They came for me at 9.00am. Two big guys. ‘”you Jeremy Fraser?” “Yes that’s me”, “we tak you Vinales”; “oh great – why two of you?” I point to both of them with a quizzical look. “I stay there- he drive back”. OK – seems reasonable.
I sit in the back and off we go in the comparatively modern, by Cuban standards, but close to being clapped out, Toyota. Two and a half hour drive out of the city and onto a motorway but not a motorway as we know it. I’d settled down to flip through the pix on my camera and happened to glance up to see that we were just passing …..an ox- drawn cart in the fast lane! Groups of people were gathered under bridges literally in the middle of nowhere, one or two were walking along the sides and then even more astoundingly, right in front of us a leathery old man in a Stetson lazily rode his horse across all three lanes! But to be fair, traffic is very light and there’s no possibility of anyone cutting you up or tail-gating.
The whole journey was as though the Toyota had turned into the Tardis and we had gone back in time. 99% of the cars, lorries and buses were well over 50 years old. Those massive old American trucks with vast, long bonnets, rickety buses straight out of an old Bollywood movie, and every type, make and model of the fabulous 50s American cars with their V8, petrol-guzzling engines still miraculously burbling along, belching smoke. The road cut through farmland where the only form of agricultural machinery to be seen were ploughs being pulled by oxen; goats and horses were staked out to restrictively graze by the side, and farming folk were going back and forth in their horse drawn carts ladened with straw, vegetables or some other produce.
Deftly avoiding most of the numerous potholes, the completely silent driver drove us for around 150 kilometres until we branched off, coming instantly onto a winding country chicane going up into the mountains through what seemed almost like jungle, thick with palm and banana trees, eventually emerging out to see some breathtaking, magnificent scenery over wide, sleepy valleys and the mountain ranges beyond.
We made a stop at a special tourists viewing spot where you could really take in the magnificent panorama and I took the opportunity also to avail myself of a sublime Piña Colada from a little log hut, the tuxedoed proprietor of which sold nothing else, and where, there was another very talented Cuban band to welcome and entertain you.
Following a fabulous old Buick on the road to Vinales
Onward into Vinales. The car bumped and jolted over what were little better than cart tracks through rows of small, colourful, single-storey dwellings reminiscent of prefabs, without a shop or bar in sight, and gradually the stark reality of the fact that I was going to stay in one of these places became clear. “What HAD I let myself in for!??” Finally, at the very end of a pot-holed muddy road we spotted the name we were looking for, ‘Casa Campo’.
“Mama-mia!” I said to the two drivers, “It looks like a SHED!! They just grinned, shrugged their shoulders, patted me sympathetically on the back, got into the car again, and, with gravel flying, accelerated off back down the road.
My initial skepticism soon melted away however as it was clear that this particular ‘Casa Popularis’ as they are called, was by far the prettiest and in the very best location, separated from all the other houses with wonderful views over the tobacco fields and mountains. A canopy of freshly watered, beautiful flowers and trailing greenery welcomes you from which appears the fabulously named and smiling hostess ‘Mileidys’. “Inglese?” “Si, Jeremy”. I’m shown to my room. It didn’t matter at all that it was basic. And I do mean basic.
The afternoon sun shone between the wooden slatted, glass-less windows and the sounds of chickens clucking outside, the occasional pony and trap jingling past and the lowing of a contented ox just a few yards away had an immediate relaxing effect as I slumped on the bed with a broad smile on my face – half in incredulity and amusement that I had ended up at such a place and half in total appreciation.
Fortunately there was more to the town than I had at first realised. We had entered it from the side where it was purely residential which had got me into a bit of a panic. “What the HELL was I supposed to do here for two days!??” But a 10 minute stroll back up the road from the Casa and there at the cross roads, to my relief, left and right, was the Main Street.
There were a fair number of open cafes, bars and restaurants of varying build standards and the street busy with a healthy mixture of locals and tourists. Well OK it doesn’t look busy in this pic but it was taken at a time when I suppose most people were having a kip, or siesta I should say; here it seems that all that’s missing is some tumble-weed.
I found some plastic chairs and tables on the pavement outside a shop no bigger than a beach hut, which had a fridge and sold one type of canned beer only. But that was all that was needed. A cold beer (1 CUC) and cigar, sitting in the sunshine listening to recorded Cuban music blaring out from the main square opposite; Locals calling loudly to each other, kissing at the briefest of meetings, boys cruising along in jalopies hooting at the señoritas, horse and carts clip-clopping by, and a busy atmosphere in general. All the men carry on the tradition of whistling a lot in piercing, short blasts to attract anyone’s attention about anything. Goes on all the time, and the indigenous women, I couldn’t help noticing, all have very wide bottoms. Two interesting facts I thought you’d want to know.
“Right” I said to myself. “Come on. You’ve got to do something rather than sit here all day”; funny thing though, I had been thinking about how I wished I had booked a pony trekking tour into the tobacco fields and valleys and that it would be the perfect thing to do that afternoon, but it meant trying to get through to the agency and a lot of waiting around and all too much hassle, so I thought I’d just go back, sit in the rocking chair on the veranda and do some writing;
Strange to relate then that as I walked back down towards ‘my’ Casa, a young, mahogany-coloured guy in a straw hat, sitting on the steps of his Casa, said: “you want horse ride?”
So, long story short, (well shorter than it could have been) I went on a fabulous 4 hour trek just with this bloke as my personal guide, through the most beautiful countryside, stopping at a tobacco-leaf drying barn where a guy whose family had been in tobacco growing for generations explained all about how the cigars are made.
There was no question that his cigars were every bit as good as Cohibas, recognised as the very best in the World, and after trying the sample he gave me, and to the others in our small group, I bought 10 at just 3 CUC each, which, as anyone will tell you who knows, is peanuts for such a quality product. (no massive Government taxes applied here of course!) – wish I hadn’t bought the shop ones earlier – but still. He makes some of his cigars with choice leaves wrapped in banana, pineapple, guava and lemon leaves which give them a very subtle flavour; then he packs the cigars in plastic bags with sliced apple to keep them moist. When first lighting one up he recommends putting coffee, honey or cognac on the tip so that you have initial added lip protection and a delightfully smooth extra taste as you take your first puff.
After this fascinating talk we had a 5 minute stroll to a wooden shack-bar amongst some shading palm trees, for a – yep – my new favourite drink, a refreshing Pina Colada!
Back on the now rested horses, off we trotted for another hour or so to where we started. Fabulous! Charge for the whole afternoon? – 15 CUCs. Wonderful time and amazing value.
It might be worth relating here that riding after such a long time of never being near a horse caused me some private amusement. (well probably very much also to that of my guide behind me, although he’d of course must have seen such amateurishness many times before). As you know, you have to get into the swing of rising up in a rhythm to release your weight on the beast as it trots but until you do your whole body shakes and judders uncontrollably, and my camera, which was around my neck, had a life of its own, wildly swinging around all over the place whilst I tried to steady it with one hand and hold onto the saddle’s pommel with the other. In the meantime I was conscious of my iPhone either being bent in my hip pocket or easing itself out so I had to keep checking that it was still there and shoving it back down again. Besides all that, until you do get your body in sync with the horse’s movements, your bum bounces jarringly up and down and the whole thing plays havoc with your nether regions which one has to also find time to continually adjust, without falling off. So all this is going on while the bloke is doing precisely what you don’t want him to do which is constantly click-click-clicking with his tongue and swishing the stead’s rump with a leafy branch, to keep making it trot faster, so you clamp your mouth shut to stop your teeth from shattering and all you want, please God, is to stop juddering like a rubber doll, but you can’t even though you want to retain a modicum of self-respect and pulling up now will either make the other horse run straight into the back of mine or we’ll lose momentum and never get up that rock strewn hill or through the fetlock-high mud I can see up ahead. DDDDDear GGGGGod, mamamammake it st st st st stop!
But finally you get the hang of it and it becomes enjoyable as you and your new four legged friend become as one, and of course, just walking is very relaxing as you hear the creak of the leather, the hooves clomping sometimes on hard ground for a change and you can fully take in the fabulous scenery.
I kept feeling the urge to spit as though I had been chewin’ tabaccy, lean back in my saddle, tip my Stetson (if I’d had one) and screw my eyes into a manly wrinkled squint as I searched the horizon for injuns.
Back to the Casa. Showered, changed and then joined the two girls, the only other guests who were staying there, for dinner outside on the decking. Totally relaxed and as far as I was concerned much needed stimulating and fun conversation (without, for a change, straining to understand what was being said) well into the night over a tremendous banquet of bean soup, a mound of lobster chunks in a sort of mild chilli sauce, rice, salads, vegetables, fresh locally grown pineapple, mangoes and avocado and loads of other stuff plus plenty of wine of course. The girls, one of whom was half German/Swedish and blonde and the other, half German/Italian and dark haired, both of whom spoke fluent English thank goodness, were from ultra-privileged backgrounds and had been travelling the World together. Full moon, clear night, millions of stars, the sound of crickets, lots of laughs and great company.