Wednesday, 8 November 2017


30th Oct - 1st Nov 2017

Mural de la Prehistoria near Viñales
By Viazul bus to Viñales, 3½ hours west of Havana. It was a good road and smooth journey in a comfortable air-conditioned bus. My only gripe (I've got to have one!) was when it came to pre-booking the seat which, going to this popular location, is advisable. The Viazul bus ticket office/terminal is about 4 kms from the Old City, west of Vedado. I was told you need a printed copy of a ticket. It is possible to book a ticket on the internet but finding a printer to connect to is a non-starter. So, I took a (nice and shoddy) taxi to the terminal the day before (CUC 10), paid for the ticket (CUC 12), taxi back to Viejo (CUC 10) and then a taxi back to the terminal early the next morning (CUC 10). Therefore a CUC 12 ticket cost me, in effect, CUC 42! C'est la vie.

Viñales and surrounding area is lovely, and a refreshing change from manic and grimy Havana. It is situated in an area of Karst geological features (vertical limestone cliffs) which are riddled with caves. It is very similar to the Vang Vieng area in Laos. Indeed the village of Viñales reminded me very much of Vang Vieng, but it is cleaner and tidier and no river to do 'tubing' or packs of hard-drinking wild-eyed 'Gap Yar' students.

Right: The main street (the only large street) in the town/village. It is very 'touristy' but in a quiet and tasteful fashion. There are some excellent restaurants, some of which even had alternative menus to the chicken, pig, rice and beans variety,  and pleasant bars. I was staying in another 'Casa Particulare' of which there are hundreds. all over the town...I counted a whole line of 30 of them, pretty pastel coloured little houses, on the way to mine (Casa Benito). Benito himself, and wife Maria, were great fun and, as with all the others, very helpful.

Left: The main square. There is an open air 'Casa de Music' in the top right-hand corner which puts on amusing song and dance routines after 9.00pm. 

Right: An example of a typical Viñales Casa Particulare.

The mountainous area is noted for its tobacco plantations; the main tobacco growing area in Cuba manufacture, its caves (as per Vang Vieng again), hiking routes and 'horse riding' tours. They seemed desperately keen to get you onto a horse. I was desperately keen not to.

There were lots of horses and carts, ridden and driven by local 'guajiros' wearing chaps and large straw sombreros. Or even ox-carts (left).

Right: A local guajiro, or maybe a tourist for all I know; but tourists normally go around in convoys.

Left: Horses for hire.
........and a typical mode of transport. The single-seater sports version.

I was taken by a friend of Benito to a nearby tobacco 'finca'. At this time of year the tobacco fields are ploughed up and they are about to sow the seeds for the next crop. The cigar farmer, Eduardo (left), explained the manufacture process, which is quite complex. The leaves are harvested around March, I think, and then there are various stages of drying, being  hung up in sheds, fermenting and re-moisturising before being skilfully rolled. Then a further period of drying and treatment. From planting to smoking takes over a year.
Of course I was most disappointed not to witness the famed Cuban señoritas rolling the leaves on their moist thighs (got to keep your leaves moist when rolling you know)). However, Eduardo made a cigar for me from, seemingly, old and rather dry leaves to demonstrate and, after being told to dip the mouth end in honey,  I smoked it! I don't really lke cigars and have no idea whether if it would be considered a good one or not. The honey tasted quite nice. Very skilfully  rolled, shaped and cut anyway. I learnt that the leaves at the top of the plant, because they get the most sun, are the strongest in nicotine content and taste. Those leaves at the top are put into such brands as  Cohibas (the name comes from the pipes that the original Taíno inhabitants used to smoke tobacco), those in the middle into Monte Christo and those at the bottom, the lightest smoke, into Romeo y Julieta. Che Guevara liked to puff on a Monte Christo and Winston Churchill preferred Romeo y Julietas. He also told me (and I have to believe him) that the Cuban government takes 90% of his crop to be treated and rolled  near Havana where, according to him, they treat the cigars with some chemicals to increase their shelf life then brand and package them for sale. He is allowed to keep 10% to make his own cigars to sell locally. These have no added chemicals and cannot be branded. Of course I was persuaded to buy some, apparently, Cohibas and Monte Christo as (quite expensive) souvenirs. I have no idea if they are any good or not (possibly just the sweepings off the cutting room floor) but will find a suitable cigar aficionado to try them when I get home. Any volunteers?

A jolly bus trip on a tour of the area took me to this cliff face called the Mural de la Prehistoria, a 'tastefully' coloured painting 120 metres long featuring old prehistoric figures. It was completed in 1961 and took 18 people 4 years to do. I would have thought that Cuba could have more usefully employed 18 painters for 4 years. Reminds me of the time and effort I had to get a similar number of painters to do my sitting room in England.
I am proudly wearing my Hungerford Tennis Club shirt.

Left: One of the many caves with a pleasant bar at the entrance. I didn't have the time or inclination to do any 'caving'. Done it all before and once you have seen one cave system, you've seen the lot really.....depending on the light available.

Well, that's it from Viñales after only a couple of days here. A very pleasant stay and I thoroughly recommend the place. Onwards next, past the infamous Bay of Pigs, to Cienfuegos. Report to follow, internet allowing. 

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