18-20 February 2017. I’m sitting on a low narrow concrete window ledge facing the covered concrete bus lane. In the dim light I’m waiting for the 11.25 bus from Havana to Viñales. I can see bright sunlight at either end of this bus terminal “tunnel”. It smells of cigarettes and diesel. We’ve arrived early as I’m determined, as usual, to get the front seat on the bus. Don is behind me, inside the bus terminal, sitting in a regular seat. We wait and wait. A bus arrives at 11.20 and we both jump up and get in line, but we are told no, this is not the bus to Viñales. We wait more. Another bus comes. People come crowding out from the terminal with their luggage. We join the crowd but are told, once again, that it is not the bus for Viñales. A third bus arrives. Still not the bus for Viñales. Don is told that it will arrive soon. Some time later we’re told that the bus for Viñales has broken down and will not be arriving at all.
While I’ve been waiting all this time perched on the window ledge, Don has been approached by a couple from Belgium. Would we like to share a taxi with them to Viñales? It seems like the best option at this point though we have no idea what kind of taxi it is. Don lines up to get our bus boarding passes changed back to tickets. Then he lines up again to exchange the tickets for cash. All the people from the fully booked Viñales bus have to line up twice. It takes time. It’s Cuba. Finally we go to meet the Belgian couple outside at the taxi. By now it’s 2pm and there’s still a three-hour drive ahead of us.
I see the taxi and inwardly gulp. What was I expecting? Taxis in Cuba are not new reliable-looking vehicles. They are almost all about sixty years old. We’re going to Viñales in an old rattle-trap, a classic car from the fifties. It looks pretty spiffy on the outside, but up close it has a much-modified dashboard, and it’s obvious that it has seen better days. But hey, this is classic Cuba, and we’re off on an adventure.
Our luggage is shoehorned into the trunk and we all pile in, the Belgian couple in the back and Don and I in the front. Sitting on the roomy red leather bench seat I feel as if I’ve been transported back to my childhood, back to a time before bucket seats and seat belts.
We pull slowly away wondering if we’ll ever make it to Viñales, but it turns out to be a relatively easy drive with only a couple of moments of mild anxiety. Twice the car dies. As it does so the driver pulls over, gets out, opens the hood, fiddles with something in the engine, gets back in, and restarts the car.
We stop at a gas station for drinks, and Don and I eat the ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches that Eric, at the Havana casa particular (guest house), has made for us that morning. As we drive we pass by farmers selling long strings of onions and garlic, a man selling three cooked chickens mounted on a wire frame, small farm holdings with crops of sugar cane, corn, and tobacco, and then, closer to Viñales, bigger tobacco farms.
Arriving in town the driver finds the casa particular for the Belgian couple first, and gets their luggage from the trunk. Then we drive and drive and drive, all around the town, looking for our casa particular. Eventually he finds it and we pile out. Nena comes from the house to greet us while the driver tries to open the trunk for our luggage. He fiddles the key in the elderly lock over and over without success. We start to worry a bit. Eventually his solution is to partially remove the back seat and extract our luggage that way. We are shown inside to our room and given a welcome drink of cool mango juice. We have finally arrived!
Viñales, the town, is 180 km west of Havana, and Viñales, the valley, a UNESCO World heritage site, flows out from the town in a gentle east-west curve. The landscape is extraordinary.
Once covered in limestone (karst), most of it has eroded away leaving jungle covered buttresses, with hills and hillocks and lumps and bumps, known as mogotes, dotted throughout the valley and presenting a magnificent backdrop to the major industry of the area – tobacco farming.
Other crops include fruits, vegetables, coffee, and tourism, the income from which spreads fairy dust over the entire region.
I guess we kind of know there will be a lot of tourists in Viñales. We do know it is one of the obvious destinations to choose given limited time in Cuba. Still, we are not prepared for the main street. We thought we were traveling to a sleepy rural village (and surprisingly that still holds true) but what we find first is Backpacker Central. The main street is writhing with crowds of backpackers, restaurants, bars, tour companies, and a side street of souvenir stalls. It’s the place to be for all tourist needs, and we make good use of it.
Fortunately we, like probably most of the backpackers, are staying in a casa particular a few blocks away from the main street and here we are exposed to an entirely different flavour of Viñales. Colourful columned dwellings with much-used porches border the streets. They are the homes of the people of this one-time sleepy village.
Much of that village life still continues despite the influx of visitors. Classic cars protrude from the garage waiting for repair,
buggies travel up and down delivering goods,
in the morning on our street dad takes his girl to school,
and the pineapple seller comes by, calling up and down the street, and stopping at our place when hailed by Nena.
Away from the main street it’s a sweet easy pace probably much the same as it has been for decades, where people still embrace traditional ways, both at home and on the farm, except that here they are made relatively wealthy from tourism, which is quite different from anywhere else in Cuba. It seems like a fortunate melding of the best of both worlds.
Our casa particular is similar to all the other candy-coloured houses that line the streets. Here the food is very good. Breakfasts are sumptuous with fruit, juice, eggs, and toast. We have dinner there on two evenings, and one of them is a veritable feast and the best meal we have in Cuba: a large bowl of delicious pumpkin soup topped with grated cheese, followed by a salad of tomatoes and cucumber, and for each of us two large lobsters covered in a tangy tomato-based sauce. There’s enough lobster for sandwiches for lunch the next day. The cook, Nena’s brother, is a horticulturist who wonders why he bothered to get an education. His family owns the casa and he makes more money cooking for guests than he would working for the government in Viñales National Park.
The front room of the casa is set up as a plain dining room for guests, and the family live in private quarters in the back, but at The Viñales Botanical Garden we get to see inside a typical family home.
The rambling El Jardín Botanico de Viñales, or the Caridad Botanical Garden was begun by a Chinese immigrant back in 1918 and cultivated by his daughters, the Caridad sisters, for decades. It was a family garden where the plants had been allowed to grow naturally without pruning. It was also a source of local medicinal remedies.
There are over 190 varieties of plants. There are lilies and orchids, palms, bromeliads, and fruit trees.
And that little spider plant that you grow in a pot indoors? This is what it looks like when allowed to grow to its normal size in the tropics. This one is about ten feet high.
Walking along the pathways through shadowy tunnels of trees we are lulled by the lush green canopy
and the sweet froggy ornaments in the undergrowth
until we come across the dolls’ heads impaled on spikes. Just for fun we are told but it is hard to believe, and I decide it’s an arcane Chinese ritual for cultivating garden spirits. Cuba is full of surprises.
At the end of the tour we are offered fresh fruit from the garden and the chance to make a donation. Through the window bars I take pictures of the interior of the house where the current owners live .
Seeing my curiosity we are welcomed inside. It is something out of a fairy tale, or another era, or both. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a museum that could tell the stories of many decades, many generations. There is a sense of home here, and pride, and dignity. All is organized, and spotless, and at the same time warmth is conveyed, a sense of a great caring.
It’s a natural tunnel, a long and dimly lit cave, at times high and narrow with striated limestone patterns, at times low and brooding, the rock walls seeming to crowd in on us.
We walk slowly along, following the mass of people in front of us. Eventually we come to the water, where the cave has opened into a great, and seemingly endless cathedral. It is our turn finally to board one of the small boats. We glide through the water, the cave looming all around us.
It is eerie and almost silent. Drip drip drip of the water from the high roof slowly eroding the limestone away and leaving behind beautiful streaked patterns. Splash splash splash of water from the boat as it moves along. For ten or fifteen minutes we glide through this mysterious dim world until, in the distance, we see the light that leads us once again out into the day.
The entire Viñales valley is filled with labyrinthine cave systems. This is Cueva del Indio, which we have reached by taking the green hop-on hop-off bus from town.
We ride the bus around the valley to get an overview, passing farmers
and many men and families in the horse-drawn buggies unique to the area.
Next post: we decide we want to get off the bus and explore the valley away from the main roads in one of those buggies. So we do.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.