Hotel Havana Libre, Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:54 pm
On Sunday it was gorgeous. The cold front had finally passed through, the rain was gone and we had a beautiful warm sunny day without any humidity.
My hostess is also a guide for the National Park System and Vinales is a nationally protected natural habitat. She had a tour planned through a side valley of Vinales (Valle del Ancon) with 3 participants, an older couple from Germany and me.
The tour was fabulous, we got picked up by a local in a taxi and went about 20 minutes outside of town and got dropped off at a local primary school, which had several communist slogans painted on the outside. Political graffiti, paintings and message boards are extremely common in Cuba. Although there is no western style advertising, there are plenty of political slogans (a collection of a few of which I will summarize at a later point).
This is a very strange experience when you come from a Western capitalist country like Canada, and then you see all these political slogans about Communism and defending the Revolution. Truly fascinating indeed, a completely different world.
On our 3 hour trip we walked through local fields, were told about local wildlife, special birds (the Cuban Tocororo, Turkey vultures and other birds. We also heard about local farming which still takes place with human labour, manual ploughs and oxen. We were introduced to crops such as Malanga (pureed and given to babies), Yucca, various types of sweet potatoes, corn and yams.
One of the highlights was a 20 minute walk through a limestone cave through one of the Mogote hills. We saw some interesting stone formations and even strange pale plants growing inside the pitch-dark cave. Our guide had illuminated the cave with a strong flashlight for the 4 of us and it was a pretty easy walk with no cave-dwelling animals in sight, only one political slogan spray-painted in the cave (apparently this was a hideout for the revolutionary army at some point..).
After exiting the cave, we ended up in an uninhabited small valley completely surrounded by mountains and we ran into a local farmer of 60 years, whose leathery face and slim body gave him the appearance of an 80 year old man, evidence of many decades of sun and hard work.
He had a flock of turkeys (with 61 young chicks), a dog and some fields of corn and beans. And he generally spends most of his days working manually in this little valley, completely isolated, sometimes staying overnight in a single hut made from the wood and leaves of the royal palm tree, Cuba´s national tree. No radio, no TV, no sanitation, no kitchen, just a wooden bed with a blanket in a hut with an earthen floor. Again a reminder of how different life can be in this country….
Then we crossed over a small mountain range and back into the Valle del Ancon, where we saw a Casa Campesino, a traditional farm house/museum, which had also been visited a few years ago by Fidel Castro. Next to the farm house is a beautiful river that exits from a cave and 3 young cuban teenage boys were swimming and jumping into the water and having a ton of fun. The entrance to the cave is also surrounded by wasp-hives (if that word exists), so there are tons of wasp dwellings hanging down from the rock formations.
We took the taxi back into town and I had another 3 hours or so before my departure with the Viazul bus. 2 local teenage boys, Rider and Rigo, approached me (truly in the style of the underground economy), offered me to rent a bicycle for $3 and to take me to a Paladar or private restaurant. I thought, why not, they seemed pretty decent. So I took the 3rd bike and rode up with them into the hills above Vinales.
There they introduced me to a local family and the lady of the house served me with a complete vegetarian meal for $8.00. Afterwards I rented the bike for $2 for 1 hour and I rode around Vinales and outside of town a bit to take some photos of the Mogotes. The bike tour, even though extremely short, was a great way of exploring the town and surroundings.
At 4 pm I hopped back on the Viazul bus and went back to La Havana (Havana). At 7:30 or so I arrived at the Viazul bus station and I ended up taking a “Cocotaxi”, a yellow 3-wheeler type of scooter taxi with a rounded yellow roof partially covering the 2 seats in the back and the driver in the front.
The Cocotaxi driver was initially fixing his vehicle since a tire had blown out and he was changing the wheels. The ride took about 20 minutes to the hotel and was definitely an experience. He then inisted on inviting me for a drink and I told him immediately that I was not interested in any funny business, that I was a married woman, only here to study Spanish and not interested in romance. (Romantic approaches by Cuban men and women of foreigners are very common here).
He said no problem, he just wanted to talk and we sat down for a conversation that was reasonably pleasant for a while until he started to make the moves on me, some very verbally explicit ones by the way. I never felt physically threatened, especially since he was about as short as me, but I definitely got annoyed with him and he apologized at the end for his behaviour.
Nevertheless that brief experience taught me to curb my friendliness and my openness a little bit with the locals, since things can be very easily misunderstood in this culture….
Another lesson learned….