Having returned our charter sailboat in Cienfuegos (see Cuba Part 2)
, we were excited for our continued travel adventures inland in Cuba, which included: the historic colonial towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad along the west central coast of Cuba, and the tobacco and coffee growing region of Viñales in the far northwest, before we returned to Havana (see Cuba Part 1.)
Cienfuegos is where we chartered the sailboat. For perspective, by boat it was about a 1-hour motor across the Bahia Cinfuegos to the narrow opening (dodging freighters, ferries, tugs/tows, and fishing boats in this large port.) By car from Cienfuegos it was about a 90-minute drive south to Trinidad.
We had pre-arranged for our wonderful tour guide Bel and taxi-driver Gustavo (with his taxi-van) to pick us up at the Platten Charter Base. Because of the Cuban law that most Cubans can not be on or near boats (except for fishermen and a few others with special permits), Bel and Gustavo were not allowed to see the boat, or even be on the dock. In fact, just driving into the marina parking lot was kind of a big deal for them.
Our traveling buddies in Cuba: Val, Rob & Teresa, Kelly (back row), Heidi & Kirk at Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos.
It was so fun to see Bel again! We had missed her cheery smile, laugh, and demeanor and were all excited for her to show us around more of her Caribbean island home. We brought her all of our left-over provisions from the boat. We also ended up with enough left-over bottled water that we stashed under the seats in the taxi-van and had drinking water for the entire rest of our five-day trip.
Welcome to Cienfuegos, one of the larger port cities in Cuba, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it's old colonial architecture.
First stop, another meal at our favorite Grill Punta Gorda
. Bel and Gustavo dropped us off for lunch then took the perishable foods on to one of Bel's friends in Cienfuegos. After lunch we set off on a quick tour of the colonial city of Cienfuegos. Our next stop was at the Palacio de Valle.
Palacio de Valle, built by the Italian architect Alfredo Colli in 1913-1917, was the home of a Sugar Baron. Moorish-style former mansion is now a government operated high-end hotel. See more interior pix in photo gallery.
Here's a little history on Cienfuegos, courtesy of Wikipedia! As you can see on the above map, Cienfuegos is on the central coast of Cuba about 160 mi south of Havana, with a population of 150,000. Cienfuegos literally translates to "one hundred fires"--cien meaning "one hundred", fuegos meaning "fires". It was originally settled by Taino indigenous people before French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana arrived in the early 1800's. Later this colonial city was renamed Cienfuegos for a Spanish Captain General, José Cienfuegos. However, many of the streets still retain their original French names.
These present-day hotels were once Sugar Baron mansions.
On the trade route between Jamaica and South America, the Port of Cienfuegos was instrumental in the sugar trade. It was also in close proximity to the Cuban provincial capital city of Santa Clara. During the Cuban Revolution, Cienfuegos saw an uprising against Fulgencio Batista and was bombed in retaliation on September 5, 1957. Today Cienfuegos, one of Cuba's chief seaports, is still the center of the sugar trade as well as the coffee and tobacco trade. In 2005, UNESCO named the Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos to the list of World Heritage Sites, as the best example of early 19th century Spanish Enlightenment Urban Planning in the Caribbean.
Juxtaposed to the classical colonial buildings were "modern" 1960's-era buildings, like this fancy hotel (in need of a paint job.)
With a stop at the town square to tour the main cathedral and a few other old buildings, we all piled back in the taxi for the 90-minute ride to Trinidad. The taxi van had three bench seats in the back, two of them facing each other. We volunteered to sit in the backwards-facing seat as neither of us gets car-sick, so we were always seeing everything go by in the opposite direction.
The scenery was mostly a lot of sugarcane fields, and as we got closer to Trinidad there were also some views of the ocean, as well as shrimp farms. Horse-carts, tractors, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and trucks all shared the same highway. Though traffic was very light, and Gustavo was an excellent driver, there were a few times that our travel buddies cringed or covered their eyes at close-calls on the highway. We were thankful not to have seen those near-misses with our backwards view!
Propaganda billboards were very common along the highways, like this one of Ché saying something along the lines of: "Actions speak louder than words."
Trinidad is located about 50 miles south of Cienfuegos (about a 90-minute drive on windy roads). Founded in 1514, it has a current population of around 75,000, and is known for its colonial old town and cobblestone streets. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The neo-baroque main square, Plaza Mayor, is surrounded by many restored grand colonial buildings. These days, Trinidad's main industry is tobacco processing.
The older parts of town are well preserved, as tourism is a major source of income in the city. In fact, of all the places we'd been in Cuba, Trinidad had by far the most tour busses and waves of tourists would quickly pass by. In contrast, some parts of town outside the tourist areas are very run down and in disrepair.
Interestingly, Hernán Cortés, the infamous conqueror of the Aztecs, was a Spanish Captain General in Trinidad in 1519, just prior to heading to Mexico. He recruited 300 Cuban men and procured 6 ships to sail for what is now Veracruz, Mexico, then marched to Teotihuacan, to conquer Montezuma and the Aztecs.
Another interesting footnote about Trinidad is that they LOVE songbirds, and upwards of 80% of the Trinidadians have songbirds in cages in their homes. We saw many people walking around town carrying their birdcages (with birds inside of them), like we might walk our dog. This article talks more about the Birdcage and Songbird pastime in Trinidad
Trinidad has cobblestoned streets with lots of horse carts. Even the public transportation is horse carts! These guys are delivering drinking water by horse cart...it's a bit like stepping back in time.
In Trinidad, every house or shop seems to be painted a different, vibrant color. They also have ornate window and door grills, some resembling bird cages, fitting for their local pastime of building bird cages for their pet songbirds.
Our first stop in Trinidad was at La Canchanchara Taberna to sample their famous traditional Canchanchara, served in little terracotta pots. This was a popular tourist spot, with a live Cuban band (see short video of Bel teaching Heidi to Cha-Cha-Cha
!), and an old man rolling cigars, plus lots of other tourist trinkets to buy in their gift shops, and on the street out in front.
Traditional Canchánchara Recipe
This drink dates back to slavery days. As the story goes, the slaves would drink this sweet drink to give them sustenance for working the sugarcane fields all day long. Rather than rum as we know it today, they would make it with Aguardiente. Aguardiente is a generic term for less-distilled alcoholic beverages that contain between 29% and 60% alcohol, so basically a sugarcane moonshine.
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 ounces dark rum (preferably Havana Club 7!)
Lime wedge and fresh sugarcane, for garnish (optional)
Combine 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon hot water in a highball glass (or terracotta cup!); stir until honey dissolves. Add lime juice and rum. Add ice to fill glass. Stir until chilled. Top with more ice. Garnish with lime wedge and sugarcane, if desired.
Ché's figure is found on just about any souvenir trinket you can think of, like these pieces of leather?? Everywhere in Cuba we saw his image so much more often than images of Fidel. He's a real folk hero here.
Done with our drinks, dancing lessons, and shopping for trinkets, we headed off to find our casa particular for the night. Bel had arranged for us to stay in two Casas next door to each other. We got to stay in one VERY pink (nice and clean), room. As with the other casas we stayed in, room are typically $30 CUC/night with a full breakfast for an extra $5CUC/ea. We dropped off our bags, and quickly freshened up before heading out to dinner. When Heidi opened up one of our gear bags, she discovered a BIG surprise! Kirk's PFD (personal flotation device, a.k.a inflatable life jacket), had prematurely inflated! Nearest we can figure, the 'jerk to inflate' tab must have gotten caught on something in the bag, and been jerked. Thankfully this occurred after
our sailing adventures, so we no longer needed it on this trip.
Gustavo leading the way down a colorful street to find dinner... too bad the restaurant he had in mind was closed.
More Cow-bell! Val rocked the Maracas with the restaurant house-band. If only the food was as good as the band, LOL!
We walked back into town looking for a good place to eat dinner. Remember the limited Wifi from Part 1? No Tripadvisor or UrbanSpoon to guide us here... Gustavo knew of a good restaurant, but when we arrived they were closed. So we picked one near by... which had super mediocre food, but the music wasn't half-bad. We walked around the main square a bit that evening and had planned to take in some live Cuban music, but we were all very tired from our overnight sailing passage only the night before, and the long day touring Cienfuegos and Trinidad, so we soon returned to our casas and hit the hay.
Old town Trinidad was beautiful at night.
Well rested, the next morning after breakfast we visited the Museo Romántico in the restored Palacio Brunet mansion. This beautiful museum was the former home of a 19th Century Sugar Baron, and contained period pieces collected from all over Cuba. Rare objects on display included: a bed made of bronze and mother of pearl, an antique French wardrobe, a desk belonging to Maria Theresa of Austria, and fine China, porcelain, and crystal belonging to some of the wealthiest families from the Romantic period (early 1800's) of Cuba. We also saw the house slave entrance and slave quarters. It was hard to wrap our heads around what it must have been like to live there as aristocrats, in the heyday... or as slaves.
Romantic Museum with art and period pieces from the Sugar Baron era.
After the Romantic Museum, we planned a walking tour of the main square, but black clouds were looming and rain was eminent. Before we knew it, it was pouring rain and all of the tourists were scampering for cover as the cobblestoned streets instantly turned into rushing rivers. Bel herded us into an art gallery where we hung out for about 30-minutes viewing modern Cuban Pop Art while waiting for the monsoon downpour to stop. This unplanned visit turned out to be one of our highlights of Trinidad!
Heidi loves this photo juxtaposing modern Cuban Pop Art against the 200+ year old ornately painted walls in this Sugar Baron mansion-turned-gallery. This room was likely once an upstairs bedroom.
Once the rain had stopped and the cobblestone street "rivers" had subsided, we met up with Gustavo, as it was already time for our next road-trip. We now had a five-hour drive back to Havana for one overnight before taking off early the next morning in the opposite direction for Viñales. So much to see, so little time. We only had three days left! We always seem to vacation (and maybe live life?) go-go-go, trying to pack it all in.
Kirk took this photo of a 1956 Chevy blocking a street in the outskirts of Trinidad, he loves the grittiness... it's one of his favorite photo of the entire trip!
Back in Havana for the night, we stayed in another Casa Particular in a different part of town near many of the international Embassies, (most of which--except the US--are housed in old colonial mansions.) We had rented a 3-bedroom/2-bath apartment for four nights, even though we'd be staying the second night in Viñales. This enabled us to leave most of our luggage behind, and travel light taking only overnight bags to Viñales.
Our hosts recommended eating dinner at Havana Blues
, a unique, artsy restaurant based on the movie Havana Blues
available on Netflix, we still need to check it out! The concept is interesting with local Cuban artists of all kinds (actors, singers, musicians, etc.) working there and performing as they serve you. Not quite dinner theater, but sort of? It's complicated! At any rate, the food was quite good, the prices pretty reasonable, and the decor fun and different in each room.
Viñales Valley is located in western Cuba, in the Piñar del Rio Provence.
The next morning we were up early and ready for our road-trip to Viñales ("Ben-YA'll-aze) with Bel and Gustavo. We had first learned about Viñales reading a Cruising World article on Sailing Cuba
last year. Since then Viñales moved to the top of our list of things to see in Cuba. When we began planning this trip with six different people wanting to see six different things, there was a point that we thought Viñales might be cut from the itinerary, as it was not in close proximity to anything else we were doing. Thankfully the rest of our travel-mates agreed to give up visiting Ché's resting place in Santa Clara and the Hemingway museum outside of Havana, for the side-trip to Viñales. And we were all very glad we did! Kirk just now commented "It seemed like we were in Viñales for a whole week, it couldn't have just been 24 hours?!" Like we said, we pack a LOT into our vacays, and had GREAT fun!
Valle Viñales is about a three hour drive west of Havana. The scenery along the highway was similar to that driving to and from Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Empty four-lane interstate highways passing by lots of rural fields, small towns, occasional horse carts, and propaganda billboards. However as you can see, that's where the similarities ended. Our first stop was a breathtaking overlook of Viñales Valley, where we feasted our eyes on the green valley below, full of magotes (limestone outcroppings.) This beautiful valley is the tobacco and coffee capital of Cuba. Can you see now why we wanted to visit this magical area?
Before European settlement, the rural Valle Viñales was home to a remnant population of native Taínos, as well as many runaway slaves. You can imagine it would have been easy for them to hide in all of the dense jungle and limestone caverns here. This area was first colonised at the beginning of the 1800s by tobacco growers from the Canary Islands, while the town of Viñales was established in 1878.
Viñales Valley was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its: vernacular architecture, local crafts and music; the traditional agricultural techniques still in use today in the cultivation of tobacco, coffee, avocados, mangos, and other crops; and also for the natural beauty of the karst landscape (limestone outcrops or "mogotes", and underground rivers and caves) which make the valley a popular hiking and rock climbing destination. The town itself has mostly one-story wooden houses with front porches, surrounded by farms. Lots of horse carts are used for transportation too. And although it's very rural, and they ride horseback from farm to farm, they are not allowed to ride their horses into town.
Typical wooden houses in Viñales, these were just down the street from where we stayed.
Next stop: a traditional Cuban lunch! From the overlook view, we walked down the road a half mile or so to Restaurante Vera
, recommended by Bel. This palapa roofed restaurant had the feel of a Tiki-bar. Looking off the back deck of the restaurant we saw chickens and a baby pig nosing around the yard, hopefully not our lunch!?
We each ordered our own entries which were accompanied by many family-style side dishes to be passed around: black bean soup, Moros y Cristianos ("Moors and Christians" - a.k.a. black beans and white rice!), a salad of cucumbers, shredded cabbage, fresh sliced tomatoes, and cooked carrot slices (interesting!), plus fried plantain chips, maduros (sweet fried plantains similar to fried bananas) and boiled yucca root, a starchy vegetable. They also had fresh mango juice, with or without rum. The funny thing in Cuba is that you can order a mojito or margarita, or any other drink, with or without rum - same price. Really!!
After lunch Bel scurried us back into the taxi-van so we could get to the Indian Caves before they closed. We weren't even sure what the Indian Caves were? Except that we'd heard it was a "must do" in Viñales... We were imagining an archeological site with pot shards or something... but Bel said it involved a boat ride? And she could go on it!? As as it turned out it was a magote with an underground river, and cavern that went all the way through from one side to the other.
We entered into the cavern and down some steps and along a paved path that wound through stalagmites and dripping wet stalactites, duck! And on down we went crouching in a spot or two, until we reached the river... and a dock and a 12-passenger Boston Whaler-like boat with outboard, inside a cave? Crazy! We all piled in and the skipper/guide proceeded to show us different faces and forms in the stalactites as wec passed through the cave. "This one's the crucifix, that one's a bottle of champagne..." Well, we could sort of make out some of them...LOL! We asked why it was called the "Indian Caves", and apparently there was some evidence that native populations had hidden in these caves during the Spanish Conquest. Then the boat turned, and suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel... and we were headed out of the cave on the other side of the magote. An interesting boat ride for sure... but almost more interesting was what greeted us at the exit of the cave...
Disembarking on this stone pier on the other side of the Indian Caves: Kelly, Val, Heidi, Teresa, Rob, and Kirk.
Kelly, the farm-gal was all too happy to take a ride on Tomás, the tourist-attraction Water Buffalo! (Not native to Cuba, apparently the government imported a heard of them from South Asia and now doesn't know what to do with them?!)
From the Indian Caves, we went on to visit the nearby "Mural de la Prehistorica." Again, we didn't know anything about this prehistoric mural beforehand, but it was on Bel's tour, and is also one of her daughters favorite things to see, so we were game to go see it too! Based on the name, we envisioned cave paintings or petroglyphs? But as it turned out, this multi-coloured spectacular mural, stretches for 40 yards across a limestone outcropping at the foot of the Magote Pita. Though we thought it was pretty kitschy and touristy, it is the work of local artist Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, who used the mural to tell the region's history. Created in 1961, after the Cuban Revolution, it took a team of 18 painters four years to complete. There are still ropes in place and it's re-painted on a regular basis, rappelling while painting their way down the rock face.
See inset: What was most interesting to us were the 1"-wide painted gray stripes, evenly spaced across all the colors. It seems hard enough to paint this behemoth mural, let alone painting even strips across the whole thing. Note dog, and people on horseback for scale.
After a super-fun, long day we were ready to head to our Casa Particular and check in. Bel has extended relatives in Viñales, who happened to have several rooms to rent. We were in the middle of farm-country, with roosters in the yard, and horses and oxen across the street. One of the top things on our Viñales to-do list was to ride horseback to the tobacco farms. And Bel organized an AMAZING horseback riding tour for us the next morning.
Early morning oxen-plowing across the street from our Viñales Casa Particular.
Up early with the roosters, we took a walk around the neighborhood while breakfast was being made. Oxen teams were heading out to the tobacco fields, or already plowing, and these vaquero (cowboys) were saddling up a bunch of horses. Horseback riding is a big tourist attraction in Valle Viñales and many of the tours started from the neighborhood we were staying in. Back at the ranch, breakfast was served, and Bel encouraged us to eat quickly as the horses and vaqueros were waiting for us. Only then did we realize the horses we'd just seen being saddled up were for our tour!
Bel said she was going to stay behind "because we'd have more fun without her." WHAT?! Never! Turns out she'd never ridden a horse before, and was a little nervous... but we all told her if she didn't go, we weren't going either! And anyway we had Kelly along (who owns four mules back in WA) so she was in great hands! In the end, Yaniel ("Yawn-Yell"), our vaquero took the reins of Bel's horse and led it along behind him, so all was good, and Bel had a great time experiencing something new!
Yaniel and Bel getting ready for her first horseback ride!
All saddled up and ready to go with Kelly in the lead, we headed out single file along the trail for about a 30-minute ride on the iron-rich red earth trail. Kirk's mule "Marguerite" and Heidi's horse "Caramel" were both really feisty and nipping at each other and the other horses, trying to race head. This made for an interesting ride, but thankfully none of the horses acted up too badly. Although it was a big tourist thing to ride horseback in this area, we never saw another group on our 30-minute trail ride to the Finca Brisas del Valle, a cooperative farm. And we had the whole farm to ourselves for the three hours that we visited.
Teresa, Bel (way back), Kirk, Val, Heidi, and Kelly - thanks for the great selfie Kelly!
Between the Ears: The countryside was so beautiful with the iron-rich red soil (supposedly what makes the Cuban tobacco the best), the verdant greenery, and the magote hills all around.
Finca Brisas del Valle
Our Finca (farm) tour guide Agnes and Heidi at the Brisas del Valle snack-bar where you could get fresh coconut water, mango water, guava water, coffee, and rum, all grown on this finca. A super-SMALL-world sidebar: back in Puerto Vallarta we recently found a new-to-us Cuban restaurant, CoHabana, and met the proprietress Jamie, who turned out to be from Viñales! We showed her our recent Cuban photos and when we got to this one, she exclaimed, "OH! That's my friend Agnes!" Jamie hadn't been back to Cuba in over 10-years, but recognized her friend. Too cool!
Finca Brisas del Valle is a cooperative farm owned by about six families who all work the land by hand and in traditional ways. They have no mechanized equipment, and use no toxic chemicals at all. Agnes, our finca guide, is from one of the families who run the farm, and speaks impeccable English. The cooperative was given this land by the Cuban government after the Revolution, and besides tobacco they also grow coffee, sugarcane, mangos, guava, avocados, and honey from local hives.
In exchange for the land, the Cuban government gets almost all of the crops they grow. The government takes 90% of the tobacco and 80% of everything else. Every year the government sends someone to the farm to look over all the crops and take the best of the best. Kirk asked if the farm has a representative to ensure that the government didn't take more than their share... they laughed and said "It's the government, they take whatever they want." What is left over they either use themselves, or can sell locally in markets. Each family also got their own small plot (about 500' x 200') where they can grow their own crops for personal use.
The first crop we saw and learned about at the farm was the tobacco growing and cigar making. Though none of us are smokers (and we are pretty anti-tobacco!), it was still fascinating to learn about Cuba's largest export, the Cuban tobacco industry, and the different leaves used for different parts of a cigar. The leaves that are unwanted/unused for cigar making, get ground up and used to make cigarettes by the government.
Step 1. Plowing and Sowing the Seeds
~ Our farm-girl, Kelly, asked if she could plough a row of the tobacco field. They were astonished as they'd never been asked this before! But they gladly let her try. Afterward, Kelly said it was really hard work, and she's used to doing farm work! This is the first step in growing the tobacco. The rows are plowed three times before they sow the seeds. The tobacco seeds are TINY, about one-quarter the size of a chia seed! They also grow cassava (a root crop that they eat) and make a natural pesticide for the tobacco leaves, made out of the cassava leaves. They don't use any chemicals at all on this farm.
Step 2. Harvesting the Leaves
~ The leaves are back-breakingly picked by hand and draped over the picker's arms, then slid off their arm as a unit onto wooden rails.
Step 3. Pulling the Harvest to the Drying Shed
~ The oxen then pull the picked tobacco leaves on the wooden rails back to the tobacco drying sheds. The leave seen here still on the stalks were leaves that were not chosen to make cigars, and will later be turned into cigarettes, used in herbal remedies, or plowed back into the ground for compost.
Step 4. The Drying Shed
~ The wooden rails are hung up in the tobacco drying sheds. Here they will dry for about a month. In the back you can see the fresh green leaves, and above the leaves are more cured. As the leaves dry, the rails are moved further up into the rafters, and the fresh green leaves are placed on the lower levels. The barns have palapa (palm frond) roofs and walls with openings on each side to let a little sun and breeze blow through and help with the drying process. As a full fledged farm with crops and animals, their chickens roost in the rafters of the tobacco sheds, and at night they bring the baby goats into into pens in the shed.
Women in the Cigar Industry
~ It's interesting to note (especially after all the backlash against women in the US these days!) that after the leaves are dried, only women (with their more delicate skin and fingers) are allowed to handle the dried leaves. Men's rough hands and skin will break the leaves leaving them unusable for making cigars!
Step 5. Fermenting the Leaves
~ After the leaves are dried, they are fermented. Each farm makes their own fermentation concoction. Here at Finca Valle del Brisas, it consists of water, guava, mango, honey, and rum boiled down to a sticky black paste, a natural "shoe-black" (simile only, that was their English translation!) This paste is painted onto the leaves, which are then gathered into bundles and wrapped up in palm fronds. They then sit and ferment for one to three months. Fermentation removes the bitter, green taste of the tobacco, before the tobacco leaves are ready to be made into cigars. The fermentation process makes the leaves soft and pliable, and gives them their signature fragrance and taste. Cigars from each farm will taste different due to their own blend of "shoe-black." Not sure at all how the government manufactured cigars are made, if it's the same process, but this is how it's done on Finca Brisas del Valle.
Cigar Rolling 101: learning the process. Kelly, Teresa, Val, Heidi, and Bel our trusty interpreter!
Step. 6 Rolling the Cigars
~ When the leaves are deemed to be well fermented, then they are hand rolled into cigars. Palillo ("Pa-lee-yo") showed us that each leaf from the plant has a specific use in the cigar, from the inner leaves to the middle wrapper, and then the outer wrapper. They also use their own harvested honey as the "glue" to seal the outer leaf wrapper. See a video clip showing us the whole cigar-making process
here. And a little video of Kirk sampling the end result
This "Marlborough Man" Palillo has been a tobacco farmer and cigar maker his entire life. He showed us how to roll cigars, and said "If you don't like smoking cigars in Viñales, you don't like anything in life!"
When in Rome... Kirk hadn't smoked tobacco for over 50 years, but after watching Palillo hand-roll this cigar with honey, and listening to his promo about the "best cigars in the world", Kirk couldn't resist taking a puf, and giving his best "Ché" impression!
Bee Hives & Honey
Next we learned about the honey they have on the farm. Finca Valle del Brisas has only natural bee hives, either in trees, or in the ground (ground bees), no man-made boxed hives here. They are very careful with their harvest. The ground bee hives get harvested every four years, and the tree hives twice a year. They harvest at different times of year so there is always honey available. Sometimes they take part of a hive and move it to another tree, or to another hole in the ground, to start a new hive there. The bees only fly 200-yards in any direction, so by the placement of the natural hives, they ensure their honey is pesticide free.
They carefully mark each hive and when it was last harvested, so they can ensure no over harvesting as well as saving some honey for the bees themselves. They sell the tree hive honey, which we bought, and it's honestly some of the most delicious honey we've ever tasted! However, they keep all of the ground hive honey for themselves, as it's more medicinal. Honey is antibacterial by nature, and they use the ground bee honey to make many natural remedies mixing with garlic, ginger, and other herbs for their own medicinal uses. It was very refreshing to see how environmentally conscious and sustainably aware these farmers are.
Coffee, Sugarcane, Avocados, Mangos, Guavas, and Guayabitas
They grow a small number of shade-grown coffee trees, and dry and ferment and roast the coffee beans themselves. We weren't quite clear if they had to give 80% of their coffee to the government too, or grew those trees on their own small plots of land to keep for their own use? They also grow avocados, mangos, guavas, sugarcane, and guayabitas (a miniature guava) as well, and typically the government takes 80% of these crops. However, the government takes 100% of the sugarcane and guayabitas for rum.
The government uses this farm's sugarcane and guayabitas to make Guayabitas del Piñar, a speciality rum of the region. Once it's distilled, the farm gets "20%" of the bottled, distilled rum in return. Of course, no one is keeping track of that 20% but the government... Interestingly, we all bought a bottle of this delicious guava-flavored rum, but by the time we got back to Havana that night, a couple bottles had leaked. When we compared bottles, no two bottles were the same in size or shape?? And when we opened the shrink-wrapped bottle tops, they all had different sorts of ill-fitting plastic corks in them. Hum... clearly the government keeps the 80% of the good bottles and tops to sell, and the 20% the farm gets back are the "seconds"! So we rebottled all our rum into empty plastic water bottles, taped them closed with first-aid tape, and the all made the trip back home just fine.
After our three hour tour of Finca Valle del Brisas, we said our thanks and good byes to Agnes and Palillo. It had been a fascinating morning, but was time to saddle up and head back to the Casa, and then back to Havana. Thankfully Yaniel was able to carry our rum, honey, and cigars in a saddlebag back for us, as none of us had a good way to carry anything on horseback (or mule!)
Back at the ranch, we met up with Rob and Gustavo who had stayed behind, loaded up the taxi-van with our luggage, rum, honey, and cigars, and headed back to Havana. We were all sad to say goodbye to Viñales, and it had easily become the highlight of our whole trip. It was a different world there in the stunningly beautiful rural valley, a trip back in time, and oh-so enjoyable!
Adios Cuba! It's Been FUN... and Complicated!
We were leaving a day before the rest of the gang. So that night back in Havana we packed everything up and get ready to head out in the morning. Bel arranged to pick us up with a taxi and see us off to the airport. We were going home with much lighter bags as we'd all brought items to leave behind for Bel's own use or for her to share with others in need. Items included: clothing, ballpoint pens, toothbrushes, floss and a first-aid kit (we'd brought along a whole first-aid kit and left it with her.) It turns out that soap, shampoo, and especially toothpaste are very hard to come by in Cuba, and we wished we'd loaded up our suitcases with these easily obtainable items in the US.
As a surprise for Kirk, Bel arrived in a Classic 1953 turquoise Chevy! She also asked the driver to make a brief stop at her house on the way to the airport, so we could meet her mother. In the "Cuba Conga" book we read prior to our trip, as well as one of the very first things Bel hd said to us when we first met the week before is "NEVER go inside a Cuban's house, for any reason, you could somehow get swindled." So we laughed as we entered her apartment, joking about "was she going to swindle us?" It was delightful to meet her mother Rosa, and to see their well organized, modern-decor, IKEA-like apartment (how she managed that in Cuba where there's not much to be had was truly amazing!)
So sad to say our goodbyes to everyone. This had really been a trip of a lifetime us. We can't thank Teresa and Rob enough for inviting us along. And it was wonderful to make new friends Val and Kelly, and Bel, who absolutely MADE the difference in our entire Cuban adventure.
The Cuban Embargo
The US has embargoed products from Cuba since 1961. In our viewpoint having visited Cuba, this has mostly had the effect of hurting the Cuban people. President Obama had started to loosen up sanctions and things were looking up for the Cubans. Unfortunately the current US administration has reversed everything that Obama did, and has even threatened to cut off aid to other countries who trade with Cuba. Considering that Cuba imports two-thirds of all its food, this is unconscionable to us. We experienced first-hand the food shortages, and the lack of food for the average Cubans. As of today, Bel is waiting for hours just to buy a few pieces of chicken. However, we also wonder why the Cuban government doesn't do more to utilize the vast acreage across the country that is not currently being farmed, to grow food for its people, and become more self-sufficient. They could also be manufacturing more items themselves (as could the US for that matter!) and not relying so heavily upon imports.
Stay tuned for more news from s/v Due West coming soon... and if you are looking to visit Cuba, please see more travel info below. We can't recommend it highly enough, and yes, American's can still visit, in spite of #45 trying to stop you. Bel will welcome you with open arms!
So You Want To Visit Cuba? Great!
Most Americans visit Cuba on a cruise ship or an organized tour. If you're planning your own trip, these tips may help you with your Cuban travel plans.
If you plan to visit Cuba, the Cuban government requires you to have medical insurance that covers you in Cuba, which US health insurance does not. In case you have a medical issue while you're there the Cuban government don't want to pay for your medical care! There are US travel insurance companies that will cover Americans flying from the US, but not Americans flying from Mexico (or other countries), go figure! So one big challenge was finding travel health insurance that would cover Americans in Cuba flying from Mexico. We finally found the Patriot Travel Plan through International Medical Group
You must also have a Cuban Tourist Card "Visa"
($30 US per person.) Again if you're flying on any airlines from the US, your visa will be included in your airline ticket cost and your airline company will provide your visa to you. But for us Americans flying from Mexico it's complicated. After much searching, we found a US company where you can order your visa ONLINE and they'll mail it to a US address. We had ours mailed to US friends who brought our Cuban visas to Mexico when they visited us in February.
You'll also need to decide what type of currency to take and how much to bring? US dollars are not allowed, and US bank-issued credit cards/debit cards do not work in Cuba. Once you're in Cuba there is NO way to get any more money than what you bring with you. Repeat, NO WAY. So we had to plan very carefully. Our research told us that Euros were the best way to go. Several people in our group had an interesting time getting Euros in the US (left in a Fed ex package on the front porch!?) In Mexico we also had interesting time getting euros! It seems that the best place to get euros here is in a tiny bank inside and electronics store that only has the amount of euros that European tourists cash in that day. So it was a multi-day process of stopping by that bank each day to get a few more euros until we had enough. Plan AHEAD to visit Cuba.
Here are resources for our wonderful guide Bel, Casa Particulars where we stayed, and a few Restaurants we enjoyed. Please message us for more info, we're happy to share.
Belkis ("Bel") Bermúdez Aroche
Cell: +53 52 661 142
Cell: +53 526 44 109
Horseback Riding in Viñales
Cell: +53 53 373 930
Empedrado # 358 e / Havana and Compostela
Old Havana, Cuba
Tel: +53 (537) 866 2085
Cell: +53 (535) 276 4027
Casa "Rent Mary"
Calle I #409, 14 entre 19 y 21
Bajos, Vedado, Havana
Tel: +53 783 28 651
Cell: +53 584 15 869
76 Callejón de las Angarillas,
Trinidad 62600, Cuba
Tel: + 53-41994090
Cell: + 53-53592404 / + 53-54356054
Grill Punta Gorda