Cuba; Vinales and tobacco country
Complete exhaustion followed me onto our bus to Vinales, regardless of my attempts to ignore it. Apparently the bus was over booked and the driver had to make room for me directly behind him next to his coworker. Rain poured down as we made our way west, leaving the city behind and entering into farm country. Cuba is the land of a million palms and this became increasingly apparent the second we left Habana. Old colonial buildings were replaced with cows, irrigated fields, horse drawn carriages, and lots of old men on bicycles getting pummelled by heavy precipitation. Our mamma in Habana set us up with her family in Vinales so we didn’t have to seek out accommodations. When our bus rolled to a stop in the tiny little town it was swarmed instantly with dozens of Cubans holding up signs advertising their house. The moment we stepped off the bus we were enclosed by a sea of people trying their hardest to fill their rooms. Luckily we spotted our woman with a Daniel y Elissa sign and we were off to Casa Blanca. We were greeted with warm smiles, a great room, and a huge delicious lunch proceeded by a big nap.
Vinales is set in a picturesque (understatement) tropical mountain range in tobacco, coffee, and sugar cane country. The star attractions and appeal to the lay of the land are the massive limestone mogotes mountain chains dividing the valley and protruding almost vertically from the earth. These insanely gorgeous features were formed by the collapse of massive networks of underground caves and rivers surrounding them. These vertical mounds create micro climates surrounding them drawing in massive amounts of rain to foster some of the finest tobacco and coffee plants in the world. With all of these attributes it was absolutely necessary to get up into the mountains and into the valleys to see how life operates in such a surreal setting. Our casa’s nephew Noel, who stops by routinely every night and is a farm boy through and through, agreed to guide us up through these mountains on horseback for a glimpse into this world. Needless to say it was hard to contain our excitement.
The following morning a young man picked us up in a beat up Russian Lada and took us to Noel’s farm. Two massive mogote chains split opening up a huge, lush flat valley with endless fields of sweet potatoes and birds sing-songing in the trees above. Sometime between arranging for the tour and waking up the next morning my stomach decided it was time to rebel and my intestines agreed. It couldn’t have been a worse day to stage an uprising. The thought of bouncing around on a horse for 5 hours seemed destined for an embarrassing accident, but there was no turning back. Undaunted, we were introduced to our caballos and the rest of Noel’s family. Elissa’s horse, a 16 year old seasoned sweetheart named Caremelo, was as obedient as any golden retriever that was raised from a pup. My 6 year old stud Negro, however, was not ready to have someone new holding his reigns. After a 2 minute crash course in horseback riding I was headed off into the field leading the pack, much to my dismay.
Noel stayed in the back keeping our horses plugging along. It was hard to ignore Negro’s inclination for eating whatever came into his line of sight, wandering off into tobacco fields, and turning left when I couldn’t be any clearer on my yearning to go right. But all that was just one blink away from the realization that we were in the middle of some of the most pristine, beautiful farmland I’ve ever laid eyes on. Limestone walls jumped from the rich burgondy colored soil sheltering miles of sweet potato fields. Our barely recognizable trail weaved through rice paddies and tobacco fields, past baby pigs under palm trees, and between simple thatched roof farm houses with the occasional nod from the owners. We crossed streams and ascended deep up into the mountains, constantly looking over our shoulders down into the valleys. Our guide led us to a friends house in an area dubbed Los Aquaticos, a tiny community established to practice the healing powers the water supposedly possesses. We were treated to banana wine while we learned about the natural way coffee is made and dried way up in the isolated Cuban hills.
We descended down the muddy, rocky terrain aboard our steeds and back into the flat valley floor. With each step down Negro’s hooves would slide about a foot, which was particularly terrifying on steep slopes. At this point in the trip my intestines started performing acrobatic feats that were exaggerated by the now galloping three amigos. Without a bathroom in eyesight and nothing but beautifully prepared tobacco fields I began to sweat. I’ll leave out the rest of this anecdote for self preservation reasons. We carried on through more muddy pathways occasionally pulling over for farmers clad in their green issued pants and button shirts being pulled by cows on wooden sleds. Some would stop Noel and have him take a pull of a bottle of home made rum. Good ol’ boys, shootin’ the breeze. Afterwards we ran across a 3 foot snake in the middle of the road that was instantly vanquished by Noel with a gigantic stick. He explained the snake wasn’t poisonous, but they did eat baby chickens and sometimes pigs.
It began to rain as soon as we pulled up to the tobacco farm portion of our tour. We were given a demonstration and a start-to-finish lesson on how cigars are made. It was fascinating seeing leaves turn into perfectly rolled cigars before our eyes. A lot of effort and careful execution goes into the infamous Cuban cigar and this perfect growing environment has a lot to do with it. While fresh sugar cane juice was being sent through a manual press we enjoyed the fruits of his labor under the lull of a heavy tropical downpour and the orchestral section of tree frogs chirping. “Mas medicina?” was a common phrase and I couldn’t bring myself to say no. There is something to be said about smoking a fine Cuban cigar and drinking fresh Cuban rum, these things were created to be enjoyed with each others company. It’s no wonder these plants all grow so close to each other in perfect harmony. This was also the same area that grows tobacco for Cuba’s top brand cigars, each deriving their flavor from different types of plants and fermentation processes. We didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy any off the farmer and felt awful about it. We waved goodbye and rode off into the puddles. Our last stop was at the mouth of a large cave where another one of Noel’s friends gave us a little show. This little old man brought a flash light and his trusty dachshund into the darkness showing us a little stalactite/stalagmite action. After the tour was over Noel brought us back to his farm where we said goodbye and got a ride back into town. After spending about 7 hours on a horse we were dead.
The following day a sore throat and a fever greeted me with an overly joyfull “Salud”. Elissa noted that she too was not feeling very well in her cabeza. Convinced it was from too many cigars I vowed not to smoke another one in Cuba. That did not stop us, however, from striking a deal with a friend of Blanca’s to purchase 2 boxes of Cohiba Robusto’s at a very handsome price. About 10 minutes after inquiring a man with a backpack showed up with official, legit Robusto’s. Cuban magic strikes again. Anyway, being sick in Cuba was not an option so we pretended nothing was awry and rented bicycles from our casa. We rode for miles in the hot, sticky air passing by picture perfect limestone cliffs, rows of houses with their owners rocking away on porches whistling at Elissa, across the hilly landscape between mogote mountain chains and into the almost perfectly flat valley floors. Stopping only for the occasional road stand gaurapa (sugar cane juice) we peddled through our delusional head colds. An absolute must see is the well kept botanical garden on the very edge of town containing probably every single plant species this part of the world could possibly offer, all conveniently located in someone’s amazing backyard.
After a little thinking on the subject we decided to try and see if we could get a hold of some of those farm fresh cigars rolled by Noel’s neighbor. It was nearly dark when Noel came for his nightly visit and he insured us it would not be a problem. In order to get these cigars to us he would have to drive back to his farm, ride his horse to the vega, and repeat these steps in reverse. I almost couldn’t believe it when about an hour later we had two hand tied bundles of cigars in our hands. It was another gift from Cuba, another set of unusual circumstances that became a memory engraved in my cerebrum forever, which in the moment felt like it was pounding from sinus congestion. Life in this valley was very different from that of Habana. It was real small town charm separate from the big city life. An inquiry about a rare palm tree (I read there was one in town somewhere) quickly turned into phone calls, visits from old friends, and a general sense that the whole town knew I was looking for a Palma Corcho within hours. They spoke of hopeful times ahead and became distantly silent when the conversation turned to how things were in the past and how they seem in the present. Life in Cuba is very real, and we were learning this with every passing day. We had to leave Vinales, giving up the most delicious food we had eaten in weeks, and fled back to Habana with hopes of recovering to salvage the rest of the trip and learn more about the culture of this country.