The Incident on the Highway
On our last morning in Havana, my husband and I squeezed into the front seat of an old 1950s Ford, our colectivo taxi to Viñales. After two days going around Havana in old taxis in varying states of disrepair, the Cubans ability to make old cars run on old parts for more than half a century was nothing short of awe-inspiring to me. My confidence in this didn’t waiver until about an hour and a half into our ride when the car came to a stop at the side of the road and steam rose up from under the hood. Half an hour later our driver was able to get the car started and we were on the road again! Ten minutes later we were stopped at the side of the road and this time water shot out of a pipe three feet into the air and we knew our ride was over. We hitchhiked with another shared taxi the rest of the way and the whole experience wouldn’t have been too horrible if our first driver didn’t try to swindle us of our money. The good thing that came out of this was that we become friends with our fellow passengers, a really nice Colombian couple and their mother. As we bumped along the winding roads through the hills and the view of valley finally opened up before us, I decided it was time to shake off the negative feelings and begin our next adventure with an open heart.
Viñales is a not-so-hidden gem located in the heart of the Pinar de Rio valley. The small farming community is surrounded by lush green mogotes or limestone plateaus. Viñales is a really popular spot for tourists as it is located just over 2 hours west of Havana, but it remains a sleepy little town where horse drawn carts go house to house selling fruit and real cowboys still exist. We realized the moment we arrived just how small the community is when we were able to find our Airbnb simply by asking several people along the way where Osmani the Truck Driver lives.
The oldest form of livelihood in Viñales before tourism became a boom was agriculture, especially tobacco for those world famous cigars. It’s a matter of minutes to walk from the main street of the town to a tobacco, coffee, or pineapple farm. As we strolled down a dirt road, I stopped to admire a blue farm house in the middle of a tobacco field that looked so idyllic against the backdrop of mountains. A woman walked up to us and said that her family’s farm is just at the end of the lane and that she would be happy to give us a free tour and show us how they grow and harvest tobacco. She did try to offer us a horseback tour for the next day for $30, but we politely declined as we have already arranged a tour with our Airbnb host.
At the little farm house, we met her grandfather who was the owner of the farm, her adorable baby who was just a few months younger than Ellie, her grandmother, their horses, cows, and a pig. I’m grateful that I remembered enough Spanish to have a conversation with them and to follow along as her grandma explained how they grow and process the tobacco plant for cigars. She even rolled and smoked a cigar with us! I’m ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten this family’s name, but I will always remember these people and this experience that I’ve shared with them.
Touring the valley on horseback was quite the experience. For a couple of hours, I was able to imagine that the fast paced world of technology did not exist and that my life as a cowgirl was all about riding around the valley rounding up steers and drinking rum coconut drinks. It was a pretty good life, at least for a couple hours. Horseback riding is almost a required activity when visiting Viñales. Our host set us up with a tour right away and the process was so effortless and the price was so reasonable that we didn’t even bother getting the name or details of this tour company. A taxi picked us up the next morning, we arrived at a tobacco farm, learned about cigar making, hopped on our horses and set off on what turned out to be a five hour long tour of the valley.
Our day included a sugar cane farm tour, cave tour, and a lake that we could swim in. We went along at a really relaxed pace, the horses all knew the route without any guidance from the riders. Our Cuban cowboy rode along with us, once in a while calling out “Caballooooo” which means horse but is also the magic word for the horses to pause or to speed up or whatever the situation called for.
Horses are such a big part of everyday life in the valley. You see farmers on their horse drawn carts speeding down the town streets as fast as the horse can go. Kids run around with a broom between their legs pretending they are riding horses. Real cowboys exist here! Some of these farm horses look like very sad beasts of burden standing their strapped to a cart with their ribs showing, in stark contrast to the well-fed and well-brushed horses they use for tourists. Maybe it is inappropriate of me to judge their use of horses, cows, pigs, etc. when they are really dependent on these animals for their livelihoods, and not just exploiting them for tourism. My only wish is we treat all animals and each other with kindness and respect.
Mountain biking is another great option for seeing the valley and you can ask your host to help you arrange bike tours. If you don’t care for sore butts the next day, you can hike. The Vinales Valley National Park is a short walk from town with a lot of trails and caves to explore.