After a few days in Havana (read more over here), I was happy to leave hectic Havana. We rented a vintage car and driver to take us to Vinales, the tobacco region in western Cuba.
Since the trip from Havana to Vinales still takes two hours, we decided to rent a convertible. The children were thrilled. After a few days in the city, the cool breeze and beautiful scenery were just what we needed.
The guide wanted to take us to Pinar del Rio in the middle of Vinales. We chose the shortest route (two hours), which consists mostly of highway. You can also choose the longer, nicer route along the coast, but since we only had one day that was not feasible.
Even if you take the highway, there is still a lot to see.
Cuba is, of course, known for its cigars. Vinales is the region of tobacco plantations. Want to know more about cigars?
Our first stop took us to a plantation. We were given a detailed explanation about growing and harvesting tobacco leaves. On the plantation we visited no pesticides are used. The worms that want to feast on the leaves are removed manually. After they are picked the leaves are hung on horizontal sticks in the drying rooms or Casas del tabaco. This drying takes 45 to 60 days. The state still owns all the tobacco plantations. The 'manager' of the plantations may keep a small portion of the harvest, the rest is for the State. That’s why the Cuban government is still the only producer and distributor of Cuban cigars.
After harvesting and drying comes the fun part, rolling the cigars. A very grumpy Cuban demonstrated to us how it is done. While enjoying a glass of rum, he rolled one cigar after another. It seems a cinch if you look at the next video.
After that we drove to hotel Los Jazmines in Pinar del Rio. Next to the hotel you have a beautiful view on the region. The hotel itself has officially 4 stars. That seems a bit overrated, but it still looked pretty okay. So if you want to spend some more time in Vinales, this is an option.
The Pinar name comes from the the word "pine". In former days there used to be a pine forest on the banks.
The nearby village of Vinales in Valle de Vinales is a great place for lunch or just to have a drink. The main street with colored low houses is quite cozy. The village owes its name to the vineyards here that were created by immigrants from the Canary Islands.
The landscape of Valle de Vinales is stunning. Mogotes (steep limestone formations), red earth, royal palms and tobacco fields alternate. You can visit a number of caves here. We chose Cueva del Indio, in the valley of San Vicente. This cave was discovered in 1920. First you walk a bit through the lighted corridors of the cave. Then you can take a boat ride on an underground river. Once outside you can enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice (with or without rum).
If you make this trip from Havana, you have to expect that you're on the road 10 to 12 hours. If you want to see more of Vinales, so you should definitely book a night in the region.
After four days we left for Varadero, but it was not without a struggle. The hotel we booked in Varadero provided a free transfer from the airport to the hotel. Since we were already a few days in Havana, I contacted the hotel by phone to ask whether they could also pick us up at Hotel Parque Central. No problem! However, I then had a dark suspicion that this was not going to be all right. And yes, the next morning we got up promptly at 10 a.m. to wait in the lobby. 10.30, no taxi, 11, no taxi. Eventually I called the hotel, but nobody appeared to be aware. I was transferred 10 times (and calling abroad is not cheap), and they promised to call back within 5 minutes. Guess what? Of course they did not. I still gave them the benefit of the doubt and thought the problem was caused by miscommunication (my lousy Spanish and their English at the same level). I therefore asked the concierge at the hotel if he would call. He also received the answer "I will call back within 5 minutes.” I believe he is still waiting for that call. Eventually we took a taxi to Varadero. Once there, we expressed our displeasure and eventually they agreed to pay our transfer to the airport at the end of our stay. The Cubans have a lot to learn in the field of communications.
From Varadero, we made a trip to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. More on that will follow in the next blog post.