There were so many places we loved in Cuba, and each had its' own charm. Viñales, however, held a special place in our hearts because it was the first Christmas away from home that we weren't overcome with homesickness.
As I mentioned before, we stayed in Casa Particulares for the entirety of our trip, but Viñales was were we truly discovered Cuban hospitality. Yovany and his wife, Vane's, Casa Nolo, in Viñales, was "la casa rosa" with a second floor.
Viñales is a rainbow of petite, charming box shaped homes, with a room or two for rent, and the "arrendador" symbol pasted next to the door. We had been advised that Vane was a great cook, and the first night we sincerely regretted not ordering dinner on our drive from Havana to Viñales, as when we arrived the delicious wafting of Vane's Langostina Enchilada filled the entire casa. Vane had incredible recommendations for restaurants in the tourist filled little village but oh gosh, that smell! Mmmmm!
Vane, a firecrackers of a woman, with enchanting sage eyes, helped Ross and I arrange a sunrise hike with their friend and guide Luis Miguel to the homestead of Los Aquaticos. We didn't really pick-up on what they believe, but Miguel told us it had to do with the healing powers of agua.
We left well before the sun crept out of her slumber, and hiked for almost an hour with nothing but our headlamps, and the sound of Miguel's footsteps guiding the way, bumping into the occasional vaca. Eventually, I recognized the sound of tiny little cerditos circling my feet, indicating that we had arrived. We, and several other tourists, sat in anticipation, huddled in the sticky humidity of a Pinar del Rio dawn waiting for the sunrise to reveal what we had woken up so early to witness.
Tourism is still very regulated in Cuba, and we were told we had to take a guide for this hike, which honestly, Ross and I were a bit bummed out by, but Miguel was awesome, and we were unexpectedly happy to spend our morning this the sheepish, funny young man.
The sun revealed that along with their cerditos, these aquaticos really had picked the coolest place to call home.
Ross and I really aren't guide type travelers, and are admittedly snobbish about it, but on the way down Miguel asked, "Do you want to take the scenic route?", and of course we are always up for an adventure. If not for Miguel's guidance in the dark, because let's be honest, Ross would have divorced me on our way up to the sunrise- I like to try to play it cool, like I'm super brave but I'm kinda scared of the dark, and even more terrified of the jungle- our walk down sold us even more on Miguel. We walked through tobacco fields, and he introduced us to the kindest tobacco farmer.
We have learned that long ago that TANSTAAFL, and tourist traps are a right of enterprising locals, but Cuba was not the same. Sure there are touts in most of the cities, and tourist destinations but this lovely gentleman with sandpaper hands, taught us the difference between local Cuban cigars meant for their own consumption and the ones that are sold to tourists. Apparently, locally consumed cigars are totally natural; cured with honey, vanilla, anise, and other spices, then dried naturally in a tobacco hut. When they are ready to be smoked, they are rolled, and stored in a bundle covered with a banana leaves that serve as natural humidors.
We were presented with a cigar (and he refused compensation for the cigar or his time, yeah, NOT a tourist trap, one more notch on Miguel's belt). I'm a non-smoker, but when in Rome right? AHH! I accept that there are many things that I'm just not refined enough to appreciate. Scotch, caviar, and now Cuban cigars are on that list. My chimney of a husband, enjoyed the puro, and I spent the rest of the walk wishing there was some way to strip my mouth of the residual flavor, thinking, "What happened to the honey, and vanilla?". It was "the gift that just kept on giving".
We were told that the nicotine in a tobacco leaf is concentrated in the veins, and the main vein has the most. Honestly, I haven't be able to figure out how true that is but if it is, I'm sure Philip-Morris is all about those main veins.
After working up an appetite on our little tour with Miguel, Vane had breakfast waiting for us in La Casa Nolo. She's an amazing cook, and makes her own jams, and concentrates when fruits are in season. Each morning, I looked forward to what she had preserved; ripe, pink guava jam the first morning, and ice cold mango juice the next, which she stored in used beer bottles. You learn quickly that Cubans are industrious. There is a scarcity of every thing at some point. The Frankenstein Chevy Bel Airs, which really are only the shell of their original selves puttering the streets, and highways, are the most obvious testament that Cubans are creative and resilient (Lesson #1: How to be a Cuban).
As it was Christmas day, they already had a cerdito (it was more of a cerdote) roasting for dinner. After a nap, we took a drive, simply to explore the surrounding hills of Viñales, picking up hitchhikers along the way, and making their destination ours. My favorite was the precocious 8yr old boy with coke bottle glasses, and his mom. He was a busted pipe of jokes. Ross, my master of puns, instigated him, and there was no turning back. I always pegged Ross as a terrible actor. Ross was laughing so hard, I thought we had Jerry Seinfeld in the backseat. All was revealed when I asked Ross what he said, and under his breathe he murmured, "I don't get it either". It was Ross' best performance yet. Yes, I will take a commission on any jobs booked from this post.
We spent the evening drinking mojitos, and hanging out with Yovany, Vane, little Anyelina and the Sanchez family. We were warned that no one is immune to Cuban promiscuity and their infectious charm, but little did I know Abuelita Sanchez would be my biggest competition on this trip! I have to give Ross credit, she was incredibly cute, and equally smitten with Ross. Don't you worry. I wasn't left out! I too had my chance to shine, when I was invited to dance salsa with the neighbor across the street. Of course, I realized that I had failed miserably when I looked up, away from my feet to discover that I was just the evening's entertainment, as the entire neighborhood witnessed the only latina & negrita in Cuba who couldn't dance. No, my childhood dance training did not prepare me for this swagger. My dance partner graciously told us I did a good job, but we all knew the truth.
The moment, I walked out of the Havana airport into the parking lot, took a moment to look back at the airport terminal, and take in that my feet had finally hit Cuban soil, I knew something had infected me. In Viñales, I started to understand I was learning to be. I'm not professing to have turned zen master or anything but it's nice to sit on the porch in a rocking chair, just chilling... I don't know how to do that. Ask my mom, I was born with ants in my pants. In Cuba, you just gotta soak it in, hands open, heart open, mind open, car door open, with no deadlines.
Next stop: Santa Clara and El Che!