Caribbean Islands | Cuba | Pinar Del Rio | Vinales – Cuban country on a horse
On my way to the Cuban countryside, our bus overtook a truck slowly trundling along with some country folk perched on the back. Amongst this motley crew was a woman, dressed in an old patched country dress and nursing a child. But she was also wearing a brand new New York Yankees baseball cap, looking most out of place in this part of Cuba. I have no idea how she procured it, but it does show that Cubans are in touch with American consumerism, even if it isn’t officially meant to touch this part of the world.
From Havana I decided to go some place that was a bit quieter, offered some nature, and would not be crawling with busloads of European tourists. I decided to catch the three hour bus ride to Vi?ales, west of Havana. Vi?ales is in the picturesque Vi?ales Valley. The area is among several mogotes, which are haystack hills whose sides eroded 100 million years ago, leaving their cliff faces exposed. The area has also been declared a Unesco World Heritage site.
On arrival in Vi?ales village, the bus was swamped with casa owners offering rooms. I decided instead to head out to the Campismo Dos Hermanas, four kilometres up the road outside the village. At this camping site, I was given a concrete bunker with a bed to sleep in. Best of all, the camp site is set right at the foot of several mogote mountains, a spectacular setting that is unbeatable. Right in front is a gargantuan mural, the Mural de la Prehistoria, painted right on the side of one of the mountains. The 120 metre long painting depicts some snails, dinosaurs, and humans, supposedly to show the theory of evolution. As I sat in a deck chair that evening, dwarfed by mountains on all sides and watching the sun set behind them, I had one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments.
Cycling Cuban countryside
The campismo was out of town, but I hiked back to the village and rented a bicycle for the few days I was there. This meant I was now mobile. With my newfound wheels I zoomed all over the countryside, past tobacco fields of rich red earth. Along the way, I passed farmers driving oxen carts, nodding ‘hola!’ as I passed. Chickens, cows, dogs, and pigs ran around in many of the tobacco farms that I passed.
Frequently, locals riding in carts pulled by tractors would pass me, all collectively taking a quick glance at the new guy in town on his cool bike. The Valle de Vi?ales is great for cycling, and I had many enjoyable rides through the roads while marvelling at the scenic mountains.
Hiking and the Plan B tree
The area is also a national park, and one day I went with a park ranger for a day hike. There were two other Italian girls who came along. Alexis, our guide, is a trained mining engineer but appears to prefer spending his days giving guided hikes through the valley. I could not blame him, for this part of Cuba is some of the most tranquil. We went through many of the tobacco farms here, whose leaves are eventually sent to the factories in Havana before being turned into the famous cigars sold in Europe.
During the hike, Alexis helpfully pointed out the various flora that was found in the region, including a tree whose leaves were referred to as the ‘Plan B’ if the Cubans found they were lacking toilet paper. Why? I found out when I touched the leaves, for they felt like, or even better than, toilet paper. I was tempted to take a bunch of leaves with me to try out back in my room, but decided against it lest I had to explain why my toilet was clogged with leaves.
The next day I decided to do some horseback riding throughout the region, as I heard that this way I could access a lot of areas unreachable by foot or bike. The only other traveller riding with me was Leia, a girl from Spain, while our guide was a Cuban who looked like Ricky Martin. And so this unlikely trio – Princess Leia, Ricky Martin, and me – formed a posse to ride into the valley for the day.
Along the way we passed through many remote farms and through fields. One of the best parts was when we crested a steep hill and paused briefly to take in the breathtaking views of the mountains and countryside spreading out below.
I felt like the Lone Ranger as I sat on the crest of the hill on my horse, surveying the township below triumphantly for another misjustice made right. I wanted to do the ‘Hi Ho Silver’ routine, rearing up on the horse’s hind legs before galloping off gallantly into the sunset. But of course it was not to be. My timid horse could really only attempt to snort aggressively, maybe raise a front hoof menacingly at best.
Along the way we dropped in on some a farmer and his wife who were most generous in offering us bananas and coffee. The farmer then produced a stash of his own tobacco leaves and proceeded to show us how he rolled them into cigars. When we parted, he gave us each a handrolled cigar, which I pocketed as a rather unique and unusual souvenir.
Vi?ales is a great place to head to in Cuba for a change from the usual offering of historic cities and towns. It is the type of village where everyone knows each other, neighbours are always dropping in, and old men sit on porches smoking cigars contently. I managed to get to know several of the locals during my stay here, including a Cuban Crocodile Dundee: a shirtless cowboy with a hat and a knife at his belt, who rode around on a rusty old bike. Then there was the old grandmother who kept talking to me in Spanish as if I understood every word she said.
So as you can see, as is the case with most places, what made Vi?ales attractive was not just its location, but also its people.