Friday 13 January 2012

First stop - Vinales, Cuba

A shiny black 1953 Chevrolet is waiting for us outside Havana’s Jose Marti airport. It’s like stepping into one of the photographs of Cuba I’ve pored over for years. The only obvious addition in its 58-year-history is a Ferrari steering wheel, courtesy of its much younger driver Joaquin. Otherwise, the interior is a mere shell, the paint peeling from its doors, its wide leather seats well worn by time. Awesome. 

This is stop one on our 5-month journey home. (We have a month in Cuba, including 2 weeks learning Spanish in Havana, with a detour to the Cayman Islands for Christmas, then on to Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.) Dan and I land in Havana after a bunch of horribly hard goodbyes in London, our raging hangovers only slightly dulled after the 10-hour flight.

We head straight to Vinales, a beautiful tobacco growing region 3 hours south of Havana, to chill out.  The Chev seemed like a great way to get there when I booked it. It wheezes to life and we rumble off enveloped in petrol fumes. When the first pot hole of many sends us flying into the air and back down into ancient springs whose suspension left them long ago, Dan’s soon asking why the hell we didn’t got with a more modern taxi.  All part of the experience, honey! 

We eventually rattle into town in darkness. There are no hostels in Cuba – your options are hotels or casa particulares - essentially a homestay with a family. We’re not sure what to expect from our casa, but we get an amazing welcome from the lovely Lumino – a tiny sprightly woman of about 70 who offers us dinner in enthusiastic Spanish - we can only grasp that she promises to make us fluent in two days. Our room is standard for Cuban casas:  basic, with a double bed, a single bed (good for fights) and an ensuite bathroom – though Dan soon electrocutes himself trying to change the temperature in the dodgy shower. Oh, and compulsory rooster outside the window.

Vinales is an instantly likeable country town: a dozen or so streets thronged with single-storey wooden Playschool houses, each one with two rocking chairs on the porch. Locals sit and sway as old American cars cruise past in various states of repair:  Plymouths, Buicks, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, all dating from before the 1959 Revolution. My favourites are the old Soviet motorbikes with side cars, called Urals, made more lethal with the engine of a small car.

It is postcard stuff - horses and carts are driven by weathered men with sombreros on their heads and cigars in their mouths, heading for the tobacco fields nearby. People use their porches to hawk their wares: a shelf of shoes, sugarcane juice, or “Peso pizzas” (about 30p) cooked in a makeshift oven in front of you.

The landscape is incredible. Jagged limestone mounds – called magotes – rise like giant haystacks from flat fields.  Our trekking guide Douglas (he says his Dad named him after Michael) tells us very poetically about a Cuban painter called Domingo Ramos who had 67 different shades of green in his palette to paint this landscape. When he took his work to an international exposition people thought his work was based on a Caribbean fantasy, rather than a real place.

We trek through burnt orange fields rich with iron to a tobacco farmer, who explains the process of making a cigar. 95% of his leaves are taken by the government. The rest he is free to make his own cigars with – he spices them with honey, cinnamon, and rum. I manage to smoke a mild one without choking. The farmer’s stronger version never leaves his mouth, even when he climbs an orange tree to get us some fruit. (We buy 10 – and later find out the rest are fairly average!)

In the evenings we sit with CUC$1.65 mojitos (about £1) and watch the world go by as a great salsa band plays. From the next table I learn about the Cuban stare: men very obviously look woman up and down – foreign or local. Dan says it’s just because I’m hot – until I discover I have mint in my teeth.  But they’re friendly - our second mojito runs out and they procure a bottle of rum from under their table and top up our glasses.

But our stay in Vinales was really made by Lumino: she invested a lot of time patiently teaching us the words for all amazing food she cooked (the lobster was a highlight), and was a brilliant introduction to how warm this country can be. One day my trekking shoes, which I’d left inside the gate, went missing. I panicked, assuming they’d been stolen – until Lumino appeared from the roof terrace with them, gleaming clean. She’d scrubbed the red clay off them to within an inch of their lives. New words for the day: los zapatos – shoes, suicio – dirty, and limpio – clean!


  1. Buenos dias amigos. Insanely jealous! Looks fab and reminds me of our adventures in SA. Look forward to reading more. Love to you both. xxx Safe travels.

  2. Nice one! Cuba is just so strangely fabulous eh. Do you get 'guapa' hissed at you a lot? I can't wait to hear more Cess and the photos are beautiful too, yeah even the ones with Mr K in them. Sending love and safe travel vibes from Lisa and Betsy Bump. Arohanui chica. X