vinales , Cuba - About 150 kilometres west of Havana, the town of Viñales boasts spectacular scenery and great hospitality. My accommodation is on a dusty red-clay road where sharp rocks jut out amongst patches of weeds.
There's a clear division down the middle of the street. On the north side people live in relative affluence. Newer and on higher ground, their houses have a clear view of the valley and mountains, making them perfect candidates for "casas particulares," private homes that take in tourists, serving breakfast and dinner for an additional fee. On the south side, inhabitants subsist on agriculture, growing tobacco in fields near the town. Chickens run free in their front yards.
After an amazing home-cooked meal with the casa's family, the son, Xavier, tells me about a horseback-riding trek that goes around the outskirts, through tobacco fields and those Himalaya-like mountains all around. I make arrangements with Juan, a guide and friend of the family's.
At 9 am the next morning I arrive at Juan's. In typical Cuban fashion, he invites me into his thatched single-room home for an espresso. I sit in the kitchen/dining area, sectioned off from the sleeping area by makeshift sugar-cane-and-sheet partitions, as he proudly shows me pictures of his two daughters and young wife. He asks if I smoke cigars, and then rolls me one from a shopping bag of hand-picked leaves. With our cigars burning, he sits and rolls another five or six for the trip. There's no schedule here.
On the trail we meet another Cuban guide with two Germans, and the five of us decide to ride together. We soon arrive at a cave where a local farmer has set up a table for us covered with pineapples, bananas, coconuts, rum and cigars. He deftly slices open the coconut with a small machete, dumps half the milk out and fills it with rum. The Germans and I drink from this while he prepares another one that we also finish before exploring some nearby caves. Each of us gives the farmer a few dollars (there's no official charge, and this is not part of the tour) before the still sober horses take us back to town.
The next day the three of us rent bicycles and cycle around the valleys east of town. After a couple of hours on wide dirt trails past farm houses and tobacco fields, it becomes clear that our map is not quite right. We ask the next farmer we meet for directions. He tells us we can't reach the plateau by bike but can leave our bikes at his place and continue on foot.
We soon find ourselves invited into his home for espresso and freshly rolled cigars. After this much-needed break, we hike up a hill behind his house to the plateau, where a couple of families are living self-sufficiently off the land, earning a bit extra by maintaining a part-time schoolhouse. We chat for a while, admire the gorgeous view, then come down to a feast that the mother of our new friend who has stored our bikes has prepared.
Viñales is one of those towns that you leave reluctantly, fearing that they will not be the same if you go back. I know I'll return soon.