by Jim and Melanie*
[*Melanie’s note: I was drowsy all that day and slept on the bus a good chunk of the time we were on it. Most of these observations are Jim’s.]
The final full day of our Cuba visit involved a bus trip more than 2.5 hours west of Havana to a national park called Viñales Valley. The highway was similar to other modern four-lane expressways. We stopped part way at a nice rest area complete with palm trees and a coffee-snack bar. As in other locations in Cuba, random dogs seemed to wander around.
Viñales Valley is recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The dramatic limestone karst landscape presents tall mountains and rounded humps scattered throughout the agricultural area. The valley’s primary crop is tobacco grown as it has been for generations. It is a manual, labor-intensive process. The following brief film by UNESCO TV and © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai shows tobacco farming practices and some of the unique caves in the area.
Views of the Valley
Additional images of the region are available here from the UNESCO web site.
A Tobacco Farm
Many small tobacco farms are scattered in the valley. One farm in particular is visited often by tourist groups as a good example of the practices and buildings used by the farmers. We were invited into the palm thatched drying barn as soon as we arrived. Our host explained the steps involved in growing, harvesting, drying, and selling his crop. Jokingly, he said he is required by law to sell 90% to the government. He keeps 20% to do as he wishes.
The leaves are hung to dry on the poles in the barn. He selected a few to demonstrate how to roll a cigar. One of our group members smoked it and said it was quite good. The planting season was getting close. No crop of leaves remained except for his demonstration purposes.
After the demonstration and tour, our host invited the group into his home. There we were served coffee enriched with rum if we chose. We were free to roam around his farm buildings and see first-hand what life was like for him and his family. The yard was lush with greenery, including a coffee plant. Next to the house were two small adult cats, as well as some nursing kittens. We were told the mamas were sisters and would nurse any of the kittens as needed.
Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso
Lunch was at a beautiful and remarkable restaurant located on a hillside in the valley. Our tables were situated with views out to the countryside. The food was prepared from the gardens that surround the restaurant. The owner was proud to point out how he and his employees were dedicated to raising all organic foods for use in preparing dishes. Earlier in the week we were treated to lunches and dinners at some wonderful places. In our opinion, this place topped them all. As with all our meals, this one started with a delicious welcome cocktail with special ingredients. As lunch progressed, bottles of rum were placed on the tables for us to enjoy as we wished. They were emptied in turn with no long-term ill effects.
Our Final Dinner
We all gathered in the lobby of the hotel awaiting the arrival of our rides to dinner. About a dozen convertibles from the 1950s era came around the corner. We made mad dashes for our favorites. As we rode to the restaurant, people were waving their arms to each other, the car horns were blaring funny tunes, and people on the street wondered about those crazy Americans. It was a blast. Our car was this 1955 Chevy BelAir with the original engine, according to our driver.
We were told that Cubans don’t make a big deal out of most of their birthdays. Young women’s quinceañera, when they turn 15-years-old, is an exception. However we Americanos do celebrate. In fact there were three birthdays in our group during our trip. Melanie’s was the day we returned to Miami. That last night, the restaurant had a large chocolate cake for all of us to share. To top it off, the band played “Happy Birthday” with appropriate cha-cha-chas thrown in. It was a good way to end our week together.