Monday 11 April, Cuba day 6: Road trip to western region of Vinales, with lots of interesting experiences.
Monday morning we are ready to collect our rental car at 9am, only to find there is no car ready for us. This was not unexpected, but still disappointing considering we hoped to have a full day out to visit the tobacco region that lies 185Km to the west of Havana.
Late morning our car finally arrives for pick up. Though it is not the usual nice new-looking Peugeots which we have seen around. This one is a very beaten up, resprayed Renault Sandero. A classic “Caribbean rent-a-wreck”, as we call it. But the air-conditioner works, it seems to drive OK, and although we are not beggars, we cannot be choosers. As a last surprise, Cubacar rep informs us we must pay US$60 for the full tank of fuel. I try to protest saying that we will simply return it full, but they insist we have to pay and return the car empty. And of course, it must be paid the official way, in US$ with a non-USA credit card, and at the official exchange rate. Another little pill from the Cuban government. Anyhow, we swallow hard, pay, and very soon after we are on our way.
Going west it is a quick exit from Havana and we are soon on the A4 “highway”. This is our first pleasant surprise. While the road surface is far from western standards (very uneven, but no pot-holes) the highway is 6 lanes wide and the layout is just as you would expect from any highway. Except, there is virtually no traffic on it. By the end of our journey, we joke that in fact there are probably more pedestrians and horses using the highway than there are vehicles!
The other pleasant aspect is the country that we pass through. The road is nicely tree-lined and beyond there are mountains to the north and neat arable land close by. Occasionally we pass a huge water dam and see nearby paddy fields. What is absent are towns or even villages and we get the feeling no one actually lives in the countryside.
However, that doesn’t seem to stop a surprising amount of people gathering under every over-pass bridge. And often they would be trying to hitch a ride, with one hand out showing a fist full of money. Indicating, we assume, that they were willing to pay for a ride.
Our first surprise of the day is when passing under one such bridge an official looking person suddenly steps out into our path (we are doing 90Km/hr) and tries to flag us down. I steer to avoid him, but he moves again into the path of the car and I need to screech to a halt. Close up we can see he is not police, but he does have a badge and he claims to be national park security, which is a bit odd considering we are nowhere near a national park. He asks to see our rental agreement and after a quick glance he asks where we are going. Then tells us that there is an oil shortage in Cuba and we need to take 2 passengers with us to Vinales. I make it very clear in my best English “no thank you!” and off I drive before anyone can get in. In future we will only stop if it’s a policeman, and if he has a gun!
Our next encounter is off the highway, when we are flagged down after carefully passing through a flashing red traffic light and given a lecture about how to pass such a light. But in fact, it was just another excuse to stop us and semi-demand that we take passengers to Vinales. So again we took off. It’s not that we are mean hearted, but we were pretty sure this could be the beginning of a classic “con” and once the so-called passengers were in the car it would be very difficult to expel them. And in any case, we have seen plenty of local busses which we are certain are either free or very cheap. If this is in fact normal practice, then we guess they just cannot abide seeing half empty cars going to where they want to get to. But the fact we were the only car getting stopped, gave rise to suspicion.
As we approach Vinales, the landscape turns into rolling hills and stunning countryside. And in front of us is the karst scenery and low mountains that depict this Vinales Valley, which is famous not only for its beauty, but also for being the best tobacco growing area in Cuba. On the outskirts we stop at a tourist information center which presents very well the area, allowing us to get our bearings on what we want to see.
After a quick drive through the small town of Vinales, we head off on the road that goes down the valley to soak up the wonderful scenery. We also do 2 flights with the drone to capture the skyward view which is just as impressive. Considering the valley’s reputation, the tobacco fields are not extensive. It’s more just individual dwellings each having a small patch of tobacco plantation and a drying-house made from a simple wooden frame and thatched with palm leaves.
Back in Vinales for refreshments we now find the town much quieter. On our first passing it had many tourists but now we guess they are all on their busses back to Havana. Just a few are left who must be staying an overnight in the single hotel or in a casa particular. The town itself is basically just a main street. But it is very quaint, very tidy and a real Spanish feel to the simple architecture. We contemplate staying over night but instead decide to head back.
But before doing so, we pay a visit to a tobacco farmer. And he turns out to be just as you might imagine. We meet him at his farm where we find him on his horse. Although probably only in his 50s, under his cowboy hat he has an aged sun-creased face and is smoking a cigar. Oana easily manages to converse with him in Spanish and he takes us into his tobacco drying shed. There he explains the harvesting season, the cutting and drying of the leaves, and then sits down and demonstrates how to roll a cigar, using some of last season’s dried leaves. All very interesting. He also tells us how he has to give all his crop to the state, and how he only gets paid 10% of its value.
Then comes the sell. He offers us previously made packs of 8 cigars, each wrapped in a dried palm leaf. Very nice for presents, I think. The price is just 40 pesos per pack. A quick sum and I ask for 4 packs. 160 pesos is only just over US$1.50, and while I’m thinking this has to be the deal-of-the-century, I blot out the notion that something cannot be right. Sure enough, when Oana takes him the 250 CUP (including tip for his presentation), he is not happy and makes it clear he meant US$, not CUP! “But you said pesos.” “No, American pesos!” So there you go, suddenly the price jumps up to 110x what we thought! We really don’t want to pay US$40 for 8 roughly rolled cigars, and paying $160 for 4 packs is definitely out the question! But as he has been so kind to do the demonstration, we do buy one pack and depart US$40 lighter in our pocket, with a slightly dupped feeling. We tell ourselves we must remember not to inquire on the price of cigars in Havana, where we are sure they would be cheaper.
Rather than taking Google’s bumpy short cut back to the highway, we instead go to the town that lies at the end of the highway, Pinar del Rio. We drove through the town and saw gorgeous Spanish architecture, but all very run down. The town has huge potential. But until tourists come there, nothing is likely to encourage smartening it up. We would have stopped and had a walk, but we are already destined to be driving back in the dark, so we head to the highway.
At this end of the highway there is even less vehicular traffic than at the Havana end. But, there is a lot of pedestrians, horse back riders, and horse driven carts. We even see someone jogging down the fast lane towards us, and also several horse and carts cantering the wrong way on the road! And as dusk approaches we realise none of these have any lights! Add to this hazard are lights from the oncoming traffic, and the Cuban drivers seem to have no notion of using dipped lights, hence we are generally blinded by them. Needless to say, our speed is slow, and we take much longer on our return journey as we peer into the blinded darkness trying not to rear-end a cart or head-on crash into a galloping horse! Luckily, the Cuban’s sense of self-preservation (or just our good luck) allows us to reach the end of the highway without incident.
One aspect I have not mentioned is fires. Along the edge or the highway, and also in the countryside beyond, we often observed small bush fires. At first, we thought it was control-burns to get rid of the inflammable undergrowth. Though we soon saw that no one is present or apparently controlling them. But there were so many, they just had to have been initiated on purpose. All rather odd, and this certainly now gives us an explanation as to why we had continuous burning-wood smells coming from the land, when we had sailed along this coast towards Havana.
As we approached Havana again, and now off the highway, we passed yet another fire next to the road and suddenly realized that not only were we driving passed burning trees but also the electricity poles and their overhead cables were also alight with flames! Surreal. We did see one fire truck, but never did see any firemen. Maybe this is the Cuban way to re-newing their power grid? 😊
We get back to the boat by 10pm, totally pooped. The night drive back in the dark was a bit too much for our nerves. But was also an experience to remember. We certainly loved Vinales and would recommend a visit to anyone. Next trip will be east, to Cienfuegos and Trinidad.