Cuban country crusing.

Trip Start Jun 06, 2008
Trip End Feb 09, 2009

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Flag of Cuba  , Pinar del Rio,
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Two days into our week-long stay in Cuba, and we selected a part of the country to visit that neither of us had ever seen before. To the west of Havana lies an area known as Pinar del Rio Province, famous for its scenenry, tobacco growing, and general tranquility. We caught a bus from Havana, and three hours later found ourselves in the town of Vinales, where our first experience was of being mobbed by a group of Casa Particulares operators who all claimed they had the only decent place left to stay in town, and that we'd better be quick to sign up for their offer or we'd be spending the night on the streets.

In Cuba there are two types of accommodation - hotels, which are mostly government owned but operated by private corporations; and the Casa Particulares, which are guest rooms in people's private homes which usually offer meals and services (such as laundry) as well. The casas seemed like the perfect way to really get to know the Cuban people in their own spaces, so we set out on a walking tour of the town to find a good one. An excellent strategy indeed - the casa we chose was clean, the hosts were hospitable, and the food was to die for. (Clare nearly did, several times over, she ate so much of it!)

The casa owners also had connections that we were able to utilise, and that is how, on the following morning, we found ourselves riding horses through the Valle Vinales with home cooked bread and hand rolled cigars in our backpacks, while sipping from freshly opened coconuts. The trail was fairly steep and rough in places, but Clare's expertise with all things horse allowed Tony to stay on his horse's back, rather than in the largely anticipated position of hanging under the horse's neck.

It was hot and hard work for the horses, and some other riders who joined us had much to learn about the way to treat animals. Clare spoke to our guide about it, and he spoke to them. The result was good, at least to the extent that the other riders were stopped from repeatedly whipping the flanks of their horses with broken tree branches. The valley was full of free-range chickens and their off-spring. We don't know where they could all possibly have come from, but it gave us a better feeling about the way at least one animal species is treated in this country.

After riding for several hours, we made a stop at a remote house in the valley, where an older lady gave us fruit juice and a snack. We met her son, who now lives in Miami, but sneaks back to Cuba once a fortnight to see her, in breach of the US embargo. He spoke optimistically about the future of Cuba, especially if Barack Obama wins the US presidential election, and is able to put a stop to all the rot by restoring normal relations between the countries. It is hard to find another country where so many people seem so happy. Several people we met actually bragged to us about the absence of discrimination in all its forms from their streets, and judging by the number of transexuals we saw and the way they were treated by others, this attitude seems to extend right across the board.

Five hours into our tour of the valley, we visited a cave in which a natural, 50-metre swimming pool was found. Tony accepted the challenge to go in, his fluro yellow swimmers dazzling the eyes of the spectators, but failed to notice the very slippery and very non-fluro mud covering the surrounding rocks. He looked like a mud wrestler by the time we emerged from the cave, aided greatly by the fact that he fell back into the swimming hole while putting his hiking shoes on. And so today there is a pair of genuine Peruvian hiking boots plastered in Cubun mud sitting on the floor of a house in Holloways Beach.

As we bid farewell to our horses at the end of the day, the sky turned dark, began to grumble, and then lit up with one of those great storms that these parts are famous for. We had already seen so many of these, but this time we were in the middle of nowhere with a long walk home in a direction unknown. As a final offer of his kindness, the man who had been giving us bread, cigars and coconuts all day then walked us home. He eventually took our tip, but it almost had to be forced down his throat before he agreed. I'm sure the friendliest people in the world are grown in Cuba.

The next day we planned to spend the day hopping on and off a "hop on, hop off bus" tour of the area. We waited patiently with many other tourists at the proper place, but no bus came, and no one came to tell us why. After a phone call, it was ascertained that the bus was "broken", and wouldn't be running that day. Nice timing! After considering all our options, we decided to ask a cab driver how much he would charge to become our personal chauffeur and body guard for the next 4 hours. After some rather long-winded discussions with important people in an office, his reply was $35. Too good to refuse! We went to a massive pre-history mural we had seen photos of, two more caves (one of which included a boat cruise inside the cave), a place where Cuban "culture" (read "cigar smoking") is celebrated, and for a swim in a muddy river (Tony getting rather used to this by now). It was one of the best tours we have had.

No Cuban experience would be complete without at least one trip to the beach, but that will be the subject of the next installment.
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jen.wren on

wow, hi there,i have been keeping up with most of your travels along the way, just havent commented for a have taken some great pictures! i guess you cant help captureing such amazing images when they are all around.jealous? me? nah!!! your day in cuba sounds like a lot of fun! you seem to be getting the hang of foreign countries and becoming quite savvy to there ways. best of luck on the next leg of your journey clare, catch ya soon.
love jen*

tonyc-r on

Re: smokin
Thanks Jen! great to hear from you (: how have you, Mike & the kids been? write me an email when you have the chance, & I will too!
Love Clare

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