Leaving Havana behind and heading out in hope of finding a different side of Cuba we hit the road. On our way to the village of Viñales we passed countless vintage cars and trucks and even more vintage horse-drawn carts – ridden by young adults in what looked like whatever sportswear they could lay their hands on.
Cuba has two forms of currency: the CUC (convertible peso) and CUP (non-convertible peso). The CUC is aligned with the US dollar and is the only form of currency tourists are allowed to use. The CUP is the local currency used exclusively by Cubans. We honestly felt that this was purely designed to allow us to be charged inflated prices. Even the most basic of items , i.e. our service station sandwiches, set us back about $12. We’re talking basic sliced white bread and a piece of ham, but quality ingredients are hard to come by. It was a difficult situation as we were torn between annoyance at feeling ripped off and sympathy; understanding that if we were in their situation, would we not take advantage of ‘rich’ tourists too?
All along the route we spotted locals trying to flag down drivers for a lift. There is relatively little by way of public transport to get between towns or the tobacco fields which lined the roads on both sides. Before long we arrived in to the valley of Viñales and took in the panoramic view of all the tobacco fields which constitute one of the primary industries for the local people.
The tobacco industry is going strong in the town too, as evidenced by the many cigar shops and sellers along the high street. We decided to get our first taste of Havana rum and found 3J Tapas Bar where we ordered a couple of ‘Masters Selection’, which went down very nicely indeed as the vintage cars and carts trundled past.
We stayed with Yoania (pronounced Johanna) and her two young children, daughter Carolina and son Josue. They were so welcoming and pleased to have us stay, despite not speaking any English and us no Spanish. We spent a lovely evening with the family, having fun playing ballgames outside the house and chatting in ‘Spanglish’ on the porch. Yoania lost her husband very recently and despite our language barriers a quite emotional conversation ensued. By the end of the evening we knew each other’s life stories and we left having made a friend in the most unexpected place. We promised to email Johanna the photographs we took that evening and hope she will not mind us sharing one here.
The Internet is scarce in Cuba. Homes very rarely have it and mobile internet access was not available at the time of our visit in January 2018; instead you have to buy a card (for which you must show ID) and the information on the card allows you to access the internet in a ‘wi-fi zone’ (usually the town square). The zones are very easy to spot as you travel in to each place, the crowds of people on their phones give it away. What this does mean, though, is that everywhere else the people are present. You will not see a restaurant full of people barely speaking to each other, absorbed by their smartphones. We avoided the internet all together during our week in Cuba and enjoyed being ‘off the grid’, not even missing Google Maps (aka our lifeline) all that much.
One of our favourite evenings in Viñales was at the local salsa club, tucked away in the corner of the town’s busy central square beside the church. The live music and salsa dancing, all performed by locals (we can attest to this, having spotted them out and about in the town over the next couple of days), was incredible. To say I was upset not to be able to take them up the local Salsa teacher on his offer of a lesson due to my torn ligament would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Instead, determined to try to walk a little bit, we ventured to the local market and left with several hand carved ornaments and a few paintings of the valley by a local artist which we’ve done our best not to crumple up in our backpacks ever since.