Its been awhile since Jake and I have spent time in a crowded city, with its distinct sounds, smells and general energy. We felt a twinge of desire for some peace, quiet and nature. So when the opportunity arose to take a trip out to the country, we were amped. I couldn’t wait to smell the fresh air of the countryside, away from all this smog.
There was some talk of potentially hiring the translator and professor, Roberto, whom we hired to give us a tour of old Havana. Our hope was that he would join us on our tour through the Pinar Del Río Province, on the Western side of Cuba, known for its luscious terrain and tobacco crops. Within the area, is a small ‘country’ town of Viñales that our hostess thought we should not miss. We thought this would be a great time to visit a tobacco farm to witness the process to create an infamous Cuban cigar and explore the small villages nearby.
The downfall is that it would be a pricy endeavor if we go this route. That is, hiring our translator and his “crew” would be almost 300 CUC, which is a HUGE expense. Our trusty man Don tried to negotiate down the cost. Roberto was very insistent, though, and while he was willing to work with us a little bit, his driver had to be paid a set amount (or so he claimed). So we asked our hostess instead to arrange a driver to take us to the country, and some specific places along the way. She suggested the “scenic” route along the coast that winds through mountains and prairies. All for about 100CUC. The only downside is the lack of translation, though Leydiana said this person did speak English. We’ll see what that really means.
Our driver supposedly was told where we wanted to go (with the aid of Roberto and Leydiana working together): Pinar del rio’s tobacco farm / cigar rolling demo, a visit to Viñales and a “scenic route” along the coast. We also were told that breakfast would be a quick stop along the way and then lunch in the small town as we pleased.
And just like every other experience, this one didn’t go QUITE as planned.
Our ride came early in the morning at 8AM. It would be a 3-hour journey, and we wanted to make the most of our day. All we had was a bit of coffee since we were told we would be stopping for breakfast. Don had a great thought to grab rolls from the Panaderia (bakery), but we were running behind and didn’t have time to stop by.
A young girl collected us from the apartment. She actually did speak decent English (or at least enough to make us think she did). We were all feeling good and as we stepped out the front door, a bright green 57 Pontiac Taxi was waiting for us in the ally with a young man, probably in his early-to-mid 20’s. It was clear that this man didn’t speak much English, but seemed very friendly.
We all assumed that this girl was joining us, but apparently not. Don had the foresight to bring a small notebook and pen so we could communicate easier – to verify the price of the day for instance. He had the driver verify the cost (about 120CUC – a bit more than we were told but not crazy), and where we were going for the day (all of which we wrote down to verify with the driver).
Don sat up front and the 3 of us climbed in back. It was pretty comfortable to sit on the bucket seats, even though they are well-worn. And off we went!
The drive through the familiar city streets was refreshing. It felt like we have covered so much of this amazing city, but it didn’t take us long to venture into new territory. Chinatown is a HUGE part of Havana, and one area we had yet to discover. I was shocked at how different this part of town was, as compared to old Havana. Still crowded, but less lavish and luxurious buildings and less of a “touristy” feel. I actually quite enjoyed it, though we passed through fast in the green cab.
With the smoggy streets of the city behind us, we started to see the lush countryside of this island. It was so beautiful and refreshing. Rolling hills, thick jungle, mountains off in the distance, lush vegetation and open spans of farm crops and animals. I was also shocked to see horse-drawn buggies, ox-carriages, horseback riding cowboys, and cyclists. There were very few cars, and the ones out here weren’t as flashy as city cars – much smaller. Mass transportation was really interesting in the form of open-air cattle trucks loaded with people.
After an hour of driving, we were all feeling the pangs of hunger. Don mentioned this to the driver and he responded in rapid Spanish I didn’t understand. He gestured that he understood our desire for comida (food) and will be stopping shortly. But he just kept right on driving. We also asked about the “Scenic route” which he didn’t seem to comprehend. Oh well…Regardless, it was a gorgeous ride and very pleasant. That is until about 2.5 hours passed by and we saw a large sign welcoming us to Pinar del Río. Well, I guess we’re already here. So much for breakfast.
Now we assumed that our first stop would be to the tobacco farm and cigar rolling demo in the larger town of Pinar. But as we approached a crossroads, there was a sign: Pinar – 10 miles one direction and Viñales – 6 miles the other. We turned toward Viñales. Ok no big deal.
We pulled up a street passing by some small homes, shops and even restaurants. We all assumed we were going here to eat? But we kept right on driving to the top where the street ends at a parking lot of a hotel. There was a mural surrounding the building and I was immediately blown away by the view in front of us.
Holy cow! It was beyond beauty in my mind. Perfection! The hotel was gorgeous in itself and had such lovely gardens and lush vegetation but the overlook here was so cool. And right next-door there was a band playing some fantastic salsa music. 5 lovely ladies in tight red dresses had a crowd of tourists enthralled (mostly guys). They were so good, even though we only caught the last few minutes of their show.
We were all famished by this point as it was now 1130AM. We considered grabbing a snack from one of the vendors at this overlook, but since we passed a few small restaurants, we thought maybe we would do that instead. Back at the car, Don and I tried to explain to our driver what we wanted to do (which was EAT). The driver said he had a perfect spot with nice views. It was another 10 minute drive through another tiny town full of bright colors and then back out in the country again. We turned down an unlikely road and then slowed as we neared 2 small brightly-colored homes. Our stop was to the Paladar Las Palmitas, in bright blue.
I practically jumped out of the car in my excitement. This perfect, remote spot was like my personal heaven. And this was a TRUE Paladar – or at least felt more like it out here in the country. Inside was a tiny little kitchen, simple but adorable. The first woman introduced herself as our driver’s aunt, and seemed very cheerful and sweet. The four of us sat down in the little kitchen as she put out a plate of fresh-made potato chips (from scratch). We wolfed them down in about 2 minutes and were amazed at their deliciousness. Maybe that’s just the hunger talking but who cares!
Our “waitress / aunt” offered us cold drinks to which we gratefully accepted. We weren’t sure about the price yet, so Don asked the waitress, who told us only 50 cents – 1CUC per beverage. Then she invited us to the back, which is the actual restaurant portion of the home. And we found the menu very similar to the paladar in the city – price wise also similar.
It seems that all meals are served family-style in paladares. All the meals come with sides including rice, beans and assorted veggies. A main dish would be a choice of either lobster, shrimp, chicken, beef or Ropa Vieja (shredded beef soaked in its juices and extra moist).
I’m not sure if it was our extreme hunger but this food was probably the best we’ve had so far in Cuba. We all ordered Ropa Vieja and Sue decided to venture out and order langosta (lobster). The sides included rice and beans, fried plantains, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, 2 different kinds of squash and another root vegetable and potatoes. My favorite was the squash and the “unknown” root vegetable. Everything was SO AMAZING – I only wish I could bottle up the taste-experience and carry it with me every time I eat. And to top it off was some delicious cuban coffee and chocolate for dessert!
We were all super happy after our meal and even happier that our bill was much cheaper than our first Paladar experience by almost 50%! Not too shabby. Before we left, I used the bathroom, which I was happy to note had both a toilet seat AND toilet paper (whew!). In passing the hallways, I noticed 2 bedrooms, one on each end, that were both very small, modest and simple. Not too different from the apartment in the city, but here it is much simpler. So cool to be in someone’s home and experience it first-hand.
Back to the car, I spoke with the driver who told us that our next visit would be to the tobacco farm. He also insinuated something about horses, but I couldn’t quite catch his meaning. I assumed a horse-carriage ride (since those have been all over the city). We inquired about the price for all of this and he said it would be FREE unless we buy something.
We all assumed that we would be heading back the way we came, toward the main road that lead back to Pinar Del Río city. But instead we went down a small country road for about 10 more minutes. It was beautiful, but not what we expected. As we slowed, we passed by a tiny little “farm” and several horses lined up along the front. Wait, are we supposed to ride these horses?
Out of the car, we were approached by a couple of vaqueros, or cowboys. None of them spoke English but we managed to communicate through gestures and basic Spanish. The cowboys explained that we would visit the farm, a cave and an overlook all in 3 hours on horseback. Sounds cool, except that none of us was interested in riding a horse in the middle of the day. Plus Don is allergic to horses and I’m, in general, just not a huge fan of them. Sue is a horse-expert, and even she had no desire to go for a ride. Not here anyway. Too big of a risk if we get injured.
We tried to explain this but it seemed our words fell on deaf ears. Don took the reigns and made sure that this whole thing was still a FREE excursion, as our driver promised. However our cowboys told us it would be 10CUC per person, per hour. At 3 hours that’s 120CUC for this day-trip. Not even close to free! Obviously this isn’t what we wanted. And at this point we were all pretty much ready to leave the ranch and head back to Viñales.
It was uncomfortable for sure. Thankfully we had Don to look out for us. He is so good at negotiating he actually did bargain down to 10CUC per person total (so only 40CUC), which would maybe be appealing if we don’t have to ride a horse. But as soon as they almost agreed, they went back and said no.
At this point, the only option was to explain to our driver that we don’t have enough cash to do this – which was true. We would need to stop off at a bank back in town. He understood and translated to these cowboys for us. It was super awkward leaving the place, and it felt like none of us in the car could really discuss with each other how to get out of this situation. Obviously our driver is buddies with these guys, and it makes sense why we’re at this farm and not the big one in Pinar.
The driver took us back to Viñales where he parked a few blocks from the bank, explaining how to get there. We passed by several restaurants that were about 1/5th of the cost of our meal which would have been just perfect. Its okay in the end our experience was great, but it was also kind of a bummer we didn’t get to make the choice for ourselves.
This bank was nothing like the one in the city. A small and simple building with no flash. There was a guard posted at the entrance to let people in, but it felt less formal too. Jake and Don headed in while Sue and I sat outside under a tree discussing the situation. We both agreed that we did NOT want to go back to the horse farm, and would prefer to just go someplace with a view and maybe a cold drink.
10 minutes later, Jake came out thrilled that no one inside spoke English and he got to use his Spanish skills a bit. Don and Jake came up with a great idea that we could tell the driver that we had a problem with the bank, couldn’t get money, and thus would have to skip the horse ranch. Perfectly reasonable.
We took our time walking back through this adorable city. I stopped at a couple outdoor markets with Sue to nab a few souvenirs. The brightly-colored homes that lined the streets were so cute and quaint. Of course there has to be horse carriages and cars sharing the street – or it wouldn’t be Cuba! The people here were all very genuine and extremely friendly!
Our driver seemed disappointed when we told him our situation. We were forceful with him in our desire to go to Pinar’s big farm. He claimed that it was too far in the opposite direction and too late in the day to go there (even though it was still very early – only about 1PM). Ok fine. Instead take us to a place where we can see more scenic things – maybe even back at that first hotel’s overlook. We all could use a cold drink and a break from the car.
Off we went, back in the direction we started. The views were gorgeous. Jake and I were buzzing with glee at all the untouched potential rock climbing out here. The countryside opened up again and we stopped here and there to take some pictures. One of my favorites was the Mural de la Prehistoria painted on the side of rock-cliff (I wonder if its climbable?)
We never did stop at the hotel or any other place that afternoon. Instead we consented to head back to Havana since it seemed like the driver wouldn’t take us anywhere else. Thats okay. I am just glad that we got to come out into the country and see such beauty. Jake and I are already planning (in our head) another trip to dedicate time out here – maybe a backpacking excursion?
The drive back to the city was HOT. It was the hottest part of the day and in the old car with hot black seats with no air conditioning, made it feel hotter. The 3-hour drive was like eternity between cat naps. All of us were exhausted by the time we rolled up to the familiar cityscape of Havana.
That night we all needed something more. Don was itching to take us to La Calesa Real, where he and Sue enjoyed an amazing (and cheap) 5-star meal the other evening. Sounds great to us!!!
This was the first time that we all ventured out without the typical camera bags in tow. Just ourselves, some cash, and a small handheld camera easily tucked away in a pocket. We don’t look like tourists at all, and as we now know these streets, we could almost pass as honorary Cubans for the night. Jake and I loved only speaking in Spanish to each other too. It was so fun to practice this way, and made us feel like ONE with the city. And what a difference! There were no hagglers or beggars or anything. Just our group and it was awesome.
It took us awhile to find the restaurant, so we retraced their footsteps back to the busy street of Obispo. The girl “bird-dogger” was there and she showed us the way.
La Calesa Real was fantastic. Everything was so classy. The band was in full swing and people were dancing salsa. It was a party in every sense of the word and the food was out of this world awesome. I think I’ve said that about every place we ate on this trip, but I mean it. Its all so good.
We all ordered chicken curry for dinner (which came with a mess of sides that we all shared) and with drinks and dessert, our tab was less than 20CUC total! Hard to believe a meal this good could be so inexpensive. We ended up sitting here for 2 hours enjoying the meal, the music and dancing. Don asked our super fun waiter (who spoke English!) to teach him some salsa dance moves, which was awesome and so fun to watch. What a great place.
After dinner we hit the streets of Havana at night. I think all of us were expecting people to be out on the town. Here and there we would pass a few people, but most of the streets were empty. It was super strange and almost eerie, but since we’ve grown comfortable here, we weren’t worried in the least. There wasn’t much activity tonight for which Jake and I were super grateful. We called it an “early night” and went back to our humble abode.