Its been two weeks and I haven’t found a minute to sit down and write. Complete disaster. I recently found this website for house sitters (similar to baby sitters, you can register to sit someones house when they go away on vacation) and found that someone in Africa was looking for a house sitter for an entire island. The advertisement read – no internet, no electricity and 45 minute boat ride to the mainland, occasionally. There have been no takers for this house. If I didn’t have a job (no one is to blame but myself for being surgically attached to the corporate world), I would’ve been looking for flights to cape town. An island in the middle of nowhere is the first ingredient for ‘daily blogging’. If I that time off, I would finish my Cuba travelogue, which now seems like it is going to take me the whole year.
I have to begin somewhere. After spending the first day in Habana Veija (old Havana) and feeling completely overwhelved, we planned to head out of the city and go to the countryside. We knew we had to fly out of Havana in two weeks and we can always spend time in the big city towards the end, depending on how much time we had left in our hands. When it came to deciding where we were headed in the country side, it wasn’t such a huge choice. Right on top of the list of places to visit was the Pinar del Rio province. Nested in the Western part of Cuba, it is known for its steep limestone hills called mogotes and flat green valleys with tobacco plantations. The name Pinar del Rio was derived form “pine of the river” as the region was had tall pine trees that graced river banks. The Vinales valley in this province is a UNESCO world heritage site and the hub of the cigar trail. Two birds with one stone. We wanted a lazy few days, yet not move away from the Cuban experience. So, Vinales was the perfect choice to laze and learn about Cigars, something so intrinsic to the Cuban experience.
The drive to Vinales is only about 3 to 4 hours and one can get cheap buses (Viazul buses) from Havana. However, one other way to get there in comfort and with the advantage of a free tour guide is to visit one of the big hotels in Havana and jump in with the day trippers. The day trip buses don’t run full and they pick up other travelers at the same cost as the Viazul bus ticket. We hopped into a Havanatur bus, with the guide giving a 30 minute spiel on tobacco production, brands of cigars and Che Guevara’s favourite brand. She gave us more quirky cigar facts – How John F. Kennedy stocked up on cigars just before the embargo and so on.
As we left Havana and headed towards the West, the first thing we noticed were the number of hitchhikers in the highway. Transportation is not particularly easy in Cuba and it is very common for the locals to hitchhike. You’ll see truckload of locals, no pun intended on truckload. Unlike other countries, it is actually beneficial for a foreigner to give a local a ride, as they make up for the lack of road signs and act as brilliant navigators. It is times like these I hate being stuck on a tour bus.
The bus stopped in a highway restaurant for some juice and coffee and I had my 6th or 7th cup of coffee in just two days. I was already in love with Cuban coffee. (There are 2 brands that you will find everywhere – Cubita and Serrano. I came back with a pack of both). What’s unique about Cuban coffee served in highways is that they give you a little piece of sugarcane to stir it with, instead of a spoon. Suddenly makes you feel healthy that you aren’t using two sachets of sugar. Love the local touch.
The bus then proceeded to Pinar Del Rio city, which is the capital of the province. As the bus entered this town, I don’t know why but I felt like I was suddenly transported to one of those South Indian towns with columned houses. Madurai maybe. The guide explained that these were neo classical buildings and Pinar del Rio was one of the well kept cities, considering the shortage of paint and construction materials in Cuba.
As the bus went through the tiny streets, one noticed the classic Cuban portico, with the rocking chair and colourful tiled floors. People sat around without a worry in the world.
I would’ve loved to stroll through the town and try the local pizza (Cuban version) or chat up the kids, but the bus promptly headed to the most touristic spot of this town.
It was the Casa Garay Fábrica de Guayabitas del Pinar, a small factory that produces the signature drink of the town called Guayabita del Pinar liquor. These are cane liquors distilled with berries from a local bush. They have two variants – a sweet one and a dry one. After a super quick tour, they take you to the tasting room and give you little cups of liquor. Most tourists oblige and buy some bottles. Well, we just had a few sips and decided to stick to rum.
Well, it was an express visit to Pinar del Rio. We promptly proceeded to Vinales, where the bus driver dropped us off. We were actually given the address of a Casa by our previous host in Havana and we didn’t waste anytime finding the house. Vinales had just one main street and little side streets that were offshoots of the main street. If you can’t find a place, you just have to mention the name and before you know it, someone will handhold you and take you there.
As we walked towards our Casa, I couldn’t help but notice that every alternate house in Vinales was a registered Casa Particular. Small pastel coloured house with a signboard (name of the casa) and 2 rocking chairs. The town seemed to have been born out of Cigar tourism. For a minute, I wondered what it would’ve been like without a town, just the fields and the mountains and the old Cubans in their horses. Considering it was Cuba, there was still charm to the place. Had it been somewhere in Europe or North America, I am certain there would’ve been a Cigar strip mall.
Reaching our Casa, we barely took five minutes to unwind, before Porry (our Casa owner) already called one of the locals, who managed the trip to the tobacco fields through the hills. We were given a couple of options – Horse or Walk? Waterfall or not? 4 hours or 6 hours? And, we were then given a price. We decided to go for a 3 to 4 hour horse ride through the mountains and into the plantations. Just meet the locals and understand whatever we could about cigars.
As luck may have it, the minute we stepped out, it started to rain. Actually pour. Considering that the guide had mentioned that the region hardly gets any rainfall, we were trying not to be disappointed about it. For the sake of two travelers, it would be terrible to wish for the rain to stop. So, we just stood in one of the small huts and enjoyed the rain. Well, we didn’t have to wait that long. In 30 minutes, it stopped raining and we headed out on our horses.
We crossed tobacco fields and these large huts, which we later figured were the places were the leaves were dried. The whole cigar process is pretty complicated. There is cultivation first, then harvesting & stringing, drying, rolling… God, I don’t remember all the details. I don’t smoke and I wasn’t going to spend all that time understanding how a good cigar is made. A lot more complicated than rolling a joint. If you are more interested to learn about this, I would suggest checking out this site – Cuba Junky.
We stopped in one of the small houses and the farmer there was kind enough to show us the drying process and also how a cigar is rolled. Of course, he tried his bit of marketing. The cigars from the plantations all went to factories and were sold as brands at 10 times the cost. He wanted us to pick it up directly from him. Well, I wasn’t planning on buying a cigar anyway. I offered to drink some coconut water and pay him instead 🙂
After a couple of hours of riding through the valley and enjoying the beautiful landscape, we came back to our Casa and ate a hearty meal. Porry made the meanest cocktails. For being in the middle of nowhere, every little village certainly had a good bartender. Maybe, Im being foolish. Just like how every villager knows how to make good chai in India, they probably know how to make Mojitos in Cuba.
Sitting in the terrace and watching the clouds clear up and the mogotes just surface out of nowhere was a breathtaking sight. Every sip of mojito and the setting changed…. Don’t remember how long we were just hanging around the terrace. Don’t care. Who looked at time in Cuba?