Cuba Part 2 (Vinales) – June 2009

– After two days in Havana…I was ready to leave and get out to more of the countryside. I decided to head west to the city or village of Vinales. This is about three and a half hours outside of Havana and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Cuba. I also was excited as I thought I would meet up with Julian and Gus, and I also met another English guy names Tim who was going to be on my bus.

– Once I was on the bus, I met Adele. She was a 24 year old waitress from Ireland and was traveling around Cuba for six weeks. She was on her own and after talking for a little bit, we hit it off and I invited her to share the casa I had reserved as it would be more fun and cheaper for both of us. Adele was so nice and we ended up having a great time in Vinales and I don’t know if I would have had the same experiences in this town on my own.

– In Cuba, most of the cities do not have hotels and there are no hostels, so most travelers stay in Casa Particulars, which I would say are like a Bed and Breakfast. You are renting a room in a local’s home, and each Casa is overseen by the government so it’s a clean, regulated and safe accommodation. The casa are also the place to have meals and normally the owners cook better food than you can get in a restaurant and the portions are so huge…it’s ridiculous. I could never eat even half the food they tried to serve me.

– When I got off the bus, Maritza was waiting for me with a sign. When I met Elisa in Belize, she had told me about this casa and how wonderful it was, and I was thrilled with the recommendation as Maritza has to be one of the nicest Cuban’s I met and welcomed us into her home.

– Adele and I wanted to get out and explore the town and headed into the city center. I laugh as the city center was really one main street, one church and a lot of older people sitting around in rocking chairs. I swear, all the people in Vinales sat around all day in a rocking chair watching the world go by and it looked good.

FARMER RAUL AND HIS PINEAPPLES

– We decided to walk down a dirt road towards the big mountains and see what we came to. We passed many homes, horses (including some very under nourished horses and sadly one that we think was left to die in the middle of the road). After about 20 minutes, we saw a little sign that said it was an organic farm and there was free entrance. It sounded good to us to check it out (and I was starving since it was 3pm and I hadn’t eaten since my light breakfast at 7:30am). So we went in and met farmer Raul. He was an old man that has farmed all his life on this property and now loves meeting people. As we walked in, I saw all the pineapples growing in the bushes (I didn’t realize pineapples grew in little bushes, but they do). So we sat and started talking to Raul in Spanish and he cut up some pineapple. I wanted to know how much it would cost and he said to just pay what we felt we should. That was the tough part as we had no idea, but after eating a pineapple, mango and asking for a few to go, we must have over paid as he smiled and told us to take another pineapple and mango. It was a delightful afternoon. We were about to leave when Raul told us to feel free to explore as the huge property was his and there was a great view if we went hiking to the back of the farm and up the mountain.

– So Adele and I decided to climb his fence and hike up the mountain for the view. We weren’t really dressed for a big hike as we were wearing flip flops, but we were game nonetheless. It was a steep climb up with lots of bugs, then thunder and a little rain, but we figured we had climbed far enough up that we should keep going for the view. All was well until we came upon a large bull and two younger cows. I didn’t think we should go too close, but Adele said it was a bull and only the cows are protective of the young and since we saw a rope on the bull, she thought it was ok. I still didn’t think we should go close and we later found out the bull had a rope, but it wasn’t tied to anything and would have taken us down if he got angry. Whoops…

– As we were coming down from out trek and walking back to our casa, Adele and I ran into Julian and Gus and we decided to meet up later that night for drinks. So at the late hour of 9:00, Adele and I headed out to the one bar in town (or so we thought). It was so hot, we asked if we could bring chairs out to the porch to drink and I felt like white trash drinking beers on the porch, but it was fun. A little bit later, I saw Tim walk by on his own, so I told him to pull up a chair, meet Adele and have a drink and now it was three of us on the porch drinking. I think it was a funny sight to the locals.

– Once the bar closed at 10:30 at night, we thought we would find somewhere else to drink and walked towards the only loud music we heard. As we got close, we realized it was not a club, but an empty room with a stereo blasting really bad music and we said no thank you to that. We thought the night may be over, but we did find another place with a live band and good mojitos and stayed for a drink before heading out. Again…we thought we were heading home, but we heard more music and found this was the big club in town were live music and dancing was held each night. So off we went

– The music was great, the locals were all dancing and the mojitos were flowing. We also finally found Gus and Julian, as we never met up earlier as they were staying at a hotel out of town and get in too late to meet us. So after a couple bottles of rum (table service style), we were all dancing to the Cuban music and having a great time until we closed this club down at 1:00am. It was so much fun! Funny and sad part to this night was for Julian and Gus. They thought they could get a taxi back to their hotel when the club closed, but there was not a car in sight and they were stranded. The rest of us were able to walk to our Casa’s in 5 minutes, but there hotel was about 8 km away. So I suggested to Gus to ask to the club to call a taxi (as that would make sense to me), but this town doesn’t operate that way. So in the end, the club’s bouncer said his brother was working in the kitchen and had a cousin that lived across the street and he could go there and wake him up and he would take Gus and Julian back to the hotel. This would happen in about 30 minutes. So we all said goodbye and assumed they were getting a ride back to the hotel. The next morning when we met up, we learned there were no cars, and the guy that was woken up walked the two guys back to the hotel in the dark in the forest and after an hour or so, they finally reached the hotel and it cost more than a taxi and was not a fun walk in the dark. That late night trek made them decide to move to a casa in town to avoid that the next night.

– Somewhere at 1:00am, the five of us decided to meet the next day, rent a car and go out to the beach. Sounded good and we decided to meet at the car rental place at 10:00am. We didn’t think Gus and Julian would make it as it was a late night and they also had to pack up, move to town and find a new place. We were surprised to see they pulled up at 10am ready to go. Only problem was the car rental place didn’t have any cars left and didn’t think they would for a few days. They called around to nearby cities and no one had cars. This was a bummer as we asked the day before about cars and said we wanted to rent one, but no one told us there were no cars left. So we worked hard to try to find a taxi that would take the five of us, but none would as it was an hour away to get to the beach and it’s illegal. We finally decided to take two taxis, pay more and deal with it. But in the end, Julian was able to get the owner’s son at his new casa to take us in his personal car and this was quite the experience. We got to ride in his old black Buick that barely ran, but it was one of the most fun days ever!

BUICK RIDE TO THE BEACH

– Adele asked to sit in the front as she gets car sick and Tim sat next to her with Julian, Gus and me crammed in the back. It was funny as Tim and Adele were the skinniest and tiniest of the group and the three of us in the back got close and were sweaty as it was so hot in the car, but of well.

– An hour later, we made it to Junitas beach. This was a beautiful white sand beach and we had three hours to relax, snorkel and have lunch. I decided to let the other four go snorkels and I would stay with our stuff. After so much scuba diving for me, I didn’t need to go snorkel so all was good. It was a fun day at the beach followed by a great seafood lunch and too many beers. I think we were all trying to drink a lot to make the long car ride back to Vinales better (and it did help!)

SPURLUCKING IN THE CAVES

– We had arranged to stop at San Thomas Caves and explore. Cuba has lots of caves, but the Gran Caverna de Santa Tomas is the most extensive cave system in all of Cuba and the third largest in Latin America. In order to go into the caves, you have to go with a licensed guide. The guy that was driving us to the beach knew of a guide that could take us, but he was out of town and would be back after 5pm. That was better for us as we could go to the beach in the day and then go to the caves on the way back. What we didn’t know was the caves closed at 4pm and we would have to “sneak in another entrance”. We also didn’t know that sneaking in would take us through massive muddy hills (as the mud was worse since it rains a ton every afternoon in this part of Cuba). On top of that, none of us had proper footwear and didn’t learn about this until it was too far into the trek to turn back.

– We ended up hiking down through hills, jungle, mud, and who knows what else and I was just wearing my flip flops. Now I can hike in my flip flops and have in my places, but this time it was so difficult as the mud was so fresh, it was all over the bottom of my flips, in the tread of the shoe, on the bottom of my bare foot (which made me slip and slide everywhere). So I slipped and fell once. Then I fell again, but this time I fell really hard on a rock. The third and final fall was the worst and I cut my elbow pretty badly. It was a deep gash that wouldn’t stop bleeding for a long time, but in the end, I was ok. I have a nice scare to show for it a month later still. We even had to cross a big herd of pigs, they looked friendly enough and there were lots of little ones, so that was cute.

– Once we were inside the caves, it was very cool both temperature and scenic. These caves have 10 different entrances and over 46km of passageways. There are also eight different levels. Our guide has taken people in for a week at a time where they camped and everything, but when we turned off our lights part way in, it was so dark, I would not want to go there for a long time. Glad I went as it was fascinating.

– I was dreading the return walk as I knew it would be darker out and more mud. I actually made it back with only one small skip but I didn’t fall so that was good. I ended up grabbing onto a tree branch and as I grabbed it, Julian yelled for me not to grab it as it was a sharp thorn tree. My luck held up as I did grab it, but I got the one spot on the trunk with no thorns. Whew! Once we got to the top and were in the clear, the guide said

TOBACCO FARM

– The providence of Pinar del Rio and the town of Vinales as well are known as the biggest Tobacco producing region. So on the last day, Adele and I wandered around town and a nice guy came out to talk to us. Once again, Adele and I were walking in massive mud and slipping around as we walked. The guy was laughing a little at us (and he was wearing large mud boots and walking quite fine). He then invited us into his family’s farm as they are tobacco farmers. I wanted to see how and where it grew so we went in. We later learned that no tobacco was currently growing as that season is over and it’s drying. He did give us a tour of the drying barn and then showed us how they roll the cigars there and of course we had to buy some. These Cuban cigars were better for me as there were no labels and I wouldn’t have issues bringing them back to the USA.

– So after 3 days in Vinales, this was a wonderful town. In the end, it was one of my favorite places in all of Cuba. Vinales was such amazing town full of beautiful scenery, a slow lifestyle, pure tranquility and some of the most friendly people. I would recommend a trip to Vinales for anyone and more than a day trip. A day trip would never do justice and stay with Maritza!

Logistics:
Best Casa Particular I stayed in in all of Cuba.  Super friendly owners!
Casa Omar y Maritza Corvo
Calle salvador Cisnero No 14 – Tel: 052238968

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