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Many Adventures of a Nomadic Poet A young poet with Asperger's makes travel his passion, and away he goes...

Martian Red Soil

CUBA | Tuesday, 27 October 2009 | Views [3205]

After spending five days in La Habana, I decided to make a run for Viñales. Let me tell you first how I got there, because getting there turned out to be half the fun. After taking a taxi to the Autopista (Cuba's central highway) I wanted to hitchhike. In Cuba, vehicles with blue license places (government-owned) are required by law to pick up hitchhikers if they have room, but, the problem I noticed is that there was a huge crowd of hitchhikers where I got dropped off. Many of them were just sitting there but I decided to hold out my thumb with one hand on a couple of CUC in the other. It was really hot and humid, and I was getting thirsty from dehydration. After about half hour of not getting a ride I walked to a house across the four-lane highway and knocked on the gate to ask for a bottle of water. Suddenly they tossed me a huge 2-litre bottle, chock full of cold water. Ahhh, I needed it! Cuba is the type of place where you could actually knock on the door of a random house and ask for a glass of water or something to eat, and not worry about having the police called on you. If I were stranded somewhere late at night without a place to stay I'd have no problem knocking on the door of the nearest home and offering like 10 CUC to stay for the night. Anyways, a large, covered truck showed up and most of those hitchhikers piled in. I knew I had to get in there quick because it would fill up. Havana to Viñales is 20 CUP (Cuban pesos) but I handed the attendant 1 CUC (1 CUC = 24 CUP). And, the truck was JAM-PACKED and hot for the beginning of the ride, and I had to stand in one place and hold onto a bar above my head to avoid taking a nasty tumble. When you hitchhike in Cuba, tell people you're a student rather than a tourist to avoid strange looks. For example, I made up a story that I was studying geography at Universidad de La Habana. Even though this was an uncomfortable way to travel I'd take it just about anytime over a Viazul bus. As we got closer to Pinar del Rio, the bus was less crowded. A young Cubano (about 18 or so) was asking me about what I study and if I enjoy Cuba. I really do enjoy it! As a memento I gave him a couple of coins from Tonga that I had in my backpack. Chances are he'll never go there but perhaps he'll go home and read about the only kingdom in the South Pacific. Three hours after getting on the truck I was in Pinar del Rio. Across from me was a star-shaped monument; presumably something to do with the defense of socialism. Like in Havana, touts bugged me straight away trying to lead me to a casa particular or trying to convince me to stay the night and then catch a bus in the morning to Viñales, but I was only about 35 km from there and I was confident I'd get there by tonight. After walking and walking some more, I stopped and got a bottle of water before finally reaching the edge of town. Holding out my thumb wasn't doing much good, but fortunately a lady at a bus stop told me there was a guagua that goes to Viñales for 1 CUP. As I rummaged through my pocket, I couldn't find a peso straight away so that pretty lady with her little boy actually gave me a peso! Finally when I did find a peso in my pocket, I tried to give it to her but she refused it. That REALLY surprised me! In a country where people make around 15 CUC a month I'd think that they'd NEVER give away money. All around, Cubans are a very generous people. They're an example for the world! The bus came, and I was relieved because it was dark. The bus ride was quite winding and we seemed to be going up a lot of hills. About 40 minutes later I got off in Viñales. Immediately a man came out of a casa particular asking if I needed a casa. Making sure he wasn't a jinetero, I asked him if he any space at his casa but he was booked. His niece, Martha lives just around the corner so he took me there. They seemed really nice, and the room I'd stay in looks really nice. The cost for one night is 20 CUC. Martha asked me if I'd like dinner so I opted to have pork. Her husband is a doctor; he worked in Nicaragua for awhile. Her two sons are currently studying to be doctors. This is my first time staying at a real casa particular, and immediately I could tell it was going to be a splendid experience. My host needed my passport and my visa card. Casas particulares (that's the plural, it's not "casa particulars") are under a lot of restrictions by the government; a license for a casa costs anywhere from 100 to 250 CUC per month and the fee must be paid regardless if the rooms are rented. The license costs more in bigger cities like Havana and if you serve food, have a sign out front, etc. It can be tough because some casas particulares may only receive one tourist per month! Conversely, some may be booked out (with a maximum of 4 people) for half the month. In the latter situation a casa owner could make 1000 CUC or more per month! The house here is really nice; much cleaner than some of the houses I've been to in Havana. For dinner I was served a huge amount of food: pork, rice, black beans, salad, and fruit. For the most part I'm a light eater. An idea for those of you like me: if you're staying at a casa for two nights or more, it's a wise idea to wrap up half the food and reheat it the next night for dinner. Furthermore, having dinner every night at a casa particular can get expensive (it cost 8 CUC for dinner tonight). After dinner I had my first mojito. The mojito is the signature drink of Cuba. It's made with mint, ice, rum, sugar, and fresh lime juice. I couldn't think of a tastier concoction! Delicioso! Gorged with food, I sat at the table playing my Nintendo DS, and one of Martha's sons, Armando was enamoured by Super Mario! However, I didn't come to Cuba to play video games so I decided to go for a walk and then listen to some Cuban music up at the restaurant about a half kilometre away. Tourists and Cubans alike were there salsa dancing the night away as I listened to the bass, the trumpet, and above all, authentic Cuban music. Some people talk about "tourist apartheid" in Cuba but it seems that locals and tourists are interconnected in Cuba than in a lot of other places. I must say that I love Viñales already and I'll be staying here at least a couple of days. As I was getting to leave, and this is interesting, a gorgeous Cubana asked if she could hang out with me at my casa. In broken English I tried to ask if we could just hang out elsewhere, but she didn't want to. When we went back to my casa, Martha answered the door and said "no chicas." I was tired and didn't really want to hang out so I told that sexy Cubana I'd see her at the restaurant tomorrow night. Viñales is a small town of maybe 10,000 so I thought maybe they would have known her. I took my first hot shower in Cuba and then lie down to read about Viñales. I'll focus on more in the morning.

The next day...I woke up early because I wanted to explore Viñales. This magnificent town is full of verandahs, rocking chairs, colourful homes, and with a background of karst. It looks a little bit like something out of the Australian Outback, only greener and more crowded. I had a breakfast of fruit, bread, juice, and coffee. The coffee is absolutely to die for! I'm most certainly not a coffee conoisseur but Cuban coffee is FANTASTIC!! Breakfast costs 3 CUC. In any situation it is recommended to stay in a casa particular rather than a hotel because it's more authentic and the food is much better. After eating, I was ready to explore. I walked up the street and got a Red Bull (the only familiar products I've seen are Red Bull and Nestle). As I walked it started to pour down rain but I enjoyed it. A warm rain! Lovely! Anyways, after a week of not being on the internet I thought I'd go on for a short while. One hour of internet use costs 6 CUC so Cuba isn't a place to go on YouTube or Facebook for hours. I must admit that I actually like the fact that there is very little internet here. It gives me time to focus on Cuba rather than what's going on at home or what the basketball scores are. I emailed Teressa and went on CouchSurfing but I got off after 20 minutes so I could save the rest of my time for later. There is very little street food in Viñales; you'll most likely be eating at your casa particular unless you buy some food from the market and cook yourself. The rain stopped by the time I was finished on the internet so I wanted to go explore. These girls I was chatting with told me about a cave where you could go swimming. They recommended hiring a guide because it'd be difficult to find it on your own. In addition they told me you get the opportunity to visit a tobacco farm and try a cigar. Feeling bad for these girls I chatted with them for a good while because their bus was running really late. Cuban transportation is normally late. Your best bet is to come to Cuba with an open schedule. When I went back to my casa, Martha called the guide who takes people on walks but I'd be better off going tomorrow because it was already quite late in the day. Viñales is the type of place to spend at least a few days; don't just come here for one night. With the walk planned for tomorrow I decided I wanted to go to the Mural de la Prehistoria. I walked down a red dirt road out of Viñales and was ready to hold out my thumb. A bus picked me up! And they didn't charge me. Admission to the mural was 1 CUC. It's rather surreal in this type of environment. Valle de Viñales is said to be Fidel's favourite part of Cuba. Understandably so because it's beautiful and it's the prime tobacco-growing region (he's said to have smoked more than 50,000 cigars in his lifetime). I must say that the mural is interesting although it's out of place. It took 15 men about 5 years to complete and was commissioned by Fidel. As I started walking back, a young man on a horse-drawn carriage pulled up and asked if I'd like a ride back to Viñales for 4 CUC. At first I refused but he then offered for 2 CUC and I thought "why not?". My Cuba journey has now gotten pricey. In Havana I was spending next to nothing (when I was staying at Angie's) but in Viñales I've had to bust my wallet wide open. Although, I can spend a little bit more because I spent less than I thought in Havana. Riding in the back of the horse-drawn carriage was a nice experience, and I gave the young man 3 CUC. It was hot by the time I got back. It is almost always hot in Cuba, so bring loose-fitting clothes and drink heaps of water. What caught my eye next was this flashy, purple 1950s Chevrolet. The driver offered to drive me around but I was content to admire it from the outside and walk. This morning I saw coffee being sold out of a window but I couldn't find it now so I ended up just walking back to my casa. My jaw is still hurting a little from the dental surgery I had in Costa Rica more than a week ago. Martha let me have a cup of manzanilla tea before I went out again. For dinner I told Martha I wanted pescado (fish). As I strolled around Viñales I was hoping to see that nice girl I met last night but I didn't see her. Casas particulares have a distinct sticker on the front door of the house; handy advice for those who arrive somewhere late at night and don't have booked accommodation. You'll see them all over the town because there are more than 300 casas in a town of 14,000 people. Viñales is a beautiful, relaxing place! I can't get over its beauty. The rain came down hard again and I relaxed at my casa until I was ready to go out again to go out to listen to some music. Viñales can be a bit touristy for some, although I was actually happy last night seeing a group from Australia and Canada after seeing almost no tourists in Havana. Until tonight I hadn't met another American; I met a man named Nelson from Houston when I was chatting with a group of people while listening to the music playing. Unfortunately he has to fly back to the U.S. via Cancun tomorrow because his wife fell ill and has to go home for treatment. His taxi from Viñales to the international airport in Havana will cost roughly 100 CUC! As we were chatting he told me he went to Antarctica about two years ago. His expedition was about two weeks after the MS Explorer sank, and as a result only about a third of the booked passengers showed up. Immediately I thought "damn, I missed another chance to go." It's OK, I'll let me chance one of these days.

The next day...
It was time to go on my walk through the tobacco fields and caves of Valle de Viñales. I washed up and had breakfast of fruit, bread, and a cup of manzanilla tea. Too bad there isn't much of a tea culture here because I absolutely love tea! Jesse wasn't going to show up for about 20 minutes so I decided to go get a cup of coffee. All I had on me was a 100 CUP bill so the lady actually gave me a free coffee! Martha recommended taking a bottle of water with me, so I brought along that and my Baracoa chocolate bar that I bought yesterday. Jesse, the guide, met me and we were on our way. Almost immediately the red dirt was embedded in my socks as we traipsed through mud. Is this the Australian Outback? or Mars? This is Cuba but the red soil looks liks something straight out of either of those places. It was hot and humid but I didn't open my water bottle for a while because the walk in total would last about five hours. The karst landscape is breathtaking! Jesse showed me a shed with drying tobacco and inside I saw and held some of the leaves that are used to make the famed Cuban cigars. Jesse showed me some unlit cigars. Most Cuban cigars that you buy outside of Cuba don't actually have Cuban tobacco; what makes those cigars "Cuban" is how they're made. Aside from tobacco, soybeans are grown in Valle de Viñales. Nearly all agriculture grown in Cuba is organic; pesticides and other chemicals are illegal! For more than two hours, Jesse and I walked until we reached the cave. It's a good thing I went with a guide because I would have been lost straight away had I went alone. We had to wait while the cave guide came out, and then in I went with a couple of French girls. Nearly falling a couple of times I held my balance and then it was time to go for a swim. Downstream we all went! The water was cold but it's a relief from the Cuban heat. One of those sexy French girls gave me a massage when we rested deep inside the cave. The silt acts as a massage scrub so that felt extra good! What an exhilarating experience! Ahhhh it felt so good I didn't want to leave the cave! Cuba is a spelunker's paradise with more than 20,000 caves! We all swam back upstream all while splashing each other. A mistake I made is that I didn't bring any money with me to tip the cave guide, so one of the French girls gave me 1 CUC to give to the guide. Jesse and I, and the girls walked over to a hut where we got to try a cigar and have some agua de coco con ron (coconut water with rum). Delicioso! Then, I had to do it! I took a couple of puffs of an authentic Cuban cigar! It's the first time I've ever smoked anything! And it will probably be the only time! I've always been a staunch anti-smoking activist. But, I'm in Cuba and I had to try it. Jesse told me I could give him a couple extra CUC to give to these guys. Based on my observations so far, people in Cuba are so laid back and friendly. My friend Al must've been right when he said that Cubans live longer than Americans because there's no stress. The taste of Cuban tobacco would linger in my mouth for hours afterward. I said goodbye to those nice girls before Jesse and I walked through another cave and several bean fields to stop at a stand selling sugarcane, coffee, honey, and, much to my surprise, noni (the fruit that's famous on Niue). There wasn't anything I wanted to get, even though Jesse said I could give him the money. When we got back to Viñales I thanked him before heading to my casa. He said he'd be there in a bit to collect 12 CUC (10 for him and 2 for the guys at the hut). What an amazing walk! At my casa I rested for a bit and then walked around town, checked out all the verandahs and rocking chairs that are synonymous with Viñales. The group from Canada and Australia is still around. The tour guide is a gorgeous lady from Trinidad who's an excellent salsa dancer but she won't dance with me. Salsa really burns calories, and each time I've asked her she had just got done dancing. Aside from rocking chairs, you'll see Jose Marti statues and graffiti saying "Viva Fidel" all over. Getting a pizza for lunch for 1.50 CUC I was filled up as I walked back and told Martha that I wanted pollo (chicken) for dinner. I was in the mood for a mojito but I thought to wait until after dinner. My next mission was to get up to Hotel de Jazmines to get that million-dollar shot of Valle de Viñales. A blue Chevy picked me up as they were driving to Pinar del Rio and dropped me off at the hotel on top of the hill. The view is magical! Cuba definitely isn't as visually spectacular as New Zealand or Iceland, but it's magical in its own right! Upon getting ready to leave I got a ride with a couple from England. They decided to stay in a hotel but they were unaware about being able to stay at casas particulars. When you stay at a hotel, all the money goes to the government. They asked me so show them a few good places to hang out so I did just that. My dinner was ready by the time I got back, and like the pork two days ago and the fish yesterday, it was great! I do feel that I'm given a bit too much food but I can't complain. Martha even fed me extra black beans because she knows I really like them! Tomorrow morning I have to head out; I'm not sure if I'll go back to Havana or to Santa Clara or Trinidad. After dinner I decided to head out on the town (not to get drunk, though). Although I did decide to have a mojito. Chatting with these guys from Hungary, I was hearing about their travels. It's amazing how few Americans you meet in Cuba, even though it's technically illegal. Cuba is so close to the U.S. that there theoretically could be a Havana-Key West or Havana-Miami ferry service. Jazzed up about music up the street, I nearly ran off without paying for my mojito! One of the guys reminded me and I thanked him for it, and I tipped the waiter extra for almost walking off. There was one other time I did something like that; in Iceland I had to exchange some money to pay for the internet and I got frustrated and left without paying for the internet! When I realized it I walked all the way back and the girl thanked me for being honest. Music was extra loud and the señoritas were dancing away as I had so much fun. So much fun that I was exhausted after this long day! Walking back to my casa as slow as a turtle I was enjoying my last sights of Viñales at night. Then, it was Dreamtime...

I woke up early getting ready to head east. My total bill was 100 CUC! For most travellers to Cuba it would be financial relief leaving Havana for me it's the opposite because I know people there! However, I can't complain because I'm experiencing a country and a culture that few people ever get to experience! With all my gear packed up I was set to go. I waited at the bus stop around the corner, and I waited, and waited, and waited. Still no bus. Finally, Martha's son got a ride for me in a green Chevy. He could take me to Pinar del Rio for only 1 CUC! What a bumpy ride it was but I really enjoy riding around in classic cars. The other day I saw my favourite classic car: a shiny purple Chevy! He dropped me off in Pinar del Rio at the amarillo stop. There, the locals looked at me curiously, thinking "what is he doing here?" A young man asked me if I was studying, and I said I was. There I waited for awhile, trying to get a ride. There are too many hitchhikers and not enough vehicles in Cuba, so hitching is not for the faint of heart. The waiting area is covered and has water and a food stand with quite good hamburgers for 2.5 CUP (10 cents). It was recommended that I walk up to the Autopista a short distance away. In the scorching Cuban sun I walked like 3 km until I reached the four-lane highway with scores of hitchhikers. After awhile I got a ride back to Havana....

Tags: caving, culture, hiking, karst landscapes, old cars


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