Viñales by horseback

Monday, 1 June 2015

Our guide turned up at the agreed time and announced that he had found some other tourists who wanted to join the tour, so we followed him through the streets to collect three young German women. This all took time, but we were in a cheerful mood so we didn’t mind waiting around.

We walked through the back streets until we came to a vast tree where the horses were kept. They were saddled up and ready to go. Susie asked for the tamest creature, mentioning that she’d had a bad experience some years ago in Mexico involving a stubborn runaway nag and a telephone pole. I was assigned a wilful beast who had not been gelded. We set off through the countryside in line with my horse in the lead, followed by the German tourists and Susie following up behind with the guide.

Our first stop was a shed where tobacco leaves were sorted and dried. Our guide turned us over to a campesino who gave us a talk on tobacco farming. As he spoke, he expertly rolled a five-leaf cigar and infused one end with a solution of honey. He then invited us to smoke a cigar that had been rolled previously and set aside. This was a bit awkward as there were no smokers on the tour.

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Rolling a 5-leaf cigar

In a mixture of Spanish and broken English, the farmer described the process of planting, growing, picking, drying, and flavouring the tobacco, and reassured us that his cigars were not addictive. As we reached the end of his spiel there was a subtle shift in genre from explanation to sales pitch, and we were invited to purchase a packet of 12 cigars for 50 CUCs. This got awkward because no one was interested, but he would not bring the pitch to a close. As the other tourists gradually drifted out of the shed, we left him a tip as thanks for the presentation.

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Tobacco leaf

In Cuba in 2010, almost a quarter of all male deaths were due to smoking.

At the next stop we were handed over to another guide who took us through a narrow cave in the base of a mogote to the Valley of Silence on the other side. The cave had a few interesting limestone formations, but the main attraction seem to be guessing what animal or celebrity this or that rock formation resembled. We were required to pay an additional fee for this experience. It was hardly a pretext for a guided tour.

The final stop was a coffee farm. A young man provided a desultory explanation of how coffee beans are traditionally grown, harvested, dried, shelled, and ground. We were then invited to buy a plastic drink bottle filled with coffee beans. We declined, telling him that we would be unable to get them through customs back home. He told us that he’d heard that excuse before.

We were also offered drinks including cocktails at the usual bar prices. I had my first Piña Colada, and was surprised to find that the cocktail was served without the alcohol added. A bottle of white rum was placed next to the drink so you could add your own. The young man cajoled everyone into ordering a serve of chips to go with the drinks. The chips were greasy and practically inedible, and when it came time to leave, we were asked to pay a grossly inflated amount for each plate. Since there was no price next to this item on the menu board, we had to submit to the rort.

At one point in our journey we stopped by a dam for a swim. None of the tourists was inspired to take a dip, but we chanced it. The bottom was muddy but the water was deep and fell away from the shore quickly. The top layer was quite warm but it got very cold at a depth of about 6 feet. It’s not wise to swim in a lake in an agricultural area, but it was welcome relief from the heat.

Outside the dam there was a congregation of horses from other tours. As we were leaving, one horse stumbled on a steep muddy bank and went down onto its front knees. The bridle snapped and the rider came off. He sustained several abrasions and got a nasty shock, but he did not appear to be badly injured. This was a timely reminder of how things can go wrong even on a fairly sedate horse ride.

When we returned to the back streets of Viñales, our tour guide tried to charge each of us for an extra half hour of his time, but faced with unified resistance, he backed down. This was a sour note to end on, but we did enjoy the tour despite the gouging. With hindsight, however, it might have been better to book a tour with one of the state-run companies, like Infotur or Cubanacan.

As we walked back to the casa it began to rain. We bid goodbye to our German friends and arrived at home just as the heavens opened and dumped a huge tropical torrent onto the town. We figured this would be a good time to take a nap, and we slept through the worst of the storm.

About 6 p.m. we headed into town to buy some drinking water and visit the Etecsa office to check our email. There was a queue to use the computers, so we decided to try out the Wi-Fi in the main town Square (one of the American tourists in Playa Girón had alerted us to this service). The Wi-Fi worked, and we were able to access some email messages.

On the way home we stopped by the tapas bar for a cocktail, and then returned to the casa for a lovely meal of ropa vieja with frijoles colorados. We had planned to go out to listen to some live music again at the venue in the town square, but we were too tired. We later learned that the gig was cancelled due to rain.

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