My Blog List

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. 


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.



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!


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. 

DSC_1538      DSC_1536


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.



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.  


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!



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.  




Farewell Cuba…’s been fantastic.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mojitos and music in Trinidad

Gorgeous Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba, surpassed all our expectations.  We fell in love with this beautiful Spanish colonial town staying three days and nights.  It was a fascinating place to explore. 


Trinidad was founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514 and was a major centre for the slave trade.  Slaves and goods were imported from Jamaica and cattle ranching and tobacco growing boomed.


Hundreds of French refugees fled there in the mid 19th century from neighbouring Haiti and set up numerous small sugar mills in the beautiful Valle de los Ingenios.  The sugar industry flourished, creating wealth that created the beautiful city of Trinidad. In 1998 the town and Valle were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


The wars of independence in the early 1900s saw plantations  devastated but Trinidad survived. Today its historic centre is beautifully restored colourful buildings and numerous museums in old mansions.  Trinidad’s cobblestone streets are ankle breakers especially when attention is taken by the lovely pastel coloured buildings everywhere. 


     DSC_0816                    DSC_0850

We travelled from Cienfuegos by bus, after spending an hour or so figuring out just how and where to do so.  Nothing is simple in Cuba!Our persistence paid off – we finally found an agency that sold tickets that cost $12 whereas the taxi was $50.


Arriving at the Trinidad bus station we were besieged by dozens of locals holding signs for their Casa Particular.  Casa Particulars are private homes where the owner rents out a room or two.  They are far cheaper than hotels and a much better way to interact with locals. 

DSC_0718 DSC_0867

Not the types to get sucked in by such touts we decided we’d walk firmly past saying “no gracias” and go and find our own Casa.  Hmmm…within five minutes we found ourselves in the firm grip of a particularly persuasive woman who just wouldn’t take no for an answer!  She led us through the shabby backstreets to her Casa where we had the entire top floor to ourselves – a sitting room, dining room bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and terrace – all for $15 a night. 


But there was little sleep to be had in the backstreets – noisy neighbours, crowing roosters, alcohol fuelled arguments, card sessions and early morning street vendors saw to that.  Next morning we checked out, after a hearty breakfast of fruit, eggs, bread and coffee.

DSC_0745    DSC_0764

Our next Casa was in the heart of the old town and just a stone’s throw from the popular Casa de Musica where local musicians play every night while the enthusiastic salsa.  You guessed it – this time we were kept awake by music!  Next time we’ll take ear plugs.


Cuba is famous for many things – cigars, rum, music and…of course…those amazing old American cars.  We just had to take a ride in one and picked a blue 1952 Chevrolet with a friendly Spanish speaking driver.  Oscar proudly told us his father had bought the car new and it was in original condition.  When we asked how many miles it had on the clock Oscar replied “mucho, mucho”.


We drove out into the sugar cane growing area – now consisting of mostly derelict mills – and stopped at the Hacienda Iznaga where the wonderful old homestead has been turned into a restaurant.  We sat and had coffee while Oscar told us how the place operated in the early days.  A 45m tower near the homestead was built to keep an eye on slaves – the views from the top are astonishing.

DSC_0777   DSC_0781

The countryside was incredibly dry and we noticed that livestock were painfully thin – no supplementary feeding goes on here.  And horses and oxen are still used to pull carts of sugar cane, plough fields and all other farm jobs.


We took a 1956 Chev taxi to Playa Ancon but sadly, this model had seen better days.  The backseats were completely shot so every time we went over a bump we bottomed out and the engine sounded distinctly like a tractor!  The beach was beautiful but spoilt by the communist style concrete hotel building.  Guests here wear coloured wrist tags to identify them and, as we were tagless, we were soon moved off the deckchairs and forced to sit on the beach.  After a swim we headed back to town – this time slumming it in a Lada.

         DSC_0743             DSC_0744

After three days we felt we’d done justice to beautiful Trinidad and caught the bus back to Cienfuegos to find Bandit happily at anchor waiting for us.