Vinales, Cuba - Escape to the Countryside
After visiting Las Terrazas, Soroa and Vinales I felt refreshed.
Vinales, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a beautiful collection of valleys scattered with limestone cliffs (known as Magotes). Farmers drive their oxen and plough through rust-coloured tobacco fields. It's the most amazing setting I've come across in Cuba.
We arranged through our Casa (Villa Los Reyes) a sunrise tour to the valley of Los Aquaticos, accessible only by horse or on foot. Lester, our guide, greeted us at 6:00 am. Apart from the billions of stars and the sinking moon, it was pitch black. We made our way onto a horse drawn cart and travelled into the valley. Seamus made the fatal mistake of sitting at the front behind a very windy horse. We hiked up hill with flash lights, trying our best to avoid stepping on sleeping pigs and goats, to a coffee farm to catch the sunrise over the valley.
Lester has great local knowledge and his English is fantastic. He's only in his early 20's. On our way back to the horse and cart we passed farmers who started work in the fields, the morning mist clearing, leaving us with an incredible sweeping vista.
Fidel, Lester's older brother took us on the sunset tour the following evening to the stunning Valle del Silencio. We stopped off at our Casa owner's father's farm for an organic Mojito (note - the best Mojito I have ever had), and met our first Hutia (Cuban tree rat).
On our way through the tobacco fields we got chatting. Fidel had a young family and learned English so he could work as a guide and earn money to provide for them. He studied computer software engineering at university and started his career earning only $12 CUC a month. He had a girlfriend and a child of 1 and was dependant on his parents for help. After university he went back to his home town of Vinales and did some casual work for Yoan and Yarellis, the casa owners we were staying with.
He fixed their computer and hooked them up to the internet. Yarellis fell pregnant and so he helped around the house - cooking, cleaning and doing odd jobs. Tourism was becoming more and more popular in Cuba and so he took the opportunity to study English and also to learn about the local history and the valley's biology and plant life.
Fidel seized opportunity after opportunity, determined to make money to support his family and get the things that would make him happy - mainly an iphone and freedom to choose when he wanted to work. He's now planning to build on a plot of land. (In Cuba all land is state owned - you cannot own land).
"For all the things I am unhappy with - in terms of the system," explains Fidel, "my girls get a free and decent education right up until they finish university and we as a family are treated to the best health care system the world has to offer." He showed us a scar on his left shoulder. "This was a tumour from 24 years ago that was removed," he says. He points to his eyes and says he has also had laser eye surgery. "You have a cold or flu or a minor injury, yes the wait for medical attention can be long and many complain. You have cancer, aids, a tumor...you are seen to and treated immediately."
The sunset tour ended on a tobacco farm with Jose the farmer, who showed us how he rolls a Cuban cigar. There were various kinds "ones for the boss, ones for the pussies." He asked us what kind of cigar we would like.
Lester was also there with a group of tourists and left earlier with his group, leaving Fidel, Seamus and I with Jose the farmer. "Now the tourists have gone," says Jose in Spanish, "it's time for some Ron." With that he pulled out a bottle of Rum and topped up our Mojitos.
We got pleasantly drunk that evening on Havana Club and Cuban cigars.
The sun set, the stars came out and Fidel gave us an insight into the lives that other Cubans lead.