2017
03.19

SYNOPSIS:  TOURING THE UNESCO VALLEY AND MEETING PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD.  ABOUT EXCHANGING MONEY IN CUBA.

You can rent taxis or horses or if you want an entire horse carriage, to tour the 11×5 km Vinales Valley.  Or you can opt for the $5 budget version and use the hop on – hop off tourist bus that circles some of the attractions all day long. The problem is that there is only one bus circling and before it returns you are stuck at a particular site for 1.5 hours. Most of the time that is no problem.  In some cases you have to rush a bit; in others, you can sit and have a drink or two waiting for the bus to come your way. That’s what we did today.  Vinales is a UNESCO site for its unique natural beauty but also for its vernacular farm architecture; palm leaf thatched barns and huts.

We were in desperate need of changing money and had been told that Western Union was open even on Sundays (as some place should be in a town of thousands of tourists in need of CUC).  However, when we arrived at the Western Union office it was roped off and guarded by a police officer.  A sign in Spanish indicated that no money had arrived that day…  This seemed like a bad joke if we had not already experienced something similar in Havana.  One day we needed money and were turned away by one bank with the explanation that they had run out of money.  Another bank down the block still had some… 

This was bad!   We had some money left, but were not sure how far it would last us given that the various tourist stations all required entrance fees.  I looked around and spotted a guy who looked like a “wheeler and dealer”.  Indeed, within a minute we had an agreement on the exchange rate and he was calling a friend to bring the money.  Would it have worked?  We don’t know.  Our bus was leaving and I was not about to waste 1.5 hours to find out.   We had to pinch a bit tight today.

CUC is the standard currency required for foreigners.  Euros get the best rate, but US dollars are standard, too.  However, in response to the US embargo, $ are hit with an extra 10% exchange fee and locals much prefer CUC over any other currency as payment.   But in a pinch I knew people would take $$ over not getting paid.

I am pretty open talking to strangers, especially on my trips, but Celibeth has a gift talking to just about anyone, anywhere and making friends with complete strangers in minutes.  In a town of merely 10,000 inhabitants, in a town with thousands of tourists who can only do so much around here, in a town with only 1.5 main roads where all the happenings concentrate by the end of the day, thanks to Celi, we seem to meet “friends” and acquaintances everywhere.   

Our first stop was the Mural de Prehistoria created under the supervision of the artist Leovigildo Gonzalez, who from 1961 to 1965 reportedly directed 25 artisans with a megaphone from the ground up to outline and painted this 200 x 300 feet monstrosity.  Some seashells, a couple of dinosaurs, and two humans who look more like the outline of people in a crime scene, cover the cliff in gaudy colors.  By now, this cliff has been repainted numerous times, presumably because wind and weather faded it away.  What it looked like in 1965 is hard to tell.  One can only hope that it was done a tad more tastefully than this neon-color version.  We could have climbed the nearby mogote (a mesa-like rock outcrop), but we opted for the ground.  A nice restaurant with seating for at least 100 was setting up for a lunch crowd.  The coffee machine was broken and for us, there was only booze or soft drinks. The wait staff reminded me of East Germans.  No need to be friendly.  No need be of service.  They get paid no matter what…  The 1.5 hours went slowly.

The drive through the area, all part of a protected National Park declared part of the UNESCO in 1999, was worth the $5 all by itself.  Various crops are planted in fields of red and ochre earth, stunningly beautiful mogote punctuate the flat land, and a mountain range of undulating bulges flanks the valley.  Ox carts, horseback riders, bikers, American Oldies, and numerous tour buses carting around day trippers, share the road. 

Our next stop was one of the highlights of the day:  Cueva del India.  It was the highlight however, for everyone else in the valley too, and throngs of tourists poured into the narrow mouth of this natural cave of stunning formations.  The entire valley is made of limestone, which over millions of years has been carved out by water.  The caves are a good indicator of this process.  This particular one has a river going through it and tourists line up for a 10-minute boat ride after about a 1-km walk.  The line for the boats had backed up more than half way into the cave.  The wait was between 1/2 and 1 hour.  There was no escape. 

Celibeth had been apprehensive about this cave exploration all day.  To be boxed into a narrow path between hundreds of humans in a humid, oxygen-deprived environment, was not an appealing thought to either one of us.  But Celibeth made time fly by for everyone by engaging in conversation with the MSG-poisoned man from New York and his family in front of us, as well as with the two couples from Tennessee behind us.  The New Yorkers had come in a boat!  They were retired and traveling the world.  Wow!  The guys from Tennessee were real goofs and between talks about sport teams, movies, trashing Trump along with the one Trump supporter among them, they had a ball. 

45 minutes later we boarded a boat, polluting the already thin air even further.  There seems to be little concern and no regulation.  It was great fun though. 

The next bus approached shortly where a couple from London latched on to us.  The next site supposedly was to observe production at a tobacco plantation.  However, I deduced this from the time table and nothing else.  We had gotten no information.  The bus driver spoke only Spanish and was of no help.  Most everyone was wondering about what to do.  But when we got out, the London couple and a few others followed us, expecting us to know…  There was nothing.  No sign, no farm, no guide.  Everyone stood in confusion.  I decided to approach a guy in farmer’s boots indicating by sign language and a few internationally known words like “tobacco” that we needed help.  He agreed to lead us to a tobacco farm.  And he did.  What would we have done without him?!  A cocky guy named Michael explained the tobacco farming process to us. 

Cuba has only two tobacco producing areas; Vinales being the more famous of them.  Farms are privately owned, but the government has the right to purchase 90% of the crop every year.  10% is at the farmer’s personal disposal.  Very good cigars (but without label) can be purchased at discount prices here.  At this point in the year, tobacco plants are only about 2 feet high.  They will eventually grow to a height of 5-6 feet.  That’s when the fun of harvesting, drying, and rolling begins. 

The London couple, Simon and Sarah, stayed with us. We took the next bus and headed on foot to the Botanical Garden, one of only two sights in town (the other being a modest local history museum).  The garden had been started by two women over 100 years ago.   It was a pleasant, shady spot.  After a tour through the gardens we enjoyed a pina-colada at the small bar, chatting with the Brits. 

Simon was only one in a row of guys who from here on out I will call “the Smitten-Ones”. Whether it is a taxi driver, a bar tender, a fellow bus mate, or another tourist, Celibeth makes these guys heads spin.  Her extraverted nature, her vast knowledge of pop culture, songs, and some Spanish vocabulary, has something for everyone.  That she is tall and blond and carries herself like a movie star, does not hurt around here. 

Between sight-seeing and dinner, Celibeth squeezed in an hour of salsa lessons.  With two years of lessons way back at home, she had a basis for looking really good at this.  Salsa, rumba, chachacha and other dance forms are the heart and soul of Cuban music.  Music and dance are everywhere.  It is what makes Cuba so appealing.  People always seem to be at the edge of breaking into song or dance.  It must be the tropic climate. 

A small restaurant in a side street was to serve as a quiet place for dinner.  It did, until Jesus turned up.  He was a guy with a guitar who sat at our table entertaining not only us but soon the entire restaurant as he and Celibeth were singing American and Cuban duets.  I filled in some harmonies and used the toothpick holder as a percussion rattle.  We were almost good enough to go on the road with this act. 

This was a long day!  And so I say good night.