Saturday, December 19, 2015

NAGS, DRAGS AND CRAGS – A Weekend in Viñales

(Part One of a Two-Part Post)

I’d searched for an easy weekend getaway from Havana between my two weeks of advanced Spanish  classes. Somewhere I could reach on the bus in a few hours. Someplace beautiful and quiet.

I settled on Viñales, which, though it seems to be on just about every Cuba tour’s itinerary, appeared to fill the bill.

So that Friday morning I walked a few blocks from my Old Havana casa particular to the elegant Hotel La Plaza to catch the TransTour bus. From there we made the rounds of a few other hotel stops in Vedado and Miramar before hitting the open road on route four west.

The Chinese Yutong bus was quiet and comfortable. I was reminded of the utter absence in Cuba of anything US-made after 1962. I saw many Chinese and Russian vehicles, lots of Peugeots and a smattering of other non-us makes, but not a single American car that would have looked out of place in American Graffiti.

   The forest, through the government's 
  "Evergreen Project"—with the mandate 
  "Cut One Tree; Plant Five"—had been 
   completely restored.

From the flat terrain around Havana the landscape gradually puckered into gentle hills. Then, as we approached Pinar del Rio province, the folds grew more pronounced, scrunching eventually into the impressive limestone monoliths, called mogotes, for which Viñales is famous. Along the way, I noticed the turnoff to Mariel, site of the Mariel boat lift, the mass exodus, with Castro’s calculated okay, of some 125,000 Cubans to the US between April and October of 1980.

With the Sierra Rosario serrating the horizon, we passed through a pine-forested area our guide proudly told us had been denuded by 1960, but, through the government's "Evergreen Project"—with the mandate "Cut One Tree; Plant Five"—had since been completely restored. Then, to protect its investment in the resource from the ever-present threat of fire, they planted a 50-meter fire buffer along both sides of all roads. The swath of icaco trees, a dense succulent, supposedly helps extinguish any fire before it can jump to the other side.

Finally, after about a four-hour ride, we arrived in Viñales, where the bus driver dropped me off at the town's all-but-deserted main square. Sergio, a pleasant but business-like young man who seemed a sort of broker for my casa particular and others, introduced himself and handed me a motorcycle helmet.

Sergio’s electric motor scooter whisked us silently down the main street a few blocks to a row of tidy, nearly interconnected, mostly one-story casas. There he introduced me to my hosts for the weekend, Maruco and Zoila, and their 20-something son, Dyan, who showed me to my clean, quiet room behind the main house.

Dyan, who'd just finished bartending school, promised, that night, to make me the best you-name-the-Cuban-cocktail I'd ever tasted. I had just enough time for a quick nap before my scheduled "excursion" at 3:00, which, if understood Maruco's blurry, rapid-fire Spanish, would be a walking tour around town.

At three, having donned shorts and sandals for my walk, I met Dyan in the patio, and we headed out. But just in front of the house we stopped and Dyan introduced me to a young man named Orlando, handsomely decked out in cowboy hat, high boots and a shirt that matched his blue-gray eyes. Then Dyan turned back toward the house and said “Que disfrutes,”  “Have fun!” Great, I thought, Orlando probably knows the town better than Dyan anyway.

We walked a few blocks—not toward downtown, but down a side street. Just as the asphalt turned to dirt, we approached a couple of horses tied to the fence in front of a house. No surprise, right?, since I'd already noticed that Viñales is full of horses. And when Orlando grabbed the reins of one and handed them to me, I was sure he was pulling my leg.

Nope. Jeff—dressed for a casual stroll on sidewalks—meet Mojito, your mount for the next two hours! I guess when Maruco had told me about the excursión en caballo, I'd missed the caballo part!

At any rate, away we rode, beyond the end of that street and onto a winding red-clay trail heading toward one of the towering mogotes forming the town's backdrop. Thank God I remembered a few things about riding from my limited experience—mostly decades ago—because Orlando seemed to think I knew what I was doing. The only thing I wished I had was long jeans, since before we’d ridden a mile the insides of my thighs were already chafing from the constant friction against coarse, sweaty horse hair.

The ride was rough at times; we forded creeks, clambered up and down steep banks and slogged through knee-deep (Mojito’s knees) mud. It was also breathtakingly beautiful, winding among lush groves and between bean, corn and tobacco fields. Dotting the landscape were tobacco drying barns, with their distinct gray-thatched roofs sloping down almost to the ground on each side.

Coming around the back side of the mogote, we began to climb up its wooded flank. After another 20 minutes we came to a clearing where a group of four bored-looking young men sat under an open-air shelter behind one of those drying barns.

One of the muchachos, Rainier, showed me into the drying barn where sheafs of tobacco leaves were draped over tiers of horizontal wooden poles. Grabbing a handful of the leaves and a curved, cleaver-like blade, he sorted the leaves, picking out just the choicest parts. Then he sat down and deftly rolled the leaves together in a long, densely-packed cylinder. He picked out a different, thinner type of leaf and rolled the cigar in it, moistening the edges to seal it.

While he worked, he explained each step of the process, extolling the virtues of a real, non-factory, hand-rolled cigar: its freshness, the absence of chemical curing agents (in favor of curing with fruit juice and honey), and the minor inconsistencies of hand work that lend character to the finished product.

After lopping off the ends, Rainier handed me the cigar and, to my delight, pulled out a book of matches. It was an unforgettable experience lighting up a real Cuban cigar fresh from the hands of the maker. But, as nice as that cigar was, I knew better than to smoke very much of it. (Long story, but suffice it to say, for me and cigars, a little goes a long way.)

Back at my casa, I met my newly-arrived fellow guests, Luut and Joyce, a very nice, 30-ish couple from Holland. While Joyce napped, Luut and I sat in our small, shared patio chatting and sharing my bottle of Havana Club seven-year-old rum.

After my new friends walked downtown for dinner, I enjoyed a wonderful fish and rice dinner served by Zoila and Maruco, both of whom were bending over backward to make sure I was comfortable and well-fed during my all-too-brief stay.

 (To be continued…)


DJS said...

Love the photo of the tobacco drying barn. The blue sky and poofy cloud above it look surreal. The weekend sounds sublime!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey DJS - Thanks so much for stopping by my site...and for leaving a comment! I appreciate your kind words about my Viñales post. Have you been? Or planning to go?