After spending several days in Havana, it was time to move on. The second leg of our Cuba journey was a trip to Vinales, where we were mesmerized by its stunning natural beauty, followed by a stop in Cienfuegos (on our way to Trinidad). Vinales is home to one of our favorite casa particulares (Lucilo y Nirma at 52 Camilo Cienfuegos). Here, we booked a horse riding tour of the countryside with a guide named Fidel, smoked Cuban cigars and imbibed on a few mojitos, met some fun fellow travelers, and caught some rays at the lovely Cayo Levisa. In Cienfuegos (also known at the “Pearl of the South”), we lucked out on another great casa (Pepe y Fefa), and explored this scenic city with only a day to spare. Cienfuegos is well worth a detour, and we enjoyed walking around this handsome city, taking in all its main sights.
21 Jun: We checked out of Hotel Valencia, and caught a taxi for 10 CUC to Viazul bus terminal and were able to buy our tickets to Vinales (12 CUCs each) and Vinales to Cienfuegos (32 CUCs each). Posters all over the station indicated that Viazul was the only choice for “on time” promptness, and sure enough, we pulled out of the terminal at 0903. A brief 10 minute stop was made at Rancho Curujey next to Las Terrazas, and another drop off was made at Pinar del Rio before we pulled in slightly ahead of schedule at 1240 at the lovely Vinales. A throng of eager casas particulares owners were waiting with signs and photos in hand, anxious to snag a few travelers to stay overnight with them. We opted to go with a highly recommended casa at 52 Camilo Cienfuegos, which is owned by Lucilo y Nirma. A room with AC, private bath and hot water was only 15 CUCs a night…bargain. We got settled in, unpacked and handed our passports over to Lucilo before asking if he could arrange horseback riding for tomorrow morning (0900 – 1300). Our next task was to find a local travel agency to organize a day trip to Cayo Levisa which we got for 29 CUCs each. Afterwards, we walked slightly uphill towards the Hotel Ermita, but it started to downpour so we found a shady tree to hang out for a few minutes. Once the rain abetted, we got to the hotel where we paid 1 CUC each to swim. It was still raining fairly hard so the photos weren’t as picturesque as we would have liked, but the pool felt marvelous (despite the nearby threat of lightning). Rounding out the next few hours with cervezas and mojitos, it was a blissful afternoon. Walking back down to our casa, we got caught in another torrential downpour, and a kind Cuban lady invited us into her home. We spent the fury of the storm chatting it up entirely in Spanish, enjoying this unexpected and thoroughly pleasant moment in gorgeous Vinales. The town square looked really pretty in the afterglow of the rainstorm, and we took several puddle photos before heading back to our welcome casa where Nirma had been busy preparing our kick ass meal of lamb, sweet potato, rice, black beans, and salad. Yum! Our dinner did not disappoint and was definitely tastier than most of the restaurant fare we had experienced in Havana! We had an early night, resting up for an active day tomorrow.
22 Jun: Breakfast was ready for us in the morning, much to our surprise. Nirma made us scrambled eggs, and we were all set for a full day’s worth of activities before our meeting time of 0900. An Australian girl named Kate (who was staying 2 casas down from us) arrived with a lady who told us to bring our bathing suits and follow her when ready. She appeared to almost run down the street and we had to hustle to keep up with her. Once we got to a bend in the road, she beckoned us to cross through a farmer’s field and make our way over to a white house off in the distance, where we met Fidel, our horse guide for the day. We had a peaceful hour long ride with just the three of us, and took a short break near a pineapple field. There, we linked up with Doug Clarke from California, who was on our Viazul bus the day before. Small world! Doug joined our motley crew and eventually we linked up with four French tourists who also were on the same Viazul bus. Together, our now large entourage of guides, tourists and horses made its way down to a nearby lake where we stripped down to our bathing suits and hopped into the water. We had a nice conversation with Kate who is a cool chick and has a refreshingly honest outlook on life. We liked her instantly. Poor Doug sat out on the beach, as no one had advised him to bring his swim suit. After soaking in the water for over 30 minutes, we forced ourselves out and rode back towards the farm. There, Fidel invited us into a shack for a cigar rolling demonstration by Juan. Little did we know but Juan is an expert mojito maker, creating divine drinks with a pinch of honey. Yum. We learned how cigars are rolled and found out about the growing season of tobacco. Also, Juan explained that the Cuban government takes 90% of his yield, leaving him with 10% for his own uses. We bought 10 hand rolled (unlabeled) cigars for 20 CUC, after enjoying one first hand. We thought they would make nice gifts for the cigar connoisseur. When we got ready to leave, we learned that Fidel is a bit crafty, as he charged all of us an extra 5 CUC a piece for the extra hour in the cigar shack (the agreed upon price for a 4 hour tour was 20 CUC)…sneaky but we weren’t in the mood for debating and didn’t want to leave from an otherwise positive experience on a sour note.
The four of us weren’t ready to part company yet so we decided to hop over to the super touristy (and kind of cheesy) Cuevo del Indios, as the better Cuevo del Tomas was closed for some reason. A taxi out to the cave and back would cost us 10 CUC, and we agreed to split it four ways. The cave was OK but we would have preferred the better Cuevo del Tomas…afterwards, we asked our cab driver if he knew about some cave-bar/club and he took us there (it was on our return trip home), where we paid 2 CUC for the incredibly cheesy slave El Palenque de los Cimarrones Tour…it was a group decision and we laughed at the lack of authenticity of it all. After returning back to Vinales, we decided a short siesta was in order, before dinner and a meeting point at the church at 9 pm. Our dinner was fried fish (great) and we left for our night out shortly afterwards. The first bar we went to had live music with a female singer who had a great strong voice. Kate ended up buying the band’s CD and then we headed over to the town square’s bigger stage, where a sizeable crowd of locals and tourists had gathered. The festivities were just kicking off, with performers and a singer alternating performances. At midnight, the floor transformed into an open air dance club venue and we all enjoyed dancing a few songs before realizing some shut eye was in order since we had a bus to catch the next morning. We told Kate we’d link up with her in Trinidad and asked Doug to keep in touch.
23 Jun: Our bus to Cayo de Levisa left at 0900, and we arrived at the dock with just ten minutes to spare before the boat was set to depart. For some weird reason, the captain was demanding to see everyone’s passports and we showed him our dive cards, telling him our passports were at our casa particulars. After getting chastised to bring it next time, we were allowed to board. How random is that!? The beach at Cayo was gorgeous, and we found a nice shady spot to lounge beneath. The cool breeze coupled with the sound of the waves crashing lulled us to sleep, and before we knew it, it was 1 pm and our “box lunches” were ready. Robby was served two platefuls of food and ignored when he asked for his “box” lunch so we could picnic on the beach. Not impressed with the lack of service here! The weather was great until about 3 pm when it started raining and thundering. We met a nice German-Canadian girl, who was traveling by herself and told us stories of a bunch of atrocities that had happened to her while she spent 6 months traveling in South America. It definitely was an eye opener hearing to the not-so-nice tales of traveler’s woes on the road. After getting back to our casa, we talked to Lucilo and gave him our itinerary for the remainder of our trip to see if he could arrange a casa particular for us in each location. Dinner was pork and it was good, served with corn on the cob, plantain, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, and rice. We are going to miss the food here. Lucilo and Nirma were curious how we had heard about their place and we told them we had found them on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree website. We washed laundry after dinner and called it an early night.
24 Jun: Got up and had breakfast at 0730, paid our bill (CUC$111) and Lucilo gave us a listing of casa bookings for the remainder of our trip, with name, address and phone numbers for each. Also, he arranged to have someone meet us at the bus terminals to limit some of the hassle. This was unexpectedly awesome and we gave him a small tip for his efforts, which he initially tried to refuse but we kept insisting and he gratefully accepted. He gave us a large stack of business cards for his casa to give to people that may want to stay in Vinales and we promised to disperse them around. We walked to the bus station and took the 0815 bus from Vinales to Cienfuegos. From our previous bus trip, we figured there would be a quick 15 minute stop somewhere to grab a quick bite to eat, but little did we know the bus would also go back through Havana and then take another 45 minute food break. Apparently that lunch stop set our arrival time back 45 minutes. We were the last ones to get off the bus and the greeter in Cienfuegos was crumbling his sign and looking angry as we got off the bus because no one came up to him. Becky happened to glimpse a portion of the sign, and approached him. He was thrilled that his long, hot wait wasn’t in vain. Our guide then showed us to our casa which was conveniently located about 3 blocks away from the bus station, and we met our fantastic casa owner, Fefa who immediately welcomed us to her house and served us ice cold glasses of mango juice. We dropped our things in our room, and made dinner arrangements for shrimp in tomato sauce with rice, fried plantains, veggies, and chicken noodle soup. Fefa logged our passport information and gave us an overview of the sites to see in the city. We walked along the Prado to Plaza Marti and went to Tomas Terry Theater before it closed. It is ornate on the outside, but even more so on the inside. Too bad a performance wasn’t happening here, as it would have been a nice venue to catch a show. Afterwards, we made our way around Plaza Marti towards the old Iglesia, Arco de Triunfo and finished with views from the Palacio Ferrer/Casa de Cultura. The door man said it was CUC 1 per person and not to climb the belvedere because it was bad, but there was a raised patio a little further back which gave equally nice views. After about 20 minutes the door man came up and was telling us to come back down and don’t tell anyone that we were allowed to go up. It was all a bit mysterious, because it appeared that an “inspector” was questioning him on how two tourists were able to wander up to the top of the building. We quickly realized what was going on, and made sure to linger around inconspicuously while he was being chastised. Afterwards, we gave him some money for his efforts and thanked him for allowing us up to the rooftop which was worth it for the views alone. We had a little over an hour to walk the Malecon and see the Palacio de Valle and have a drink on the roof top bar. Just as we arrived at the bar, there was a lively band starting to play. Becky took a few photos of them and gave a tip which was much appreciated. The Palacio de Valle is extremely ornate, completely done in Moroccan style. Very cool! There was an elderly lady playing on the piano, and the restaurant (first floor) looked amazing. We opted for drinks on the upstairs terrace. Afterwards, we had to rush back towards our casa to be there in time for our dinner (2030). The evening sun set was really nice with deep red colored clouds covering the sky, so we slowed down to take lots of photos. We also stopped by a liquor store and bought another bottle of rum because Robby’s 5 year old dark rum was getting low. We ended up arriving to the house about 10 minutes late for dinner, but it was no problem for Fefa to heat our food really quick. After dinner we turned in for the night. Overall, we are happy we made the stop in Cienfuegos, the “Pearl of the South”.
25 Jun: Had breakfast and walked along the Prado Street to check out the last of the main sites and visited the church in the main square. We also walked to the Reina Cemetery but it was closed for renovations. The guard allowed us to stand in the gateway and take photos. Since the cemetery was a bust, we headed back to the main street to check out the town library, which was supposed to be worth seeing. We didn’t find it to be anything really special but it was worth a photo. Returned to our casa around 1100 to finish packing and pay our bill (CUC$37.50) and check out. Took photos with Pepe and Fefa (our lovely casa owners) and thanked them for their hospitality. It was a simple walk to the bus station and we bought our Viazul bus tickets to Trinidad for CUC$6 each. The baggage lady asked for a tip and we figured we should give her something just to be sure our bags did go to our bus with no problems. Believe it or not but every single seat on the bus was full! How the Cubans were able to plan this out is beyond us…there is absolutely no method to the madness and we just think it was first come, first serve on whoever could get on the bus, as there is no strict inventory of the remaining amount of seats and tickets sold! The bus ride was only about 90 minutes but we had expected it to be at least 2 hours. It’s a small world in Cuba as Doug was on our bus! We were happy to see him, and told him we had Kate’s contact info for Trinidad so we should all link up.