In previous posts, I’ve touched upon the bookends to my backpacking experience in Cuba – the beginning, in Havana, and the ending, in Playa Ancón. The start of the trip was very starry-eyed, curious, and still full of energy. We went from sunrise to far beyond sunset, and never stopped moving. By the end, we were still having fun, but with a lot of naps on the beach in between.
The middle section of the trip is really what connects the two extremes. If I were to describe my personal feelings on this trip, it would resemble a mountain range – first, high peaks of excitement, followed by low valleys of despair. From those valleys, we climbed to the highest peak of pleasure, to then conclude on plateau of relaxation.
Viñales was that valley.
From the car…
Referring to the Havana post, it ends with an allusion to a backpacker’s ride in the back of a cargo truck from city to city. Cuba as a whole has public transportation, but it turns out that their bus system definitely was lacking in organization and options. Organization is self-explanatory, and you can’t really expect too much from a country that still doesn’t have widespread use of the Internet and electronics. However, options got interesting.
Using our handy guidebook, we tracked down the bus company that was deemed “to be trusted.” All the advice explicitly stated to book tickets in person, at least one day in advance, more if possible. So, we marched to the opposite side of Havana to do so.
When we got to the station, multiple groups were walking out looking frustrated, and a man confronted us before we even entered ourselves. Fernando spoke broken English, but once he discovered my Spanish, we quickly began negotiating a way to Viñales. He had a taxi, and I had a need, but I wasn’t exactly convinced that I could trust the man to either show up, or get me there in one piece.
I was straight up, and explained this to him, at which point he waved over two French girls that he had just negotiated the same deal with. We conversed in English, which actually was nice that Fernando couldn’t understand us – “You guys sure? No? But together? Alright, together.”
We agreed on a fare (which was half of what the bus would have cost us!), exchanged numbers and addresses. Only morning would tell the legitimacy of our deal!
Turns out, Cubans are super helpful, honest in at least their business dealings, and pretty damn resourceful. We spent the better part of five hours in the back of this cargo truck, watching the scenery change from coastal Havana, to rural Viñales.
We were dropped off in the town center, which, once we learned where we were, was simply a community square with one half mile in either direction being the end of the town. Viñales can never be called a city – its simply a rural town with a whole lot of casas particulares (home-stay hostels).
Viñales is colorful, as each building houses a casa particular that wants to get your attention, tourist dollar, and referral. However, on first presentation its exciting, and unique!
We eventually found our casa on the edge of town, introduced ourselves and made ourselves at home. Our host got lunch together for us, and we enjoyed the quiet farm atmosphere, complete with chicken-friends clucking around our table.
Once we were fueled up, we decided to put our feet back to work. We judged from the map in my travel book that our destination – a nearby mountain, with a freshwater spring, known to the locals as a type of fountain of youth- was only about three miles away. We figured this would be no big deal, as we had just completed nearly 40,000 steps in Havana the day before, and we had tons of time.
Well, as anyone who knows anything about the Caribbean will tell you, when the sun is up, it’s hotter than hell. Maybe a mile in to the trip, with the sun high in the sky, and our stubborn attitudes in an emotional battle, we were officially out of water, and nowhere near our destination.
Every quarter mile (roll your eyes at my guesswork, because I was practically delirious at this point), there were clusters of local-houses attached to the farm lands all around us. The next time we passed one, I stopped and asked an older woman if she would kindly fill our water bottles, so that we could hydrate, and attempt to keep moving forward towards our destination. She obliged, and we continued.
By the time we got to the metaphorical fork-in-the-road that we were meant to follow up the mountain, the sun was setting and we stumbled upon a couple that was coming down the mountain. They were covered up to their knees in mud, and correctly assumed our intentions (it was literally the only thing to do in that direction). They let us know just how bad the recent rains had torn up the path, and advised us against going. With the sun setting, trudging through quick-sand-like mud did not exactly sound appealing. We aborted mission, and began the trek back to where we came from.
If there is anything that describes Viñales, and its overall presentation, its this monument right here:
Now, if you round the corner and notice this mural, you’re definitely going to have that “awe” first impression. We certainly did. However, once the first impression wears off and you think about it, the mural begins to feel odd.
We kept walking back home, and shortly after finding this mural, we came across camp grounds, where another couple was negotiating a taxi. They spotted us, and in the interest of saving a few more cuc, we split the taxi four ways. On the ridge back, the couple were telling us how their host informed them that the mural (photographed above), was actually created by the Cuban government to be a tourist attraction in Viñales. There was no indigenous painting, there was simply a Cuban government painting.
In truth, all of Viñales feels odd in this way: first impression is charming, changing with thought and experience. The endless casas particulares, the endless restaurants, the endless tour groups and buses, and the endless stream of white travelers (looking at you, Canada and Netherlands), made the town of rural Viñales feel more like tourist-central, designed and paid for by the government.
Alas, we still ended the night with rum, the most stars I’ve ever seen (like seriously, there are so many stars in the sky its unreal), and a few lizard friends protecting us from mosquitos.
The next day, for a lovely rate of 10 cuc for the day, we rented bikes from our hosts. The goal was to basically replicate the failed day before, but in the opposite direction, and on bikes. Well fed, and ready for the day, we set out for la Cueva de Indio.
All was well, and we made a pretty nice pace in the morning sun. It wasn’t too hot, and there was a slight breeze to make it a perfect day. Our water bottles were filled, and we knew exactly where we were going.
About half way to the la Cueva, there was a small mountain with a restaurant bar in a cave opening. We wanted to rest, and we were definitely curious about what a restaurant bar was doing so far from town, so we decided to check it out.
Turns out, it was an old slave route! Basically, the slaves would escape their captors, and hide from the slave hunters in the mountain ranges, which are riddled with cave systems, and hiding spots. Apparently, the hiding spots were so good, that the mountains hid the smoke used for cooking as well –
Obviously the government has done some serious upkeep of these villages, but I suppose I can’t fault them on this one. That’s just preserving history!
In this same spot, while we were resting, I made my very best friend of the entire trip (Sorry, Jill!). I was simply sitting, enjoying my beverage, and the cool breeze in the shade. People were drifting in and out, brought in by other adventurous bikers, but mostly tour buses. Amongst it all, sat Benito. Our eyes locked, and the next thing I knew…
Eventually, with a heavy heart, I had to bid my friend farewell, and Jillian and I continued our biking towards our original destination.
La Cueva de Indio was neat, and we got to experience another part of the cave systems of Viñales. It wasn’t especially exciting, but a long wait, a short boat ride, and a few laughs later, we ended up on the other side of the cave system… and landed right into more restaurants, tourist shops, and bars.
Unbeknownst to me at this point, Jillian was just starting to feel ill. According to her, this was the last photo before the day took a twist for the worst.
Still blissfully unaware that my girlfriend was close to death, we mounted our bikes, and began the trek back to town.
Maybe a quarter of the way back home, cruising up and down these mountain roads, with trucks flying by in certain tight curves, Jill decides to get off her bike and walk. I’m immediately like, “Oh hell, no,” because I simply wanted to get back to town.
When I actually went to see what Jill was doing, she had turned ghostly white, looked ready to jump in front of a farmer’s truck, and revealed just how long the journey home was going to be. With every ounce of patience, and support, in my soul, Jill and I made it back to town step by step.
We made it back home, and in an obvious agreement, collapsed. Jill took a small nap in the bedroom, and I laid out in the hammock that was provided on our patio space.
Jill’s nap was cut short, however, when her stomach led a mutiny against her body into our small bathroom. She was violently sick, and couldn’t quite get the word “ham” out without gagging for the rest of the trip. The reckoning had begun, and the ham from breakfast got blamed.
We napped it out for awhile after that, pretty much waiting for dinner. Jill perked right back up, as my energy began to drain. It was literally like she was taking my health, and using it to fuel her own.
Sure enough, I got sick myself that night. In the processing of rushing out of bed, I also ripped my gold chain that I wear for good luck, and superstitious routine, right off my neck. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.
Get us out of here!
Viñales as a tourist destination, try as we might, was simply not up to the standards that we wanted it to be. There really was nothing you could do without the help of tour guides, and our misadventures seriously highlights that fact. Everything is so far, and so inaccessible, that to “just do it on our own,” was health-suicide.
Unfortunately, the story only got worse as a result of one turning point – the moment I asked that woman for water. We debated for our entire bus ride to Cienfuegos, our next destination, and settled on the likelihood that it was indeed the water that poisoned us. When we actually arrived in Cienfuegos, our new friend Luis confirmed that while the water in the capitol is treated Western-style, the rest of the country was NOT.
Moral of the story: When people tell you don’t drink the water as you prepare for your trip – LISTEN, or at the very least, research to see if they are right or not.
To the readers,
When all was said and done, between the awkward tourist-trap that was Viñales as an entirety, and our sickness experience that left us collectively drained for the next 36 hours, we looked back on Viñales with a nasty taste in our mouth.
That’s a wrap for this post, but there is still plenty more to come. Thanks for everyone following along, and if you’re new to the party, follow or subscribe via e-mail! Feel free to comment below with your misadventures!