Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
After a short break in Havana to collect my main rucksack from my casa, Alice, Mum and I were on the bus to Viñales in the Pinar del Rio valley. I’d been persuaded to visit on the grounds of it being a popular destination, but really had few expectations. The bus arrived in Viñales, and we were met with the worst throng of eager local casa-owners that I’d experienced. It was literally a mob scene, as we wrestled our way through to try and recover our bags from the coach, we were bombarded from every direction by people with their business cards, frantically trying to persuade us to stay with them. We were totally disinclined to stay with any of them, despite the fact that we had no reservation. The Lonely Planet had recommended a place and we had decided to check it out first. They were full, however, the owners took us to another casa two houses up the street, and after inspecting the accommodation were happy to check in.
Viñales is a small town located in a beautiful valley that produces the majority of the tobacco leaves for the major cigar factories. Following a night out at the local salsa bar, where the local hombres did their best to chat up the tourist chicas, we took on the services of Miguel, a local guy who takes people on walking tours of the valley. It was well worth the 10CUC that we paid him each as he guided us off the beaten path through the stunning sights of the valley. He spoke no English which might have been a problem had it not been for Alice’s fluent Spanish. Although interested in what she had to say, it’s still debatable as to whether he was genuinely interested in the finer details of dressage in the UK.
Around midday, after walking for a couple of hours, we happened upon a small shack, where we received a complimentary drink of freshly squeezed (sugar) juice with a healthy serving of Havana Club. We were offered a smoke and I gladly partook. The guy rolled it in front of me using his own specially produced tobacco leaves, which he fermented in rum, lemon, sugar and a couple of further ingredients. And it was hands-down the best cigar I have ever smoked. It’s common knowledge that you don’t inhale a cigar, and even if you don’t, the next morning you generally wake up knowing full well that you’ve had a cigar. This, however, was entirely different. The taste was amazing - sweet, but full, and it was possible to inhale it without the usual reflex that you’d get inhaling a cheap cigar. It was loosely packed and so smoked quite quickly. It was an incredible smoke and I gladly bought a further ten from him for the (relatively) expensive price of 10CUC.
As we continued our trek through the valley, the prospect of getting out of the hot sun for a dip in a fabled cave pool was growing ever more appealing. The network of caves themselves is some 13km long, but fortunately it was only about 1km inside the caves when we reached the swimming spot. The water was so refreshing - it was cold, so cold - but after several hours in the sun there was no question about getting involved. A further 500m through the water in to the caves and you come across a spot where the mud is touted as having medicinal properties. So needless to say we got fully mudded up, looking ridiculous, but the cave was pitch black save for the dim light projected from the torch we had brought, so it made little odds.
My unusual animal magnetism had been working overtime and we had managed to acquire a rent-a-dog. But unlike the majority of stray dogs in Cuba which are flea ridden and covered in mange, Patch (imaginally named owing to the prominent patch of brown fur around his eye on his otherwise white body) was in great shape, despite being a street dog. We picked him up early in the morning (or, rather, he picked us up) and chose to stay with us for the duration. If I could have adopted him and brought him to Mexico with us, I would have done, but sadly we had to abandon him late in the day. I hope he’s doing OK, though.
The whole day was fantastic and the valley and Viñales are a must-see for any visitor to Cuba. We opted to end the day at a nearby hotel at a higher elevation with promises of swimming in the pool, mojitos and superb sunset views. Unfortunately, the pool was green and full of bugs (it didn’t stop me swimming though), the mojitos were off the cards and the sunset was uninspiring. Tired after the trek and with the prospect of an early start in the morning (well, for me) we opted to stay in the casa for dinner and drinks.
I left early the following morning on the first bus to Havana, and was a little sad that my time in Cuba was coming to an end. Fate dictated that things wouldn’t go smoothly as the bus picked up a puncture just outside Havana, and of course the bus drivers didn’t bother to tell anyone this until we started to wonder why we’d been sat on the side of the road for half an hour with two worried looking bus drivers permanently on mobile phones. Fortunately, I managed to get a taxi straight to the airport. Despite having my tripod stolen, the Jose Marti airport is one of the best airports I’ve seen. It has plenty of attractions but don’t forget that you need to pay a 25CUC exit tax, a detail I managed to forget and had zero money left after trying to use up all remaining CUC. I had just enough dollars to cover it and so I was in the waiting lounge for a flight in to Cancun, satisfied that I’d had a great time in Cuba and in great anticipation of what Mexico might yield for me.