Our first excursion out of Havana took us out towards some of the most glorious scenery I’ve ever seen, and towards our second Unesco world heritage site! I am a sucker for Unesco heritage sites and over our Cuba trip, we saw four of them!
- Old Havana and Fortifications
- Trinidad and Valley de los Ingenios
- Urban Centre of Cienfuegos
- Viñales Valley
Cuba being Cuba, we find out how to get a coach to Vinales town from the central bus station, for our host Juan to tell us that we may as well get the coach from over the road at the Hotel Inglaterra. So handy! Aha, turns out the coach to Vinales is a tour coach and we were to spend much of the day seeing wonderful sights with a funny tour guide. Not what we expected, but in a way better than what we had planned ourselves! The caveat was that we just paid for passage, and the other folk paid for the full day’s activities.
Our guide told us a great story about glorious Cuban socialism – a bridge building v road building competition took place. For some reason, the state paid for bridges to be built over the national highway that go nowhere. Twelve of these weird bridges exist as a reminder of the legendary Cuban readiness for anything – I’m sure one day these bridges will win the ideological war between communism and capitalism! Or act as rain shelters.
After the bridges and beautiful countryside, we arrived in Pinar Del Rio and had a chance to taste Guayabita which is unique to the area. Apparently it is neither rum nor whiskey so it’s…well, I don’t know but we all tried a bit and could find no real name for it! Here we were given the first of four chances to buy Rum/Cigars/Che stuff/Hats, etc. I bought the most wonderful biscuits from Brazil called Gulosos, which changed my life briefly. As an aside, Pringles are everywhere and cost a fortune! We went onwards through ever more stunning landscapes to see a cigar being made, and to visit a traditional tobacco plantation; part of the reason for the Unesco nod was how the landscape and farming methods haven’t changed for centuries. It was really interesting to witness all of this, and better still to grab a can of Cristal beer in the heat. Oh, Cristal, king of beers!
The final trip of the day was to the Indian Caves – where we walk through relatively easy caves to find that to get out of the caves we take a boat through a small passage of water which was a great deal of fun. Our guide soothed our fears saying that if we fall in and are attacked by crocodiles, they will be able to help us within two days. Again, that Cuban efficiency is always pushing the boundaries of what can be done!
Luckily, we saw no crocs and at the other side we had the dubious pleasure of paying a fortune for a meal. Graham was suitably displeased and I thought he was going to starve himself on purpose; luckily he didn’t and we ate very well. The food was faultless but CUC15 (about £10) was expensive for Cuba. There is a lot of nonsense written about Cuban food being awful, but in the whole trip there was no evidence of this! I cannot recall a bad meal, perhaps an indifferent meal, but nothing inedible. Portions are great, food is generally cheap and eating at a Casa is the best bet by far.
In Vinales, we stayed at Casa Nenita and I highly recommend it! We didn’t realise at the time of booking, but we basically had an apartment to ourselves which was fantastic! As with more and more casas, Nenita has taken advantage of new laws to open a Paladar on site; basically a provately-run restaurant so on our first night we ate there. The meal came with delicious crisps – which we assume were made freshly. I was jealous of Graham for his meal, which (might be wrong) was Ropa Vieja. As with anywhere where people might be, and this includes toilets, there was a band. We managed to piss them off by not tipping well enough. Cue first-world guilt, the ordering of another mojito and sudden ending of guilt. After a really busy day, we headed to bed early.
On our second day I was up incredibly early to see the sun rise; as with Wadi Rum in Jordan, I was determined to experience the speedy transition between dawn and daylight and Cuba does it with aplomb! I found a spot with beautiful views towards Vinales Valley and the Mogotes, large hills surrounded by flat plains. Seeing the world come alive always feels like such a pleasure…but I suppose it’s frustrating for holiday companions who don’t get the luxury of enjoying a lay in when I’m rushing out to see sunrise. Hahahaha!
The day kicked off with a giant breakfast and terrible coffee -I was sorting out my tea cravings through drinking as much coffee as I could bear and taking any opportunity to drink Refresco Nacional – fact! Coca Cola don’t operate in two countries in the world, Cuba and North Korea! I still managed to get Coca Cola on more than one occasion. Sigh.We headed to the wonderful Botanical Garden often called the Two Sisters Garden which offered a respite from the heat plus some wonderful foliage to photograph. At the end of the tour, we gave a tip and were given a banana grown in the garden. As per usual, the hosts were gracious and friendly. The doll’s head…disturbing.
The afternoon was spent on a walking tour of the Vinales national park with a brilliant guide who kept proceedings fun and informative. We got to visit another tobacco plantation, then sample a cigar made for us by a farmer as well as try coffee which was sensational. As a coffee-hater, this was a rare moment! I’ve only enjoyed coffee on three times. Once at Glastonbury, as an aid to get me to Neneh Cherry as quickly as possible, in Syria where the coffee was laced with cardamom seeds and at the farm. On our way back, we stopped by another farm for Pina Coladas and we got to see a Hummingbird close up. We finished the day with a trip up to Hotel Los Jasmines to see what many describe as the best view in Cuba; unfortunately we got there a little late to witness its full glory but what I saw was still stunning. However, not all was lost… I suggested we eat at Casa Dona Hilda as I’d heard rumours that the food was great, but the mojito’s were legendary. Less than one mojito later and I was on the way to drunksville. The meal saved me and showed me what magical things can be done with chicken, black beans and rice. Spectacular food. As Rach put in her round-up of Cuba “number 1 meal so far yummy chicken time!”
Our last night in Vinales ended with overhearing someone singing 4 Non Blondes at the ARTex – at least it wasn’t Adele who seemed to pop up in many places. Ah yes, the idea that Cuba is hidden from the world is as silly as it is untrue.
My third Cuban travel diary will be about Las Terrazas Eco-lodge where I diced with death (untrue) on Cuba’s only zipwire (true) and had the best view from a shower ever!