12 May - Heading west in Cuba
The journey from Havana to Viñales took about two and a half hours along a reasonably well maintained, almost empty dual carriageway through rural Cuba. Near Havana, the land seemed poorly cultivated, with bad drainage and an air of neglect. But as we pushed west and into ‘tobacco country’, things improved significantly. There was little or no farm machinery, but plenty of horses and oxen working the land.
A tobacco barn on the road west
The huge tobacco drying barns were mostly in very good repair and whilst some of the farm workers’ cottages were very basic indeed, nobody looked undernourished or unhappy. What vehicles there were were full: lorries acting as buses, ancient American cars crammed full of locals making longer journeys to the Big City, Russian cars belching out fumes and coughing along, held together with masking tape and string, roadside stalls selling very ripe fruit at unbelievable low prices – you could buy a month’s supply of mangoes for a whole dollar (never mind the fact that they would all be rotten in a couple of days…).
The instructor fails to teach the foreign ladies how to juggle, but settles for a dollar for ‘all you can carry’
The Jazmines Hotel, Viñales
The government-run Jazmines hotel in Viñales sits in a commanding position overlooking this fairytale valley and mountain scene, like something from an Impressionist painting, somehow transposed with tinges of Far eastern mysticism and more shades of green than even the Emerald Isle (of which I am a lifelong fan) can muster. I’ve been to many beautiful places thanks to the Royal Navy’s fuel budget, but few are as addictive to sit and look at as the valley at Viñales. The Swat Valley in North West Frontier Province, Sydney Harbour, Jerusalem, the view from the top of the mountain at San Antao in Cape Verde (I had an email from our guide today!), the Grand Canyon… it might not be on the same scale, but it has those qualities that draw the eye and keep you transfixed. I must have taken thirty photographs of the same scene as the light changed and something else revealed itself. Tobacco fields, a network of tiny roads, gauchos and their horses making their way home, a tiny homestead with a family looking like something out of ‘True Grit’, a farmer and his oxen ploughing, cattle grazing near a tobacco barn, a narrow gorge in the mountain backdrop revealing a tantalising glimpse of another valley beyond, massive thunder clouds piling up and dissipating…
The mesmerising view over the Viñales valley
A vignette of that vista… it’s all there!
The food in the hotel wasn’t on quite the same scale as the restaurant in Havana, but you couldn’t fault it for value. The following day we walked down into the town: a tourist trap, but uncluttered and not too ‘in your face’. A bit like Havana in that respect and a pleasant contrast to the bustle of somewhere like Marrakech, which we had found rather off-putting. Here, almost every home is a ‘casa particular’ – an approved private business venture letting out rooms to tourists and offering food. We ate, tapas-style, in a couple of restaurants (diplomats are not allowed in casa particulars) and visited some botanical gardens, run by the world’s most enthusiastic and articulate Cuban botanist, whose day was made by the multi-cultural aspects of dealing with two Pakistani diplomats, two Brit sailors and two French tourists who turned up at the same time. He, like so many people we met, seemed extraordinarily well qualified and urbane for the life he was leading.
That old crowd pleaser inspires everything here