Despite Ines’s misgivings, Soroa proved to be tranquil and verdantly beautiful. It is tiny however, as she had warned. Our casa, Don Agapito, was great, spick and span and very well run. We stayed two nights, and spent the day and a half we had wandering through trails and exploring a vast garden next door with many species of orchids. We also visited Las Terrazas a well known Eco reserve. A pleasant interlude before a longer stay at Vinales, a much more famous tourism centre.
The Orquideario is a labour of love created by a Cuban-Spanish lawyer who travelled the world collecting 700 orchid species in honour of his wife and daughter. Only some of the orchids were blooming, it not being quite the season, but of more interest was the way the hillside had been landscaped with a proliferation of native and other plants, artfully arranged as they cascaded down the slope around rock formations of karst which dot the area. He had also built himself a quaint stone cottage overlooking the scene which was spectacular to say the least. When he died at an advanced age in the 1960’s, the site was given to the University of Pinar del Rio which uses it for research and study. Our casa owner was quite the gardener, and since they had a natural karst formation in their backyard he had created a miniature version of the larger garden there. I love looking at all the plants we can only grow indoors and many I do not recognize.
Las Terrazas is very well known as a reforestation experiment which was a pet project of Fidel’s in the early 60’s. The people of the area lived by cutting the trees and making charcoal, owned no land and lived in very poor conditions. The idea was to reforest the land in “terraces” hence the name, thereby preventing damage from erosion of the red soil and creating arable land again. If someone had had this idea in Haiti it would not be the deforested denuded island it is today. The workers were housed in purpose built ecologically friendly apartment buildings and in small cottages scattered over the hillsides leading down to a large man made lake at the base of the project. UNESCO recognized it in the 1990’s and it is still running today with the addition of quite the thriving artist’s colony with some interesting studios, as well as coffee shops and a vegetarian restaurant for the tour buses that pour through. There is also a very pleasant so called Eco hotel. All in all a pleasant day, albeit extremely chilly at that height and because it rained. I had to open the compression sack in which I had packed my jeans and sweaters worn on the flight in order to survive. Even wore my wool long underwear to bed!
This area of tobacco farming with its unusual karst formations known as mojotes is almost invariably visited by travellers to Cuba. It is very beautiful with its bright red soil, and very green tobacco fields and forested hills. However it is just overrun with tourists and I found it rather disappointing, the first time I have felt that way in Cuba. The town is small and picturesque with candy coloured small box shaped cement houses, virtually all of which rent out a room or two. There are some decent restaurants in town and we enjoyed having a change from traditional casa food, but we had to go to eat at 6 rather than our habitual later time, since by 7:30 there were lineups at all the popular ones, or at least the ones mentioned in Lonely Planet which amounts to the same thing.
Our casa — Nena y Chichi — was good, our room was decent though a bit lacking in water pressure, and had its own small terrace which makes a big difference. Nena and Chichi are sisters, Mama lives there too and helps out with the cooking. Nena spoke English and Chichi only Spanish, and they bore a striking resemblance to each other, being extremely round and extremely black, very much Afro-Cuban as they describe the descendants of African slaves here. The picture on Gramps’ favourite pancake mix “Aunt Jemima” was precisely Chichi. Very nice and helpful though and very much entertained by assisting Doug with our washing which he hung on the roof line next to two of their wigs which were drying in the sun. On our last day Nena was quite the Cuban tipico picture in her head to toe black Lycra outfit stretched to the nth, when she hugged and kissed me good-bye in the usual Cuban fashion it was like being engulfed in an enormous feather bed.
We hired a guide and took a walking trip through the coffee and vegetable plantations and the small village areas with Julian, trained as an industrial engineer, but making far far more money walking tourists around due to his excellent English. The countryside is really lovely and you are into the rural area within 5 minutes of walking away from Vinales Main Street. Tiny cabins surrounded by flowers dot the planted fields. The farmers were given their land by the revolution, all seeds and equipment are provided, and they return 90% of the crop to the government, keeping 10% for themselves. Julian, whose father is a farmer, says the tobacco farmers do very well (I am never sure what that means in Cuba, definitely not compared to a taxi driver, a guide, or a casa owner, but well enough I guess.). We wandered through the fields and hills and visited a small cigar maker in one tobacco plantation. He explained how the tobacco leaves are harvested, then hung to dry for 3 months. Afterwards they are layered “like a lasagne” a layer of leaves then a layer of a special tincture made of spices, herbs, sugar and rum and stored in a box made of palm leaves for a year. Finally they are ready to make into cigars. He demonstrated the process of selection and hand rolling, then one of the two French women who were with us bought 25 cigars from him for the equivalent of $50. Cash money in hand, no government involved there, guess a few sales like that would make his day.
The next day we walked by ourselves out of town to the Valle de Silencio, gorgeous views from a Finca we stopped in at with a large “organic” garden (all gardens are organic here, they don’t import chemicals) where we had a drink but could not have lunch as 3 huge tour buses were expected and they were doing lunch for at least 120 people. As we continued our walk we saw them winding up the hill to the Finca. Crazy number of foreigners here. An awful lot of Germans driving rental cars too, apparently an agency in Berlin makes all their arrangements for them and they go from casa to casa, we chatted with 2 pleasant couples in Soroa. We were quite tired at the end of our hike and contemplated hitching a ride in one of the ubiquitous horse carts which do double duty as taxis (“tix” they hiss as they pass, Cuban Spanish abbreviates everything) but are really cargo carriers, but I was terrified by the steep downhill stretches as I could hear the horses’ hoofs slipping on the pavement. We have become slightly obsessed with our new pedometers which measure our steps and the number of kilometers we cover, we have actually had some 20 kilometer days and always get over 10,000 steps.
All in all two very pleasant hikes, but this tourism scramble is not my idea of a good time. Glad we hit this at the end not the beginning as many people do. Everyone in the tourism industry is reeling from the influx this year, I think everyone is rushing to see the “real Cuba” before the Americans arrive.
We return to Havana to stay at the casa we were at for our 5 brief days last year, Maria y Leonardo. Maria is sending a friend of hers who lives in Vinales to drive us to Havana, she is apparently delighted that we are returning!