Feb 28

Country Roads (Destination: Vinales)

Traveled Nov, 2016

Our Casa owner in Havana had arranged our taxi collectivo ride to Vinales, several hours west of Havana.  A big gray tank of a 1950’s vehicle picked us up and took us and 8 other passengers to Vinales for $20 per person.  The driver joked that it’s name was “The Titanic”.

The driver asked about 10 different people on the street before he finally realized to drive down a side street to our cute little casa on the edge of town.  It was a cute, newer concrete square with a porch and rocking chairs.  The owners, Myrna & Omar were the nicest people ever.

We had a half a day so we went into town to arrange our bus to the next town in a couple days, and then went over to another casa listed in the lonely planet for having great sunset tours.  A great older car picked us up and dropped us on a country road in Valle del Silencio.  Our guide took us up the back way where we saw cute farms and animals.  There was very little machinery in Cuba as they were stuck in the 1950’s so many of the farmers still use oxen to haul goods and plow their fields.

We walked by some boys/men making horseshoes – this picture is for the ladies!

We walked thru palm filled valleys and ended up at a coffee farm.  The farmer showed us how coffee is harvested and roasted and we had a chance to drink coffee or lemonade made from fresh farm honey.  We hiked a bit farther and ended up at a tobacco farm.  The farmer there showed us how cigars are made.  I learned that cigars are made with whole tobacco leaves – there are no shredded leaves like in cigarettes.

The farmer gave us a complimentary cigar to smoke as we watched the sun set behind the mogotes rock formations, and we could order $3 mojitos.  What a treat to drink, puff, and watch the amazing sunset.

As it was getting darker, we walked down a trail to a road where the car was to meet us but this is Cuba so no doubt it was late.  While we waited the guide told us a lot about the economy of Cuba and how educated people are moving into tourism.  Tonight was the full super moon and it looked like a giant pumpkin in the sky.  We went back to our casa where we had ordered dinner for the night.  There was a huge spread – a big pork steak with loads of sides and flan for desert.

The next morning we had a huge breakfast and then walked to town for the 9 am hop on hop off bus around Vinales.  For $5 all day there is a HOHO bus that stops at 10 different sights around the town.  We waited and waited and started chatting with some tourists about what they were doing for the day.  We talked to a couple women from Germany and a woman traveling solo from Chicago and we agreed we wanted to do a walk in the countryside to Los Aquaticos spring and visit at least one of the caves.  At 9:20 we decided we’d look for an alternative to the bus that was now 20 minutes late.  It took about 10 minutes to speak in broken spanish to get a driver.  None of the drivers were willing to wait while we hiked so we agreed to go to the cave first and then to the hike where the driver would drop us and we’d make our own way back to town.

Our first stop was Cueva de los Indios (Indian Cave).  We were a little early for the 10 am opening so we enjoyed the plants in the garden and watch 3 people in traditional indian wear that were posing for tips with tools, a hawk, and a jutia (giant tree rat, native to the area).

The cave was more impressive than I had anticipated.  I explored some dark passages with my flashlight only to discover dozens of cockroaches – we are in the tropics after all.  A river runs through the second half of the cave, so we got in a boat and rode around to see rock formations pointed out by spotlight by the boat captain.

He dropped us outside of the cave at some gift shops, where we took pictures with our cute driver Luis and his car.

He made a short stop at another cave so we could check out the bar/restaurant – it looked like a really fun venue – it would have been fun to come out there for some music.  Luis then drove us west of the town.  He asked a few people and eventually drove down a country road.

When he realized it was a dead end and there was no turn around, he dropped us and pointed to a blue house on the hill so we were on our way.

Just a few minutes later, the road turned into a trail that led onto a farm.  There was a cowboy and a teenage boy there and they let us walk thru.  Their backyard was amazing!  Puppies, baby pigs, coffee bushes, coconut trees.  We were taking a bunch of pictures so the cowboy joined us.

He offered us Coconuts to drink so he climbed up the tree with his machete and gave each of us a coconut.  After drinking the coconut water, he chopped them open and we ate the coconut meat.

We gave him a few dollars and we set off through a field.  We were clueless where we were going but we had some nice views of rock formations and saw a bull with impressive horns.  Thank goodness he was tied up because he took a charge at us.

We could not find the trail and were about to give up when another cowboy walked by.  He pointed the way and we were back on our way.  There is no way we would have found that trailhead without his help.  From there, the trail was well marked through a forest.  Eventually we came to a clearing with amazing views and huge turkeys wandering about.  It was only about a week until Thanksgiving so the turkeys were making me feel homesick.

And then we got to a fork in the trail.  One trail led slightly down hill and the other headed up a steep sandy trail.  The German ladies and I decided to climb up the hill and scout out the trail.  There was a ranch at the top but it seemed deserted but then we started hearing male voices with our two friends at the bottom of the hill.  For a second I was worried something bad was happening but when we came back down the hill we discovered it was a local guide and a single woman traveler.  The guide said we should actually take the lower trail.  A whole 2 minutes later, the trail seemed to end in a boggy field.  We looked and looked for a trail and eventually discovered the trailhead thru some tall weeds, but not until after we had tromped thru the mud a couple times.  After passing thru more woods, we finally came to the casa azul – the blue house.  We had made it to Los Aquaticos!  Los Aquaticos is known for it’s healing powers.  We sat in rocking chairs on the front porch with an amazing view and drank fresh mango juice.  I also filled my water bottle with the spring water since it was supposed to have healing qualities.

The trail & roads back to town were really easy.  There were some great farm scenes on the way.

We discovered this was actually the correct route to Los Aquaticos.  Our driver had dropped us at the longer, less clear route.  Oh well, we had a great time on our adventure and this was probably my favorite day of the whole trip.

Back in town, we shopped at the cigar and rum shop – we seemed to end up here every day we were in Vinales but I never bought anything, but just enjoyed the air conditioning.  The small supermarket always was full of tourists buying water.

 

We stopped at a little restaurant on the road to our casa and had Ropa Vieja (old clothes) beef with salad, rice, and beans.  That evening, I spent quite an amount of time talking to Myrna in Spanish.  She told me how she had quit her job as a special ed teacher to run the casa so her children could have a better life (both were college students, one to be a doctor and the other a dentist).  Shetold me the town gossip in Spanish – not sure how much I actually understood – and then we watched a Brazilian soap opera dubbed in Spanish.  I tried to explain how a telenovella is a opera de jabon, or soap opera in English.  She didn’t get it.  We compared the games we had loaded on our smart phones. It was a really fun night.

On our last day in Vinales, I got up early to walk the hill behind town to enjoy the sunrise.

There were 20 vultures in a tree on my walk back to town.

I still had time when I got back so I sat on the porch to enjoy the view and drink coffee grown on Myrna’s mother’s finca (ranch).  Pure heaven.

For our day activity, Omar had arranged a shared taxi to go to the beach at Cayo Jutias, a beach on a cape named for the local tree rats.  This beach was on the northwest coast of Cuba. We picked up a German guy in town going to the same destination and then made several rounds looking for more passengers but unlucky for the driver he had to go with a half full car.  Our price was fixed at $15 a piece so his profit wouldn’t be high today.

The drive took a couple hours.  Our driver stopped at a couple shops to get his daily supplies for the day.  First stop was to buy cigars which we found out costed 8 cents apiece.  The he stopped for a chicken lunch in a returnable container.  The German guy bought one to and by the question from the driver I got the impression that the chicken seller was making quite a profit off the tourists.

We drove down the cape with a distinctive lighthouse and were dropped at the beach and told to meet there at 4 pm – we had 6 hours at the beach.  Despite the rodent reference, the beach was really nice. The German guy asked if he could hang out with us at the beach and Maureen, the woman from Chicago that we had hiked with yesterday was waiting there for us so the 4 of us set up a spot near the bar and restaurant.  3 of us went for a walk all the way to the end of the beach.

Further along were some of the 1950’s cars that had driven others to beach being worked on by their owners.  It takes a lot of work to keep these old cars running and we took the chance to look under the hood of several cars and get some photos.  Some of the engines looked original but I loved the engine that said Toyota on it!

The water was murky this day because there had been storms the prior night so snorkeling was out of the equation. But the waves were not bad so it was fun to float and swim.  The water wasn’t super warm so I only swam once, and then spent the afternoon reading and sipping a pina colada.  The bartenders were funny, they filled the glasses half way up with rum and the rest with a mixers.  We thought “whoa, this is going to be a strong drink” only to discover we could barely taste the rum.  It was obvious that the rum bottles were about 75% water.  Kind of silly since a bottle of rum costs about $2 but I guess it saves them on mixers too.

We had a blast with our driver on the way back.  We had him stop and buy us some of the 8 cent cigars.  After the pina coloda kicked in, I desperately had to go to the bathroom so the driver pulled over at the side of the road.  Somehow I was crouched over the edge of a steep, steep hill.  A couple minutes later when the car hit a huge bump and we all raised about a foot out of our seats we were joking it was a good think there wasn’t a coche mojado!

We met Maureen later for dinner and then went to the open air night club that was next to the city church.  This was great – $1 cover charge and cheap drinks.  Almost all the seats were taken but we found 2 seats together right in the middle right next to the dance floor.  This was a great place to sit if you wanted to be asked to dance – I got to dance with several local guys.  Florian, the German guy showed up later and we found a chair for him.  He admitted he was a serious dancer back in Germany so we danced once but the dancefloor was so full you could barely move.  At one point a dancing show occurred with local dancers looking for tips.  Overall it was a fun night.

Vinales was by far my favorite place in Cuba.

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