Viñales — the hills in tobacco country

January 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.


January 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m sitting in a fairly modern Chinese-built bus at the terminal in Trinidad, waiting to leave for Vinales. Vinales is a small town in Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province in tobacco country. It’s known for its scenery with tall limestone hills called mogotes, which have been compared to the hills around Guilin, China.

As I sit on the bus and watch passengers checking in their baggage at a little room nearby, it all seems fairly orderly. There is a big difference from bus terminals anywhere else in the Third World – no hawkers selling snacks and refreshments. State control lives on, despite obvious cracks appearing in the socialist system.

Like, when I arrived I had to leave the bus yard crossing a long chain that marked the boundary line beyond which dozens of jineteros weren’t allowed to pass. Once I crossed the chain, I had to run the gauntlet of dozens of people aggressively offering rooms in private homes were trying to get me to take a taxi.

The house of Julio and Rosa Munoz was only a couple blocks away on the edge of the old town, so I knew I could easily walk it. Their house has been compared to a museum and was pictured in the September or October 1999 National Geographic. Built in colonial style, it has tall ceilings, about 4 m or 12 feet high, and is decorated with antique furniture.

Julio is an electronics engineer by profession, but he doesn’t work in the field. Nonetheless his education gave him a very good command of English. Now he runs a bed and breakfast and rehabilitates abused horses. He told me that with government restrictions loosening, he plans to open an equestrian centre. He also does freelance photography, but says it’s impossible to make a living with photography in Cuba. Despite all the family speaking good English, we mostly spoke Spanish as I said I wanted to practice.

Unfortunately, Julio and Rosa went away to Havana during much of the time I was there, so I never got to see his work with horses which I had been hoping to see. Nor did I have much chance to discuss with him photography in Cuba.

I did enjoy of few excellent meals, which included more shrimp and rice and vegetables than I could eat the night I arrived, and excellent breakfast of eggs fruit and real coffee with real milk from separate pots.

Trinidad itself is a colonial city with cobbled streets built with sugar fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a UNESCO heritage site, much effort has been put into preserving and restoring it. It’s not unlike Antigua in Guatemala and other colonial cities dominated by one-storey buildings with ceramic roofing. The restored part is a relatively small area. This unfortunately means there’s a high concentration of tourists and jineteros in a small area of streets radiating from the central plaza.

I found some of the streets outside the main area, with their crumbling colonial buildings, to be more genuine, and I had more genuine encounters with local people when I walked out in these areas.

I tried to do much of my walking around in the early morning and late afternoon when the light on the pastel buildings was a phenomenal and temperatures cooler. I often found an interesting scene to photograph and then waited to see who (and what) would pass through it.

On Monday, I had hoped to take a trip by an old 1919 steam train to Valle de los Ingenios, the historic area of sugar cultivation and processing. But for the past couple of months the train has been out of service, so I ended up taking a bus tour.

While it afforded an opportunity to see areas that I might not otherwise see, it’s the nature of these tours that they spend much time in places where they can get tourists to spend money (like a ceramics factory) and not enough time at places of interest. The lunch break (included) was long, but it gave me a chance to talk with a Korean high school history teacher and a Dutch couple with whom I shared a table. While waiting for lunch, an old man took us down to show very us tropical fruits growing on his farm including mangoes and avocados, which are out of season, and guavas, which we tasted fresh from the tree. Of course there were also bananas growing, and goats and chickens running around.

I felt a little strange eating chicken for lunch while several chickens pecked around at my feet oblivious to what I was eating.

Street in Trinidad.

Street soccer in a church square.


Street in Trinidad.

Dog’s eye view.

Pork for supper.

Street in Trinidad.

Street in Trinidad.

Boys hanging out.

Street in Trinidad.

Street game.

Ruined church at sunset.

Buildings on Trinidad’s main square.


Two men in Trinidad watching the world go by.


Sugar plantation in Valle do los Ingenios. The gate was put there by some French making a film and is hollow plywood.

Shy boy, Valle do los Ingenios

Street in Trinidad.

Street band, Trinidad.

Around Havana and on to Trinidad

January 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The only way to really get to know Havana is to explore it on foot. I was staying in the area known as Centro Habana, which is more genuinely Cuban than the old colonial quarter nearby, la Habana Vieja, or old Havana. It’s a fairly short walk between the two along the streets of crumbling houses built several stories high, and with laundry hanging from balconies, and often people looking down from those same balconies onto the street below. You have to watch where you step – there are sometimes huge holes and other obstructions in the pavement, and streets are narrow and vehicles hurry by. Old classic cars from the 1940s and 1950s belch clouds of white smoke.

On Thursday, I made more of a point of trying to engage people and when possible take photos. I stopped by a shoe repair shop and talked to two men there and the wife of one of the men as I took several photos of them. They had numerous hand tools spread out over the workbench and were engaged simply in repairs, not making new shoes from scratch. They were friendly, and didn’t ask for anything from me, except I agreed to send them some photos. They had been in business 15 years and it was their own shop – a private business.

I also stopped to take some photos in a barbershop that was literally in an alley with beautiful light filtering down. Again, the men there were friendly, and we chatted briefly.

Old Havana is much more geared to tourists and the colonial buildings have been beautifully restored. There are shops and cafés along the narrow streets, and there are people who make a living posing for pictures for tourists for a peso a shot. Outside the hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to stay, was a bearded man dressed like Hemingway pointing to a big cigar in his mouth with Hemingway written on it. I found that just a bit too gimmicky so declined to take a picture, but I did take a couple more shots of Graciela, an old lady with just two front teeth in a big cigar in her mouth.

I made a stop to visit the Havana Club rum museum. There they explain the process and history of sugar harvest and making of rum. There was an elaborate scale model of the sugar refinery, and an explanation of the oak barrels, ironically from the United States. Rum is cured in these. Then they showed the range of Havana Club products – from Anejo Blanco, the white rum used in mixed drinks, to Anejo 7 anos, an aged rum for drinking straight. Finally, they ended the tour with a sample of seven year rum. Afterwards, I went to the bar for another and to sit and watch a group play traditional Cuban acoustic music.

Again in San Francisco Square, I encountered a group of performers on stilts, this time dressed all in white. They paraded through the streets performing for people and I followed for a while taking pictures. Some of them had very tall stilts, and it can’t be easy to walk with those without falling.

Back in Central Park there is a spot where a group of men can always be found arguing fiercely. The argument looks very heated and you might think they will burst out into violence at any moment, if you didn’t know better. No, they are not arguing politics or religion, unless you consider baseball a religion. This spot is known as La Esquina Caliente, the hot corner, and it’s a spot where baseball fans hang out daily to argue the game. I’ve seen passionate hockey fans in Canada, but the level of excitement in these men was like nothing I’d seen before.

I ended the day by walking out to Callejon de Hamel, which is an alley that must be unique. It is a celebration of the art, Afro-Cuban culture, and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion. Walls and buildings are painted and decorated in wild colours, and old bathtubs are inlaid into walls to form benches or simply as decoration. There were sellers of art and of traditional herbal medicines. Every Sunday rumba music is played there. It’s become a bit touristy, but it’s still worth a visit.

Friday I continued my explorations of Havana, this time taking a taxi through the tunnel to the other side of the inlet where there is an impressive network of castles and fortifications. It was nice to be in wide open spaces with clean air and views across the water of congested Havana. Several rooms in the fortifications were set aside for a museum to Che Guevara, who seems to be the most celebrated hero of the revolution. It featured photos of him and personal items such as his cameras – Che had been a photographer as well as a doctor, Minister of the Interior, and numerous other occupations, aside from revolutionary idol. Another room was set up as a museum of torture showing some of the tools of the trade from the colonial period, and pre-revolutionary period. Apparently the garote is more humane than hanging because it kills its victims more quickly. There were thumbscrews, torture shoes, and other instruments  that didn’t look very comfortable.

Afterwards, I walked to the village of Casablanca, passing a huge statue of Christ that was one of the last monuments built by Batista. From there, there is a rickety old ferry crossing the water to old Havana. They search the bags of passengers getting on, even though there are no searches on buses and other travel. Apparently this is because there was once a hijacking attempt with the ferry by someone unsuccessfully trying to make it to Miami. Frankly, anyone crazy enough to attempt to go to Miami on this rickety old boat with just an open floor should have been allowed to go.

I got up very early Saturday, skipping breakfast, to take a taxi to the bus terminal to go to Trinidad. It was a long trip of over five hours mostly through not very exciting scenery – just flat scrub seen from the side of the Autopista Nacional. Only at the end did this scenery get nicer as we passed through Cienfuegos and took smaller roads through hills and along the Caribbean. The bus was comfortable, and except for the last bit I had two seats to myself. The music they played was schmaltzy and not great, but thankfully they didn’t play kung fu videos as they do in Mexico.

The arrival of the bus in Trinidad is greeted by dozens of persistent jineteros trying to collect a commission by taking tourists to rooms for rent. As I already had a reservation in the colonial home of Julio and Rosa Munoz, I just made a beeline through them repeating over and over “no gracias.” Apparently some are so persistent that they will even tell tourists that the home is closed or the owner is dead as they try to divert them elsewhere. I found the home a few blocks away and was met at the door by Julio, who is a horse whisperer and photographer among other things. Their beautiful home has even been pictured in National Geographic in 1999.

Men working on scaffording in Havana.

Shoe repair men in their shop, Habana Centro.

Barber shop in alley.

Musicians at Havana Club Rum Museum.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

Santeria musician, Old Havana.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

La esquina caliente (the Hot Corner) where men have ferocious arguments daily — about baseball.

Callejon de Hamel — an alley of art and Santeria religion.

Callejon de Hamel.

“Every Cuban must know how to shoot — and shoot well.” A street rifle range — while guns have a place in Cuban revolutionary mythology, I do not detect the obsession with guns that one finds in the U.S., for example.

A 1950 Chevy near el Capitolio — this man had the hood up, and he said it was the original engine.

Havana from the Morro castle.

A woman hauls food up to her balcony from the street in a basket on a rope.

Photographing old models

January 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Wednesday was a day to walk around exploring the city centre and Old Havana. I also shot hundreds of photos, of old buildings, some decaying and others restored, as well as old models – cars and people. Some of the old 1950s classic cars have been beautifully restored, but most are in very rough shape and belch dark smoke. One I saw even had a padlock holding the driver’s door shut, and others had similar improvisations. Despite the inefficiency of 1950s (and late 1940s) American cars, this was definitely a period of classic designs, preserved here in this living car museum.

I also tentatively tried photographing some people. In the old city, there are a number of older people who dress up in costume and pose for tourists for a peso. Some travellers object to this, but for  many of these people they are like professional photo models. We don’t have a problem paying people to model in North America, so I don’t begrudge these people trying to earn a little hard currency. Some of the costumes are pretty kitschy, but sometimes that adds to the appeal. And some of them have very expressive and interesting faces.

In some cases I asked strangers to pose, or they invited me, and there was never any discussion of money. In one case a smiling woman motioned me to come quickly for a photo op, and pointed me behind a large transformer-like object where there was a man urinating. As she laughed, I pretended to do paparazzi-style photos of him (I didn’t really take any). The man laughed too, as did some older people on a park bench. I chatted with them, and in the end the older people let me photograph them, and were happy with a look at my LCD screen.

Another time, I bought a drink at a small tienda that mostly dealt in moneda nacional, the almost  worthless currency, but also handled convertible pesos. I paid in convertibles, but got the change in moneda nacional, but the woman there gave me a reasonably fair exchange – not like some Cubans who try to cheat tourists by fooling them by mixing moneda nacional with convertibles. I chatted with her, and she let me photograph her. She was complaining about the cold, but I told her I actually felt hot. It must have been in the low 20s and humid. She had a vague idea of what cold is like because she had once been to the Czech Republic in winter.

Sometimes people see my camera and call me into a shop or business to see and photograph something. They want a bit of money, but the subjects are often interesting. On Tuesday, I photographed a man in a small shop who had an old cash register made in 1922. Today, I photographed some men working on an old classic late 1940s car in the back of a parking garage. They were fixing one of the seats, hammering metal parts.

In the old town, I explored the many streets with restored and beautiful colonial buildings, and large squares, some with trees. I climbed a long stairway to visit the Camara Obscura, an old-style projection camera that projects images live from around Old Havana. It uses ancient camera technology to gather images with a rotating telescopic lens, which projects them into a large saucer-shaped dish in a darkened room, while a guide explains what she’s showing. You can see people and cars in distant parts of the old city moving in real time, and with absolutely no electronics.

In other squares, there were book stalls selling old books and more recent ones mainly on subjects of the revolution, but with a sprinkling of other Cuba-related themes such as Hemingway. The only ones that really interested me were some books of photos by Korda.

In one square, I was taking photos including some of a Chopin statue on a bench, when suddenly some colourfully dressed characters on stilts appeared, dancing and playing music, along with a couple, who were being celebrated. I snapped a number of photos of the activity, as did others, but never figured exactly what was going on. My guess is that it was a couple of newly weds celebrating a birthday because there was some birthday sounding theme music. They all seemed to be having a great time.

I’ve taken to returning for a nap in my air conditioned room during the hottest part of the afternoon. Today, having not slept very well last night, I fell asleep and didn’t wake until near sunset.

Classic cars

Classic cars

Classic Chevy

Couple in park

Men working on seat of classic car

A spontaneous celebration

Professional tourist model

Much photographed tourist model, Graciela

You look like a young Fidel Castro

January 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Over my life I’ve been told I look like many different people. Sometimes I’ve been compared with people who don’t look at all like me except for our common red hair. But when the man at the cash in a store down the street told me I look like a young Fidel Castro, it was certainly a first.

I suppose it was intended as a compliment. I told the man I thought el Comandante was a “moreno,” a dark-haired man, but he insisted Fidel has my complexion. Of course Fidel is lighter than many Cubans in this country where the majority is mixed race with a lot of black influence. I think it was the beard that prompted the comparison, though.

I probably looked even more like Fidel when I sat up on my hotel balcony later in the day puffing on a big cigar, a Montecristo 2, the kind recommended by my co-worker Mike. I bought it at the Partagas Cigar Factory, in the city centre, where they have a shop selling all the finest Cuban cigars. Cigars here are not cheap, but evidently they’re a lot cheaper here than outside of Cuba. This one set me back about $8, but it lasted a long time – well over an hour. Smoking a cigar is relaxing, but I question whether the pleasure is worth the money. And my sense of taste and smell must be deadened, because I didn’t experience any of the “nutty” and other flavours that people claim. It just tasted like burning leaves and left me light headed, even though you just savour the smoke in your mouth and don’t inhale.

The Partagas Cigar Factory normally offers tours where you can see the leaves being sorted and hand rolled, but the tours are currently suspended because of the holidays. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it in later during my stay, but hopefully I’ll be able to see the process somewhere. Cigars are such an important part of Cuba’s identity, whether smoked by such American Mafiosi as Al Capone, who rented an entire floor of the Sevilla Hotel, or by the later revolutionary leaders.

Next to the Partagas Factory, right in the city centre, is el Capitolio, a large domed building that bears a striking resemblance to the Capitol in Washington. It’s a little more weathered looking, and is surrounded by palm trees, but it looks no less elegant. Alas, it too is closed for tours as it is undergoing major renovations.

But I did stroll around it Tuesday admiring the many 1950s classic U.S. cars, most of which now serve as collective taxis. I’ve spotted a few that look a lot like the old 1956 Buick our family owned when I was a kid.

Tuesday was mainly a day to get oriented, and what better way than to hop onto the upper level of an open double decker bus. These run a regular route throughout Havana and are geared to tourists. You pay a $5 fare for a ticket that’s good all day and you can hop on or off as you please. I took the entire route, going along the Malecon and out to Vedado and Miramar, the more modern parts of the city. Vedado offered a glimpse of Plaza de la Revolucion, with its Ministry of Interior building whose outer wall features a giant steel image of Che, taken from the famous Korda photo – probably one of the best known images in the world. Che once worked in that building. We also passed the Colon cemetery, where many famous Cubans are buried, and which features many elaborate monuments. I didn’t stop, but will go back later if there’s time.

Other than that, there was little to inspire me to return to Miramar. It has vast open vacant lots with junk interspersed with luxury hotels, but we saw nothing of interest until we returned to the city centre and waterfront area of Old Havana.

I did some exploring of the city centre on foot, walking along the Prado, a tree-lined boulevard similar to, though not as elegant as the Ramblas in Barcelona. Havana has quite a number of tourists, mostly European, but some apparently Canadian. As a result, many Cubans become jineteros and jineteras, street hustlers, where they can earn much more in convertible hard currency than people like doctors, who are paid in nearly worthless moneda nacional. I am continually harassed to take a taxi or buy cigars – under the pretense that these are top brand cigars at cheap prices, though almost certainly they are fake. Few of the jineteros are too persistent, and most back off if I give them a firm, but polite, “no gracias.”

As the sun set, I photographed people fishing or hanging out along the Malecon with lights appearing along the waterfront. Then I returned to my balcony to finish smoking my cigar.

Ministry of the Interior

El Capitolio

El Prado resembles the Ramblas in Barcelona

Old Havana

The Malecon at sunset

The Malecon after sunset

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A character in Old Havana Portrait of two men Hand-rolled cigar Singing on the Malecon Weathered buildings, the Malecon, Havana Yuca picker, near Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba Let’s rumba – Callejon de Hamel, Havana, Cuba