It was destination countryside as we laden the small car with our baggage and headed west to Viñales. The greenery exploded everywhere, a lush journey with many people waiting roadside to catch a carpooling opportunity. It’s a testament to how safe we have felt in Cuba so far that when our driver said he was stopping for fuel then drove past the gas station into the bush none of us bolted. Either with nervous curiosity or accepting our fate, the four of us still remained in our seats until the driver pulled up to a tumble down cottage choked by vines and two men from the bush came out with two large jerry cans and began filling the tank with a funnel, engine still running.
As we pulled into Viñales the first sight of the national park was the limestone monoliths which appear quite out of nowhere in the middle of farmland. The streets of the village line up Casa’s in every colour, a new definition of suburban lifestyle. Every house has the front door open, a porch with a menagerie of chairs and knows everything about everyone. We were staying with Magdy in a self contained room at the back of her house. She constantly checked in with us ¿Todo Bien? and quickly made sure we were set for exploring the next day.
The very central axis of Viñales is well visited by travellers, as is evident from the large amount of bars and restaurants trying to pull you into them. We did our best to frequent as many of them as we could, our aim also to meet other travellers. Taking a deck of cards out with us that evening we instead managed to interest the less than occupied staff of a very quiet but retro bar. There was a big Harley parked on the bar, red leather plush sofas and icons on every wall. The bar staff were dressed in shirts, red bow ties and red trousers. We took it in turns to first teach them a game, followed by them teaching us a simplified Cuban version of Polka and as the rum helped the broken conversation, there was much laughter too.
In the morning we were walked (by a man on a motorbike who lied when he said he would ‘roll slowly’) to the edge of the park, where suburbia met farmland. Here we were given a horse each to spend the morning exploring. Monique’s was called Caramel and was happy when he was leading the way. Mine was called Mojito and liked to eat, pee, pick his own course and generally see how much he could get away with. The soil was claylike, rust red. In the fields we passed everything we had been eating was evident growing nearby. There was rice, pineapple, mango, capsicum, lemons, bananas, onions and malanga, a Cuban potato like root. For later in the season, almonds and avocados were growing. Pigs, goats, sheep, horses and the odd cow appeared to roam free, farmers commuting up and down the same tracks we were taking keeping stock of what was going on. As we rode the guide managed to get us the freshest produce, mango or sugar cane to munch on. He said they still use the roosters in cock fighting in a lot of the smaller towns. With each farmer employed in his own trade, it pays to know your neighbours. Whilst the government purchases 90% of your produce for a small wage, extra can be made on the side with selling your 10% share.
We went to see the production of Cuban cigars at the hands of a friendly farmer. Our horses pulled in at a barn which inside was dark with leaves that would be drying for 3 months. 90% of the bundled leaves would be taken to a factory for mass production whilst 10% selected by the farmer were taken, soaked and scented with cinnamon, honey and other delicious things for several months more. Once they were ready to be turned into cigars the leaves had more of a tough but flexible skin like quality. The leaves were taken, middle artery removed as it holds a lot of the nicotine, and a stack were tightly rolled together. Three parts were then used to seal it, a leaf to concertina around the outside and one for each end. The fixative was honey. It still needs 24 hours more to set after this process. We were invited to try a cigar. They dipped the end in honey, again to add more flavour. Monique was getting lots of compliments as she breathed in the smoke, held it and slowly released it out, ‘good smoker’ he complimented. I couldn’t do it convincingly and retired.
Further down the track we made our way to where they produced coffee, sugar and rum. Every time our guide stopped to chat to a friend, my horse would take the chance to much a bit of hedgerow, the most beautiful the more delicious apparently. When we arrived we saw the origins of a process now taken on in mass to pick, sort and dry coffee beans. The rum of the locality was blended with mini guavas and had a sweet taste, so despite it being 11am we were drinking it neat. Having seen the produce of Cuba, a Mojito makes so much sense. Rum, lemons, sugar cane and mint are always on hand. In fact there is a whole list of cocktails that all involve some variety on exactly this, maybe swapping out mint for basil or pineapple.
In the evening we had dinner at the house cooked by Magdy. With front door wide open we sat in her reception room and were treated to fried malanga, vegetable rice, salad, black beans and fruit salad having seen it almost field to plate that same day.