Hotel Nacional, (in the photo) which was extremely different from our hotel: Colina, and attempted to navigate the streets of Cuba for the first time. The road along the malecon, we discovered is located in some kind of Groundhog Day loop, you can't get on or off without starting again.
Our hire car, a Toyota Yaris from the early nineties seemed to be in pretty good shape when we considered the Ladas and Chevrolets we'd seen earlier. The lack of back seatbelts worried me, especially since we'd planned to drive over 1000km around the island. If I didn't mention it earlier, there were four of us, so I was a little concerned for our safety in the back. The classic hire car guy reassured us that "In Cuba... cinturón de seguridad no es necesario". I'm not sure I agreed with him, but we looked around and there were no other hire cars with seatbelts in the back, so we thought we may as well just get on with it and trust G to drive carefully. It's true that the other cars could only go up to about 80kph, and there were very few wherever we went.
Biting the bullet, we set off and got lost immediately. In Cuba there are no sealbelts OR roadsigns, so my non-existant Spanish was quickly brought up to being able to ask for directions. Somehow we managed to exit the loop and got out onto the motorway (with a total of one roadsign between the centre of Havana and the entrance to the motorway. We literally had to look at the sun and the time and guess where the right direction was.
After an hour or so, we called at Las Terrazas, an eco-tourism site with natural swimming pools, a canopy tour (like Go-Ape), an eco-hotel and several hikes through gorgeous woodlands.
Taking the road again, we arrived (with a young hitch-hiker in tow) in Vinales. The village itself is very laid-back and the surrounding scenery is stunning. The mogotes are huge land masses which kind of pop out of the ground between tabacco fields and farms. Fringed with palm trees and coffee plants it's a beautiful sight.
Our host in Vinales was a young girl named Agnieska (the name doesn't sound very Cuban but she was), who had only opened her casa particular just a week before. She was a great host, making sure everything was ok, telling us about the region and cooking us our very first real Cuban dinner. She told me she was a chef at the local (government owned) restaurant, but wanted to branch out, I suggested she try to open her own restaurant and she said "In other countries, it's possible, but not in Cuba." That was the first time anyone we'd met had in any way criticised the regime, and even then she said it with a smile and briskly changed the subject.
A small frog and a cockroach were our room-mates that night, as well as the snorts from the pigs and cock-a-doodle-doos from the roosters on the neighbouring farm. We were really starting to see the real Cuba.