Havana to Viñales

Sunday, 31 May 2015

We were leaving Havana for Viñales late Sunday morning and had two hours to kill in the old city, so we wandered down to the Plaza de Armas where Susie purchased a pair of earrings. Books are a bit of a problem for us because we will have to travel with Clare’s luggage on the trip home. Nevertheless, I purchased a slim book called Globalisation and the Cuban Revolution and Susie bought a book by Che Guevara’s wife because she wanted to read more revolutionary history, but written from a woman’s perspective.

We then stopped by the breezy dining room of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where we ordered a coffee, a cola, and a couple of Cuban sandwiches. The sandwiches were absolutely enormous, but the quality of the ham made them irresistible.

After this unplanned breakfast we headed back to the casa. Our host had kindly ordered a taxi to take us to the Viazul bus station. We collected our bags and the driver led us around the corner to a vast black Dodge with enormous tail fins. When we arrived, Susie took photos of the glorious anachronism that had brought us there, while we both tried to wrangle luggage and brush off the touts offering to drive us to our destination.

We had to wait to purchase a bus ticket, as passengers with reservations got priority. At length we boarded the bus. The journey would have been relatively painless had the bus not stopped for an hour in an awful truckstop. We made the most of it by sipping Mexican beer, doing some people watching, and wishing that we had listened to the touts.

The bus passed through the city of Piñar del Rio and soon after began to wind its way through hills. At length we descended a steep slope into the lush valley of Viñales where outlines of the famous mogotes (limestone outcrops) dominate the skyline. The valley is famous for its tobacco farms, and has become a popular tourist destination due to its dramatic natural beauty and its proximity to Havana.

Tobacco farm, Viñales

As we stepped off the bus we were besieged by aggressive jineteras trying to lure us to a local casa (for a hefty commission, no doubt). Just as it began to rain, Susie spied our host holding up a sign with our names.

We walked to the casa with our host in the lead. When we arrived at our destination we were escorted to a small upstairs apartment with a diminutive bathroom and balcony with charming views of the valley on two sides. Our host introduced herself as Midalys, and she chatted to us whilst she went through the usual formalities with our passports.

After settling into the casa we took a walk downtown and backtracked to a bar that caught our eye. It was obviously popular with the tourists, and we found out why when Susie ordered a daiquiri frappé. It arrived piled up way beyond the rim of the cocktail glass, with a cold mist running off it as if it generated its own weather, like a huge glacier.

We went back to the casa for dinner where Midalys served us a meal of chicken which had been cooked to perfection with lemon juice. It was the best poultry dish we ate in Cuba.

We had a rest after dinner and asked Midalys for her advice about tours of the valley. She offered to invite a tour guide around to the casa to speak with us. He turned up about half an hour after our meal and we agreed on an itinerary and price for a guided tour the next day, which would include one hour of horse riding.

After the guide left, we headed back into town to find Polo Montaño, a music venue tucked away behind the church in the main town square. There were few people there when we arrived, so we secured seats with a good view of the stage. The band was excellent, and played traditional salsa music. In the intervals, a female MC sang popular torch songs karaoke-style.

At 10 p.m. there was a performance by two African dancers that included a lot of fire. This was full of flashy, macho showmanship, similar to what we had seen in Trinidad. By the time the salsa band came back onstage for their last set, the place was full and it was pumping. The dancing was incredible, and this was just the locals and some tourists who had learned the steps. We walked home at midnight on a massive high.

When it comes to music and dance, Cuba is another planet.

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