanksgiving. We attempted to tell them it was too much but it just didn’t matter. More food just kept coming out. I wonder if it is just a flat rate designed for four people or something. I can’t tell. But it was excellent and the people serving it were very kind. Almost like having dinner at a relatives house.
The next day was Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras!). And this one was one we’ll probably always remember because it was the day we set out into the farms and cliffs of the Pinar Del Rio region.
Pinar Del Rio is famous for many reason but the two that I had known it for were
1) The tobacco crops grown in these fields are said to produce the finest tobaccos in the world for cigar wrapper leaves. (the wrappers is arguably the most important leaf)
2) The incredible limestone cliffs that are in the state of slowly (over eons) collapsing back into the land.
It is truly a beautiful landscape as you wonder out into it. It is filled with people, homes, tobacco crops, sugar cane, and corn.
Dani and I met up with our horse guide (also named Pedro) who brought us horses to ride. Dani’s horse was both terrible and fortuitous. You see this horse probably had one leg in a glue factory already, but then, Dani having not ridden much or in years was happy with a slow old horse that walked so slow she could shoot photos from. We joked that the horse (Senor May-En-Geux phonicly) had been alive when the Spanish arrived in Cuba and has just been passed down through the ages.
My horse was a bit better.
Into the mountains on horseback!
The sheer faces of the limestone cliffs were stunning. I could see how rock climbing would be great here.
We ran across many people along the way. Some Cubans were working. Some were tourists on hikes or other horses. The hills were alive and buzzing with activity without feeling crowded.
Our guide brought us to a casa ontop of a little hill where a farmer named Devaldo lived. It was obviously a tourist trap sort of scheme but I couldn’t help buying Dani, Pedro, and I a rum and coconut. Notice the rat chained to the tree.
Devaldo spoke English well. He showed me how to roll a cigar and I bought some of his cigars which were unpressed. It was an interesting experience for me to see the farmer himself making the cigars.
The farming here is so so different than what my knowledge of American farming entails. There aren’t tractors or combines working the land. Instead there were honest to God oxen drawn plows.
Some places were just too rocky to cultivate.
Deeper into the valley we visited a Cuban national park.
As you can tell, safety isn’t exactly at first world standards. This bridge was an I-beam and the hand rails were bailing wire.
Across the bridge is a cave entrance which was rather welcoming due to cool air that it exuded. We had to pay 2CUC each to enter. The guides walked along with some LED flashlights leading us through a natural limestone cave.
At the end of the path is a pool of water which extends something like 10meters and that people were swimming in. It was pitch black except for flash lights. Dani and I weren’t brave enough to take a dip. It may have been because we forgot our bathing suits.
Back on the trail after the cave we walked the horses all through the farm land of the region. I’ll let the scenery speak for itself.
I had to stop here and snap a photo of Dani with this palm tree for scale.
The fabled tobacco of the region. The top leaves are my favorite as they gather the most sunlight and create spicy wrappers. I know this might not mean a lot to many people, but this photo is of the pinnacle of something. The very source of the finest in the world. It is akin to seeing the wineries of Bordeux.
After our ride we came back to town and chatted about what we’d seen and worked on sealing it off into our memories. Dani and I both agreed it was something truly special and worth every single penny.
We made our way to town bought a bottle of rum and went back to the Casa for dinner then made drinks and sat ontop of the roof at the house while I had a cigar and we dreamed our dreams.
Cuba’s beauty, its friendly peoples, and its completely different ambiance has drawn from us whatever stress we’d carried with us. Whatever fear of the unknown or the stress from major life changes evaporated.
Our Spanish is growing. Our love of the wild places is multiplied. Our hearts turned to our plans which included the island of the Antilles and we wondered about it. You know, that is the great thing about being out here, “living the dream” is that we have freedom and I intend to FULLY leverage it.
Without having said it aloud, I think Dani and I both decided independently and then through hints to one another and finally in conversation that the islands could wait. Our attention is turned to Central America. This is the weight that Vinales Cuba put upon us.
Until next time…
PS. We LOVE all of your comments and emails but please know that Internet in Cuba is difficult at best. We can’t always respond but our appreciation is still here.
PSS. We´re clearing out tomorrow and headed west!