Getting from Havana to Viñales was not as straightforward as it should have been. For the first time in Cuba we encountered traffic, making our 10 minute trip to the bus station a 45 minute one. Arriving 10 minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave seemed like perfect timing to me. We presented the tickets we had bought the day before, only to be told that it was too late, our seats had already been sold. We didn't understand how they could sell off pre-purchased seats. It was only after some intense questioning and negotiating that we discovered we had been sold tickets for a different date. Luckily for us, this bus company had a refund policy. We were bumped from counter to counter, trying to explain our situation in broken Spanish, before being given our money back. Then we walked straight out of the bus station.
The owner of the casa in Havana had organised a room for us in Viñales, and we had arranged to meet the owner of this next casa when we stepped off the bus (having agreed on the time beforehand). If we didn't meet her, we had no idea where to go. As we wouldn't be at the bus stop at the designated time, we needed another solution. Out the front of the bus station were taxi collectivos, which leave when they have enough passengers (four, in this case). 75 long, infuriating minutes later we managed to convince two British cyclists to join us in the taxi, which ended up being a modern four-wheel drive with enough room to stash two bicycles in the back. Still panicking about making it to Viñales in time to meet the woman, we gently urged the driver not to dawdle too much and to take as few breaks as possible.
Our wish was granted. The trip only lasted two hours, whereas the bus took four, so we actually beat the bus into Viñales. We had a quick walk up and down the one street town before returning to the bus stop at the appropriate time. The new owner met us as planned and walked us down the street to her cute, colourful casa. We were given a room detached from the main house, complete with air-con, TV and a fridge. There was also a rooftop terrace, but with no shade and nothing much to see, we didn't spend much time up there.
Ten minutes was all we needed to explore the town. A few cafes, a couple of shops, tour agencies and a minimart selling mostly rum and cigars. All buildings were single storey, brightly coloured and many houses served cheap food out the front. A quick stroll through a small artisan street market and we had finished the town of Viñales. It was the complete opposite to Havana: few people, surrounded by green countryside, no touts every 20 metres - in other words, peaceful.
Housefront converted into a restaurant.
We stopped for lunch at the first cafe we came across. My veg pasta dish was 95% spaghetti and 5% tinned vegetable, yet somehow it still tasted great. The afternoon was spent bar/cafe hopping, drinking at each place that offered some sort of special. We tried the fancy-looking Western cafe but no one seemed to want to serve us, so we ate the free nuts on the table and left. Most of the other basic home-cum-restaurants were more willing to give us alcohol, so we stuck with these for the rest of the day. For the first time ever we tried Cuban dry white wine: much better than we expected, with an almost German resemblance.
This tiny little town actually had a vegetarian restaurant, so there was no way we were skipping that. Dips, eggplant stacks, tempura, pies - I was in veg heaven! I wasn't sure Danny had the same sentiments but he didn't complain, so it couldn't have been too bad. There was alcohol - he was fine.
Our standard breakfast (when it wasn't included with the room) was oats. We would buy a packet/tin at the supermarket and mix up a small bowl with water or milk for a cheap but healthy start to the day. That was how Danny started our next day in Viñales, eating a bowl of oats. A couple of mouthfuls in he realised something wasn't right. They had an unusual texture, and the oats were clumping together. It was maggots. The oats, bought on Cayman Island, were full of maggots. There went our breakfast plan for the next few days.
After a maggot-free cooked breakfast at a cafe it was time for a day trip. We met our guide and an older American/German couple and walked straight out of town towards the mogotes. Mogotes are tall, limestone hills that rise straight up from the flat terrain, and are famous in Viñales. Walking amongst them they didn't seem that impressive, but lookouts over the landscape offered slightly more of a wow factor. Truth be told, I thought they were overrated.
Most of the tour gave insights into native plants, fruits, vegetables and tobacco, all of which interested Danny way more than me. There was an in depth discussion about natural medicines, which were especially important to the people during the 1990s when Russia could not afford to continue supporting Cuba and the economy collapsed. The amount of world history I have learned on this trip is staggering (and embarrassing - I should know some of this stuff).
Most families left the area in 2008 after a devastating hurricane. The few families that remain all have their own farm and coffee plantations, as well as cigar production facilities. We visited a cigar processing shed (it really was just a shack out in the field) and watched one being rolled. Freebies were handed out. Danny obliged; I did not. 90% of tobacco leaves must be sold to the government, which guarantees some income but limits the profit-making potential. They basically rely on tourist purchases to make a living. It opened our eyes to the conditions people live under here. To us as tourists, Cuba seemed like the coolest place on earth, yet their society was dealing with a whole host of issues hidden from foreign eyes.
Cigar processing shed.
Rolling the cigar. Danny was drooling at this point.
In the afternoon we toured by ourselves around the area, stopping at a couple of hotels with panoramic views across the valley. The guide book also directed us to Mural de la Prehistoria, although I couldn't for the life of me figure out why once I saw it. Over 100 metres high and almost 200 metres across, a garish, childlike painting of a dinosaur, snail, sea creature and humans had been painted onto a vertical cliff face. It was honestly one of the most hideous things I had seen. I was glad we didn't pay the entry fee for a close-up look; standing several hundred metres away was near enough.
Back in town I walked past a simple outdoor gym, where most equipment used body weight as resistance. I had to check this out. A quick change into workout gear and I was back, much to the amusement of the locals watching nearby. Definitely not the most intense workout of my life but it was the closest I had come to a strength training session in many months. I missed the gym back home.