Beyond the Cuban Countryside

Viñales consisted of three parallel streets that wandered into dirt roads and got lost in the farmlands. One street was an assembly of tourist-oriented restaurants; the others were filled with boutique one-story homes. Nearly every house in the town was a casa particular, sporting brightly painted porches and a pair of rocking chairs. Strolling around, we felt like we were walking through a model village. The entire town had so plainly come to revolve around its rotating guests, it was almost hard to be at ease. Yet nature was abound, and it was ours to claim.

There’s a weird thing going on with tourism in the country. Despite the relative fortune pumped into the country by the planeload, your average Cuban will confess frustrated uncertainty about what happens to all the tourist revenue. The standard of living has remained steady over the past decades, while the country’s culture of 50+ year old cars and refrigerators beg the question of what happens to the state’s buying power. As the country continues to open itself up to foreigners, and their currencies are passed from tourist’s wallets to state-owned banks, the government continues to print its money and locals chase their shares in the dusty street. Property, despite being state-owned, is hardly maintained, and the roadways all but require that drivers be well-accustomed to plethoras of potholes. Cars (like casas) are passed down between the generations, and any owner must have a strong enough knowledge of mechanics to keep them running; they are markers of status as much as they are sources of income.

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On our first afternoon in Viñales, our hosts arranged a horse riding tour of the fields around the city. Despite our initial uncertainty about the town, the earth that surrounded it could hardly have been more beautiful. After passing by fields of tobacco, coffee beans, and local fruits, we returned home. On the way back, we stopped in a liquor store and decided treated ourselves to a generous bottle of the favorite ron of our previous host back in La Habana: Havana Club, 7 Años. After showering away the horse residue, around sunset, we found ourselves that special perch on top of the roof, and refreshed ourselves with tobacco and booze. The caramel-colored liquor was almost like a whiskey, yet smoother and sweeter than anything we’d tried.

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After sharing a glass or three we headed to the tourist strip for dinner. The block was already flooded with global guests, all searching for the optimal line. We pursued the suggestion of an (apparently popular) guidebook, and along with a dozen others, cued outside a tapas place. A few minutes later, a trio of matronly french women cut in front of the line and went straight for the host. They babbled at him sweetly, trying to coo their way inside; yet the apparent charm of their younger years had faded, and they were turned away cooly. Meeting the hostile stares of the patiently waiting, one of the three shrugged and offered, “we thought you were all a group.” Yeah, right. This is why everyone loves the French.

The couple next to us at dinner spoke betrayed their American heritage with their New York accents, and we fell into conversation with them. It was his first time in the country, but she had been here two months prior for a birthday party with twelve of her girl friends. We laughed. Clearly, they’d been here for tourism; travel regulations weren’t being interpreted very strictly, at least not yet. We promised to cross paths with them again, next time on the island.

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As the belly of the town grew full and the sky darker, the community began to convene. Visitors and locals alike were drawn together at the village square, where a crowd was massing for live music and dancing. Strangers and veterans fell into tempo with the soaring brass beats, shuffling about with unpracticed gringo or salsa-conditioned feet. Between songs, the performers changed: first an upbeat eight-piece band, then a confident teen grinning madly as five girls spun around him, and then the performers shuffled and reassembled. Noticing our waiter lost in the groove of bongo drums, it seemed like nearly everyone in the town was involved. We became one with the crowd and lost ourselves. Claiming a space near the front of the stage, determinedly unconscious of how we looked aside the best, we were contented simply to join in the nightly ritual.

Our second morning in Viñales, we rose to a breakfast that covered the table: eggs, fruit, bread, jam, butter, honey, milk, juice, and café. We ate what we could of the vibrant spread then shamelessly packaged the rest away in plastic bags for our countryside adventuring that afternoon. After three days without internet access, we were beginning to remember how satisfying life can be unplugged, but remained without accommodations for when we’d return to Havana. There was a single internet cafe in town, with a line that stretched around the building, inching forward at an imperceptible rate. Determining ourselves to worry about the details later, we forfeited the attempt immediately. Our time here’d be so short…there was so much to do…

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For 10 CUC, we rented bikes for the day and headed east in search of fabled caves that buried themselves in the limestone monoliths of the valley. The sky was clear, and the potholed road wound this way, then that, stretching infinitely into the horizon. Listening to Lost in the Dream on a small speaker we’d shoved into my bag as we peddled along, the countryside was as remarkable as any we’d ever seen. Upon reaching the caves, the destination was inundated with foreigners like ourselves, and we couldn’t be bothered to slow down. We turned around and found another way to explore. It stopped mattering where we were going; we were already there. Once in a vacation, after shedding the physical and mental baggage of travel, your burdenless shoulders raise themselves to the heavens and you know: THIS is freedom!! The the 9-5s, outstanding financial obligations, the growing list of chores, none of it could matter less. The silent irony, of course, is that you don’t have to leave your backyard to understand this sweet escape, but as the sun shone down on our reddening necks, we knew exactly why we’d come. Cars and bikers sped around us, honking or waving, it didn’t matter, everyone was a friend. We’d never forget that afternoon.

I’d never forget that burn, either. My girlfriend is part-greek and tan, and I’m forgetful, so naturally neither of us packed any sunscreen. Naturally, the locals don’t need sunscreen and capitalism isn’t a thing, so procurement opportunities were absent. What was dreadful at the end of a long day of biking was horrifying following the next afternoon, when we’d spend a couple of hours toasting by the water at the pristine Cayo Jutías. We’d find a hut selling bananas and ron at 0.40 CUC a serving, and shortly after, strip our clothes and wade into the water, our indifferent, naked bodies yet reddening. By the time our ride was arriving in Viñales, the pouring rain was a welcome relief on our gringo skin, and by the next morning, I was redder than a lobster and rapidly shedding white, flaky skin. Backpacking became a physical and mental challenge of soul-shattering proportions. I promised myself it was the last time I’d make that mistake, again.

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Cayo Jutías.

We following morning, we headed back east to the city. We arranged for a colectivo to take us back, and upon its arrival, found ourselves in the company of an older French couple. My companion conversed animatedly with them as I sat in uncomprehending silence. The trip from Viñales to Havana took about twice as long as the trip out: we stopped because our driver hadn’t eaten, the engine started overheating, and then, as we sped down the national highway, we encountered a broken down truck on the side of the road. Another car was already there, and as the third to arrive to the scene, our chauffeur wasted no time in hopping out to offer assistance, in the form of close hovering around the involved parties. Our impatience mounted as we waited in the car. Sinking back into my seat and trying to find acceptance, I glimpsed another vehicle pulling up in the rear-view mirror. Its driver, too, got out of the car, and rushed over to look on and offer more wordless moral support. Observing them, my frustration dissipated as I began to understand: here, this is just what you do. When the problem was eventually determined unresolvable and another vehicle was called, our driver jumped back into our car without explanation, the importance of his contribution clearly self-evident. We followed the road back to Havana, eager to lose ourselves in the city for our final few days.

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