Viñales — the hills in tobacco country

Viñales is set in a valley scattered with tall limestone hills called “mogotes,” that look somewhat like the famous formations at Guilin, China.

The floor of the valley has a red earth well suited for growing tobacco, for which Pinar del Rio province is best known. Throughout the valley you can see palm thatch triangular structures that are the curing barns for the tobacco.

I arrived in Viñales late Tuesday afternoon and had decided to stay the first night at Hotel Los Jazmines, which has the best view of the area overlooking the valley. I hoped to catch the sunrise from the hotel, and then move to a private home in the town the next day when I could start looking earlier.

I took a room in one of the comfortable cabins with a spectacular view. It was late, so I hoped to use the swimming pool the next day, as I haven’t yet had a swim this trip.

One of the problems with Los Jazmines is that it takes large tour groups, so there were hundreds of Germans everywhere, making it hard to get served for dinner. The other problem is that Los Jazmines is 4 km up a hill and out of town, so you are captive.

I set my alarm for 6 a.m., hoping to get up and photograph a spectacular sunrise over the valley. Alas, the temperature dropped and when I got up in the morning it was cloudy with a light spray-like drizzle. I took some shots with a tripod, but the view just didn’t measure up to what I’ve seen in other photos.

The temperature that day was around 15C with howling winds, and all the Cubans complained about the cold. They didn’t agree with me when I suggested it was only “fresco” and not “frio.” Definitely too cool to try the pool, but not an unpleasant break from the hotter weather of my trip to date.

In the early afternoon, I got a taxi to town. The driver said he wants to go to Canada – Montreal – to learn English and French, and showed me he had a Canadian flag hanging behind the mirror. As for so many Cubans through, money is the biggest obstacle.

In town I was besieged by swarms of jineteros offering rooms in private houses. I had decided to try first the Reyes family, who were recommended in Lonely Planet, so brushed off the jineteros. Then an older woman showed me a card for the Reyes family and said she would take me there. She insisted she was not getting a commission that would be charged to my room, but was a friend of the family. It then became clear she was trying to take me in a different direction from the Reyes house, and I pointed that out to her.

She insisted that she is a woman of 70 and wouldn’t try to cheat me, and that the Reyes house was full, so she was taking me to hers. She again pointed to their card and said she was their friend. I insisted on carrying on myself to the Reyes house, and when I told them the story, they just shook their heads – they have no connection with this woman who was using their card to hustle business. Such is the nature of jineterismo in Cuba – they will tell you anything – even that the house has closed and the owner has died – to lure you away from your destination.

As it turned out, they Reyes house was fully booked, but they soon found me a place at the home of a neighbour, Dr. Luis Luis, his wife Elda, and their son, also named Luis. They were friendly, and I stayed there three nights.

They served enormous meals – a dinner of grilled “pargo” (red snapper) my first night, with lots of vegetables and fruits on the side. On my third night, they served me lobster tails, which they euphemistically call “chicken of the sea,” because they aren’t supposed to sell lobster to foreigners. I was often full well before I finished the meals, but always saved a little room at the end for the fruit – papaya, guava, pineapple and watermelon.

On my first day, I did a bit of walking through and around Viñales. Once I slipped in with a tour group who were visiting a tobacco barn to see the tobacco hanging and drying, and watching a man hand roll some cigars.

Thursday was my best day in Viñales. The weather was clear with fluffy clouds, and there was a cool breeze. The Cubans again complained about it being cold, but for me it was very pleasant walking weather.

I had arranged the night before to join a group with a guide on a walk in the National Park. It’s not a national park in the Canadian sense, but it is protected farmland in a gorgeously scenic area.

We walked right from the town along farm paths, and the guide took us to a tobacco farm where we saw tobacco being hand harvested by a few workers, who make about $2 a day depending on how many rows they pick. A woman hand rolled some cigars and had some for sale about about $20 a dozen. I noted the irony that the price was close to a single Cohiba Esplendido.

Some of the buildings had been toppled in one of last year’s hurricanes, and had been rebuilt with corrugated steel roofs. A man was in the process of preparing to replace these with traditional palm thatch, fitting in with the national park status.

After hiking through more farm country, we saw men harvesting yucca. I took a photo of one old yucca harvester with my guide and was surprised to notice he had blue eyes, like some other people in the Viñales area. My guide, however, was completely black.

My guide had been a high school teacher, but as he pointed out, teachers are paid low salaries in moneda nacional. By working as a guide, he does a lot better, after getting tips in convertible pesos. This seems to be part of a pattern in Cuba of people doing a lot better working in tourism than working as professionals.

We came to a steep part of the hike that required climbing a trail up one of the mogotes, using hands to assist. We climbed towards a pass, but before reaching it, we came to a network of caves that we had to go through in the dark, careful of our footing. The caves weren’t long enough that we were ever completely in the dark, but it was dark enough that we had to shuffle feet in baby steps to avoid tripping. On the other side, a concrete stairway led down into the valley.

It was a pleasant walk, a good length at about 6 km, and covered an interesting variety of terrain. The group was a mixed group with a couple of German-speaking Italians, a younger German guy and two French couples. The tour was in English, but the French spoke little English, so I often translated for them.

In the afternoon, I wandered more on my own, visiting a fairytale-like garden run by a couple older sisters. They take donations, and you are free to wander around – looking at the flowers and fruit trees. The gate to their place was decorated with slices of real grapefruits.

After I walked around, one of the old women gave me one of the juiciest sliced grapefruits I ever tasted, along with a couple small bananas.

I rounded out the afternoon by taking the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus that makes a run up and down the roads around Viñales, through the mogotes.

Friday was another cool day of drizzling rain. I seemed to have contracted a cold the other night, but now it hit me full force. So I spent most of Friday in bed, trying to gather strength for my return to Havana on Saturday.

Sunset at Hotel Los Jazmines.

Tobacco farm near Viñales.

Tobacco picker.

This woman hand rolled a cigar as we watched.

Animal power is the main transportation around Viñales.

Hiking into the mogotes.

A yuca picker.

The entrance gate to El Jardin de Caridad is decorated with real fruit slices.

El Jardin de Caridad offers a peaceful walk among colourful tropical plants.

One of the old women who runs El Jardin de Caridad and a table of fruit from the garden.

The landscape around Viñales with its limestone mogote formations in late afternoon.

About Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

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