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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Viñales - beautiful but too quiet for EC

The Viazul bus drove on for the next four hours. The rural areas were noticeably less developed than the capital city, with teepee-shaped barns dotting the farmlands.

As the bus approached closer to Viñales, a city of roughly 27K located in the Pinar del Rio province, the lush greens stood in sharp contrast to the pale blue sky. The region is well know for its agriculture, with cigars as its most famous end product. Finally, surrounding the city were mogotes, eroded limestones with steep sides and hidden caves. 

The bus eventually stopped in front of the Casa de la Cultura, the main central plaza. Like hungry piranhas, a dozen or so casa particulare owners were crowded at the stop trying to get their rooms booked. Tati had previously called a friend of hers in Viñales, so EC quickly bypassed the touts. 

Oneida's casa was located about 15 minutes' walk to the central plaza. Like other homes in Viñales, it was a one-story building, with the roof serving as a deck and home to an above ground swimming pool (certainly an anomaly in Cuba). EC's room was a guesthouse consisting of a bathroom and two beds covered in perhaps not the most tasteful bed sheets. 

Most of the buildings were painted in bright pastel colors. Unlike the chipped paints covering Habana, the homes in Viñales looked newly painted. Some even had white picket fences. Though public garbage bins were nowhere to be seen, the town was surprisingly clean.

After settling down at Oneida's, EC left for the central plaza, where music was being played. It was time for lunch. He sat down at the nearest restaurant with enough shade to provide safety from the sun. Soon enough, the waitress brought out a plate of scrambled eggs that looked quite unappetizing and another consisting of room temperature salami and ham with chilled mango, pineapple, and olives. EC ate the huevos, but could only dare to stomach a couple bites of the salami and ham. Across from him were two Israelis who had recently finished their required military duty and were taking some time off prior to starting school. After a nice chat, EC made his way back to Oneida's casa for a nap that turned out to be much longer than expected. 

Viñales is a very small town, one where it was possible to walk around without getting lost and to hit the highlights in less than an hour or so. So small that an art gallery consisted of two walls decked with ~15 paintings. Most guidebooks and reviews rave about Viñales - the town and the region by the same name. While the views were gorgeous, EC felt too isolated for comfort.

When EC woke up from his afternoon siesta, it was time for dinner. Although, it was impossible to tell since at 7PM, the sun was still shining brightly at its 2 o'clock position in the sky. The longer day hours meant no one was ever in a rush. 

EC had opted to eat at the casa particulare that night. Plate by plate Oneida brought out more than enough food to feed three people - two large chicken thighs, a plate of rice, a large portion of steamed yucca, a plate of fries, a salad with fresh avocados and tomatoes, bean stew, and a bowl of fresh papaya, mango, and banana. 

Stuffed to the brim once more, EC went for a walk out towards the central plaza. With the sun setting, the heat was becoming more bearable. Although, more mosquitoes began to leave their bite marks all over EC. Having not had any troubles with mosquitoes in Habana, he hadn't put on mosquito repellant in Viñales. Mistake. 

Aside from the one main street, most streets of Viñales were not lit by streetlights. It would had been pitch black had it not been for the many people sitting on their porches with their lights on.

In the dim light, EC saw dark shadows of the many, many, many stray dogs that roam Viñales. Within a 30 second walk EC had encountered 5-6 different strays. One was even lying in the middle of the road sleeping, as if daring for someone run it over...

Having switched around a couple time zones, EC found himself up bright and early the next morning. His objective for the day was to see Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, the largest cave in Cuba and second largest on the American continent. Realizing it was early on a Sunday morning, EC figured he would have to wait a little, but then Oneida called up a taxi and he was on his way. The taxi was an old American car circa 1949. The interior was blue striped plastic and the various instruments were frozen in time. The clock was stuck at seven, the odometer at zero, and fuel at empty. Nevertheless, with the exception of the occasional stall, it drove like a charm. 

After a short 15 minute drive, they arrived. There wasn't anyone else in sight besides a couple men standing around chatting. The taxi driver then left to call someone from a pay phone and came back to tell EC that the guide would be there in 5 minutes. After ten minutes, the taxi driver started up his car and a minute later, picked up one of two guys who were walking along the street. Dodgy. 

He drove EC and the new passenger to the entrance of the park that held the cave. The entrance was gated and closed. The new passenger said "Follow me." The two then walked into the trees on the right side of the road, climbed up and down a rocky hill, and arrived at a small crevice, deep within which was pitch black. EC had a strong suspicion that what the "guide" was doing was not 100% legitimate. It was too late to turn back, so in they went. 

Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás stretches for roughly 45 kilometers across eight levels. The top level couldn't be reached that day since the previous day's rainfall made it too dangerous to climb up. So, the two started in through level four and down to level three. 

For the next hour or so, the guide led EC through twists and turns that led to slippery slopes for climbing down. They encountered colonies of bats, wind tunnels, wall-like structures on the cave floor that looked like a maze, and other oddly shaped columns formed by stalagmites and stalactites coming together. 

Once back out, the two went back into the taxi, which had been patiently waiting for them. After dropping off the guide, the driver headed for Viñales. The driver pointed in the distance at one of the mogotes and said "face." Looking in the direction the driver was pointing, EC realized what he meant. Turned on its side, the mogote formed the profile outline of a human face. 

Back at Oneida's, EC took the advantage of the hot Caribbean sun to wash and hang dry his clothes. Unlike Nicaragua, where the air was so humid nothing felt dry even after 24 hours, then Cuban sun evaporated every drop of water from the clothes within a couple hours. 

Meanwhile, EC made another venture to the central plaza. On the way he stopped by one of the many paladares, or state-sanctioned restaurants, to grab a quick lunch - huevos revuelto and a cup of Cuban coffee. While waiting for his food, EC met Luka, a traveler from Taiwan who was spending the remainder of the year at the university on Habana studying Spanish. When the food came, they said farewell and EC went on to see if the day's food would be better than the precious day's. The coffee was strong and had a slight chocolate taste to it. Like what he had seen so far, the milk that was provided was hot. Unfortunately, most places heat their milk to too high of a temperature, causing it to slightly curdle. While the coffee deserved seconds, the eggs did not. EC was starting to believe that the best Cuban food is indeed found in the US. 

Slightly unsatisfied, EC left the paladar and headed to the central plaza. Once there, he had a strange experience with a fair skin gentleman who appeared to be loco. Banging his hands against the bench and tree, doing terrible head stands, and screaming nonsense, the man seemed to have lost his mind. Unable to shake the guy, EC walked away and went back to Oneida's. 

Oneida's neighbor across the street was apparently watching "The Mentalist" as the voice of Patrick Jane was unmistakable. It was yet another piece of American culture that, despite the embargo, permeates the fabric of Cuban society. 

EC eventually had to head back to the central plaza once again. This time, it was to buy his return ticket to Habana. He was given the alternative option, which he took, of sharing a taxi with another traveler. Though it would cost three more CUCs, it would be a door-to-door service with a shorter traveling time. 

With that settled, EC went on to find a paladar for dinner. Since it was the low season, it was difficult to tell which paladar served good food. All of them were devoid of customers. Crossing his fingers, EC sat down at Juana la Cubana - for about 10 CUCs, he got two chicken wings, rice, salad, and bread. While he was eating, a stray dog walked up near him and sat down, staring at EC with puppy dog eyes. Of course he couldn't give it any food since there were 3-4 other dogs very close by. That would had been trouble. 

Back at the casa, EC learned from Oneida that the other taxi passenger had bailed so now he was back to taking the Viazul bus.


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