Benjamin B. Ellis | Weekend Post | Canada.com
Mountains jut from the earth, a carpet of tangled trees enveloping even their steepest slopes. Bronzed faces, wrinkled from years of exposure to sun and smoke, smile from the doorways of lonely farming huts, ready to share some fresh fruit, a hand-rolled cigar, a glass of murky water or a photo opportunity.
In the Vinales Valley of Cuba, with the vigorous boil of Havana’s busy streets hundreds of kilometers to the east, and the gated resorts of Varadero even farther, the senses are gently massaged by nature and the chance to experience la Cuba verdadera.
The village of Vinales is cozy, to say the least. Rows of small red-roofed houses line the three main streets, many offering clean rooms and meals to travellers for less than $20 a night. It is easy to while away an evening sitting on the veranda of one of these casas particulares, sipping rum and watching this small world stroll by: horses hitched to makeshift carts trotting past uniformed children who play with homemade toys in the streets; silent cars from another era rolling past wild dogs and chickens, the drivers using any downward slope to shift into neutral to save precious gasoline; the sound of son and salsa music pulsing from every household and bar, except, of course, when interrupted by local baseball games and popular Brazilian soap operas.
Sierra de los Organos, the area surrounding Vinales, is a bountiful landscape for the explorer, eco-tourist and cultural traveller alike. Hiking through Vinales National Park is an unforgettable experience. Farmers proudly show off their crops of tobacco, grapefruit and sugar cane, telling stories while offering fresh juice, a cigar rolled on-site and a tour of their land. The towering mountains, or mogotes, marked by underground rivers and caverns, are a mecca for climbers. The sounds of birdsong are punctuated by the shouts of plough-men steering their oxen.
Tourism is on the rise in this region, and it is easy to be lured into a poorly planned package excursion. It’s better to explore on your own, on horseback, mountain bike or scooter, all of which can be rented for budget prices. Lonely roads fan out in all directions, and none disappoints. Lumbering trucks filled with hitchhiking locals honk in greeting as they pass slow movers on two wheels or four legs. Meandering driveways lead to one-room homes, often housing a single bed, a workroom, an open fire and many children. No one seems to mind the intrusion; rather, people seem genuinely curious about these strangers in their midst.
But, while cultural and ecological exploration can be exhilarating, it is also exhausting. It’s challenging to get around in the hot sun and 35C heat. Luckily, a taxi in Vinales will take you, for a negotiated fare, to Pinar del Rio’s northern coast and the beaches of Cayo Jutias. These fine sands offer what the beaches of Varadero cannot: Cubans. Cubans are great beach goers, as the crowds of swimmers, sunbathers, scuba divers, jubilant children and lounging lovers attest. Rum shacks pepper the white shore as the unrelenting beat of Cuban pop music blares from parked cars. Fishermen troll in small coves for the day’s catch, while young people gladly share their rum and beer, laughing when asked about their absence from school.
A trip to Vinales can be an eye-opening side trip from a package vacation, or a destination on its own. The road from Havana is easy to navigate, and travel in the rest of the province is manageable. A budget traveller could stay at a casa particular, while those who require more pampering might prefer the Hotel los Jazmines just outside of town, with one of the most stunning views of the valley. Overall, everything is reasonably priced, including food, taxis, rentals, drink, lodging and cigars, which can be bought under the table at several plantations. It is best to eat at your casa, where the food is plentiful and good. Otherwise, be prepared for the standard Cuban fare of fried chicken, canned vegetables, rice, beans and terrible bread. It helps to be fluent in Spanish, but it’s not a prerequisite in a country where most people are used to communicating with their hands as well as their words. As in the rest of Cuba, it is safe to walk in the unlit streets at night, or to hitch a ride with a car, truck or cart. Uniformed police officers are everywhere, and few are corrupt. And someone is almost always within shouting distance, ready and willing to help with a problem. Here, foreigners are not treated like outsiders, a threat or walking pesos. They are honored as neighbors in a place where the neighbor is king.