Escaping the city for some rural relaxation

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Getting out of Havana isn’t as easy as just hopping straight on a bus.

First you have to find a taxi to take you out to the bus station to book a bus ticket for the following day.

Or the day after if things are a bit busy… Looks like we’re spending another day in Havana.

Luckily, getting a taxi ride there is easy—taxis are easy to find.

Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? “Yes.” We’re surprising ourselves here, but “Yes please”.

Actually, we specifically sought this one out because the chap gave us a good deal on a return trip to the bus station as well as having a funky old car that we completely forgot to get a photo of the outside of…

Conveniently, this taxi also had a pretty neat, retro interior.

An extra day in Havana gave us time to revisit the incredibly overpriced but nonetheless interesting knick-knack and book markets in the Plaza de Armas.

If we weren’t on a tight budget, this stuff wasn’t so overpriced, we weren’t flying back with tiny daypacks to live in a small 4Runner, we would have absolutely bought all of this. All of it. Maybe not the horse and cart, we think that was a taxi, but the rest, absolutely.

We also had time to look at a couple more forts over the other side of the harbour.

Out the back of the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (luckily just known as ‘La Cabaña‘ for short) was an enticing little roadside museum. One dedicated to that time mankind almost managed to trigger a non-climate-change induced apocalypse.

Here are housed relics of the time when the world was poised on the edge of nuclear armageddon and little old Cuba was positioned clearly at the centre of the mess. The actual missiles from the Cuban Missile Crisis (or Crisis de Octubre as it is known in Cuba) were sent back to the Soviet Union. But full scale replicas and an assortment of other less dramatic missiles are on display. Including the remnants of the US spy plane that was shot down over Cuba during the crisis. The whole display tells the story of the events that led to the closest the world has come to a potential nuclear apocalypse.

Now these relics from a bygone era sit in the sunshine just outside La Cabaña waiting for tourists to pop by and take a look.

The following morning we were finally on our way out of Havana.

The plan was to head East to Viñales first, then catch buses to other points of interest though the rest of Cuba, back to the West of Havana. We hoped Viñales would prove to be more relaxing and less scammy than Havana Vieja. We had been told to expect a rural paradise set in a dramatic valley punctuated by rugged karst mountains.

The bus was right on time. The glorious patterns on the seat promised a good journey.

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There was a brief delay of an hour or two as a result of a flat tyre but we made good time on the journey and arrived in the early afternoon.

What we hadn’t done was booked anywhere to stay. We had agreed not to accept any of the offers for accommodation from any of the people waiting at the bus stop and instead walk around town and look for somewhere suitable. As we exited the bus, we pushed our way through the screeching throngs, ‘aire acondicionado‘ ‘agua caliente‘ ‘treinta pesos‘ ‘veinte pesos‘ business cards were thrust into our faces, arms grabbed at our elbows as each casa owner vied for our attention.

We stumbled our way through the throng then a shrill voice in English caught our attention. “Fifteen dollars.” Well, that sounds like a good deal.

We still weren’t convinced, but the charismatic tout-ress saw us waiver for a second. She had us. “Feel free to just come down and look” she said.  “You don’t have to stay, but I’m sure you’ll like the place”. Tamara confidently introduced herself, told us that she worked as a school teacher and rented out her home on the side. Her husband offered tours we could have breakfast at her place for a small extra fee, dinner for quite a bit more. We gave in and decided to have a look at what $15 USD would get us. The room did look pretty nice, it was in a quiet and out of the way back property we wouldn’t have found if we’d been looking ourselves. So we signed up for a few days.

The room was certainly nestled in a nice spot.
The room was certainly nestled in a nice spot.

Tamara was polite and amicable at first. Happy to greet new visitors, she talked about all of the things you could see locally. Conveniently her husband offered tours to see all of it.

Normally we prefer to just wander about on our own, but we said we’d think about what we wanted to do and let her know. She made sure we were settled in and then excused herself to go and wait for the next bus load of tourists. It turns out she used her charismatic confidence in both Spanish and English to help all her neighbours fill the rooms of their houses too.

It looked like we had found a great place to explore the area from. We hoped Viñales would provide the calming rural antidote to the hustly, bustly, scammy, beggy, touty excess of Havana Vieja.

Tamara sold us on a dinner at her house that night. Setting us back the same price as a night’s accommodation, we figured we’d just do that as a one off. Although talk of breakfast in the morning before a horseback tour to some of the areas highlights the next day did sound tempting, we had planned on renting bicycles in town, but Tamara looked at us with sad puppy dog eyes, we couldn’t say no. Tour booked. Viñales was proving expensive, but it did all sound like a lot of fun.

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Dinner did not disappoint, we chatted away to a couple of German students who were leaving for Havana the next morning, we all enjoyed a hearty meal. It finished with flan. So we immediately signed up for expensive dinner night two when Tamara asked if we were in.

The next day’s horse-riding trip didn’t quite make our top ten list.

The first stage was a guided trip around a tobacco farm.

“Here’s the hut where we dry the tobacco. Take a photo if you want.”

Ok, don’t mind if we do, we’ll take several, wonder where the farm tour goes next?

“And that’s your farm tour, let’s head out.”

From there we were placed on scrawny, malnourished horses, we weren’t entirely sure that we ought even be riding them.

…uh, are you sure about this horse? I don't know if he appreciates this…
…uh, are you sure about this horse? I don’t know if he appreciates this…

It looks like maybe Ben should be carrying this horse. Tamara’s husband seemed adamant they were fine with it…

Our tour companions seemed un-phased by the early morning bout of animal cruelty, so the group set out to explore the region on four wobbly stick legs per person.

Really, I'm not sure about this poor horse.
Really, I’m not sure about this poor horse.

Plodding along, we shortly arrived at our next stop.

The grand mural several stories high, painted by an artist of dubious talent, designed to depict the history of the world from dinosaurs to man. Tamara had told us this would be awesome.

Holy crap. That is one terrible mural.
Holy crap. That is one terrible mural.

We actually did like it, because it was so blatantly terrible. We still laugh about how terrible it was to this day.

Look at it.

It is genuinely awful, therein lies it’s charm.

Tamara’s husband asked if we wanted to pay the $2 per person to go and have a closer look. The whole group laughed. It turns out it wasn’t a joke, you really can pay $2 if you want to go in and take a closer look. From the other side of the fence. We can’t imagine it is any less terrible from there.

We wound through what was actually a pretty scenic valley. The early morning light caught smoke from various burn-offs to create a pretty atmospheric haze around the mountains. Dogs and chickens darted underfoot and we enjoyed a brief glimpse into rural life in Cuba.

We would like to say it was a peaceful ride, but it wasn’t—the horses were going too slow for Mr Tamara, so he would wave sticks at them to get them to scamper a little faster. Every time this happened we were jolted about and nearly launched into orbit, violently tossed about on the miniature (probably children’s?) saddles. Some of the horses hated each other, so there was always the danger of getting caught in a scuffle between them. One chap got a nasty kick from a particularly disgruntled horse.

It was with great relief that we finally arrived at the trip highlight. A cave and underground pool. Surely this would be like one of the sapphire blue cenotes of the Yucatan. We were looking forward to a refreshing swim.

The cave entrance.
The cave entrance.

We payed the extra entry fee to the cave guide who took a large group of several combined tours. There was only one small light which he was wielding at the front of the large group. This didn’t work out well for one couple—one minute they were there, the next minute they had disappeared into a hole in the ground. The guide sighed and showed the bleeding and injured couple out of the cave, then returned to guide the rest of the group to the underground swimming pool.

Which turned out to be a shallow muddy pool, (rumoured to be a whopping one metre deep at the back). We wandered back out of the cave, not feeling particularly inspired to wade through the mud there, when we knew that all the crystal clear, blue cenotes of the Yucatan were awaiting our return.

Yep. That's it. Hope it was worth nearly killing the horses for. Enjoy.
Yep. That’s it. Hope it was worth nearly killing the horses for. Enjoy.

Back on the starving horses we were driven on with some menacing stick-waving to a house with a friendly chap who offered us Cocolocos. Only this wasn’t Mexico, it was Cuba, so they didn’t have a fancy name, the guy just offered us a ‘rum drink in a coconut’. We suggest working on your sales pitch Cuba.

Once everyone was sipping away at their rum he told us it would be $2 per drink. Unsurprised, we handed the cash over. Apparently the only thing included in the cost of the tour had been some spindly little horses, I would have actually paid the money to see the horses get the day off and walked around to these ‘highlights’ but apparently that wasn’t a tour option.

We returned to the poor starved horses for the final stretch. Chuckled away as Mr Tamara tried and failed repeatedly in his attempts to entice the wily English tourists with his charms. Well, that was when he wasn’t intimidating the poor exhausted horses into running at a just-fast-enough-to-be-uncomfortable-for-everyone pace. Finally it was over, we could go back to enjoying our travels on our own time without slowly killing horses, without desperately boring caves, without hilariously terrible murals.

Well, it wasn’t over for the horses, they were getting lined up for the next tour group who were coming through. Poor wee buggers.

As our time in Viñales passed, Tamara began to realise that we weren’t planning on booking any further tours. She stopped being warm and friendly, but still ‘encouraged’ (bullied/guilted) us to arrange meals at her house, these quickly became reheatings of yesterday’s depressing leftovers.

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Luckily, there was plenty to do in town without crushing horses, a fair was due to start later in the week.

We wandered around town watching the rides and booths being set up.

Booths being built along the sides of the main street for the upcoming fair.
Booths being built along the sides of the main street for the upcoming fair.

We needed some more cash, so we stopped at the bank to exchange some of our Mexican Pesos. The sign on the door said it was open until 3:30, a woman stopped us as we went to walk in. “We close in half an hour, you can’t come in.” We stood there looking confused for a second, it must be the Cuban accent, she can’t have just said that, that means they are still open for another half hour… She said “You don’t understand do you?” Rolled her eyes and slammed the door in our faces.

Awesome. The people of Cuba can be so charming.

We needed some small change, since no one likes the big notes the bank gives you and will often not accept them, so we went to the main grocery store and bought a bottle of water with the last of our big notes. That was when we finally managed to entice one of the sales people to help us. She was pretty annoyed that we’d bullied her into processing our transaction, she practically threw the water bottle at us in a rage.

One morning we got up early to take our own sunrise walking tour of Viñales. Which proved to be a far more scenic and interesting than the horseback tour.

When we got back, Tamara was visibly irked. Where had we been? Had we been on a tour with someone else? Don’t forget, we can book tours here. Did we hire bikes somewhere else? We have bikes here you can hire. Have you been seeing other tour guides behind my back? Remember, my husband offers tours.

As our time there had progressed, the less money we spent with Tamara, the grumpier she got. The few times we refused her home-cooked meals she would stalk off in a huff. The time the pipe filling the water tank broke in a powerful storm and we pointed out that there was no running water, she huffed and grumbled at the inconvenience, even though Ben offered to hop up on the roof and reconnect the hose himself.

We were starting to miss the simplicity of camping in our rooftop tent. Sure there was no running water, but you didn’t have to constantly justify your decisions not to pay for more things you didn’t need or want.

One afternoon, were walking down the road when we heard a dog yelping in pain. Looking to see the source of the noise we saw a man, standing in front of a tourist-packed restaurant, picking up stray dogs and swinging them around by the back legs several times before throwing them brutally into the back of a truck. Not just any truck, he was the official town dog catcher. Tormenting dogs for fun.

Seriously Cuba. You have some issues.

Ben at this point had decided there was going to be no stopping Emma, it was pointless, she was probably going to pick the dog catcher by his hind legs and throw him somewhere. He just hoped we wouldn’t end up in some dusty Cuban prison cell for attacking a town worker.

Emma certainly wanted to give the dog tormentor a piece of her mind, but unfortunately, in a moment of anger all Spanish was forgotten and all that came out was a string of abuse in English. Which was completely lost on the canine-flinger who just hopped in the car and drove off oblivious to the string of foul curses directed at him by a pint-sized, but visibly enraged Kiwi.

Viñales. It hadn’t really been that awesome. There had been some nice points. But when the highlight of your trip somewhere is a mural that looks like this:

It doesn't really get any better does it.
It doesn’t really get any better does it.

It is probably time to look elsewhere.

We bought bus tickets for the first available bus to Cienfuegos. Hopefully that would be a little more pleasant.

We had planned on going to a nice restaurant for dinner that night, but Tamara told us that everything in town was shutting early because the fair was on, so we should probably just have dinner with her.

We headed in to town to check out the fair. Which actually looked pretty fun.

It turned out that not only were all the restaurants open, but there were plenty of cheap and delicious foods available at the fair. Instead we enjoyed a disappointing and expensive meal of leftovers from the night before. Deep down we had known that would be the case, but we were a bit out of whack from the blatant animal cruelty we had just witnessed. We had just agreed with Tamara to get her to stop talking to us in her shrill voice. After seeing all the goings on at the fair, we regretted that choice.

That night we agreed, Cuba wasn’t really working out how we had hoped, it was just costing a lot of money to be somewhere we were enjoying a lot less than Mexico. We decided it was only going to get better, it wouldn’t get worse from here. It was an interesting and beautiful country, we just had to be prepared to spend more money and not expect too much from anything. We’d head into town the next day, enjoy the fair, eat tasty snacks, go on dangerous rides and then bus out of Viñales the following morning.

Things would be better in Cienfuegos.

Of course, we never made it to Cienfuegos.

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