Leaving Havana for the day, we climbed aboard a Chinese built bus and headed west on a highway built by Russians. Our destination was the Vinales Valley in the Pinar Del Rio Province, a three hour drive. Our purpose was to visit tobacco farms and growers in the most fertile region in Cuba as well as visit the town, Vinales.
The small private farmers produce the finest grade tobacco while relying solely on traditional methods. No tractors or machinery. No pesticides or commercial fertilizers. Everything organic. They are part of the National Association of Small Farmers and are under contract with the government. Cuban cigars are exported world wide, except to the United States. As an American visiting Cuba, I can not purchase or bring back cigars to the US. That is contraband, and the tobacco sniffing dogs are doing their job at the Miami Airport.
The farm we visited actually reminded me of the North Carolina Mountains where tobacco allotments were and still are prize possessions. The Cuban owner and workers didn’t mind talking to us or posing and even enjoyed it.
Vinales itself is a delightful farm settlement that was founded in 1875. Standing on the corner, I enjoyed watching the many types of farm carts used to haul tobacco, bananas, taro and other kinds of produce. It certainly had a frontier town feel to it.
It has braced itself for tourists and the brightly painted homes are scrambling to get the necessary permits to add another room to create their own bed and breakfast called “particulares”. They have to be licensed by the government. The houses are simple, one story colonial homes with a front porch. The only thing that has changed over the years is the style of the roof. At one time, homes were flat roofed which left them vulnerable to hurricanes. Today, they are pitched and the government provides the terracotta tile.
To walk two blocks off of the main street, Calle Salvador Cisneros, in either direction, is to immediately be in farm land, which is out someone’s back door.
Walking the length of the main street, I had no trouble spotting the central plaza where young men gather to play a game of dominoes while friends and tourists watch. The Casa de la Cultura puts on daily events and these young girls are practicing their dance routine for a special show.
This is such a laid back town where tourists are definitely made to feel welcome. The settlement as well as the valley surrounding it was designated as a UN World Heritage Site in 1999. One main reason given is the art, music, language, and age old farming methods have not changed. It’s colonial past is part of daily vernacular.
Heading back to Havana, we stopped at an overlook of the valley with the lovely Hotel Los Jasmines in view. The beauty lies in the limestone karsts or “mogotes” jutting up in the large fields, dotted with palm trees and lush vegetation. Our guide tells us the region was once known for its large plantations and haciendas and it used African slaves to do the labor. The Cimarron’s (escaped slaves) found the caves to be a place of refuge. Today, descendants of these slaves, a part of the multi-ethnic culture, live and work in Vinales and the surrounding valley.
It is hard to believe this peaceful and tranquil area once played an important role in Cuba’s War of Independence and the Cuban Revolution. The Vinales valley is Fidel’s favorite place in all of Cuba. The iconic images of him all over Havana always show him with a cigar. An advertisement for what Cuba is known for. Its cigars.
Also famous for rum, we sipped on mojitos while waiting for the sun to set. A nice way to end the day.
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