Land of the CigArtistes*
Thursday, January 7
Today was a travel day. Our bus picked us up at about 9 a.m. and we set off for Viñales, which is a seven-hour bus trip that took us about nine hours. Most of the delays were due to the incredibly slow table service which is so typical of Cuban restaurants. We often wait long enough after ordering that we are sure that our hosts are going out and slaughtering our meat and catching our fish and letting the bread rise while we drink our beers (or in my case, Cuban cola, which isn’t bad stuff at all).
The road to Viñales took us back to the outskirts of Havana and then southwest. Since nothing much happened aside from some great views of the countryside and then the hills, I will use this space to relate a couple of bits of interesting information I’ve picked up in the past few days:
- Although it used to be the case that everyone in Cuba earned basically the same amount of money (meaning that those who earned more were heavily taxed), that is no longer the case. Private business owners are now permitted to keep more of their money than they could before, which means of course that some Cubans are wealthier than others. This is fairly obvious from the homes we have seen, and the way the Cubans dress. But differences in economic status among the inhabitants of this country are still far less visible than in most places I’ve been.
- The national flower of Cuba is the Hedychium coronarium, commonly known as white
ginger. In Cuba, it is called “flor mariposa” (butterfly flower). During the revolution, women carried secret messages within the flowers, which they pinned into their hair.
- The topography of the Viñales region is described as a “karst” landscape. Wikipedia (albeit referring to a University of Texas link that no longer functions) says that karst topography is a “landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes, dolines, and caves.”
When we arrived in Viñales at last (around 6 p.m.) we checked into our casas and then met in the city square. There, Manny gave us a run-down of the distinguishing features of this city. As we discovered more fully when the sun came up the next day, this is an extraordinarily beautiful part of the country.
When the Spanish first arrived in this valley, they thought from the look of the terrain and vegetation that they would be able to grow grapes here to make wine, which is why it is called “Viñales.” But the main crop of the area then and forever was already being grown: it was tobacco. Manny also told us that when the first Europeans first encountered the indigenous population here and found them walking around with smoke coming out of their mouths, they thought that they were dragons or some other mythical creatures. The indigenous people were likely equally astounded by the appearance of the humans who had just wandered unannounced into their valley.
Today, Viñales is known worldwide as the primary growing region of the fine tobacco leaves that make Cuban cigars so famous. The Viñales valley was declared a UNESCO site in 1999 to preserve its nature as a “cultural landscape” characterized by traditional farming methods. The valley is dotted with rocky formations shaped like rounded cones that are called “mogotes.” Very few places in the world have similar landscapes.
Within the limestone formations there are miles of caves, and I am looking forward to visiting one or two as they may offer me an opportunity to see more Cuban bats. Plus I just like caves – maybe thanks to the Welsh coalminers from whom I am descended.
Here are some of the great photos Arnie took of the Viñales region.
*I just made up that word. Can also be spelled “CigarTistes.” Or “Cigartistes.”