The Road to Viñales

The next morning, we bade farewell to our hosts in the first of a series of goodbyes. With a sad smile they wished us a happy vacation, both of us knowing that we wouldn’t see each other again. The funny thing about meeting people through travel is how violently and ephemerally your lives collide: blown about the globe, we intersect with strangers, opening our lives to each other before we’ve even caught a name. Every one of our casa particulares hosts said that besides the income perk, the greatest benefit of hosting tourists was getting to travel vicariously through them. While the state began easing travel restrictions on citizens in 2013, the cost of travel binds nearly all Cubans who aren’t diplomats or have relatives abroad to their island; the population has little geographic freedom. Where you can live and move is regulated to business or familial purposes, as the state wants to limit the influx of citizens into the cities. We’d learn that the majority of the police force in Havana came from other provinces, the work being their entry ticket to life in the nation’s capital.

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Viñales, in the Pinar del Rio province

But for us, it was time to leave Havana. My girlfriend and I found a busy road to hail a cab. The locals seemed more interested in stopping for her than they did for me, and a few minutes later, she was calling me across the street. It would cost us 2 CUC to get to the bus terminal: probably more than it should have, but agreeable, given our hurry. When we arrived at the terminal, we stepped out of the car and collected our belongings from the trunk. The driver approached me and I handed him the fare, ready in my hand. “What is this? I said 2 CUC each.” I shake my head. “Good try, buddy.” A nearby cabdriver laughed. Not our first rodeo.

Even at 8am, the bus terminal was crowded with tourists looking to go somewhere. We merged into the end of the line. It quickly became apparent that something was wrong. The girl in front of us (with the righteous Michael Pollan quotation on her bag) didn’t speak much English or Spanish, and she shuffled away dejectedly from the ticket desk, looking like she wanted to cry. The lady told us that their system was down and they couldn’t sell tickets — it didn’t matter what we were told yesterday. We could wait around in line and hope to get on the next bus, or the one after…

Outside, there was the usual swarm of taxi drivers waiting for their next fare. I circled their pack, asking, “Viñales?” A man appeared and offered a colectivo ride at 17.50 CUC/ seat — just a bit more than the price of a bus, with the added perks of leaving now, getting their quickly, and not being a bus. I collected my girlfriend from inside, and within a minute we’d connected with two Canadians looking to split the fare. I felt a selfish shade of pride when I thought of the other tourists, stranded inside the bus station. There were a few instances during our trip where looking outside the box paid off immensely, and this was the first. I felt guilty, momentarily, but we were all on our own roads. We were on the way to Viñales long before the terminal would sort out its bus situation.

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The Canadians were kindred spirits from British Columbia. We discovered that they paid 15 CUC to get to the bus terminal, and I exchanged a knowing look with my partner. Everything is negotiable in Cuba, provided that you know enough Spanish to negotiate. As we drove, we swapped impressions of the country, and then the conversation eventually found its way to American politics. The Canadians were young liberals like ourselves, and there was ample common ground to lament our recent election and national climate. Eventually, they steered the conversation back north of the boarder, and we were able to feign exactly enough knowledge of their political system to recognize the name of the Canadian PM, and show enough restraint to not invoke Parker and Stone.

Our driver let us chat for most of the ride, chiming in occasionally to point something out on the horizon. At a rate of ~70 CUC/ carload, driving 2.5 hours from Havana to Viñales would earn him several times the average monthly wage. Of course, there’s the upkeep on his car, and the inexplicable price of having to chauffeur North American tourists, but (like our casa particulares hosts) he was doing far better than the median simply by having access to a car (/extra room). As we faded from the city, we passed by rice paddies, banana trees, and eventually into tobacco country. Sensing our mounting interest through the increased number of pressed faces against the glass, the driver perked up. He pulled off the highway and up a short dirt road.

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Teen-aged tobacco.

Ahead, there was a barn. At first we weren’t sure if we were stopping for food or bathroom, until a farmer — a friend of the driver? — appeared and asked if we’d like to take a tour of their tobacco farm. The tour would be free, but offered in the hope that we might be willing to buy something at the end of it. This sounded great. We drove down another road, further from the highway, and arrived on a swath of land where bright green spouts were poking up from the soil. Each plot of field contained plants of different size. The farmer explained that tobacco is planted over the course of the season in crops. They could know the relative age of each plant by where in the field they had been grown. When the plant is grown, the tobacco is harvested in three stages, with the bottom, middle, and top leaves being collected together. Because each group of leaves receives a different amount of sun, each part has different characteristics: cigars can be varied by blending the one type with the others, or not.

Inside another barn, we were shown how they dried the leaves after harvest. There were two women there, hanging clusters of leaves around horizontal poles. They filled the entire length with the desiccating tobacco, and then stacked them high to the dark ceiling. The farmer explained that they divided labor by gender: men outside to cultivate the plant, women inside to cure the product. He led us to a table where there was an assortment of cigars. The farmers would sell them to us here at a steep discount, cutting out necessity for the state-owned tobacco stores, to pocket the profit themselves. We left with a box and a few loose cigars. Everyone won. Of course, we were eager to sample the most renowned tobacco on the planet — but having seen the place where it was grown firsthand, we knew that the fruits of their labor would be that much sweeter. I’m no aficionado, but…yeah. I was right, this time.

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Decisions…

We headed back to the car and swallowed the remaining distance to Viñales. The flatlands became mountainous, and the road rose and fell, twisting and turning its way into a valley speckled with tiny houses. After circling the town, our driver found our new residence and we bade farewell to the Canadians in another permanent goodbye. Our new hosts were even warmer than the last, and we found ourselves inside their living room with fresh papaya juice in our hands before our bags were unpacked. Their son spoke English, and led us outside and up a pair of stairs to a deck. We found two rocking chairs and three rooms, one which belonged to him, another to a pair of vagrant Germans, and another that had our names on it. We unloaded our burden and then climbed a pair of stairs to the roof, with a view of the town and countryside that sprawled into limestone mountains. Immediately, we knew we had located our perch for the weekend, having found another temporary home…

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