After visiting Las Terrazas, Soraoa and Vinales I felt refreshed. Sure, there was poverty but it felt no where near as oppressive as in the city.
Vinales – Fidel and Lester
Vinales, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a beautiful collection of valleys scattered with limestone cliffs (known as Magotes). Farmers drive their oxen and plough through rust-coloured tobacco fields. It’s the most amazing setting I’ve come across in Cuba.
We arranged through our Casa a sunrise tour to Los Aquaticos (a must-do for anyone travelling to Vinales – see highlights) of the valley the next day after arriving. Lester, our guide, greets us at 6am. Apart from the billions of stars and the sinking moon, it’s pitch black. We get into a cart that’s pulled along by a horse and make our way into the valley. Seamus makes the mistake of sitting at the front and spends the next 10 minutes getting farted on by one windy horse. We hike up hill with flash lights to a coffee farm to catch the sunrise over the valley, disturbing sleeping pigs and goats along the way.
Lester has great local knowledge and his English is fantastic. He’s only in his early 20’s. On our way back to the horse and cart we pass farmers who have started work in the fields, the morning mist is clearing and everything is so peaceful.
Fidel, Lester’s older brother takes us on the sunset tour the following evening to the stunning Valle del Silencio. We stop off at Yoan’s fathers farm for an organic Mojito (note – the best Mojito I have ever had), and meet our first Hutia (Cuban tree rat).
On our way through the tobacco fields we got chatting. Fidel has a young family and learned English so he could work as a guide and earn good money to provide for them. He studied computer software engineering at university and started his career earning only $12 CUC a month. He had a girlfriend and a child of 1 and was dependant on his parents for help. After university he went back to his home town of Vinales and did some causal work for Yoan and Yarellis, the casa owners we were staying with. He fixed their computer and linked them up to the internet. Yarellis fell pregnant and so he helped around the house – cooking, cleaning and doing odd jobs. Tourism was becoming more and more popular in Cuba and so he took the opportunity to study English and also to learn about the local history and the valley’s biology and plant life.
Fidel seized opportunity after opportunity, and was determined to make money to support his family and get the things that made him happy – mainly an iphone and freedom to choose when he wanted to work. He’s now planning to build on a plot of land. (In Cuba all land is state owned – you cannot own land).
“For all the things I am unhappy with in terms of the system,” explains Fidel, “my girls get a free and decent education right up until they finish university and we as a family are treated to the best health care system the world has to offer.” He shows us a scar on his left shoulder. “This was a tumour from 24 years ago that was removed,” he says. He points to his eyes and says he has also had laser eye surgery. “You have a cold or flu or a minor injury, yes the wait for medical attention can be long and many complain. You have cancer, aids, a tumor…you are seen and treated immediately.”
The sunset tour ends on a tobacco farm with Jose the farmer,who shows us how he rolls Cuban cigars. There are various kinds – “ones for the boss, ones for the pussies.”
Lester is also there with a group of tourists and leaves earlier with his group, leaving Fidel, Seamus and I with Jose the farmer. “Now the tourists have gone,” says Jose in Spanish, “it’s time for some Ron.” With that he pulls out a bottle of Rum and tops up our Mojitos.
We get pleasantly wasted that evening on Havana Club and Cuban cigars. The sun sets, the stars come out and Fidel gives us an insight into the lives that other Cubans lead.
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.