Vinales is just a 3-hour bus ride west of Havana but it could be a different world.
Our Havana casa recommended (and indeed booked for us) a casa for our four-night stay in Vinales. It was perfect. The owners were a young family who had two twin boys aged nine and our host (Osviel) was fantastic. He met us at the bus stop, which saved us from being mobbed by other casa owners wanting to accommodate us, and he arranged (and paid for) a taxi to drive us to his house. Upon arrival we were quickly handed a local Cuban cigar and a cold drink and then we sat down for a chat and to plan the days ahead. Osviel spoke perfect English so that helped immensely and he rattled off the must-sees in the area.
As soon as the boys got home from school Dominic and Callum pulled out the footballs and off they went to play in the street. Various neighborhood kids soon joined them and that was the story for the next four days.
It’s a very basic life here. Generations have lived here and they all live near each other and everybody knows everybody. Vehicle traffic is minimal as the locals get around on horse or buffalo and carts. It was amazing to see how these people just go about normal daily life. The fruit guy would trot down the road on his horse and cart with a load of fresh fruit that would serve as our breakfast. A delivery of building materials to a house across the road from us was made by way of buffalo. At night, you would sit out on the porch in your rocking chair with a Mojito and a cigar watching and listening to your neighbors and all the kids playing in the street.
Regular rides on buffalo and goats (that’s right, goats) pulling carts were popular with our two and the local drivers came around each day to give the kids a ride. The way the kids all played outside without any safety concerns reminded me of my childhood – Vinales is an incredibly safe town.
The next day we met a local horse guide who took us through the valley on horseback to a tobacco farm. Initially Dominic shared his horse with the guide but after a few minutes and Dominic being his normal confident self he took full control of the horse and the guide was made to walk beside us. Callum had turns riding with me, Trina and Dominic. The ride through the valley was stunning. Lush greens contrasting against the dark red soil with the scattering of tobacco drying houses and farmhouses all provided a special location. The tobacco farm was interesting. We learnt how the product is dried and rolled – the boys had a try at this with mixed results and we also chatted – over a grapefruit and rum drink and cigar- what life is like for a tobacco farmer. Once again, the generation theme came through loud and clear. His grandfather and father both farmed and now his son is learning the trade. What did surprise us was the Cuban Government takes 90% of his entire product and in turn pays a small percentage of the actual value. The remaining 10% is for the farmers who, can roll and sell themselves locally.
On the ride back we managed to have a great chat to our guide Carlos who was full of praise for the independent traveller. The independent traveller directly benefits the people of Vinales. We paid cash to him, to the farmer, taxi driver and casa owner whereas the group traveller pays the hotel or tour company and very little filters down to grassroots level. It all ends up with the Cuban Government. We felt we were adding some benefit to the community.
We had to get a move on as school was finishing soon and football had to be played. The kids got on famously and some nights we wouldn’t see them for ages until they trotted past on some kind of animal pulling a cart.
Cayo Jutias is a beach about 1 hour north of Vinales. The guidebooks all raved about it along with the locals so we got a taxi to take us up for the day. In all honesty it was nothing much to rave about. We rented a paddleboat and did some snorkeling but it was a long way to go for not much reward. I think perhaps we have just been spoilt when it comes to beaches so it needs to be absolutely fantastic for us to give it praise. Anyway, we had a decent swim and then battled the appalling Cuban roads back home. Our taxi was better than the one we had in Havana but it was still a bumpy ride. Not a bad price though, 1 hour there and back plus 4 hours waiting time for CUC50 (NZD60) – doubt you’d get that price with Corporate Cabs.
On the outskirts of Vinales there are a few minor attractions which include a massive rock-face mural that measures 120mx180m, a bar in a cave and a couple of decent watering holes to have a swim in. Nice to see, but not a must see.
Dinners were provided at the casa and it was a real feast. We had a choice of chicken, pork, fish or lobster so as we had 4 nights there we chose a different one each night. The lobsters were huge and at CUC2 (NZD2.40) each they are cheaper than chicken. On the night we were having pork we witnessed the slaughter of a pig that had been tied up at a derelict house across the road. Dominic was fixated and was watching the whole event along with all the other kids in the street. Trina was horrified and was hiding in the house. Needless to say Trina didn’t eat the pork that night (although we did find out after dinner that we weren’t served the one from over the road).
Our time in Vinales came to a close and some sad adios between the boys. It was great to see them interacting and playing even though nobody spoke the same language. The language of play goes along way. It was a great destination that was once again enhanced by our casa and host family. Cuba once again surprised and delivered.