Off to Explore Rural Cuba
Following our excellent one day “reccie” trip into Havana we spent a day cleaning the latest layer of salt from Balvenie, organised our bus tickets for the following morning and got ourselves ready for our first inland excursion within Cuba. In company with our friend Tony we departed on the tourist friendly Transtur bus for Pinar del Rio province and the small rural town of Vinales. The journey almost retraced our steps along the coast, heading southwest inland but paralleling the ocean as we passed through rolling countryside, fields of crops, banana plantations and hundreds of mango trees dripping with big juicy fruit ready for picking – interestingly there was no sign at all of the onset of harvesting the thousands of fruit.
The countryside was interesting, there was a motorway for a good part of the journey but the roads were almost empty. The mix of traffic we did see was entertaining - a blend of ancient farm machinery, horse and carts, taxi tricycles, motorcycles with sidecars, American pre 60’s cars, Eastern Block ugly boxes like Ladas and Skodas, Russian buses belching out the most horrendous exhaust fumes, covered trucks converted to buses jammed packed with locals, oxen pulled ploughs and the occasional “normal modern car”, we don’t think we have ever before seen such a diverse assortment of modes of transport!
The area surrounding Vinales was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 and as we crested the neighbouring hills and had our first vista of the valley it was easy to see why. Spectacular mogotes (limestone rocky outcrops) burst up from the relatively flat valley floor, they reminded us of landscapes last seen thousands of miles away in Thailand and Vietnam, steep sided, rounded tops – very unique. The valley floor was a patchwork of vivid colours, large fields of recently ploughed rich red soil, pockets of still to be harvested tobacco plants, crops of maize or corn. It was just beautiful.
Time to Try those Famous Cigars!
Getting off the bus in sleepy Vinales in one piece was no mean feat. It is written that there are over 700 “Casa Particulars” in the valley and just a couple of smallish hotels. The Casa Particulars are Cuba's version of a British B&B, and it felt like all 700 Casa owners met the bus to ply for our business, and there were only 16 of us on the bus - completely overwhelming would be an understatement!
We ploughed our way through them and escaped to the town square for a much needed coffee, however this didn’t deter the hardy amongst them who still hounded us for our business – we had much sought after tourist pesos. We chose a Casa (around $25 double including breakfast), dropped our bags and set off around town to explore. There is just the main street really, its a cute enough place but the main attraction is the gorgeous countryside and of course when you live on the sea it is even more special to venture inland.
Mojitos, Music & Mountain biking with Matador
We had prearranged to meet up with Steph and Stu off Matador (who had travelled down the previous day) for Mojitos, the national drink of Cuba – Cuban rum, lime juice and water with as many sprigs of mint they can spare, rather pleasant really and at between $1.50 to $4.00 each (depending on where and how flash/touristy the bar) somewhat affordable, just like everything in Cuba. We spent a few hours soaking up the atmosphere (and mojitos!), listening to local bands and even fitted in dinner along the way, it had been a great day.
Next morning we farewelled Tony, he was off to discover as much of Cuba as he could in the next couple of weeks and would meet us back on Balvenie.
Meanwhile Stu and Steph had plans to do a 34km cycle out into the countryside (they have high quality folding mountain bikes and had already cycled 100’s of km’s in Cuba) so we hired mountain bikes and joined them for some very serious exercise. We had done some cycling in Mexico but it had all been flat, not much in the way of training!
This was a scenic ride and to reach the viewing points there was a serious amount of hill work involved, but we soldiered on and had an excellent ride out of town on the almost deserted roads. We certainly tucked into the local pizzas on our return to town, small pizzas for less than .50c each at the ”pizza oven in someone's front room” stalls, great value and our standard lunch fare whilst out and about.
Morning Coffee & Cigars in the Countryside
Not to be put off by our gruelling ride the previous day the 4 of us spent the next morning on the dirt farm paths out of town into the real rural farm lands.
The scenery was just stunning, the locals so friendly, the farm paths peaceful & the weather extremely hot! We stopped for “morning coffee and cigars” at a farm, an entrepreneurial local has built a small thatched shelter, served excellent Cuban coffee, sold farm produced organic cigars and honey, how could we not stop?
Most of the tobacco crops had just been harvested, this area is a large producer of tobacco for those world famous, top quality Cuban Cigars. The farmers must sell 90% of their crop to the Government but the other 10% they are permitted to sell privately or smoke. The cigars produced on the local farms are organically matured, must be good for you?! so it was time to see what these Cuban cigars were all about. Every picture tells a story!!
But as we all know bad things happen in threes. A few minutes later I heard a big clunk and looked down to find a piece of the bike (which will have a proper name) broken in two, my gears and pedals were no longer connected to the chain. In between walking, scooting along pushing it with one foot while standing on one pedal, sitting on it and free wheeling on the occasional downhill parts and sitting and being pushed by Stu (great effort) on the flat parts we managed to get back to town, very hot, sweaty, dusty and totally exhausted only 30 minutes before the bus departure.
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