12 – 14 February 2013
As most things in Cuba there are seperate tourist solutions and this also go for the busses. While the locals take battered old busses and trucks, tourists take special busses that are much more expensive and therefore also more comfortable and reliable. The bus to Viñales was no exception and departed from a nearby hotel in Havana – as always I showed up a bit early but little did I anticipate the trip to come. I was supposed to be picked up at 8am but it was 8.40 before the bus arrived – no apologies... delayed because they pick up passengers at different hotels. However, when I got on there were only two other people (travelling together) so unless they had to wake them up and wait for them to shower, pack and have breakfast it seems unlikely. And so we spent another 40 minutes driving around Havana to pick up more people. I didn't sleep well during the night so I tried to get a nap, but no... it was a normal bus (not a tour bus) but the ticket woman also turned out to be a tour guide constantly naming (and praising) the hotels, towns, etc. we passed by – no further information than what people could read for themselves at signs. The trip was supposed to take 2½ hours but ended up taking 4 hours, because we made unannounced stops at a restaurant and several tobacco farms. I was in no particular hurry so it was fine by me, but very different than taking a public bus anywhere else in the world – and surprisingly she didn't even try to charge us extra which otherwise seems the norm in Cuba. Usually nothing is free which is different from the Spanish culture in Central and South America where most people will go out of their way to help (for free). Unfortunately it was clouded most of the way so it was difficult to enjoy what would have been nice views of valleys, mountains, plantations, etc.
It was interesting to observe the traffic outside Havana... or should I say lack of traffic. Often there were minutes between traffic in the opposite direction on the 6 lane highway (of poor quality)... including bicycles, horses, horse-drawn wagons, ox-drawn sledges, etc. And there is no road disciplin like keeping to the right – people use the lane they prefer or sometimes shifting regularly between two lanes causing unnecessary risky situation considering the limited traffic (the driving license requirements must be very liberal). It's like being transponded 50-60 years back in time – even the Cuban music videos shown on the bus looked like something from the 1960/70s (except the colours). The tourist buses however are newly importet from China and of reasonable quality – not like the local buses that are more often trucks suitable for animal transport.... And as always in a/c buses in this part of the world it's really cold because the driver insists on using the a/c despite all passengers begging for at least 20 Celcius.
Viñales is a very small town and still there are about 250 casas which must be the majority of houses. When I got off the bus touts where pulling me from all sides in a way I haven't experienced since my many trips to Asia years ago. And so it was fairly easy to negotiate a good deal – I ended up at Casa Claribel where I got the nicer of two rooms. I explained my way of travelling and that I wouldn't buy breakfast or dinner but needed to borrow the kitchen to cook my own food – and still Claribel was friendly and understanding. However, during the coming days things would change – first she tricked me into the smaller room by telling me another person would come that wanted a/c (only in the nice room) – I did her the favour of moving but of course nobody came; she just wanted it available because it would be easier to sell. And when I didn't buy her food she became moody and somewhat vicious - sad to experience how money and greed influences some people's lives in a negative way.... maybe it's the communist history but very disappointing in a Spanish culture... I sincerely hoped it was a "one-off"....
The first afternoon I spent walking around Viñales – it's a small place centered around the main street and the church plaza – very touristic. I also asked around for a map of the national park trails which nobody had – not even the park office.....most likely the town agenda is selling guided walks. Finally I did some grocery shopping from street vendors - always plentiful and cheap beyond belief. For 36 local pesos (corresponding 1½ USD) I got 5 green peppers, 1 kilo potatoes, 1 kilo tomatoes, 1 kilo carrots, 5 onions, garlic and 1 pineapple... In the “supermarkets” however, there was hardly anything to buy; not even a piece of chicken or beef... I hadn't really checked out the kitchen so when I cooked the first evening I was pleased not to have meat since preparing the meal would have taken forever with only one burner (already the fried vegetables took their time).
The second day I got up around 7.30 hoping to start hiking early but it was clouded so I postponed my departure until 10.30 when the weather was a bit better. When I walked into the valley I quickly realised that a map wouldn't have made a difference anyway since the dusty paths were unsigned. Instead I walked around randomly looking for nice views and places. For hours I met only few people – some tourists on horseback and some locals inviting me for coffee, seeing their tobacco barns, etc. I was surprised by the few tourists (where do all the tourists in town go during the day?) and I didn't accept the local invitations – there is a microscopic chance they were genuine invites but most likely they were for money (being addressed “Miras” is the first warning signal). Mid afternoon I got to the other end of the valley where I wanted to hike to Los Aquaticos – a small mountain village established in 1943 using water for healing purposes in lack traditional medicine. However, nobody would tell me the way unless I paid them to be my guide, and since it wasn't that important I skipped it and instead went to see some nearby prehistoric murals on a cliff - they weren't very interesting and didn't look prehistoric, but it was obviously a big tourist attraction. I walked the 5k back to town along the main road and spent the afternoon relaxing at the casa patio.
Having seen most of the valley I briefly considered leaving the next morning. However, I had promised to stay 3 nights and also reminded myself that I didn't want to spend all my time going around the country in buses. It was pouring down most of the night and morning, so I didn't get up until 10 and heading out at 11. The first hour on the same path as the day before but then I walked a different part of the valley along/across bending rivers and in fields with sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, etc. Very cosy and the farmers very friendly even when I sometimes ended up walking in their fields....