A day in Vinales reveals rustic Cuba

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Colorful homes line the streets of the town of Vinales.
Colorful homes line the streets of the town of Vinales.

Inside a cavernous wooden tobacco barn overlooking the limestone hills of the Vinales Valley two hours west of Havana, I watched Ernesto Sarabia Rivera expertly hand roll a cigar, which he then handed to me with a broad smile.

Behind him were row upon row of drying tobacco leaves hanging on long pieces of twine fastened to wooden beams spanning the width of the barn.

He gestured that I should light the cigar.

So I did, with some help from Leo Leiva, my guide on my recent trip to Cuba.

I took a puff. It was strong, and I coughed. Both men laughed, and so did I. It was a bonding moment.

I was in Cuba on a trip hosted by the Center for Responsible Travel and tour company Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to explore the impact of the recent changes in U.S. travel policy on everyday Cubans.

On four of the five days I was there, Havana was the setting, and there I met and spoke with economists, artists, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, vendors, guides and those running casas particulares (private homes with tourist accommodations).

But midweek, I ventured outside the capital to the countryside setting of the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio, Cuba's westernmost province, a sleepy, scenic region known as the garden of Cuba for its expansive and fragrant tobacco fields, hillsides dotted with red flowering flamboyant trees and the Sierra de los Organos mountain range.

If Havana is the heartbeat of Cuba, this valley, a Unesco World Heritage site, is its country cousin, idyllic and low-key, dominated by acres of fertile farmland and tobacco fields, simple one-story homes and small towns.

Two farmers guided their team of oxen over the brown earth. The tobacco crop had already been harvested for the year, and the farmers were readying the field for the next planting of bananas.

The oxen labored up and down the furrows, pulling a crude plow behind them to till the soil. It was hot, and the work was hard, but neither the farmers nor their animals paused until the field was done.

Over lunch at the nearby thatched-roof, family-run Dona Rosita restaurant, owner Rosita Isabel Hernandez Pino lamented the loss of tourist business since cruise ship calls by U.S. lines and the category of people-to-people individual and group travel were eliminated in early June by the Trump administration.

"I used to get busloads of the cruise passengers," she said. "They'd come on tours booked by government agencies like Havanatur. Now I'm seeing just a few tourists, mostly Europeans and very few Americans who come by taxi or in small vans."

Her lunch-only restaurant is open year-round, and Pino said she would wait to see if business picked up in September after the traditionally slow summer season, "but I may have to close after that if no tourists come."

She charges $15 for a home-cooked lunch of chicken, yucca, pork, rice and beans served at long wooden tables in her open-air restaurant.

"We grow everything we eat," Pino said. She, her grown children and two grandchildren all work in the restaurant and in the fields and live next door in a modest home overlooking the land that they have farmed for six generations.

Driving back to Havana, I stopped briefly in the town of Vinales, with its small, colorful houses with front porches and rocking chairs and fruit and produce vendors lining the main street.

Vinales is the hub of the valley, and it features more than 30 restaurants and hundreds of rooms for rent.

Private homes bearing the capital letter I in red to the side of the front door indicate that rooms are available to foreigners, while a blue I indicates rental rooms for Cubans.

Tourism businesses did well once the Cuban government began to ease restrictions on the private business sector in 2011, the same year that the Obama administration reinstated the people-to-people travel category.

Pino said that "before 2011, there were very few rooms or hotels available to visitors in the valley, but within two years, more than 1,000 rooms and many restaurants had opened."

Her restaurant, built by family members and friends at a cost of approximately $6,000, opened in 2014.

When Cuba and the U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations in 2015, she said, Cubans were hopeful that American tourists and U.S. dollars would continue to fuel the country's economy.

Those visitors who do venture from the hubbub of Havana would do well to make the Vinales Valley an itinerary stop for a couple of days or more.

My guide, Leiva, who knows the region well as it is a feature on several of CET's customized tours under the Support for the Cuban People category of travel, said I could spend an entire week there and still not see and do all that the area offers.

Some of his suggestions included the Indian Cave, where travelers can follow the route of an underground river that runs through the cave; the Mural of Prehistory, a painting on a mogote depicting the evolution of life in Cuba; and the Rancho San Vicente Hotel, which features mineral-rich baths reputed to have healing powers.

Tours of the region can be booked in Vinales through companies that include Cubanacan, Havanatur, Paradiso, Ecotur and Patrimonio and at the visitors center in town.

Tours include horseback riding on mountainside trails, a daylong bus tour that visits many areas of interest throughout the valley, a visit to five bird-watching sites and an excursion to the Grand Cavern of Santo Tomas, the largest cave system in Cuba, nine miles from Vinales and with a stop at the Los Jazmines Lookout overlooking the region.

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