Trinidad to Vinales
This is the longest road trip, and takes us well past Havana to the West. Cuba is a long narrow Caribbean island which sits roughly West – East with its Northern side just below the Tropic of Cancer and its Southern side close to Jamaica and Haiti. Our guide told us about the hurricane preparations in the island which are so successful that there has been no loss of life for many years. From school age the children learn the protective procedures to follow when a hurricane is predicted or strikes –and despite the obvious poor maintenance of old Havana buildings,the solid buildings appear to be pretty robust.
Most of the island is roughly 250-300ft above sea level, and is generally very green and fertile as it has high rainfall. Farmland is owned by the government who rent it out to farmers but householders are allowed to own the land on which their houses are built. The total population is only 11m so there are long distances between towns and villages and vast swathes of cultivated farmland. There don’t appear to be the small rural enclaves such as we would see in Africa. Much of the hedgerows are swathed in a rampaging convolvulus-like creeper which causes the effect of the shrubbery and small trees of being swathed in a soft green duvet. Vinales – the area we were headed to, is mountainous and the valleys very fertile, so this is one of the main tobacco growing areas and there were many fields beside the road with tobacco about 3ft high. In the rural area there were rather American-looking clap-board houses, with huge triangular thatched outhouses which we were told are where the tobacco is dried. Goodness knows what would happen to the Cuban economy if the whole world stopped smoking.
After an uneventful but rather tedious journey, made an hour longer by one of our party forgetting to hand in his Casa key so we had to go back and return it, we reached our destination – which is a small town rather too geared up to tourists with many Casas and a couple of ‘4*’ government hotels boasting swimming pools. The main attractions seem to be hiking in the mountains, horse-riding or visiting either the beaches or caves. Having encountered several large tourist groups in both Trinidad and en-route we all agreed (dreadfully snobbishly) that we are glad we’ve come to Cuba now as the hotels and restaurants can barely cope with current numbers. Interestingly we have not encountered any tourists with children – perhaps they head for the beaches.
2 main streets of Vinales are made up of single storey concrete dwellings with covered verandahs, painted in lots of different colours, with small individual gardens. I’m not sure how pre-arranged or scientific the process was, but as the tour bus drew up many locals came out to meet us. Dayana quickly linked ones and twos of our group to individual home owners – in what seemed a relatively arbitrary way, “you two to the yellow house”. Still we all found a billet for the next 2 nights. I am in Casa Alain’s guest annex – a pleasant young lady checked me in, with a rather pretty, but very loud voiced parakeet on the table outside my room. I hope it shuts up overnight! When we check in we have to hand over our passports so that the numbers, expiry date etc can be recorded in a government register along with our signatures. All the Casas have the same basic facilities – they have to reach certain standards to be registered to take tourists, and display the signboard. Of course they are taxed on the income, and failure to register a guest will result in licence removal so they are very punctilious.
We arrived late, so missed the sunset view over the valley so headed straight to dinner. After one of the best meals we have had at a local farm/restaurant (superb avocados, cassava ‘poppodums’, rice’n’beans, multiple boiled root vegetables and meltingly tender beef and pork) and a luscious pina-colada – we went into the town centre plaza and suffered one of the worst ear-shatteringly loud and un-tuneful Cuban bands imaginable! Well you can’t win them all, so back to the Casas – and a good night’s sleep, at least the parakeet has gone to bed.