Viñales, Cuba

Vinales is a popular spot for those who want to go a bit beyond the all-inclusive resort beaches of Cuba. The valley itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the rounded Mogotes that dot the valley floor. The town itself has been changed by tourism, almost every house is a Casa Particulare (home stay) and it's impossible to walk down the main street without being hassled to catch a taxi (why would a decadent westerner walk when they could be driven?). However it's still possible to pick up a 10 peso pizza on the main street (about 40 to 50 cents) and the landscape of the surrounding valley make up for any remaining hard feelings.

Vinales valley, mogotes visible in the distance

We were greeted on arrival by a swarm of willing hosts surrounding our bus, all shouting that their place was the best in all Vinales. We had pre-booked so we could ignore this assault however we did notice the prices being bandied about were about half what we had agreed to over the phone. Our place was close to the centre of town and our hosts were nice enough though conversation was sparse as we had to rely on our questionable spanish to communicate. 

We went on a walking tour of the valley on our first morning. This was supposed to be a 4 hour walk in the countryside. Near the start our guide asked if we had plans for the day and once everyone said no he settled in to the 'long' tour. We visited a tobacco plantation where the farmer discussed the different leaves on the tobacco plant (fun fact: low lying tobacco leaves are reserved for ration card cigarettes in Cuba). I tried my first ever cigar (or cigarette for that matter!) made the traditional way where the tobacco is prepared using natural chemicals such as honey (and others but I forget what they were).

Continuing on we went to a special farm, it is owned privately and the produce is sold privately, not to the state. The farm also experiments with various ways of maximising crop outputs within the constraints of the trade embargo (not enough fertiliser to go round) and takes on apprentice farmers from other regions to share the knowledge gained. 

We ordered a Piña Colada and sat on the farmers rocking chairs overlooking the valley. A fine place for a farmstead, it would be a great sight to wake up to each morning. By this time it was past lunch and our guide suggested we may like to stay for the pork BBQ. This was easily the best meal we had in all of Cuba! The four in our group sat at a table big enough for 6 and there was no room for more delicious food by the time they finished serving. Melt in your mouth pork that had been cooked over coals all morning and a huge variety of sides including sautéed plantains, stuffed eggplant and boiled yuca - a vegetable that by this point was curiously starting to appeal to our palette.

Tobacco plantation with a drying shed in the distance.

We ventured to the base of a mogote. The environment approaching the mogote changes from the heat of the tobacco fields to a cool dampness. We drank some water from the spring inside.  Our guide continued his spiel from where he left off, mentioning that bats like to live in these caves. Luckily we managed to dodge a bat borne tropical disease this time, the water was cool and refreshing, nothing more. 

On our final day in Vinales we decided to take the bus tour so we could check off all the 'must sees' that we hadn't seen yet. Our bus driver was taking his time, stopping at seemingly random places for long breaks. After six months in South America I assumed this was just the Cuban way and left him about his business. Finally the bus stops at an intersection for a long time and another passenger asks if there is a problem. 'It's finished', replies the driver. And so, in a puff of non-smoke, our bus is left at the intersection and we are left to find our own way home. We didn't get to see the remaining 'must sees' that day however we did meet a nice Canadian couple on our walk back to town who had seen more of Australia than I have. I need to add some local country flavour to my to-do list.