Cuba: Viñales

Ahead of our trip we made no casa reservations other than in Havana, so our host Aymeé kindly rang up her friends who lived in our next destinations and booked for us. What a gem! We left Havana on a Saturday morning, in a maroon coloured Chevrolet arranged by Aymeé, and made the two and half hour drive to the Valley of Viñales. As soon as we left the city, another side of Cuba, the rural, agricultural landscape, emerged. When the signs for Viñales arrived, so did the first glimpses of the incredible mogotes, the flat topped mountains that define this part of the country.

The town of Viñales is comparable to a village at home and the main street can be walked in 5 minutes. Our new host arranged for a local guide to come to the house and asked us what we want to do whilst we're in the area and so the next morning bright and early we were picked up to go on a horse back excursion. This was only my second time ever on horseback and our guide for the morning seemed to relish in making my horse gallop up hills whilst I clung on for dear life! We saw tobacco farming and cigar production, coffee and fruit growing (did you know pineapples grow on the ground?!), visited a local cave and swam in a natural lake. It gave us a good first impression of life and industry in this part of Cuba, but I still wasn't getting that 'WOW' feeling I had expected from Viñales...

Late that evening back at our casa, we bumped into a couple of Swiss girls who we had met in Havana. They too had found the typical excursion rather conveyor belt-like and touristy, however they had just returned from a sunset walking tour by a local guide recommended to them, and so passed on his details.

Luis Miguel came and collected us the following afternoon and we embarked on an adventure with two ladies, Eng and Marylis, through in the National Park of Viñales. On this trip we saw the true, untouched side of this beautiful region, that was literally Luis Miguel's playground growing up. We climbed up the sides of mogotes to wonderful window view points, walked through his parents farm learning about the crops that they grew, we were invited into their home to enjoy the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted (I usually claim to not like coffee!), learnt about the cigar, or puro, making process in a hand-built drying house, and then climbed up to los Aquaticos to look down over this breathtaking landscape (and admire the cutest little piglets!). Quite honestly at times on this excursion I felt rather emotional, having wanted to visit this country for so long, I felt this was the real Cuba that we were experiencing. When in Viñales, this trip is a must must must!

You make the journey to Viñales to explore the landscape, so for me a day trip from Havana would not be enough. One afternoon we stumbled upon the farm belonging to Raul Reyes, which he welcomes hikers to pass through, or even stop by to enjoy a drink. The next day we returned to by some coffee from him (sold in recycled water bottles!) and he greeted us like friends. The people we met were always so open, and in my rusty Spanish we were able to converse and get a deeper understanding Cuban life.

Viñales' slow pace of life is such a contrast to Havana. During our stay we tended to eat at the casa, and one night enjoyed a delicious roast pork, or cerdo asado. Delicious! After a three night stay, we were off on the road again, next stop: Playa Gíron!

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