How to arrive at Vinales from Havana?
We left Havana in the morning, sharing a taxi collectivo with two French girls. It was not their first trip to Vinales. Both were alpinists, frequently visiting the Valley for climbing Mural of Prehistoria. Before coming to Cuba I read the book of Aleida March, the wife of Che Guevara. In there she was describing among other things, the natural beauty of Cuba. This was my first encounter with the forests and nature on this island, since leaving the busy streets of Havana. I knew that this region is completely different than the Sierra Maestra she was describing, but I do not know why my mind was keeping taking me back to those passages from the book.
What to do in Vinales? First stop: Mural of Prehistory in Vinales Valley
Since it was already past midday, we decided to take a taxi that will take us closer to the Valley. We told the driver to let us close on the road. We were surrounded by magotes, which are hillocks of limestone, full of cavities with almost flat tops. These limestones are specific to Vinales Valley, and one of the reasons why the park was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage site for Cultural Landscape. We started to make our way to the Mural of Prehistoria, which is actually a painting on one of the limestones of Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, who was Chief Cartographer of Cuban Academy of Science.
Our first ecounter except the big blue painting in front, was a strange visitor at the bar. In the right of the bar is a path, taking you closer to the wall. The ropes of alpinists were hanging on the front face of the wall and we saw 2-3 persons making their way up. Follow the wall and on the right side you will find a path starting easily through the woods, than getting stony and abrupt. Stones are sharp, you need to use both legs and arms to climb, slippery after the rain, but once you are at the top, Vinales Valey is offering a view with green fields, in which horses are walking free, a vast open space at your feet and a sky on which birds are circling around the valley. We left there after sunset and walked to the village on the road that passes through tobacco fields, on which peasants on their horses go back to their homes. Is a picturesque reminder of old days in the villages, on which life follows the circle of the sun.
What to do in Vinales? Horse-ride through a tobacco plantation
Early in the morning, we drank our coffee in the sound of raindrops. The air was chill, and I was feeling sick. We had already arranged a guided tour to the tobacco farm, on a horse, up to the mountains to some of the viewpoints and the top of my wishlist- a visit to a coffee plantation. I put all the warm clothes that I was able to find and braced myself for a tough but wonderful day. A taxi came to pick us up, and we passed through the already full of people streets of the town.
At the entrance to the natural park, a man with a cowboy hat, jeans jacket and riding boots was waiting for us. His name of Antonio. We met our two lovely horses, Caramelo and Gavillan, both incredibly beautiful with brown shiny skin, and strong legs. For the first time on a horse, was a combination of fear and excitement. Especially after Gavillan decided is a good idea to rise on its both legs as a sign of welcome. Luckily, instinctively I managed to make him calm down again and there started our ride. The path was leading through the middle of the tobacco plantations. On both sides, there were the remainings of the plants after the harvest, and peasants working the ground. The entire process takes several good months, around 3 months to harvest and another 3 months for drying the plants. Because they are in a protected natural reservation, the entire process is done entirely manually, with no machinery allowed. Just like in the old times. We stopped at the small bar near one of the drying houses, where one of the locals explained us the entire process and took us to visit the barn where the tobacco is getting dried before being rolled into cigars.
Even with all my sickness I was not able to refuse smoking an organic cigar. They dip the end of the cigar in honey, which is supposed to protect the lips and retain part of the nicotine. The combination of the cigar with honey is unique, even for a person who is not a big fan of cigars, like me.
What to see in Vinales?
Well, after we had a Mojito and cigars with honey for breakfast, the horse ride went more smoothly. Even though I was still feeling sick, my legs were aching from the ride, I kept absorbing the views around. There were lemon trees, some great royal palms, and other types of plants and animals that Antonio was pointing out to us and telling us a bit about their history and how they use it. The royal palms are very loved trees in Cuba because if a tree is cut down all its parts are used. The large leaves are still used for covering the houses of the poorer peasants.
The last days were rainy in Vinales, and all the paths were muddy and slippery. I was feeling how the hoofs of Gavillan were sliding when he was crossing over puddles or going uphill. I know that they say that often when you are riding, you are one with the horse, but is actually really true. You feel every twitch of his muscles when he is making effort to keep the road when he is slippering.
When we arrived at one of the viewpoints on the top I was already feeling worse, I started to have fever and I was extremely dizzy. The plan of the day was to go to the cigars drying house, after to the viewpoint where we were at the moment, and after to the coffee plantation, ending up with having lunch at another viewpoint where is also a restaurant. Considering how every move I made was an entire adventure for me, we told to Antonio that unfortunately, we need to shorten our walk. I was stubborn on going to the coffee plantation but I was sure that I am not capable to go to the restaurant as well.
So with this view with green, red and yellow patches in front, I had a rest, enjoying the cold mountain air. In the middle of the fields, limestones were standing tall, with small patches of trees in between. Everything was green and soaked up in water, the sky was dark and threatening with rain.
After a while, we went back on our horses and headed to the coffee plantation. On the road, Antonio handed me a leaf of one of the lemon trees, that smelled so sweet and revigorating at the same time. Like the smell when you cut lemon, only it was coming from a small leaf that I was holding between my fingers. The coffee plantation was packed with people, the horses were all aligned near a tree waiting for their owners to come back and in the meanwhile, they were having some food. We visit the coffee plantation, which was small and not that spectacular since all the beans have already been collected. The guide explained us the process, how they manually crush the beans until they become the coffee that we know. For a coffee lover, this is not what one expects when visiting a coffee plantation, it seemed more like a place made for tourists. Hopefully, one day I get to see one the coffee plantations of my dreams. In the meanwhile, I enjoyed a cup of coffee and prepared for the road back.
The rest of the day, once we were back at our casa, is kind of nightmare for all travelers. I just crawled into bed, put 3 blankets on top of me and slept the whole day. I would like to come back to Vinales to visit the Indian cave, to take the boat ride through the subterranean San Vicente River. There are so many things to do here, like the El Mirador Los Jasmines, taking walks around the lake, or just taking different hiking paths in the natural park.
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