Tag Archives: Vinales

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 7: Viñales to Havana. Part 1)

Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 1)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Viñales is home to the most extensive cave system in Cuba and before we left the area we had the opportunity to visit the Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian) about five kilometres north of Viñales town, in the Parque Nacional Viñales. A note in Lonely Planet says that the cave was an “ancient indigenous dwelling rediscovered in the 1920s.”

Before we entered the cave itself, we had the opportunity to see a display of objects that have been used for centuries by indigenous people of Cuba. Members of our group were particularly taken with the conches, which made a keening sound when you blew into them.

We then entered the cave and walked along a narrow passage to a waterway. There, a motorboat took groups of ten or twelve from a small dock through the cave and out to a landing on the other side. It was a short trip but memorable. There were (of course) bats but (of course) I couldn’t get a photo of them.


Havana: A walking tour

IMG_3680We arrived in Havana in the early afternoon and had time to check into our casa particulares (the same one we had stayed at the previous Sunday night) before heading out in a bicycle cab to join the group for a walking tour of the city.


Drivers await hires near the Inglaterra

We had wandered around old Havana on our own the previous Sunday, but we learned a good deal more when we had someone to explain what we were looking at. To list everything we saw on the two-hour walk, which included Havana’s five major plazas among other attractions, would make this a very very long entry, and it is already going to be quite long. So instead, below and in the next post I’ll give you what I thought were the most interesting highlights.

The Most Interesting Highlights


Hotel Inglaterra

We met our guide Manny and most of the rest of the group at the Hotel Inglaterra, near the National Capitol Building which marks the centre of Havana. Completed in 1926, El Capitolio was built with the US capitol building in mind, however, as Manny explained with pride, the one in Havana is six metres taller than the one in the US. El Capitolio housed government activities until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Like many many notable buildings in Havana, it is now being reconstructed, and when it is finished it will again become the seat of the National Assembly.


Hotel Manzana

We then walked past the Saratoga – the most expensive hotel in Cuba – and the Gran Teatro de La Habana and into Central Park (“where they argue loudly about baseball”).  Nearby, a hotel (the Manzana), currently under reconstruction, features bullet holes incurred during the Revolution.

Obispo Street

Obispo Street

We set off down Havana’s famous Obispo Street (where no smoking is allowed), walking past one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts — the Floridita bar – where a few years ago, in honour of what would have been the author’s 113th birthday, the owners blended 27 bottles of rum with proportional amounts of the other requisite ingredients to make the biggest daiquiri in the world.


Our next stop was Cathedral Plaza, which was lovely, spacious and  – save for a few young boys playing soccer – nearly deserted. Manny told us that this neighbourhood – built on what was originally swampland – has some of the best restaurants in Havana, and that the Doña Eutimia tops the list. The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception is also on the square and, just to bring things full circle, the Bodeguita del Medio – Hemingway’s favourite stop for a mojito. (For an alcoholic, it seems to me, Ernest was pretty particular about where he drank what.)

Where There Were Pirates (long long ago)

Havana used to be the most attacked city in the world, with pirates from everywhere descending on the harbour with greed in their eyes. Around 1600 the Spanish decided to fortify, and the remains of the resulting battlements can be IMG_0428seen at Parque Histórico Morro y Cabaña. During the Colonial era, every night at nine a cannon was fired from the fortification to announce the city’s curfew, and the traditional continues at the Cabaña Fortress today – although (one can assume from accounts of the nightlife in Havana) now it is ceremonial only. Near to the remains of the fort, there is also a display of boats that have been retrieved from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, a warning to others who – like the boats’ original owners – might be tempted to flee the island.

IMG_0438We moved on to the Plaza del Armas, which is well known for its hundreds of local vendors of old books, antiques, and artworks (and the typical scenes of men playing chess). On the eastern side of the plaza is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former residence of the governors (capitans) of Havana, and current home of the Museum of the City (Museo de la Ciudad). A part of the street itself is made of wood, rather than stone; it was re-surfaced in response to complaints from visitors at nearby hotels about the sounds of horses’ shoes clip-clopping on the cobbles.


(to be continued)

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 6: Viñales)

Red Dirt

Friday, January 8, 2016

IMG_2670This morning Arnie and I went our separate ways: he to do a horseback trip through the Viñales valley, and me to join a walking tour of a few farms in the same area. We compared notes after we met up again and discovered that we’d both watched the owners of different tobacco farms make cigars by hand. We’d learned about the different leaves that go into the creation of the perfect cigar, and been told that the finer the cigar, the lower the level of nicotine. We’d been advised that inhaling is not a recommended part of the cigar-smoking experience anyway. After the demonstration, each member of both groups was given a Cuban cigar to smoke. Arnie smoked all of his. I just took one puff.

IMG_2633Rain had pounded down all night and into the day, to the point where when a few members of our group stepped out into a Viñales street after breakfast, they found water going over the tops of their trekking boots. Their feet were wet all morning. I didn’t get wet feet until I started walking around the countryside, but when I did it was not only wet but red. I assume a high iron content in the soil, but I forgot to ask about that.

IMG_2686Our guide did tell us that the soil here is very good for tobacco growing and that they use no pesticides or fertilizers. The farm workers plant all the seeds, pick all the leaves, and harvest the leaves by hand. It takes three to four months to grow a tobacco crop and the farmers in this area sell 90% of their crops to the government and turn the rest into cigars with their own brands. (Our host said his were called “Geraldo’s cigars” but I think that was a joke.)

Three kinds of leaves go into the creation of a good cigar: filler leaves, sealer leaves and wrapper leaves. If you have a good, genuine Cuban cigar the ash will not fall off the end of it when you are smoking it. If ash forms, it is likely that the manufacturer has used banana leaves as filler.

IMG_3539The inside leaves that are high in nicotine content are fed to animals. The better leaves are soaked in honey, guava and rum, and then put into home-fashioned humidors (made of plastic wrap) to cure for a year or two. The result is a cigar that tastes wonderful and has very little nicotine. (Geraldo pointed to his 70-year-old mother who was smoking a very large Cuban cigar as evidence that cigar smoking will not harm your health. [See slide show album below for photo of her.] I was not impressed, as 70 seems very young to me. Show me your 100-year-old mother. Then I will pay attention.) Geraldo hand wraps approximately 100 cigars a day.

IMG_0315.jpgIn addition to tobacco crops and drying barns, we saw fields and groves of mango, bananas, coffee beans (arabica), black beans, calabash (from which maracas are made), taro and cassava. I have discovered here in Cuba that I love taro, which is the basis for arrowroot and according the locals cures almost everything. (And anything it doesn’t cure is cured by the root of the royal palm so it is all covered here. Although there is also excellent health care in Cuba if anything else is required.)


A shrine in a royal palm

Some people believe that a God lives inside the royal palm and they will try to get close to one if there is a hurricane or other natural disaster in order to avoid danger. During two hurricanes that hit this area, royal palms were the only things left standing, so it is hard to question this theory.

While we were out on our field trip, we also saw a Cuban rat (a pet of the owner), chickens, pigs (including some very cute piglets) a lot of dogs, horses, burros, and oxen. We also saw some men cock-fighting, which was horrible.


Farm family’s pet rat

Before heading back to Viñales to meet the group for lunch, we were offered most delicious piña coladas. They were 3 CUCs each, but contained no rum. We all bought one. Then the host came and put down a rum bottle and invited us to add as much as we wanted to our drinks. Rum free. Drinks 3 CUCs.

Back in Viñales, Arnie rejoined us. Most of our group had stepped in deep puddles that had splashed mud to our knees, but Arnie was splattered in red mud from head to toe, and his hands were stained with achiote, a plant that is used to make cosmetics. He declared his horseback excursion to have been a huge success.



We had lunch at a restaurant near the entrance to the Cuevo del Indio (Cave of the Indian) outside of Viñales, which we planned to tour after lunch. However, by the time our (very, very slow) service at the restaurant had finished and we had eaten and paid for our meals, the lineups for the caves were 1.5 to 2 hours long. We decided to postpone our cave tour to the morning, and go back to Viñales for a quiet evening.


The food was great… when it finally arrived! This place added a new dimension to the term “slow food”

The first item on the agenda when we got back to our casa particulare was to eliminate the red mud from our clothes and our bodies. We discussed the possibility of paying our hosts to do a laundry for us. They were willing, but they didn’t have a clothes dryer, so it would not have been possible to get our clothes dried before we left the following day. So we packed our dirty clothes into plastic bags to take home with us. (I ultimately left my running shoes in Cuba: I loved them, but there was no way they could ever have been cleaned. They had seen better days anyway, so it was a good excuse to replace them.)

We took dozens and dozens of photos on our Viñales excursions. I’ve jammed as many of them as I can into the post itself. Here are some of the others:




Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 5. Trinidad to Viñales)

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

    Cuba’s national flower

    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.”

We’re Going to Cuba!

¡Hola Cuba!

I am very happy to announce that my (new) husband and I are embarking on my next (also his next, but our first) adventure early in January, 2016. We are going to Cuba! I have always wanted to go there, and now that Cuba and the USA have re-established diplomatic relations, I want to get there before the improving trade situation allows the export of whatever makes Cuba Cuba (which I have some theories about already, but no real knowledge), and the import of what does not. I hope that in the long run, the détente is going to be good for the average Cuban, but as Canadians well know, exposure to our powerful neighbour to the south (and Cuba’s north) can overwhelm what makes a nation distinctive.

As was the case with my trip to India, I will start by reading about the country I am about to visit: the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba is waiting for me at the post office as I write this. I am also brushing up on my Spanish, using an app called Duolingo. I have taken Spanish before – many times, in fact. I studied it at university for a year, and have taken conversational Spanish classes a couple of times since then. I am not sure how Cuban Spanish varies from that of other Spanish-speaking countries (of which, so far, I’ve visited only Mexico), but I will probably find out and write a post about it. In the meantime I am learning such useful terms as “The monkey sleeps above the parrots,” and “I eat in the basement,” which I am sure I will be using regularly on my trip.

I found the tour we are taking online at Responsible Travel, as I did with the India tour. Responsible Travel is dedicated to directing travellers to small, local travel companies that work to improve or at least contribute to the sustainability of the countries in which they are located. We have chosen a small-group tour from Locally Sourced Cuba, that involves local modes of transport, and accommodation with Cuban families at casas particulares.

My husband’s experience with travel has mostly involved renting a car, staying in hotels, and driving around at his own pace, so this will be a new approach for him.

We are leaving in early January, and we will be travelling for ten days. The actual tour leaves from Havana and includes the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Vinales, before returning to Havana. At that point we will go to Varadero on our own for a few days of sun. I learned on my last trip that the perfect way to end an intensive tour is to take some time for total relaxation before returning home. That will give us some time to process everything we’ve seen (and allow me to catch up on my blog posts).

I gather that internet access is almost non-existent in most places in Cuba, so although I will be writing about each day’s travel, I have no idea when I’ll be able to post my various installments. Perhaps not until I get home.

All that is still a long way in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping you posted on my preparations.