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Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

First day in the Valley, Sunday, Nov 4

Wow, our Casa Particular in Vinales is nicer than I thought it would be.  Our Host family seems nice and accommodating, even some English spoken!  We’ll leave our bags with them and we’re off with our Tour Guide, Humberto for a tour of Vinales.  Let’s go!

First stop, Lunch!  Humberto assigns us to a friend of his for the day as he has another tour to attend to. All is good.  We are taken to a local “Paladar”, a locally owned and operated restaurant.  Ladera del Valle is an open air building with no windows.  No Glass windows, that is.  We will soon learn that glass is an expensive commodity that is not afforded by many except the rich and the government.

Our first “Paladar”

But all is ok.  We’re here to live like locals today and tomorrow.  It is hot and humid, almost uncomfortably so.  The worker in the restaurant (I’d like to call her a waitress, but it appears that the 2 or 3 people that work here do everything necessary to run the place.) turns on a fan and points it in our direction and the breeze feels good.  We attempt to navigate the Spanish Only menu when a thought hits me.  I am not bothered by almost any food, so I ask our guide to order a Cuban meal for us.  He proceeds to order plates of pulled pork, fried plantains and Cuba’s famous Rice & Black Bean Soup.

The food is delicious!  The meat is cooked on outdoor BBQ’s, just like we’d do at home.  We chow down accompanied by a cold Cerveza and a Mojito for my wife.  The meal is more than satisfying.

Outdoor BBQ, just like at home!

Ok, full bellies and ready for an adventure!  We start hiking from the restaurant, down this dirt trail, somewhat muddy at times, but scenic.  The ground reminds me of Georgia clay, bright red.  My shoes will be permanently stained, a memento to take home!

Lush vegetation fills our vision dotted with occasional flowers that are unique to this area.  A roaming cow and horse from the farm we are approaching are grazing along the trail.  We get our first glimpse of the “Mogotes”, the hills in the valley that seem to rise straight up out of nowhere.  The reality is the valley was eroded away over time and left the Mogotes standing.  We approach the farm and are greeted by a friendly farmer, his wife, and his young daughter climbing a guava tree.  The farmhouse has windows, but no glass, like the restaurant we had lunch in.  We didn’t notice at the restaurant, but the farmhouse has wooden shutters to cover the windows at night and in storms.  It is obvious that they don’t actually seal the window, just sort of cover it for the most part.

We walk with the farmer where one worker is sharpening a machete (hopefully not because the tourists have arrived!) and watch as another changes a horseshoe that has worn out on one of the horses.  We go inside his tobacco barn and are shown how the tobacco is dried and taken care of.  Then he sits us down on a bench in the barn and hands me a cigar and I light up my first cigar in over 20 years.  I stopped smoking cigars a long time ago because I just didn’t like them.  They are just too harsh!  However, just before he offers me a light, he puts a small bowl of honey down and shows me how local Cubans dip the end in honey and then light it.

Wow!  That’s all I can say for a moment, Wow!  Along with the Honey Trick, the farmer also shows us how they strip the central vein out of the tobacco leaf where 98% of the nicotine is.  Then they proceed to crush and roll the cigar without the noxious nicotine that makes a cigar harsh.  But don’t worry, friends, if you even get a chance to buy Cuban cigars that are packaged and banded, you are getting 100% of that horrible nicotine experience!

This is because the tobacco farmers are forced to sell 90% (not a typo) of their tobacco to the government, which in turn crushes & rolls up 100% of the tobacco leaf and turns it into Cuban cigars for profit!  So, unless you get Cuban cigars straight off a farm in Cuba from the farmer, you are not getting what has to be the smoothest cigars anywhere!  For the record, I bought 2/3 of my allowable limit from this guy!

Then the Farmer gives a leaf to my wife and she strips the central vein out of it like a pro!  The leaf is passed to me and I get to roll this one into a finished cigar!  One leaf, one cigar.  I like the math!  Twist up the end into a ‘pigtail’ and voila, it’s a cigar!  Don’t try to smoke it for at least a month, I’m told.  Let it dry out.  But not too much.  That is what Humidors are for.  Might have to get me one of those!  In the meantime, ziplock bags (which I have been traveling with for many years because they just come in handy for packing and even those times when you have to move from one place to another with wet swim trunks?  But here I go digressing again!) will have to do along with a refrigerator when we can find it and then back at home.

So, if you want to smoke the best Cuban cigars in the world, you have two options.  1.) Go to Cuba and spend some time with the tobacco farmers.  2.)  Come visit me and sit a spell.  Perhaps I’ll pull out a couple of the good ones!

We proceed to go back to the farmers house where his wife treats us with real Cuban coffee, rich and full of flavor!  This day is only getting better by the minute!  The farmer presents me with a pack of cigars and I am given a price.  So, many dollars poorer, but many cigars richer, we sit and visit with the farmer and his wife!  Then we go outside where a farmhand is saddling up the horses, our transportation for the rest of the afternoon.

My First Cuban!

I climb onto my first horse in probably 15 plus years and I’m a bit nervous.  But not to worry, it just like riding a bicycle, right?  It turns out it is just like riding a horse!  But I have ridden horses many dozens of times in my life, so this turns out to be fun!  My horse, “Mojito”, aptly named, is lively yet clearly a trail horse.  He loves to lead the pack but is equally comfortable with following.  Getting him next to the lead horse is the most fun because he is competitive and starts to compete for the lead.  But hey, what is it with trail horses around the world?  If your horse is not leading, it follows with its nose stuck to the tail of the horse in front of it.  Don’t horses know it’s not nice to ‘tailgate’?

The trail through the valley was spectacular!  Dark red soil, lush vegetation, Mogotes on every horizon, quaint farmhouses and tobacco barns around every turn.  Horseback riding, as fun as it is, I couldn’t help but think to my dirt bike riding days.  A throttle would be nice on this thing!  I’d be like, “Come on Mojito, pick up this pace!”  And Mojito would be like, “Chill, Rider, I’ll get you there at MY pace!”  So we ride at Mojito’s pace and check out the scenery and the Mogotes!

So after a couple hours of riding, we arrive at a Sugar Cane Farm and dismount for a visit.  Oxen are commonly used here to work the fields and, of course, every farmer has a tobacco barn.

We first notice the working kitchen at the farm, consisting of a charcoal stove table where all the cooking is done.  Strolling outside, we see coffee beans ripening on the bushes, an old fashioned, yet working plow that is used to this day to till the fields.  We come across coffee beans drying in the sun and horses tied randomly to places where the workers intend to get back on them.  And, of course, the ‘Parking Lot’ where my ‘Mojito” is resting with the other steeds!

So after visiting with the local farmers and finding myself a few more dollars poorer after buying a water bottle filled with local coffee beans that I wonder if I can bring back home, I take some fun photos that the locals are thrilled for me to take.  They have shown us how they crush the sugar cane and extract the juice.  Then they made us rum drinks using the sugar cane (which I’m sure was designed to loosen our wallets so we would buy their wares!) and we sat and chatted with our guide over very sweet and cold drinks in the hot humid weather.  After a relaxing time at the sugar cane farm, we mount our trusty steeds once more and ride off in the sunset past more Mogotes and we finally dismount our horses on a lonely trail a mile or so from the farm we started at and Mojito and his pals trot happily off towards the farm they call home, all by themselves!  We find our next ride back to our Casa waiting for us (a welcome relief), a 1956 Chevy in pretty decent shape!

We ride back the few miles to our Casa and bid our guide goodbye.  Oh, right, pay him for the day too.  Now with my wallet getting lighter, but happily so because so far, we’re not overspending our budget, even with the couple of glitches we have experienced.  I did plan for a few spending errors.  And we are a bit hungry and a little sore from being on horseback all afternoon.  But we have enough energy to take a walk into town, a mere 3 blocks away.  I manage to find a place where I can buy some internet cards because our host has told us he has WiFi and I need to contact my Cuban “Hero” that helped me put my trip together and inform her of the no-show taxi this morning and try to make sure it doesn’t occur again.  Because two mornings from now we are scheduled to take a booked taxi on an all day trip (several hundred miles) to our next destination.  We then make it back to our Casa where our host has dinner ready.  What a marvelous spread her mom has made for us! 

Ok, things are improving as it concerns our well being and our travel plans.  We have had a wonderful day!  Top it off with a home cooked Cuban meal by the Grandmother of the Children of our Host, LOL.  But the meal was delicious! (I have to admit that I augmented it with a small bottle of hot sauce I brought from home, but only because I love spice!  Cuban food is basically bland, but that only refers to their spice levels, not their overall flavor!)

Ok, dinner has been consumed.  Time to relax and retire for the evening.  But wait, there is more to explore!  Our host asks if we want to enjoy the rooftop patio because he can leave the lights on.  I tell him ‘no, do not leave the lights on, we want to drink a cervesa and maybe enjoy a cigar and look at the stars!  Leave the lights off!  But I DO ask him for a small cup of honey and a lighter.  His wife obliges me and I climb to the roof (an easy set of stairs) with the obligatory camera gear, cervesa, and cigar and honey supplies and begin to kick back for some relaxation and camera fun.  My wife joins me but retires before I get really into my Astro Photography.  Perhaps this photo will be worth it?  Should I send it to my host?

Milky Way in Vinales

Ok, get some sleep Don!  Tomorrow will come soon!  Oh wait, it’s here now?  It’s after midnight?  By how many hours?  Darn…  Better get to bed!  Humberto will be picking us up at 7:30 AM!  Good thing our host will have breakfast ready at 7 AM!  I like this “Breakfast at our Casa thing”!  What happened in Habana???  Ok, ok, haul the camera rig down the stairs and go to bed!  Goodnight all !!!

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