Onward to the Viñales Valley

by Ekua on September 5, 2010 in Cuba

We spent the morning thoroughly exploring Old Havana and before heading west to the town of Viñales.  As we left the city behind and traveled a long, lonely stretch of highway in silence, our hearts and minds sunk further into Cuba.

So much of the landscape of the Cuban countryside is unaffected by human alteration and thrives freely. It looked like the simple crayon images kids often create where despite their actual environment, everything is where it’s supposed to be. Shaggy edges of Jungle Green grass, Sky Blue with globby white clouds, a simple Raw Umber house here and there. Every so often, a classic car whizzed by to give it a stroke of pastel. Hitchhikers gathered underneath freeway overpasses that led to nowhere to escape from the heat and catch a ride while uniformed government workers oversaw the process.

We passed through small villages and farming communities where lines of clothing in a colorful array of shades waved against the blue and white… Cuba’s own version of Mexico’s ubiquitous decorations, papel picado. People ranging from the blond-haired and blue-eyed to those with the almost black skin of West Africa lived their lives intertwined in these villages. Elderly people sat on their porches and slowly rocked the time by in their chairs.

We stopped in Soroa, an eco-tourism spot set in thick tropical vegetation a winding drive away from the main freeway. There, we had lunch and the option to visit a botanical garden. Our ride had given us a glimpse of how incredibly fertile the area was, and we all decided a garden visit would be worth it. We saw several types of orchids, mango trees, bug eating plants and woodpeckers. At the top of the garden, I looked out at mountains covered with palm trees that are endemic to Cuba with awe and admiration for Mother Nature’s possibilities.

When we arrived in Viñales, I was immediately captured by it. Time after time, little countryside towns that serve as a base for the nature that surrounds them often turn out to be my favorite places. Not everyone in the group shared my instant fierce passion for Viñales. “Is this it?” a group member asked as we arrived in the sleepy town. “There’s nothing here!” It’s true, the main square in the town consisted of a few benches, a couple buildings and a rundown church. But there was something so inviting about the atmosphere of the town; it felt like a place you could get to know quickly.

In Viñales, we stayed in casa particulares near the town center. Our guide began assigning casas, and I asked if my roommate and I could stay in the one were standing in front of. I’d peeked in and liked the rocking chairs and sparkly gold-tinted beaded curtains I saw inside.

Everyone went to settle in, and our guide accompanied the vegan Aussie couple to explain their dietary situation to their casa owner. He told her that they didn’t eat anything that came from an animal—they would not eat meat, milk products, eggs or even honey. The casa owner’s response to this? Sustained, uncontrollable laughter… until she realized it was not a joke. Her demeanor reversed and she became very serious and determined to make them good food. At the house next door, another casa owner that a group member was staying with had been listening to the whole exchange and never stopped laughing.

After enjoying our most flavorful meals thus far at our respective casas, we went back to the main square to go salsa dancing at Viñales’s one and only club… except none of us danced that night. We were all too self-conscious to get up there with people for whom salsa dancing was as easy as walking. We had the silly idea that after our salsa lesson the next day, we would be ready to join the Cubans.

The next morning, since we were all interesting in hiking through the Valle de Viñales, we arranged to do a group hike. Our guide looked to be in his late 40s or early 50s. He’d grown up in the area and knew a great deal about it. He probably led these hiking tours all the time, but with childlike enthusiasm he pointed out the different types of flowers and the sayings about them. He showed us plants that close when you touch them and a tree that is related to the baobab tree of Africa.

He knew all of the guajiros and gaujiras we passed by and their life stories. We exchanged holas and smiles with them. They posed proudly for pictures. We stopped for juicy mangoes and pineapple and guava in a farmer’s flowering tree enclosed yard in the middle of a vast expanse of fields. The farmer had a gentle demeanor and poured us glasses of his syrupy raisiny homemade wine. We’d set out early to avoid sweltering heat and high humidity, but even in the morning, it was unbelievably hot. We were all ready for shade and showers so we decided not to linger too long. We took off for our last stop on the hike, a cigar rolling demonstration.

Later, we all went to visit the Mural de la Prehistoria, an ugly and inexplicably painted cliff side. If nothing else, the absurdity of the mural’s existence provided some laughter. From there, we went to  a lookout point to see Viñales’s postcard image overlooking the valley and the unlikely karst formations that jut out of it. It was reminiscent of Halong Bay in Vietnam, except rather than sea, it was farmland. And instead of traditional floating fishing villages, there were farmers living and working the same way they had been for a couple hundred years.

Viñales’s verdancy was fresh and enchanting. But even more charming were the people of Viñales, who compared to the people I’d encountered in Havana, were easy to connect with. In the end, it was the people of Viñales who would solidify my love for the town and reveal Cuba to me in ways I didn’t expect.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Herb September 5, 2010 at 10:04 pm

My own personal philosophy……… every thing is better away from big cities, always will be a country boy at heart.

really enjoy this post.

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Ekua September 6, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I actually have a thing for the extremes… big cities and nature, but I’m not a big fan of suburbs. There’s a certain type of energy and sense of possibility that can only be found in big cities. The appeal of nature/countryside is pretty self-explanatory. When I returned to Havana at the end of my trip, I liked it a lot more, but Vinales was by far my favorite 🙂

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Sunee September 6, 2010 at 1:50 am

Beautifully vivid writing!

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Ekua September 6, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Thanks!

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Andi September 6, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I LOVED Vinales!!! We did a lot of adventurous stuff when we were there. It’s so lush and untouched like you noted.

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Marie September 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I’m curious, what did the vegans eat? 🙂

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Ekua September 12, 2010 at 11:40 am

Overall on the trip the vegans ate:
-rice
-beans
-salad (which usually is a few slices of cucumber and tomato, shredded cabbage and canned green beans)
-toast

But they said at their casa, the owner made things flavorful for them! I’m guessing that means more stews and spices and root vegetables. At the casa where I stayed, there was a lot more vegetable and flavor variety than most restaurants offered.

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