It turned out that my ‘direct minibus’ from Trinidad to Vinales was just some guy’s car with 4 of us squished in.
Disconcertingly when I asked the others where they were going they all said Havana. It turns out though that I didn’t go via Havana: we screeched to a stop under a flyover on the motorway about 50km outside and I was ushered out. The driver seemed sure and I’d made it clear I was going to Vinales. So there I was, chilling on the motorway for a minute or two until a lovely classic car pulled up to take me into Vinales. I’m not really sure how it works but somehow it does!
There was a British couple in the first car share and it turned out they live about 5 minutes away from me in London, on the same road as my housemate’s boyfriend, and she used to work for Deloitte tax and corporate finance before having a total career switch to osteopathy!
7 hours later I got to Vinales. I told the taxi driver the name of my casa, he kept stopping to ask people for directions and suddenly I was accosted through the window by a woman practically shouting in Spanish that my casa was full and that I should come with her. She knew the Casa name but it all felt very dubious so I asked her name, and she said it was ‘Yoan’, which is indeed the name of the casa host, but the husband! I told my taxi driver he had to take me to the casa and I’d ask them there. It did turn out to be full, and they had arranged for me to stay at a friend’s, which I was worried would embarrassingly turn out to be shouting lady, but it wasn’t, and I’m sure I ended up in a far nicer place than I would have done if I’d blindly followed her!!
I’ve already noticed a pattern that when I first arrive somewhere I instantly think “no, I don’t like it here, what am I doing?” but I then quickly get settled in my surroundings. This was very much the case in Vinales, after is been shouted at by the fraudster ‘Yoan’, gone to the first casa and then trekked back across town with my bags to where I was staying I had basically written off Vinales. However once I got into my casa, met the owner Magdalia and her daughter Mila (my age) and Mila’s cute little son Arial and unpacked I felt right at home.
A day in I far preferred Vinales to Havana or Trinidad. If I had only gone to those two places, then to be honest I wouldn’t have recommended Cuba to people as a holiday destination. But Vinales just felt so much better, far calmer, people didn’t just talk to you because they were trying to hit on you or sell you something.
Vinales is famous within Cuba for its nature, the view from the balcony across the valley was stunning! A friend of the family popped over who is a guide in the national park and I agreed to go on a tour with him the next morning. First we saw the ‘prehistoric war painting’ (actually painted in the 60s) I think if it hadn’t been so colourful it might have looked more pre-historic but I suppose then it wouldn’t be so Cuban!
We then climbed up to a viewpoint and met some people from the ‘aquaticos’ community, who don’t use any conventional medicine, they only use water to heal any illness or injury i.e a broken leg! He then told me that there used to be about 50 aquaticos people and now there are only 2 families, I asked why and he said some of the young people move away, but lots of people have died. No comment….
When we got back to town I realised I’d lost my cardholder and money and must have left it up at the viewpoint 😦 very sad, and then very annoying as I realised I’d have to go to the bank AGAIN. I went to the one bank in town, it didn’t even have a cashpoint, you just have to queue for a cashier. After about 30 minutes I made it from the outside queue to an armchair queuing system inside, then about another 30 minutes later someone finally was available. People just seem to accept that that’s the way it is. Patience is a skill I evidently need to work on.
Once I’d finally finished at the bank I went on a run up to the Los Jasmines hotel which has stunning views over the whole Vinales valley. The Cubans seemed to find it hilarious that I was running up the main road hill, even the police checkpoint all doing running movements as me as I passed!
Los Jasmines had a wonderful looking pool so I decided to return the next day and this time no sneaking was required, I just had to pay $7 for the day, $6 of which I could redeem in food and drink. I heard a couple about my age talking by the pool and realised they were English. Having not spoken to anyone young for a few days I basically pounced on them and we ended up agreeing to go for cocktails in town that evening. We ended up on a table near the main square next to the Swiss guy who was staying my casa and his incredibly camp 5ft tall Cuban friend, who was wearing a fetching shell suit. He kept telling Harry (of the couple) how sexy he thought his hair was (shoulder length blonde) and how it reminded him of the Swede he’d met last night, and kept telling Kirsty “he’s mine bitch”. All very amusing.
The next morning I hired a bike and booked onto a ‘sunset walking tour’, but then I got sick so I rode back to the casa and had a rest for a couple of hours. I was planning to just sack off the cycle and try and go on the walk still but as I was mooching on the bed reading my lonely planet, one of the ‘Cuban Highlights’ was cycling through the Valle de Vinales. This spurred me out of bed and on a couple of hours cycle through the valley. It was fantastic, they have these really unique round topped mountains called ‘Mongoles’ with sheer limestone cliffs. I remember phoning my brother once and he said he was in Cuba climbing (at which point I promptly hung up to avoid £3/min!) but I reckon it may have been in Vinales.
The sunset hike was really great. It was me and a German couple (I’d say 90% of the tourists I’ve seen in Cuba have been German!) and a brilliant guide. He was really knowledgable about the plants and local farming but also really interesting to talk more to a young Cuban about the economy and way of life. He’d gone to university, and initially done a government job afterwards, but for most roles the pay from a government job is significantly lower than a tourist job. Because Cuba has 2 currencies, a local currency and a tourist currency, so people like doctors will be paid in the local currency and it’s the equivalent of maybe $50 a month. Whereas someone working with tourists could be earning more like $500 a month. So unless you’re doing your government job for the passion of it, it’s hard to see the incentive!
Now in hindsight, the cycle and walk may have been a bad idea. Because although I felt fine at the time I then got really sick that evening. I think maybe I had eaten something dodgy already and then getting too much sun and exercising made me much worse! I had a dreadful night, and knowing I had to get the bus back to Havana early this morning filled me with dread. I got up at 6.30, still feeling awful, did a rushed pack and was worried I wouldn’t make it to be bus for 7am. Magdalia motioned for me to come into the kitchen, and sit down and shut my eyes. My initial though was ‘ooo am I getting a present?’ (they did quite like me) however I soon realised that she was praying!! For my stomach to get better! This was very kind of her, however as I am really not religious I was just sitting there with thoughts of ‘I feel dreadful, and I’m worried I’m late…I wonder how long prayers last…’
However, either the prayer, or the medicine I snuffled from a couple at the bus stop, seemed to do the trick, as I made it back to Havana without any hiccups. Which is more than can be said for the bus! The journey is supposed to take 2-3 hours, but it took us over 5 as we’d only made it about 20km before it became apparent that the aircon was broken. Spluttering blasts of cold air out at random intervals. To be honest I wasn’t too fussed by this, and would rather cope with that than being kicked off the bus for 2 hours until it was fixed (which is what happened). Some people were taking the bus for 9 hours to Trinidad, so I think it was more in their interest.
So now I’m back in Havana for a final night before flying to Panama. Jono and Pia recommended a restaurant that is in an old chimney, right in the West of the Verdado district, so I’ve booked a table for tonight (hoping my stomach can handle it!)
Next stop, Panama City!!