Sunday, 12 March 2017

Vinales, Cuba - A jewel in the countryside

Lunch...plates and plates of food! (photo E. Eastwood)
Don't go to Cuba just for Havana, thrilling and all as it is, get out and see the country, it has so much to offer. And that is why my friend and I joined ten other people to begin an Intrepid Tour of the island. Having noticed that the local buses were ancient and pretty clapped out it was a relief to find our 15 seater coach was modern and comfortable.  We were filled with a delicious feeling of excitement and anticipation as we set off for the town of Vinales,  three and a half hours away and after a quick drive through modern Havana were soon out into the countryside.  Breaking the journey for lunch at a rural restaurant set high on a hillside overlooking a lush green valley, we encountered, for the first time, the enormous meals we had been warned we would be served in rural Cuba.  Plate after plate of  food was piled onto the table, far more than we could eat.  Our guide advised us that this is normal and that any left over food would be shared among the staff and local villagers.  It seems they have established a clever way of getting around Cuba's rigid food restrictions and as far as we were all concerned - good on them.
Later the bus left the main highway to wind up a narrow road to the Soroa Orchid Garden.  This beautiful garden, covers 7.5 acres high on a hillside and showcases  20,000 plants from 700 species including 250 plants native to Cuba. The garden is maintained by the University of Pinar del Rio which uses it for research purposes.  The orchids are spectacular but are really only a small part of the garden which includes large trees, ferny bush walks, a waterfall and river and some old stone walls, tumbling down to artistic effect amongst the shrubbery.  The garden is well worth the detour, serenely beautiful, blissfully quiet save for the sound of birds.  We were all thrilled by the several humming birds hovering about  and a wood pecker merrily pecking away at a tree.

Soroa Orchid Garden
Shortly before arriving at the town of Vinales we stopped at a lookout for views of the stunning Valle de Vinales.  The valley, 11km by 5km, nestled into the Sierra de los Organos mountain range, has UNESCO world heritage status and is famous as one of Cuba's most spectacular natural sights. Unusual and dramatic limestone mogotes, or outcrops, dot the valley with quaint traditional farmhouses nestled here and there.  It is a truly wonderful sight  and we spent some time drinking it all in.

Views of the Valle de Vinales, a UNESCO world heritage site

Ten minutes down the road and suddenly we were in a street full of brightly coloured casas, our destination, Vinales. Vinales, built first and foremost as a  farming town to service the surrounding tobacco plantations, has now become a popular tourist town.  Most of the traditional casas lining the streets are what is known in Cuba as Casa Particulars, private houses which take in paying guests, or what we would call a B and B. The streets were a real hive of activity buzzing with tourists vying for space with horse drawn carts and locals calling out to each other.  My friend and I were staying in Casa Louis, a spotlessly clean, brightly painted casa with several rooms given over to paying guests. Our room was simple, immaculate and had its own ensuite...all boxes ticked, very happy.

The colourful casa particulars in Vinales

The Cubans love rocking chairs and every porch seems to have them. I enjoyed a rest on the porch

Dinner that evening was a short distance away at an organic farm.  Our guide seemed particularly proud of this farm, developed on purely organic principles and now growing so much food that not only does the owner provide free food to schools and hospitals but has also turned it into a profitable business.  Once more a mountain of food was served, including a whole pig, the pig to serve the whole restaurant, I hasten to add!  Ordering mojitos was a novelty, the mojito was served without rum and then two bottles of rum were placed on our table so we could make our drinks as strong or weak as we liked.  Needless to say our group managed to drink all the rum!
Our guide at the organic farm
But the night was still young and we were in a party mood so it was a no brainier when our guide mentioned the nightclub in the Vinales town square. At 1CUC ($1) admission the best value for money ever.  The roof covered only the seating around the sides of the dance floor which was romantically open to the stars.  There was a band playing irresistible Cuban music, friendly locals happy to dance with anyone purely for the love of dancing, a floor show, singers and an absolutely fantastic atmosphere.  We all danced and danced with anyone who asked, doing our best to salsa but being no match for those lithe and rhythmic Cubans, their absolute pleasure in dancing was a joy to watch. And I kept thinking that I couldn't remember a time when I had had so much fun. I ended the day very happy....and very tired!