The inside of our taxi. Impressive that this one had door handles.
Back in old Havana.
Sergio and I decided to split up, since I still needed to change my CAD cash to CUC. There was a Cadeca downtown, so I headed there while he went to a museum. I encountered a huuuuuge line. I walked around for a couple minutes to see if there was another option nearby (and I considered the black market option offered to me while I was waiting in line), but I decided to wait out the line. Over an hour later, I had to leave the line to meet up with Sergio and get back to our house, because we had a car coming to take us to Viñales.
I was wandering through the streets trying to find the meeting point (remember, no Internet, no data, no Google maps) and a guy started chatting with me. We talked for a few minutes - his name is Ruben - and he's a music teacher. He did ask for a few bucks to help buy drums for his children's music class, and I handed him a few USD. He gave me his address, so next time I'm back in town he'll give me a free lesson.
Found Sergio and a cab and we rushed home. Our colectivo to Vinales was waiting!
Adios, Vedado y Habana.
There were three people already in the back of the car - we'd soon became friends with the French travelers - so Sergio and I piled into the front of the old car. Me in the middle. On the hot, sticky vinyl seats. With no A/C. In July. When it's 90 degrees and 70% humidity. For 2.5 hours.
Roads in Cuba aren't in super poor condition, but you also won't be driving 70mph on them. Our drive was quite pleasant, as the Frenchies had already established a fun, teasing banter with our driver, Osnil. The driver kept calling the tall Frenchie 'el Malo' and we all had some good laughs. Eventually one of the guys asked us if we speak English, and as soon as we said yes, he launched into this 'hey, if you don't have to be at Vinales at an exact time, there this really cool spot called Las Terrazas that we can stop at and go swimming and we will pay and we really, wanna go there, so is that cool with you?' We were definitely up for the adventure, so the Frenchies and Osnil negotiated a price, and he pulled off the main road and took us to this eco park to go swim.
We had about 30 minutes to swim and the water was so refreshing. Really good call to stop!
Back on the drive to Pinar del Rio, the region where the city of Vinales is located. It's full of tobacco, limestone hills and caves.
As we got near the city of Vinales, Osnil told us we should stop for lunch at this restaurant with a beautiful overlook. The Frenchies were a little eager to keep going, I think, but we were hungry. We stopped just to see the view, but then decided to stay awhile. It's so beautiful!
We had a decent lunch of chicken and some good conversation about our lives, being Mormon, people of Utah, and one of the guy's experiences of living in Brussels during the recent attack.
It's just so good.
We finally got into the little city of Vinales - it's quite small. Osnil dropped us off at the place where I'd booked an Airbnb. There had been a little confusion on the booking - at first they were full for our dates and responded as such, then came back and said they had an opening. I emailed back that yes, we would like to stay there, but I didn't hear back. Remember how internet connections aren't good in Cuba? Yeah. They didn't get the message. So we showed up and they were confused as to why more travelers were at their door.
But absolutely no worries. Cubans are great. They had us come in, gave us fresh lemonade, got out their phone and made a couple calls. Magdalena, one street over, has rooms for rent and she'd gladly take us, and they'd figure out payment between themselves, since we'd already been billed.
Magdalena told us some funny stories about renting out her place. Her previous tenants had left the AC on all day (oops), so she had to cut the power to the room. She turned it back on for us. Also house two without a toilet seat.
One of the top things to do in Vinales is horseback riding through the park. We asked Magdalena how we'd go about doing that, especially since it was later in the day and we had to leave the next morning for our next city. Within 10 minutes, a guy showed up at the house on a scooter, and he was going to take us to the horses. I didn't really understand how this was all going to come together, but I hopped on.
We rode for a few minutes, then he went back for Sergio.
We followed Rafael down the road to the horse spot, and then moto-man left. I'm not sure if he always plays the transport role or how he gets paid for that, but whatever, it worked!
A guy helped us get onto the horses, and then they took off down a trail. I wasn't exactly sure what was happening, since no guide seemed to be coming along. The horses knew where they were going, so we just let them. Twenty minutes later, the guide showed up behind us and led us to a tobacco farm.
Tobacco leaves - drying out. I learned so much about the layers of leaves and how the whole process works. They plant tiny, tiny seeds and then move the best sprouted plants over to a new field to continue growing. We had just missed the full harvest by a month or so. Tobacco farmers have to sell 90% of their crop to the government, and they can keep the rest.
After the leaves are dried, they have to go through a fermentation process. The government will use chemicals for this process, but the farmers use a natural process with honey and vanilla and such. They rolled a cigar for us on site and it smelled sooooo good. I've always hated the smell of cigars, but these were amazing!
Our French friends were actually on their own tour and we bumped into them at this farm.
Here's a description of cigar rolling, from our guide. At first he's describing the different layers of leaves on the tobacco plant. The best layers from the top that get the most sun are used for cigars, the lower layers go into cigarettes. He also says you massage the leaves, just like you would a woman.
I kinda wanted to buy a cigar because it smelled amazing, but I couldn't get just one. I had to get a pack. So I declined. On to the next spot.
Coffee plants! Another thing that Mormons don't partake of. This farm area showed us their liquor made from a local fruit and some honey they make that's infused with flowers. It tasted so, so good, sadly they were out of the bottles for sale.
I don't think I'd ever actually seen how a pineapple grows.
We ordered fresh limeade and sugar cane juice and hung out for a few minutes.
The way our guide said 'cabaaaalllo' was so calming.
I mean, come on....this was heaven.
We got back to the start and our guide gave us two cigars as a gift. So nice. It was only five bucks an hour for the horses, and we were gone for three. How cheap! We gave him a good tip.
We walked through town and stopped to find Sergio a hat at a souvenir shop. The guy who worked there started asking us what we were doing in Cuba, and we told him about traveling around. We mentioned that the next day we'd be going to Cienfuegos, and he asked if we had transport. We didn't, but he said he had a guy and asked where we were staying. We told him at Magdalena's, showed him the address, and he told us to be ready at 9am to go. We were a little confused, and asked if he need to confirm and then call us, but he was like no - just be ready to go at 9am. Okay....!
We stopped at another shop and I found a ton of things that I wanted to buy. We didn't have enough cash on us, so we had to walk home and get money, then come back. Remember that I still hadn't changed my money yet? Cash was starting to run low. After our purchases, we looked high and low for ice cream. It was so hot outside. Many places had ice cream on the menu, but menus don't always line up with what's available.
Finally, we found one place. It wasn't exactly ice cream and there was only one flavor. It was more of frozen whipped cream kinda thing. Still cold and hit the spot though.
We headed home and found Magdalena on her porch with a couple friends. She's a talker, and had us sit down with her. She's hilarious, and we had a great time listening to her stories. She lives at this home with her mother, who is 102 and bed-ridden. Her mother recently fell and broke her hip, and she'll either recover or die, Magda said. She also has a son in Florida and two granddaughters. She hasn't met the youngest one. She showed us pictures of them on her little cell phone. She doesn't have Internet and doesn't advertise her room for rent, she just takes the overflow from other people. Ask for her if you go - she lives one or two streets behind Orlando Nordarse, I think.
View from her house the next morning.
She made us breakfast in the morning and told us more stories.
And sure enough, at 9am a car showed up to take us onward!
I think 22 people fit into this vehicle.
Scenes from leaving Vinales.
After a couple hours of driving, we stopped at a roadside place and all got out. Then we split up into smaller cars based on our destination. This thing took us to Cienfuegos. The bottom of the car was metal and hot - I think my flipflops started to melt.
Near the end of our journey it started to rain. Our driver pulled the car over, got out, and used a wrench to roll up each window. No handles left on these cars!
Next post - Cienfuegos