Our driver picked us up early Sunday morning in his ’89 Peugeot for the just over 2-hour drive to Viñales. The road west was 4-lanes, and it would have looked like an American interstate, but it was lined with men, women, and children standing on either side of the road hoping for a ride from a bus that seemed to never come. We sped on down the highway, turning off the paved road to a dirt one, past a farmer with oxen, and stopping in front of a covered picnic table, snack shack of sorts, and a farm house.
Several men were about, and as we exited the car, they asked if we wanted to ride horses.
My low back was hurting from the less-than-comfortable back seat and bumpy ride, but my bride seemed to want to follow this stranger (who may or may not speak English) into a jungle on large animals in a foreign country, so I found myself saying “Sure!” with feigned enthusiasm. Minutes later, we were following a slightly worn trail through the weeds toward a mountain range in the distance.
We hadn’t gone far when our leader went straight into what was bigger than a stream but smaller than a pond; I had no idea how deep it was. “Excuse me? Pardóndeme? Can we go around?”
“Is the only way.”
I tightened my thighs on either side of my horse and pulled my feet toward my chest. The bottom third of my linen pants were coated in brown water.
Our transports were sure-footed; we made it to the other side, which was either 12 miles or 100 yards through muddy water. We reached a clearing, reentered the jungle, and our guide stopped.
“We walk from here. You will see.”
We walked down a rocky path, over a fallen tree, and into another clearing where the rain had filled a basin. It was pretty. Peaceful even. Our guide stood in silence so we could enjoy the view.
We returned to our horses, wound back along the trail toward the farm, including through the water again, and dismounted.
A young man led us to the building where the tobacco hangs to dry; he explained that 90% goes to the government, but they can sell the other 10% to tourists, and then he showed us how they roll the organic tobacco they grow, using local honey as adhesive instead of “what they use at the large farms.”
He put honey on the end as a filter, and I sampled the goods.
“Would you like to try the rum we make here?”
Before we left, I bought a group of cigars rolled in a coconut leaf and some local rum.
Our driver took us to the National Park at Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We drove through the scenic vistas with rock formations called mogotes and stopped in front of a cave, where we’d climb on a boat to explore the inside of the cave by water.
I’ve been in several caves in the States–some in national or state parks, and some that meant trespassing on private property and relying on Little Debbie snacks, flashlights, and ropes to get through–but never a cave by boat like this one.
Our driver met us as we exited our boat and took us high above the park to an overlook at Mirador de los Jazmines where tourists were gathered to enjoy the view. There was one of those poles with various locations and the miles to get there hanging all over it, and a statue was nearby. I was looking for places I recognized to see how far we were from Miami or Atlanta when the statue suddenly stepped toward me, and I screamed an expletive, and everyone around laughed. The statue tried to apologize and give me a hug, but I walked away, looked out at the sprawling trees below me, and waited on my heart rate to fall to double digits again.
We headed back to Havana and our B&B, bid our driver farewell, put on clothes not muddy from fording streams on horses, and started walking toward the Riviera for a cabaret we’d read about in our “1000 Places” book, and since we were about out of CUCs (and you can’t go to an ATM or use credit/debit cards in Cuba), we walked the several miles to this hotel through downtown Havana. When we finally arrived, we found it was not being performed, due to renovation of the hotel. Demoralized, I bought a wifi card and sat at the bar to use my phone for a bit before catching a ride back to the B&B with the cash we didn’t need to spend on the show.
The next morning, a new driver met us (arranged by Saturday/Sunday’s driver) to take us to Fusterlandia, a neighborhood embellished by the artist Josè Rodríguez Fuster, and it was awesome. We wanted to buy some of his art that was for sale, but given it was our last day and we’d under-packed CUCs, we had to settle for pictures of the art that made up the buildings instead of taking home any canvases.
We boarded our cab again and asked the driver to take us by the cemetery where Columbus is buried before we headed to the airport, so we went, but Columbus is not buried there; it’s just named after him.
We did, however, get led by a local dude to peer into a tomb with a lid slid ajar, allowing us to see his remains inside, but when he wanted some cash for the privilege, I had none (since I needed 5 CUCs to get a water and snack before flying home). I enjoyed walking among the old, above-ground graves, just as I’ve enjoyed walking through similar cemeteries in New Orleans or Paris.
Flying home was easy. I kept waiting on something to go wrong, to get my rum or cigars absconded, or be hauled off to “Gitmo,” but it was no more difficult than any other international trip we’ve taken (having Global Entry helps immensely).
Once we’d landed in Atlanta, we couldn’t help but discuss (like we always do if we go somewhere without the children) when and if we’d want to come back and bring the children. And on that question, I’m somewhat torn–on one hand, I think any American in his later high school years or college years should see how people live in a Communist country so as to inform their voting decisions here. But, planning a trip that will pass the myriad requirements to be allowed as an American is a pain, and it would’ve been even more so with 3 young children.
That said, if you’re from the States and want to visit Cuba, I highly recommend using a guide from Cuba who’s familiar with the “hoops” you must go through. We used ViaHero for that and were very pleased with our experience in booking classes, trips, lodging, etc. such that we’d be supporting the Cuban people and not its government, as is required.