The alarm was set for 6.15am and we heard Javier preparing breakfast. The night before I’d said we’d have whatever was easiest for him but he was the host with the most to the end of our stay. More fresh fruit, fruit smoothie, bread (the yellow bread made with egg is very tasty), scrambled and fried eggs with large slices of avocado and Cuban coffee which he told us was from the Guantánamo region in the south east.
We took photos of us all together (one for him to add to his collage of guests) then stepped outside the Casa
and he walked us to the corner (carrying Bill’s rucksack) where there’d be more chance of a taxi at this time of the morning. Sure enough, there was an ancient rusty Lada and Javier told the driver where we were going and told us to pay $6 CUC. It took about 20 minutes to the Viazul coach station on the edge of the city, next to the city zoo.
Info: there is another, more conveniently located bus company based downtown called ConectandoCuba (but you have to buy tickets 72 hours in advance- you can get them at the Cuba Turismo desk in the foyer of the Hotel Libre) and there were cars outside touting for business to drive people who hadn’t bought a coach ticket.
We’d already decided that if there were no tickets available, we’d negotiate a fare, knowing the going rate for the trip was $75CUC). We went inside the building and were told to wait till everybody had checked in for the 8.40 bus to Viñales (pre-booked ticket holders have to be there 30 minutes before departure otherwise you might lose your seat). We bought two $12CUC single tickets- although were never actually given hard copies or a receipt which proved a little problematic later- for the 4 hour journey and were personally ushered on to the bus. The Chinese manufactured coach left a few minutes early and even arrived 20 minutes early at the first stop, Las Terrazas, an original Eco-village dating from 1968.
As we turned off the motorway and drove down towards the village, we saw a guy cutting the wide verges with a scythe and a lot of dense forest and birds up above. The driver informed us we were stopping for diez (10) minutos whilst holding up 5 fingers so we thought we’d not venture too far. In the event, we had time to have a quick look around the welcome area to the ‘resort’ and a ‘comfort break’.
Back on the bus, we passed a whole host of wildlife (cows, horses, dogs) and vehicles (modern Chinese cars, 30 year old American and Russian cars, ancient Russian tractors, lorries similar to cattle trucks loaded with people, cyclists with no helmets, (if you plan to cycle in Cuba bring your own bike and plenty of spares or at the very least your helmet!) horses and carts, even a trailer with two young children and an adult, being pulled by two oxen) on and beside the highway. Road conditions varied from stretches of fairly newly laid Tarmac to rough but drivable. Under several of the bridges over the road we saw people waiting to get lifts in the above cattle trucks -a common way for locals to get around, or waiting more hopefully for a lift in a taxi or tourist hire car.
Info: hitchhiking is very normal in Cuba and can be a pretty organised affair with people with clipboards wearing yellow jackets (called los amarillos’ ) who take down he names of people needing a lift and flag down cars/trucks. Women and old people get priority. It is possible for anyone to try this mode of transport but it can take all day with no guarantee of where you might end up!
I’d read about these ‘amarillos’ (yellow jackets) and told them that, due to the relatively small number of private cars in Cuba, there is a government organised hitchhiking system throughout Cuba whereby a government official in a yellow jacket is in charge of registering people who need a ride.
We saw several of these small groups of people under bridges (the bridges often going absolutely nowhere but usefully offering some shade) along the motorway
Tourists and taxis are allowed to refuse lifts but, interestingly, government cars identifiable by the colour of their license plates are required by law to pick up hitchhikers if they have a free seat and can be reported if they fail to do so!
The landscape was agricultural with the odd homestead and occasional group of low rise buildings. We didn’t see many road signs either.
Next stop, Pinar del Río but we didn’t get off the coach.
Here is a lorry which many Cubans use like a ‘bus’- no a/c and no seats, just clamber on!
At Pinar Del Río an inspector got on the bus and checked everyone’s tickets. We obviously didn’t have one as we’d been personally escorted on to the coach in Havana. At first the inspector didn’t believe me when I explained what had happened but I insisted and fortunately he accepted my story and moved on. The guy sitting behind us simply told the inspector ‘el mismo que la señora’ (the same as the lady) and the inspector didn’t argue again.
We arrived at our destination 30 minutes early but it must be a common occurrence because there were many people already crowding the bus-stop with names on bits of cardboard. I saw my name on one so felt relieved. We were met by the son of the Casa owner, called Dariel- because he speaks some English, his full time job is now working to rent out his father’s (and friends’) Casas to tourists. We walked about 1/4 mile to the Casa Pananderos and were taken on to the roof area and shown around the lovely upstairs Casa which consisted of a large sunny terrace with rocking chairs, leading to a small open dining area, a door to the bedroom with two double beds and FOUR aspects – the two large windows simply had wooden Venetian type shutters – no glass but I guess you don’t need it!- a separate small bathroom with a shower and a further door off the bedroom which led to another little terrace with chairs and a table. Absolute bliss to have so much natural light after the last three nights in windowless rooms with low artificial lighting!
We registered (all the Casa owners have to pay the state $40CUC per month for the licence, regardless of whether they get any rentals or not, and then 10% of income.) The landlord and I had quite a chat about the politics and life in Cuba under the embargo, then they asked what we wanted to do. We said we wanted a small bite to eat before anything else so we were taken the back way down the dirt track (reminiscent of Cambodia) then over a rickety wooden bridge over what can only be described as a waterway/rubbish tip to…..an amazing restaurant overlooking the fields to the lush valley beyond. We said we weren’t that hungry but because the only choice was a $12CUC set menu we agreed we’d share one portion between two. (Having read about these set menus it seems this is often necessary as portions are huge). We ordered the grilled lobster and it came with a starter of fruit salad then a large bowl of noodle soup (at this point I checked we had only ordered one portion and they assured me we had!). This was followed by a plate of house special yellow rice with pineapple and a plate of boiled rice,
then a dish of steaming hot beans in black sauce and a plate of avocado on cucumber, sliced cabbage and delicious ‘French’ beans and, finally, the grilled lobster! All for one person! We couldn’t even finish it between us!
Then we walked back to the Casa and the owner organised for a friend of theirs to promptly come over and discuss our needs. I’d read about a sunset tour so I mentioned this and we ended up agreeing there and then to an immediate personal tour on horseback to some caves, a coffee plantation and a tobacco plantation and a cigar each to smoke, culminating in a sunset over the mogotes (flat-topped hills for which this valley is famous), all for $30 pp- the only extras would be a cocktail if required. (yes THEY were required!)