Today is the day that we learn how to travel around Cuba. We want to reach Viñales, the garden of Cuba, but haven’t managed to book a ticket for the bus. We have to arrive at the station and take our chances.
First, we must make sure Majky’s bag gets there. It’s an old, battered suitcase, weighing about fifteen kilograms, with one handle and no wheels. The station’s five kilometres away from our casa and Majky’s leg is sore. We know there is a bus station a few hundred metres away, and we try, knowing it will be in vain, to catch a national bus from there. Tourists must get the tourist bus, which is much more expensive. They tell us that we wouldn’t like it anyway. We’ll decide what we like and don’t like, thank you very much.
Anička and I pass the suitcase between us every kilometre or so. We switch arms every few minutes or hike it up to our chests to ease the pain in our muscles. We’re carrying our own bags too. At the half-way point we stop for a quick break in a patch of shade by the side of the road. The shop has no water, just cans of tuKola – the Cuban cola whose name means “your cola”.
There’s no Coca-Cola available in Cuba, which may be a good thing considering their practices in developing countries: allegations include using paramilitaries and murder in Colombia, and taking so much water that local communities can’t cope in India. Coca-Cola denies all the allegations and says that if improper practices occur it is because of local partners and not the company itself.
We arrive at the station and join the long queue. After about half an hour we reach the desk – we can’t buy our tickets here. It’s only for advance bookings. If we want to get on the bus to Viñales we must join the queue in the waiting room. So we do. And we wait. As people start to board we learn we’re in the wring queue again, and must join another. But it’s ok, a loud American informs us he has been waiting two hours and the desk won’t open until ten minutes before the bus leaves.
The queue is more of a gathering. I get our money and passports together and stand by the window. If travelling has taught me anything it is to bunk in front of people. We manage to get the last three seats and the ten other people who were there first are disappointed.
Viñales is a sleepy village of two or three streets. We drop our bags at our casa and wander past the men smoking cigars in rocking chairs on the porch of the local communist office to find our dinner. I have a tuna steak for the first time in my life; it’s excellent and the last time I will have good food in Cuba. The loud American and the two Germans he sat with on the bus rock up and sit at a different table. I pop over and ask if they would fancy a drink later.
Later that night, we sit under a little church on the steps of the town square with Teddy, the American, Issam and Umut, the Germans. The rum is flowing and we’re drawing on huge cigars. We’ve been joined by Pauline, from Colombia via Spain and Morocco. A plan is drunkenly hatched while a troubadour strums his guitar – we’ll meet here tomorrow night after we’ve finished our days activities.
Early the next morning, we’re sat on the backs of three horses riding towards Mirador national park in Viñales Valley. It’s odd to think that six months ago, in Kazakhstan, Anička and I were both slightly scared of horses. This time, we’re perfectly comfortable. Our guide leads us past little farms – surely no bigger than two acres – that grow maize and tobacco in the red dirt. The tobacco is said to be the best in the world.
He takes us along a quiet road in the shadow in of the mountains. In the distance a cliff is painted with a mural of prehistory. The Cuban painter Leovigildo González Morillo covered the face in dinosaurs, ammonites and humans to show how life had evolved in Cuba. The story goes that Fidel commissioned the work in his favourite part of the country after hearing of the discovery of fossils in the area. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look amazing and we carry on into the park.
We’re led through the valley. Steep green cliffs loom over us. Eagles glide around their peaks looking for prey. The valley has opened up into a plain. Little farmhouses and thatched barns to dry the tobacco appear every-so-often along the track. Our horses aren’t scared of the giant bulls munching on the grass as we gradually begin to climb. At the top of the hill we dismount and follow our guide to a small cafe perched at the top. As we follow, I notice a machete dangles from his belt in a white leather sheath.
After a swift beer, our guide leads us back down through the park to a small thatched barn. A dog runs around in the shade of the trees and a man walks through the tobacco field spraying the young plants. We leave the horses by a trough of water.
The barn is a drying hut. The tobacco leaves hang inside until they are dry, and then they are fermented for a few weeks. Once they are cured they are left to age, and then rolled into cigars. Our guide hands us one that has been made earlier and shows us how it’s done.
He takes three leaves and strips the stem out, telling us that this reduces the nicotine by seventy per cent. Crushing them into roughly the right shape, he takes another leaf and begins to roll. He cuts it into shape with a pair of scissors, and reaches for the fifth and final leaf – which he wraps around the cigar. The whole process takes about two minutes. He hands us the new cigar and says that we must leave it to dry for two to three days. Then it can be smoked. It’s good to finally have it confirmed that cigars aren’t rolled on the ample thighs of virgins.
Our horses have drunk the trough dry. We clamber on and begin the walk back through the farms to Viñales.
Back at the casa we sit on the roof and read, waiting for the sunset. Our host roasts a pan of coffee beans by the side of the house. He tells us they will be used for breakfast after handing us some to chew on. Unseen, he sun sets behind the clouds and as darkness falls we make our way to Viñales square to meet our new friends and drink some more rum.