Cuba is More than Havana


“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
― John Muir

Walking through a small art gallery in Havana, I became mesmerized by this painting. Is this in Cuba? I have to go there! As we discovered, it was Viñales and we visited after we left Havana.

Ron and I both enjoy traveling through cities, but we are really country people at heart and prefer mountains and lakes to oceans and cities. We read that Viñales is the gateway to the Sierra de los Organos Mountains and the Viñales Valley. The valley’s steep limestone hills, called mogotes, draw many rock climbers. We hoped to report excellent climbing conditions to our son Cory, who is a rock climber.

The Viñales Valley offers Cuba’s best hiking, caving, rock climbing, horseback riding, and cycling. Just down a hill from our casa particular, we entered a magical world with trails leading in all directions. The rights to roam and climb are relaxed in this part of the world, so we were free to explore as we tramped under fences, through farmers’ tobacco fields, and climbed steep mogotes to view mystical vistas.

It was like stepping back in time watching the valley agricultural life working in perfect harmony with nature. Oxen pulled the plows, while vaqueros herded the cattle and horses to their daily water holes. Pigs lounged under shade trees, while tethered goats bleated for their mamas.

This trail looked inviting, so we walked in the direction of Finca Integral.

Don Raul greeted us at his small, but interesting restaurant in the middle of his pineapple field. This was a hangout for the rock climbers. Mountaineering stickers, trekking company advertisements, and money from around the world adorned the walls. We didn’t see any Nicaraguan bills, so we added a 10 cordoba bill to his wall.

Don Raul explained the history of the area and told us where some of the local caves were on his property. Although rock climbing doesn’t have the “official nod” from the Cuban government, it is tolerated but not promoted by the government.

We met several rock climbers on their way to climb the precipitous limestone karst faces. Morgan was a route setter on his second climb in Viñales. He told us about the most challenging climb called the wasp factory. And, he thought he climbed with our son in Yosemite. Rock climbers have a tight-knit group, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that he knew Cory.

The harvest of pineapples had just begun, so we had a glass of sweet pineapple juice and bought some organic cigars from Don Raul’s finca… gifts for our cigar smoking friends. Then we were on our way to find the caves.

Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Over 92% of the land is privately owned. The limestone mogotes are dotted with caves that weave through the karst like giant worm holes in a mango.

Ron and I were spelunkers many years ago. I worked for the National Forest Service and proudly say that I walked over 750 miles underground. Although our caving days are over, we were thrilled to find these easily walkable caves tunneling through the limestone karst. The views at the exit of the caves were spectacular.

Descending the mogotes, we meandered through the rich red clay tobacco fields where they still use the traditional agricultural methods for growing their crops.  Because mechanical methods of cultivation and harvesting lower the quality of the tobacco, they continue with time-honored methods that don’t negatively impact the tobacco crops.

This man! Oh, this man made me so grateful that I could understand and speak Spanish. He has worked on the finca for over 40 years. He told tales of the three-year drought Cuba is experiencing, the impact on the crops, the history of life with Fidel and now Raul, and he even discussed his impressions of our new U.S. President…which weren’t complimentary.

I read in a guide that it is impolite to talk politics with Cubans, however most of the Cubans we met wanted to share their political thoughts. When I posted this photo on Facebook, my artist friend asked if he could paint him. I was delighted and I told him that I would buy his painting. He is a perfect example of a Cuban worker… puffing on his handmade cigar, wearing his field hat, comfortably talking to strangers he meets tramping through the tobacco fields.

By mid-afternoon, the fields baked in the hot sun, and we were tired and hungry. Yet, there were many trails to explore before our day was done.

Climbing the red clay path, we encountered an ancient spirit tree. It was magnificent and visible for miles around the valley.
In a nook of the tree trunk, I saw a shrine. Upon closer inspection, it contained a Buddha, a headless statue of a man draped in a cloth, a bowl of cigars and cigar juice, a bowl of coins, and a live chicken. I was afraid that the chicken was tethered and placed in the nook of the tree as a sacrifice, but it happily explored the shrine for bits of food and strutted away.
In a way, we are all attached to nature, whether tethered or free because when we tug on a single thing in nature, we find it is attached to the rest of the world.
The Viñales Valley tugged on my heartstrings. Through hiking the valley and climbing the mogotes, I rediscovered connections in nature that I thought had been lost.

Adios, Viñales! Thanks for the memories.

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19 thoughts on “Cuba is More than Havana

  1. It’s great to get out amongst the locals when travelling. Glad you got to do that. You got some great pictures. In some ways the area is like my little spot in the desert here in the US. We have red clay soil and sand all over and lots of climbers come here too and so do hikers. I enjoyed reading about your adventure.

  2. We stayed in a casa particular in Viñales in 2003. We loved the place and could easily have spent a couple of months in that small town. We spent happy hours, just sitting on the porch watching the cowboys heading out for their day’s work, people queuing up for a ride to work in an ox cart and just generally watching the rural Cuban world go by.
    Many Canadians do the snowbird thing in Arizona or Florida. If we were to go somewhere for the winter, our first choice would be Viñales!
    Your posts are making me nostalgic — we have to return to Cuba soon!

    • Bob, I imagine that not much has changed in Cuba since your visit. We also wanted to explore Cuba before McDonalds and Burger King arrived. It is still in a protective bubble lacking commercialism, but we don’t know how long that will last. Thanks for your comments.

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