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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The verdant Vinales valley

We almost didn’t get to explore Vinales – and what a mistake that would have been.  It was one of the nicest places we visited in Cuba with incredibly friendly people, the most spectacular countryside and atmospheric bars and restaurants playing great Cuban music. 

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We stayed at a gorgeous Casa Particular.  Spotlessly clean with its own private courtyard area and a separate entrance it was a great place to return to after our numerous explorations on foot and by bike around this gorgeous town.

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Casa owners Barbara and Joel were amazing hosts and rescued us from what could have been a very sticky situation.  Stupidly we’d left our passports on Bandit.   In a country where red tape rules and you have to produce your passport at all Casas it was always going to be a problem.   Barbara and Joel bent over backwards and phoned all the relevant authorities to get confirmation of our visas and finally, after several stressful hours, we got the green light to stay.  Not before we’d had to make a cap in hand trip to immigration to produce identification and be severely chastised by authorities!

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That drama over we set about enjoying Vinales and what better way to soak up the atmosphere than find a table at an open air bar in the tiny town, enjoy the music and sit and watch the world go by.  Mojitos here were only $1.65 so it’s fair to say we sampled a few. 

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The Vinales region, nestled in the Sierra de los Organos, is Cuba’s prime tobacco growing area.  The rich red soil, temperate climate and sheltered valley provide perfect growing conditions. At every turn you see men working the fields using oxen, lush fields of tobacco growing, being harvested or drying in quaint thatched roofed barns.  Two thirds of Cuba’s tobacco is grown here on more than 2000 caballerias – small farms.

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The cigar making process is interesting and one that any number of tobacco growers will tell you about – in the hope of selling you a few illegal cigars.  We were approached by several people as we walked or biked the rural areas and went into one barn to see the process.  It’s intriguing and, unlike in Havana where the cigar factories charge a huge fee, the locals show you for nothing.  The industry is tightly regulated by the government (as are most things in Cuba) with set prices for cigars sold in official outlets.  Cigars bought at farms or on the street will be confiscated by customs.  

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Tobacco is harvested by hand and the leaves are sewn together in pairs to dry in special curing barns.  They then undergo an involved fermenting process which sees leaves sorted, moistened, stacked and eventually packed in bales covered with bark from the majestic royal palm tree- many of which dot the landscape in Vinales.  The bales are taken to government run cigar factories in Havana where the tobacco is moistened, dried, sorted and eventually hand rolled into cigars and pressed.  It’s a long and complicated process and explains why even the cheapest cigar is expensive!

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We discovered that the only way to really explore Vinales was by bike so we hired a couple and set out.  The roads are good – narrow in parts but there is little traffic on the road.  In fact we passed more horses and carts or oxen than cars and trucks.

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We loved getting out into the country – the scenery was quite breath-taking and it was wonderful to bike along quiet roads taking in this unspoilt and lush rural landscape.  We stopped to talk to locals – mostly inquisitive children – or to explore sights such as the Cueva de San Miguel where you can walk 150m through a dimly lit passageway through the mogate following a route escaped slaves used.

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The worst thing about Vinales was the oppressive heat.  By mid morning the mercury was in the mid 30s and the afternoons were unbearably hot and so we’d head back to our casa for a cold shower.

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When we heard about the Los Aquaticos sect that lives in the mountains, only venturing down to Vinales for supplies, we figured they were an odd bunch.  Founded by a woman who discovered the healing power of water, members of Los Aquaticos, as the name suggests, bathe three times a day and dry in the wind.  After three days in Vinales we realised they weren’t weird at all – we were doing the three cold shower thing a day too!  But we drew the line at drying ourselves in the open air.

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It was hard to tear ourselves away from Vinales but there was a good weather window for us to head up to the Bahamas and the east coast of the USA.  And six weeks in Cuba really is long enough.  It’s a fascinating yet frustrating country and we’d certainly run headlong into red tape on many occasions.  That aside we loved Cuba.  It was compelling and certainly one of the highlights in our central American/Caribbean travels.  

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Farewell Cuba…..it’s been fantastic.

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