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On Monday morning we collect our rental car and head west.   Our destination is the province of Pinar del Rio, the most westerly part of the island.  Driving in rural Cuba has its interesting moments.  There is relatively little traffic and the roads are in reasonable repair, but there are  almost no road signs and the few that do exist are faded beyond legibility.  After taking several wrong turns and getting totally lost, we finally stumble onto the secret of happy motoring, Cuban-style:  pick up hitchhikers!  There is very little public transit, so at the edge of every town or village, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of people hoping for a lift.  We fill the back seat with hitchhikers everywhere we go.  Not only are they invariably good company, eager to get to know us and tell us about themselves, but they help us to navigate and answer our questions about the countryside and towns we pass through.

 Valentin curing shed.JPG (36941 bytes)

tobacco shed.JPG (54326 bytes)In La Palma, after taking yet another wrong turn, we offer a lift to a weathered old black fellow who is heading for the small, rural town of Vinales, which is our destination, too.   Valentin is a wealth of information about everything local and when we ask how the tobacco is grown, he insists we stop at a small farm belonging to a friend of his.  It is fascinating!   Sitting in the yard is a beautiful 1957 Chevy four-door sedan, original six-cylinder motor and three-on-the-tree transmission.   Valentin shows us the tobacco fields, the curing sheds thatched with palm fronds and explains the whole complex process of curing and maturing the tobacco leaves.  He also shows us the other crops: cacao, coffee, a bitter orange used in cooking, plantains and guavas.  He points out a tree called ceiba, which looks very much like our old friend from Africa, the baobab.  Just like in Africa, people revere and protect these trees.  At the end of our visit, the farmwife makes us a cup of coffee with beans from their own coffee bushes.  Cuban coffee is thick, black and full of flavour and this is the best.


The area around Vinales is very beautiful.  Small, rounded, limestone mountains, called mogotes dot the landscape.  In between, are lush, fertile valleys with rich red soil. The tobacco grown in these valleys makes the best quality Cuban cigars.  The soil is mainly ploughed with oxen and it is common to share the highway with ox carts.   Working cowboys on horseback are everywhere.   It is like stepping back into the nineteenth century (or even earlier).

Ox cart.JPG (20138 bytes) Valley of Vinales.JPG (32259 bytes)


Enca's house.JPG (41933 bytes)In Vinales, Valentin helps us to find a casa particular.  We settle in with Enca y Tony.  Both of them teach at the local school, where they make the usual ten dollars a month so they take in guests to supplement their meager incomes. We pay US$15. per night and $3.00 each for breakfast. We eat our meals on the back porch of Enca and Tony’s small house.  A hen with tiny chicks scratches around in the dirt and the neighbours’s pig occasionally bolts through the shrubbery.  Enca offers dinner for $6.00 each, which we enjoy on a couple of evenings.  She is a fabulous cook and the meals are wonderful; lots of interesting fresh fruit and vegetables -- I particularly like the fried plantains --  excellent fish, good chicken and pork; usually way more food than we can eat.  One of the staples of Cuban meals is white rice and black beans cooked together.  Malengua, something like a fried sweet potato, is also very tasty.


The rented car allows us to tour the countryside and visit nearby attractions.  We find a Herbarium owned by the Miranda sisters, one of whom gives us a tour.  Here we learn that while my Spanish is better than Susan’s, she does speak fluent Plant!  She has no trouble communicating whenever the topic includes vegetation.  We drive a couple of miles up to a resort hotel called Las Jasmines, which looks out over the valley of Vinales.  The rounded mogotes, the rich, red soil of the valley and the green palm trees make a spectacular view.  We visit a very pretty limestone cavern where we float through the cave in little boats.  We try some fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice with a dash of lime juice and some rum.  Very fine!

Miranda sister.JPG (37613 bytes) Bob and rum.JPG (42108 bytes)



The next day we head for the provincial capital, Pinar del Rio City stopping for our allotment of hitchhikers.  These fellows are traveling to Pinar del Rio to their jobs as cigar rollers in a cigar factory.  They offer to take us to a large tobacco plantation where we can see how tobacco is grown on a commercial scale.  The concept of work in Cuba is fairly flexible and nobody seems to worry about being late. If you only make $10. per month anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter that much whether you show up or not.  We drive about thirty km into the country west of Pinar Del Rio to the Robaina Tobacco Plantation.  The guide speaks excellent English and his tour is very entertaining.  At the end, we watch a demonstration of cigar rolling while the guide explains the steps in the process. Robaina is one of the top brands of Cuban cigar, but they do not actually make cigars commercially at the farm.   Eighty-two-year-old Alejandro Robaina travels the world as an official ambassador of Cuban cigars.  The guide says Senor Robaina is returning from Barcelona and if we had come a day later, we could have met him.

cigar roller.JPG (34644 bytes) Robaina.JPG (21019 bytes)

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Back in Pinar del Rio, we find a paladar for lunch by the usual method of letting a boy lead us to one -- which his father owns.  This one is actually listed in our guidebook but we are hard-pressed to find it ourselves, given the lack of street signs.




Cayo Jutias.JPG (14782 bytes)

The next day, we take our hosts’ recommendation and drive about fifty km to an island called Cayo Jutias on the north coast.  It is a low cay made up mostly of sand and mangroves and is reached by a causeway from the mainland.  No one lives on the island and there are no hotels or resorts. There is only a little thatched roof snack bar, and miles of spectacular beaches.  We walk nearly four km on beautiful sand with virtually nobody in sight.  We swim and introduce Susan to snorkeling.  She likes it!  There is only a little coral but enough to whet her appetite.  Despite lots of number 30 sunscreen we both get sunburned.  Altogether quite a day!



Next morning we reluctantly say goodbye to Enca and Tony and set out on a longish drive to our next destination.  To make better time we take the autopista.   Some years ago Castro decided his country should have a freeway like other countries, so he built a six-lane divided highway complete with overpasses and interchanges.  Ironically, there is hardly any traffic on it.  Some large trucks and the huge tourist buses from the resorts use it, but few Cubans have cars.  We see a few government officials in European cars and a few other tourists in rental cars, but for the most part it is completely empty.  Some of the overpasses have no ramps leading to them, just the bridge standing there. 

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