Sunday, January 28, 2007
Day 5 - Vinales
The Vinales Valley is home to tabacco plantations, farms, the stunning mogotes and the tiny village of Vinales, a tourist centre with little in the way of tourism facilities at all. There is no pool, no beach, no luxury restaurants or all-you-can-eat buffets. It is a simple Caribbean town with old people sitting on rocking chairs whiling away the hours with chat and cigars. What is surprising is that Vinales really is a tourist destination. There is plenty to see and do in the region, and every other house is a casa particular. The people of Vinales were the kindest and most welcoming of all the towns on our route, and Agnieska, our guest house host was very keen to speak better English (I gave her a mini-tutorial), hear about life in Europe and our comments on what we had seen in Cuba.
On the morning of our second day in Vinales after I suffered a slightly concerning digestive incident, we walked down to the Botanical Gardens. Mango trees, coffee trees, banana trees and ficus plants were dotted around the small garden and although it was winter, officially, in Cuba and so some fruits were not in season, the lush vegetation and strange looking plants were really fascinating.
In the afternoon we decided to rev up the wheels and took a rather hairy trip on pot-holed roads to Pinar del Rio. In French, pinard is a slang word for wine, and rio is obviously river in Spanish, so we were expecting a rather more fun scene than the run-down blocks of tumbledown flats, stray dogs and dirty streets. Here again the Castriste regime shows its true colours. Sure, everyone has the same, but "the same" for everyone is not comfort, it's not even enough. When a fifty year old man takes to his wobbling bike to lead you to the tabacco factory you're trying to visit, and is happy with 0.25c for his time, you know something is wrong.
The guide at Alejandro Robaina (the only privately owned cigar manufacturer in Cuba) was quite a surprise. He was wearing a Nike cap, a pair of Levis, and had a mobile phone! That phone was the only one I had seen throughout the whole trip that didn't belong to a tourist. He explained that even though the brand was privately owned by Mr Robaino, they are still obliged to sell all their production to the government first, so they have little control over pricing. The guide's French was good and his English was really excellent, he sounded like he'd spent at least a year in the United States. I asked him how he had such good English and he said, "I have friends in LA." In any other country I wouldn't be surprised, but how do you have friends in LA if you live in Cuba and they are American? Family in Miami, yes, but friends in LA? We never solved the mystery.
The trip back to Vinales was only an hour, but it seemed we chose the rush hour. We shared the road with horses, trucks packed with people, old French Canadian school buses with "Ecoliers" (schoolchildren) displayed on the front. One even had its engine hanging off. Transport in Cuba will probably be the first thing to change if the regime collapses, and if that means seven-year-old children stop hitch-hiking home from school on the backs of motorbikes without helmets then so much the better.