I was quite happy to be leaving Havana to be honest. It had been frustrating to say the least. But I’d lost a lot of weight due to not being able to actually find food in the city, so that was a bonus. My third day in Cuba took me on my first ‘long-distance’ bus ride. It was only four hours, but coming from England where that means you reach the other side of the country it felt like a long time to be on a bus (of course after doing several 22-hour rides later on in my travels this was the sort of bus ride I’d do on a day trip). But it was a big deal to me, so I loaded up on snacks, books, charged the iPod and prepared myself mentally for a long voyage across Cuba to Vinales, a lush valley with bright green tobacco farms.
The landscape on the bus journey was pretty cool, with tobacco plantations and mini fires on the roadside, smoky mountains, tall, poker straight palm tress and lots of green fields. Then we passed through Pinar Del Rio, the town that time forgot, offering great opportunities for terrible through-the-bus-window photos that I’m guilty of taking lots of. When we arrived our casa mama was there waiting on the pavement (along with the rest of the town it appeared) – in the following days it became a sport for us travellers to sit on the plaza steps at 3pm with a beer in hand and watch the casa mamas clawing for the attention of the new arrivals.
Vinales is one of the cutest damned town I’ve ever seen, like going back in time to 1950s America; all pastel-coloured single-storey houses, people chatting in the streets, fruit markets, hole-in-the-wall eateries, big American cars, rocking chairs on the porch of every home.
When we arrived at the casa I heard those famous words for real for the first time: ‘mi casa es su casa’ and then casa mama made us fresh juice and finally disproved my belief that all Cuban food is horrible by cooking the most delicious pork and rice dinner. It gave me the shits, of course.
On our first full day in Vinales we went for a four-hour hike around the farms and surrounding areas with a tour guide (they won’t let you wander around the countryside on your own, not for safety reasons but to make money, confirming my suspicion that we are just walking dollar signs). It was beautiful, but our tour guide had been on a seven-hour hike the day before and by his own admission was very tired and couldn’t be bothered to do the whole route.
He then proceeded to tell us about the area, the history of inbreeding and the disease that spread because of this, as well as taking us to an under-construction cock-fighting ring. A rather menacing machete-wielding five-year-old glared at us after we tried to wave hi at him.
We were then taken to a cave, where we were told we would be the only people in there and that we could swim in the natural pool. I’d been looking forward to this moment from the second I booked my flight to Cuba. When you start travelling you tend to have a list of silly things you want to do (and if you’re a real twat you’ll say ‘that’s another tick in the experience box’ after you’ve done it). My list included cave swimming, riding in the open back of a truck and singing round a campfire. Sadly the first of my awesome experiences I wanted to have ended up with me standing in a freeing cold pool of water with a bunch of strangers in the pitch black with a perverted tour guide’s torch shining straight at my boobs. Then, of course, we were charged 2CUC to actually leave the cave. I did consider living there forever just to make a stand.
Another walk through farms and over cow pats took us to a weird holiday spot where Cubans spend their summers – a depressing resort with salsa music blaring from a stereo and girls in tight jeans walking around with nothing to do. It was there that our Cuban fury reached its height. First of all we tried to buy a sandwich from the small restaurant, and not wanting to spend much money we ordered a simple cheese sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. Only to be told we couldn’t have that, but we could have the cheese and ham sandwich. En serio! We stormed out and told the tour guide we wanted to head back to town. “That’ll cost you 2CUC.” Of course. We’d already paid for the tour, what made us think it would include the cost of getting us back to town? Back in town we stopped off at a tobacco plantation, smoked a few and had a coffee. Having not been pressured into buying (for the first time since arriving in Cuba), we bought some cigars.
That evening we ventured into the town centre, and were warmly welcomed into a social circle of pervy Cuban men and a weird Russian couple. After a couple of mojitos we made our excuses and headed back to the casa for dinner, promising we would return. We didn’t return.
That evening we headed out to a local bar and ordered mojitos from the bar that consisted of plank of wood propped up by two tables with an unfriendly lady standing behind it. It turns out rum is cheaper than water in Cuba and the mojito was a glass of pure rum. Something we’d just have to get used to…
The next day we teamed up with a German couple, David and Monika, who we met at the bus stop of a bus that never came. After watching a sheep give birth on the roadside and using a farmer’s loo (read: non-flushing bucket with a wad of newspaper next to it) we made our way back to town desperate for a peso pizza.
Following the delicious cheesy wafts we stuffed two pizzas each and headed off to the botanical gardens. I like to use botanical gardens as a gauge of a city’s personality. This one was the strangest and most fascinating I’ve ever seen. The entry is a gate with dried fruit and dolls’ heads hanging from it, the path towards the house has a tree with bald dolls’ heads staked on spikes, then you pass the beer can tree before entering the house, whose walls are covered floor to ceiling in magazine adverts and Christmas decorations.