West to Viñales
09.12.2016 - 11.12.2016
The rain kept coming as we left Havana, and water was splashing over the sea wall, flooding the Malecón. We were lucky to be heading off.
The weather wasn’t exactly sunny three hours away in Viñales either, but at least it wasn’t raining much. We settled in to our casa particulares and unpacked. In Cuba, there aren’t many hotels, but locals are able to rent out rooms in their houses for tourists. They’re a relatively cheap and sociable way to travel, and the hosts are usually happy to cook or wash your clothes for a fee.
Hanging out at the casa
In Viñales, nearly everyone seems to rent out rooms in their house – according to the Lonely Planet there are nearly 300 accommodation options in the small city (of about 12-15 thousand people). It’s a quaint little place, with rocking chairs on every porch, and tractors and horse-and-carts regularly cruising the streets.
Wifi is available in the main square!
There wasn’t much time to relax though, because we were off on another tour in classic cars. Our softly spoken guide took us to a lookout at a hotel, which gave great views of the valley, shrouded in cloud though it was. He seemed personally aggrieved that the weather wasn’t better.
The amazing mountains surrounding the city are limestone formations called mogotes.
Then we were off to a tobacco plantation, as if we hadn’t had enough at the cigar factory the previous day. We met the Politically Incorrect Tobacco Farmer, a colourful personality who had interesting ideas about a cigar’s effect on male fertility (‘good for making babies’).
They explained in greater detail how they choose the more flavoursome leaves for stronger cigars, and milder leaves for others. And then offered us a puff, which some people took up. Roaming chickens and dogs and plentiful pictures of Ché made for a quintessential Cuban experience.
Finally we made it to one of the caves in a mogote. Popular among tour groups, you walk through a section of the cave, then catch a boat along a natural pool to see formations. We saw such unconvincing likenesses as the ‘upside-down champagne bottle’ and ‘profile of an Indian face’, and ‘Colombus’s three ships’.
Back at the casa particular, our host made us a delicious and extravagant dinner, “the best we’ve had so far” according to Dad. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was great to have a home-cooked meal.
Osniyel was our guide the next morning. He wore jeans, a cowboy hat and gumboots, and appropriately, worked with horses. Indeed, it was in this capacity that we met him – he was taking us on a horse ride around the valley.
Only Mum, Al and Caroline had any horse-riding experience, really, but they still decided to put me on Niño the stallion, who Osniyel explained was “tranquil but very strong.” I didn’t see his tranquil side much. He certainly wasn’t as tranquil as Caramelo, Matilda’s horse, who the guide said was “the slowest horse in all of Cuba.” We can still hear Osniyel’s cries of “CAR-A-MELLOOOOO!” echo around the valley, urging the horse to hurry up.
At the halfway mark we stopped at a cave, and looked again at the unconvincing likenesses in cave formations. Our guide was staggered that we were from Australia, and asked us what animals we had other than the kangaroo.
Anyway, it was somewhat enjoyable even if we all finished very sore. I did spend more time trying to stay on the horse than I did enjoying the views, which was a bit of a shame, because the views were pretty nice.
In the afternoon, just as it started to rain, we set off to the Grand Cave of St. Thomas. It was a steep and slippery climb up to Cuba’s largest cave system, and it certainly was grand inside. The inappropriate and overfamiliar guide detracted from the experience a bit, particularly for Matilda.
And then on the way back, the rain really picked up, to a dangerous extent. The taxi carrying Linda, Dad, Rosie and Mat had a few problems: the string attaching the windscreen wiper broke off, so the driver had to open his door to see. Then smoke started to come in through that open door, leading to fears that the engine might explode. They made it back, just.
Later in the evening, the survivors put their near-death experience behind them as we checked out the Viñales nightlife. It apparently consisted of one fairly ordinary live band, and one fairly ordinary and crowded bar.
On Sunday morning more taxis picked us up – not quite the same vintage or as cobbled together as the old classic cars, probably from the 70s – and drove us to Cayo Jutías, a beach 66km away on Cuba’s northern coast. The road had so many potholes that the drivers were heading to the dirt just off the side to avoid them.
The beach itself was good, but not brilliant; perhaps the recent weather had churned up the sand and washed some away. We had a good day nonetheless, bobbing up and down in the calm waters, reading books, and exploring the mangroves, disturbing hundreds of crabs along the way.
The drive was nice, too, even if it was very slow, with plenty of classic Cuban country scenes. Just before we got back into town we checked out the giant 1960s ‘prehistoric’ mural, which took 18 artists four years to paint. We all essentially agreed with Matilda’s opinion that those years were a complete waste of time.
Off again tomorrow, to another nature-filled destination, Las Terrazas.
When we left the next morning, Mum left behind some toys for the kids, pens and a calendar, and our host was absolutely thrilled:
Rosie and Niurkis, our host
This one doesn't really fit anywhere in the blog, but I just had to include it