Raindrops keep falling on my head… in Vinales, Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba.

24 May

On our final day in Havana, we arise early and take a 1950’s Chevy taxi (as you do) to the bus station. It takes a mere 2 hours to get to Vinales, a tranquil town in the Pinar del Rio region, but given the drastic change in the weather you’d have sworn we’d travelled further. As the rain drizzled around us and the warning of much more in the days to come, our hopes of visiting either Cayo Jutias or Cayo Levisa were dashed. These islands have been named as two of the very few islands in Cuba which remain quiet and without the establishment of large all-inclusive resorts, so we’re a tad disappointed.

Vinales itself however is part of the tobacco county so after settling ourselves into Mama Maria’s casa and placing our order for dinner (lobster for $10? hey, be rude not to), we ask her to arrange a guide to take us on a 2 hour horse-riding tour to a tobacco plantation. After about an hour traipsing along at a boringly slow pace in the rain, we arrive at a tobacco drying house where the browning leaves steam away for several weeks. I was a little surprised when the tobacco farmer offered us a drink first – rum and pineappe juice served up in a green coconut. Well, when in Rome… The young farmer, whose skin was an almost exact match for the leathery hue of the tobacco, then showed us his cigar-making technique. It was simpler than I thought, essentially just a few de-stemmed and de-stalked leaves, rolled up and sealed with fresh honey. And no, he didnt roll it on his naked thigh. Seems that’s just the stuff of TV.

Our overambitious tour guide then takes us to a cave (no pics, too dark) and the very long route back to our starting point. By this stage, we’re a little over it. It’s been nearly four hours since we set off, not two like we asked for, and the rain, mud and too-small saddle is irritating me with each step. When of course he tells us we must pay for the full four hours, I’m so tired and wanting to get back to our casa that I’m ready to comply, only to hear MC calmly and kindly tell the gentlemen we will only be paying him for the hours we asked for (albeit with a generous tip thrown in) and if he has a problem he can take it up with Maria or someone else who won’t throw him in the river. The guide visibly deflates in defeat, obviously deciding not to provoke the bloke with scruffy hair and a biker beard, and we walk away with me internally clapping my hands with glee that Cuban trickery didn’t win this time.

Dinner is scrumptious. A juice, fat lobster served with salad, vegetables, fried plantains (green bananas), moros and cristianos (literally ‘Moors and Christians’; rice flecked with black beans) and ajiaco (a ‘kitchen soup stew’ of potatoes, squash, malanga, corn, tomato paste, spices and whatever else is around). Mmm, mm!

Our final day in Vinales is fairly quiet as we again navigate the rain. We visit the ‘Botanic Gardens’, which is really just one family’s gorgeous garden at their home. Though I cant say I wasn’t just a tad little bit weirded out by the bald Pinocchio head that greeted us as we walked in…

The following day we set off for Cienfuegos. It is a very long bus journey requiring us to travel back to Havana before navigating further east. Arriving tired n the early evening at ‘Friendship Home’ we are greeted by Armando and Leonor. Though being highly recommended in the Lonely Planet, the place immediately smells like day-old milk – something is just a little off. It could be the four resident cats or the pet turtle swimming in the sink, or perhaps its the colonial house itself, overstuffed with creepy nick-nacks and with a “lovely” roof terrace where we can enjoy the “spectacular” view of the oil refinery. But deep down I know its the overly affectionate touching and hugging by our casa owners wearing toothy smiles that never quite reach their eyes. As MC points out, there’s something very Fred and Rosemary West about this place.

We take a stroll around town and are a little disappointed by what we see. Called Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South), it is named as Cuba’s most architecturally complete city, “a love letter to French neoclassicism that is wrapped picturesquely around one of Cuba’s best natural bays”. What we conclude is that many of the pictures illustrated in the LP must be at least 10 years old given the actual degradation of the buildings and while the bay is pretty, the water is just pretty smelly. The main plaza is very wuaint though and there is still, of course, too many amazing old classic cars.

That evening we tuck into an early dinner of the house specialty, Coca Cola chicken (yes, pollo cooked in the famous US bad boy) before heading to bed (not before double-checking the door was locked).

Our following few days in this town sees us spending most of our time not in it. We head to Rancho Luna, a small but picturesque beach. MC stops for a pose or two with two of his current loves – the October 2011 edition of Bike, that he’s somehow still reading (and re-reading) 7 months after we set off on our journey, and the 1950’s Classic Chevrolets, found ever so well-preserved in Cuba.

And we hire a scooter. Our mission? To reach El Nicho – ‘a 55km journey from Cienfuegos via a rough road through Crucecitas only negotiable with a four wheel drive’. MC, ever the optimist, proves me right again and we arrive at the natural park, albeit in a hefty 90 minutes and with the smell of burning engine wafting through the air. El Nicho itself is rather pretty and we wander the nature trail eyeing the waterfall, natural pools and caves, and a touch of Cuban resourcefulness, before revving the old love back up and charging back through the hills.

It’s our final day at our hostel and as the nearby church’s clock literally chimes 11am, Leonor (aka Rosemary) knocks at our door with the hasty reminder that it is check-out time. Then, with plastic smiles still affixed on their faces, our “friends” unceremoniously wave goodbye reminding us to “shut the door on your way out”.

We have already booked our accommodation in Trinidad, just 2 hours away, rather proudly using our Spanglish and our own Cuban phone card. So we are then a little quizzical when we are met by a man and taken to a waiting bici-taxi… hmm, thought we had booked somewhere close to the centre? We are therefore not surprised when we find ourselves in the wrong place, with the wrong owner explaining to us that the guests at our original hostel had suddenly become sick (how convenient) and they weren’t able to vacate the room as previously thought, but we could stay at her casa for the same price. I snort my annoyance at her, completely ticked off that we had been and were still being lied to. If the original hostel owner had simply admitted that she was full, we likely would have taken up her recommendation to stay with a friend. But to be dragged out of town, still having to tip the bici-taxi man, then to be lied to and expected to conform… well, my stubborn heels dug in and twisted. So, although the house looked lovely, I refused to give her the satisfaction and we snubbed her.

So here we find ourselves. Heaving our backpacks through town, scouring the LP bible, knocking on doors, with the cobble-stoned streets having me teetering on the edge of doing my best ‘human-tortoise, beached-on-its-shell, little-legs-waving-in-air’ impression. At first it is quite fun inspecting places, having the opportunity to choose where we would be most comfortable. But then, given we clearly are searching for somewhere to stay and are obvious turtle tourists, we are constantly accosted by locals. It is relentless. ‘No gracias’ is not enough, their footsteps never halting until we resort to harsher measures. It feels awful to be so rude, but there is no other way. One man, Jorge, waves his placard in front of us, adorned with pictures of his casa. I actually think it looks rather nice, but his desperation and forceful insistance is unsettling, and MC’s gut instinct refuses. Too right it proves us again, as Jorge stalks us for the next hour or two, even after we settle into our new place, shooting us looks that could only come from a serial killer in the making.

That afternoon we walk past at chiropractic clinic and notice cheap massages on offer. The owner offers us the opportunity to have the massages done at the same time, if we’d just wait 20 minutes for him to call a colleague to come in. It all sounds great. When she arrives, I turn to greet her, and… freeze. There, my masseuse for the day, is none other than the hostel owner I snorted at and snubbed early that day. Dammit. Karma just socked me one back in the shnoz.

Trinidad is noted as THE architectural home of Cuba. “Soporific Trinidad went to sleep in 1850 and never really woke up … [a] perfectly preserved mid-19th century sugar town.” Though unlike other colonial belles, Trinidad has beaches – nearby Ancon is said to be a stunner and easily the best beach on the southern coast. But, we see none of it. We are met with such torrential rain in Trinidad that we are at a loss as to what activities we can fill our day’s with. After being holed up in the casa for most of our second day, we decide to venture out for dinner. We head to a nearby paladar, La Coruna, mentioned in the Lonely Planet for its warm service and tasty, affordable dishes. We are indeed greeted by the gregarious Gregorio, a dear friend of Caty, the owner, and Caty’s aunt and daughter who also live and work at the restaurant. We are warmly welcomend and made to feel like part of the family.

When the band starts up, Gregorio gives me my first salsa lesson and introduces us to Canchanchara, a very strong shot (size extra large if Gregorio makes it for you!).

After dinner, MC sits back in an old rocking chair to enjoy another Cuban cigar, while passing the time with Caty…

By the time we leave we are promising to come back to visit with Caty the next morning, who promises she can help MC source quality Cuban cigars at an equally quality price and more singlets (“camisetas” in Spanish, a word MC finds too difficult to pronounce after Gregorio’s Canchancharas).

After a slow start to the day…

…We head off the meet Caty as promised.

As the rain continues to thrash down, we sip never-ending cups of delicious Cuban coffee, while we meet Caty’s friends. MC ponders over a range of cigar options, settling on a number of San Cristobal cigars beautifully presented in a handcrafted wooden box, while I score a top-notch manicure for a ridiculous $1. Can’t think of a better way to spend a rainy morning in Trinidad!

The following day, we decide to take the tourist steam train through the Valle de Los Ingenios.

Crossing slender bridges and passing munching cows looking suspiciously like Lenny Kravitz, the train travels at the speed of Thomas the Tank Engine, pulled by the apparently indomitable and classic engine No 52204 built in August 1919. The 90 minute trip sees the German tourist bus group join the Cubans for rum and salsa at 9am. And I can honestly confirm the myth – the Germans cannot dance. In fact, they remind me of the Singing & Dancing Santa Claus toys my mum sets up on her mantel piece each Christmas – all planted feet and mechanical swaying hips. It’s so awkward we are almost crying with laughter, hiding like children behind our umbrellas, until we finally stop at the Manaca Iznaga, an estate housing a 44m high tower once used to watch slaves and a large bell used to summon them.

With the rain continuing to pool around us, we’re given a toot-toot to head back to the train. A river has flooded up ahead so we are told we can’t go any further on the usual route and must head back. We’re about halfway home when thick smoke envelops the train and we crawl to a stop. Thomas has tanked.

As we await our rescue, we explore our options… its lashing down with rain and the train is scarce of anything, except, of course, the bar. We join a smattering of other Aussie and English travelers, and acquaint ourselves with Cuban rum.

It is 3 hours before we’re rescued, and, I. Am. Drunk.

Certainly makes the stumble home from the station in the rain more fun…

I deem it necessary for me to have an afternoon nap (read: pass out) before we head back to Paladar La Caruna for dinner like we’d promised. I awake feeling surprisingly fresh (perhaps this Cuban rum is quality after all), and we wile away our last night in Trinidad with another dash of Cuban rum, eating lobster and paella, and salsa-dancing with our new friends.

Trinidad has turned out to be such a memorable part of trip, not least because of the touching kindness of strangers to welcome and help us.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from all the recent downpour… is that if the night is warm but the streets are flooded, there is nothing else to do but get your friends together, kick up your heels and make your own fun!

x kel

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One Response to “Raindrops keep falling on my head… in Vinales, Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba.”

  1. Craig August 1, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    So jealous of all the cigar interactions your having here! you better be bringing me home a case 🙂

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