Here we are on our third day in Cuba. We had made three classic car reservations ahead of our trip. One was for this day to take us to Viñales. Viñales is a town, about 2.5 hours from Havana, known for their tobacco farms, and their 51sq mile lush valley that is surrounded by large mountain-like limestone hills, known as mogotes. These mogotes are huge! They draw a lot of activity from hikers, rock climbers, and cave explorers.
We woke up, luckily again, to bright blue skies. Since it was our last morning in the apartment, we took some time getting ready while enjoying the breezes and sounds from the windows. We had to gear up in long pants as our itinerary for this day had us roughing it! But first, breakfast. We planned to head over to Habana Vieja to a restaurant we had read about beforehand and happened to see the morning before. It was actually right across the street from where we had breakfast. It had a way better display than where we had ended up the morning prior.
We had some time to sit and relax, as our car reservation wasn’t showing up to our apartment until 10AM. Also, when Mary from our casa particular was going to arrive to collect keys. We soaked in the last morning on this side of Havana. I’m so glad we decided to go to a different place for breakfast, as I really enjoyed the coffee and the toast. Ha ha
Once we arrived back to our apartment, our car was waiting outside for us, as well as, Mary. The car was a super cool blue 1951 Plymouth hardtop. Which made me giddy! And our driver was waiting along side the car all neatly dressed in his orange button-up shirt and jeans.
We quickly went upstairs to grab our luggage then handed our keys to Mary as she sent us off with hugs and kisses for a great trip. We filled the trunk with our bags then hopped into the car with our super cute driver in orange, Ernesto. Who spoke very good English and was very polite. We started off on our trip by heading down the beautiful Malecon!
As Ernesto was zooming down the Malecon, he pointed out the American Embassy along the left. Just as we were about to talk about it, whammo, we got a flat tire! This definitely made us worry yet all laugh, because of course at our embassy, right? But Ernesto was such a great sport about it as he changed out the tire as quickly as he could. While we were instructed to wait outside the car, we took some time to hang out at the edge of the wall. We got to gaze upon the beautiful sea lapping and smashing up against the rocks. I decided to walk down the Malecon towards the embassy for a few shots, too, and just as we were finding the bright spot in the flat tire, the police showed up. They questioned everyone about the flat tire situation, then went about sitting behind the car to protect Ernesto from the traffic whipping by. He had to get under the car to change the tire. VERY DANGEROUS! But he did it! Though he came up from it dirty. 😦
Once the tire was changed, we stopped nearby to fill it. After that quick fill up, we were back to the road driving to the Valles de Viñales lookout point.
Driving in Cuba is pretty interesting. There are a lot of people out, at all times, and they are everywhere. Driving side roads, main roads, and highways you will find people in groupings waiting for either a personal ride, taxi or bus. Also, there are horse and buggies carting people or items around. And sometimes, there are animals just grazing along the highway. It all is fine, but it was a bit shocking to see people on highways in the most remote areas waiting for rides.
We spent a lot of time checking out the views of the valley. What a beautiful sight! We enjoyed a drink there and shopped the two local pop up shops they had set up along the tree line. We had spoken to a few other tour drivers that knew Ernesto, learning about the area. It was a fun stop, and my husband and I asked to come back if we could catch the sunset later on. Depending on the time.
From the lookout point we headed to a local tobacco farm to learn some cigar rolling and possibly ride horses through the countryside.
The farm we end up visiting is a small family run farm. We were introduced to our farm guide, Josue; it was just our family on this tour. After introductions, and his happiness hearing we were Americans, we were led to the tobacco drying space. It’s a one story thatched structure with tobacco leaves drying all around with a table set up at the front showcasing their processes. Right away we were shown how the plant looks (there was a vast field right outside the doors) and how it grew. The walk through was short and sweet; basically, we learned what parts of the plant are the best to use in cigars. We were then led to another building where they showed us how the cigars are rolled.
We were walked through the ways they pick the leaves, which were best to go in the middle versus the exterior. Josue then explained how 90% of the local farm crops are sold to the government leaving the remaining 10% for the farm to sell, to visitors like us. I found that devastating. He then proceeded to show us how they bundle the cigars and how to best care for them. Passing every item around for us to touch and smell. My gosh. The tobacco smelled of chocolate, leather, and heaven.. like that perfect warm smell we want our men to smell like, know what I mean? Once we finished that lesson, he pulled out a handsome bundle of cigars, a bottle of locally harvested honey and a bottle of homemade rum, then asks if we would like a smoke! UHM, YES PLEASE!
Before we were handed a cigar, our guide asked us if we wanted to smoke one like Che Guevara. Apparently, Che had asthma and filtered his cigars by dipping them in honey! IS this a true story? I am not sure, but holy wow was a honey dipped cigar amazing!!
Our guide then proceeds to grab two glasses for me and my husband to try their special rum. The rum made in this part of Cuba is from guava fruit. It was interesting to try while smoking a honey dipped cigar. Actually, tasted like whiskey to me! haha
We hung out with our guide for a nice hour. We talked about so many things pertaining to the history of the area, Cuba, and even music! But I think my favorite part was at the end when he asked us about the show Breaking Bad!! Well, it was best when we told him about Better Call Saul!! OHMYGOD! His face dropped. How awesome!?
Our day was not over yet!
From being taught cigar rolling we walked over a hill to go on our first family horseback ride! It was the first time for us riding on a horse; I had gotten on a horse once as a child, I think at a zoo or farm, but that was it. We were set up with a horse wrangler and went on our way. From the farm, on horse, we got to cross a highway, oh yes, to trek around the countryside and farmlands. It was so beautiful and peaceful. I felt so lucky to be there during this experience.
Our horses were funny creatures, however. I think my horse was in the middle of an argument with my husband’s horse, cause she did NOT want to let him pass or anything from the second we got to the riding path. She would smash her head on his body or cause a scene with him only; if he ignored her she’d start a fight with another horse! So dramatic!! I spent a lot of time looking around at the scenery while keeping my horse from the others. My husband’s horse and our youngest daughter’s horse were also sort of jerks. haha They would fight to stay ahead! Then our oldest daughter’s horse was so calm, hung back of the group trotting along.
It was so much fun to ride my horse! I do have to ask why there is no padding on the saddle? Yeeoowwwzaaahhhh! (It hurts your tush, just be aware).
Our day on the farm was coming to an end. 😦
We said our good byes to everyone then headed to a paladar, a family run restaurant, that Ernesto suggested. Along the drive to the paladar, Ernesto got pulled over by the military police! Haha This poor guy couldn’t win this day with driving. He ended up being ok, but my gosh, this poor guy! My husband and I decided that minute right in the first photo below, that we would treat him to dinner. (Which he humbly refused, till I wouldn’t take no for an answer. heehe)
The paladar, El Campesino, was fun and the food was fantastic! We got seated outdoors, which abutted a family farm; it was a perfect setting after the day we had experienced. This place offered great cocktails, like, you guessed it, my favorite, Havana style daiquiris! We each ordered a delicious dish, too. My husband got ropa vieja (shredded beef in sauce). I got the roasted pork loin, and the girls each got grilled chicken dishes. Ernesto got the braised chicken, just FYI. It looked pretty great. They offered two types of rice and beans, and they were served family style. We enjoyed a wonderful meal together while talking about politics and history, it was perfect. I love having discourse where we can share and learn from one another. Ernesto is such a great guy!!
We took a drive after dinner back to the Valles de Viñales to see if we could catch a sunset. Welp, we were not that lucky to catch a sunset, but the views of the valley and mogotes at dusk was beautiful. It quickly turned dark, so we left Viñales for our new home in Havana, La Rosa Ortega, in a different neighborhood called La Vibora. This was a two and a half hour drive back, in the dark.
This drive to Havana in the pitch dark was so crazy scary. Not for Ernesto, he was a cautious driver but everything else. Remember how I said there were people out everywhere on the drive there? Well, in the dark people are still all out there, too! You can be driving along a pitch black highway as your lights catch something in the darkness, it’s a group of people waiting under a bridge. Then a hundred feet from them is a racing horse with buggy. Not lit except by the car’s lights as it approaches. Then on some small town roads it was like everyone was out socializing in large numbers on the streets, in the dark.
Thank the Lord for car high-beams!!
We got to Rosa Ortega’s late, around 9PM-ish. We were all anxiously waiting to get there to hit the sack. When Ernesto dropped us off we all hugged like long lost family, and I gave him a gift for his wife and daughter. (I had brought items to gift on this trip) He was such a wonderful guy. When we walked into the gate of our new place, my mouth dropped. I knew what the house was going to look like, but oh my gosh it was so beautiful! In the dark! It looked like an Italian Villa in Tuscany with winding bright colored bougainvillea climbing out of its pottery clinging along this huge fence that hid a magical looking mansion.
We were greeted by Jose Carlos, the night shift manager. He brought us into the reception area, and checked us in with our passports. After check in, Jose Carlos, directed us to the the patio below where there was an outdoor kitchen. We got to meet the grounds German Shepherd, Brenda. She was the sweetest dog, who loved following us around. Jose Carlos walked us through all the aspects of the casa particular as he introduced us to the night staff. Jose Carlos then asked us sit down for a special welcoming drink (fresh pineapple juice). It sounds corny, but it was a beautiful way to start this leg of our trip. I started to feel like I was actually on vacation for the first time since landing in Cuba.
We then followed this welcoming reception with putting all of our things in the room and to freshen up. MY GOSH. Our room was amazing! From the second we walked in it was impressive. It was modern and spacious. The artwork was soulful yet playful. The materials all around felt new and clean; it felt like home. The apartment had a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms with huge closets, and big bathroom. One of the coolest features, and my favorite, was the large terrarium set up to separate the kitchen from living room. It was about a fifteen foot high glass case that was open at the top to the outside. It housed orchids along the wall. So pretty.
After setting up our space, we headed back to the patio for a nightcap. You guessed it, daiquiris. 🙂
My review of the day.
Our third day here, I am reaching towards a feel, as if Havana is trying to open up my eyes to something more than its physical beauty.
Being a tourist, staying on the beaten track, can hold you back from the true potential of a place. I think today showed what makes this place wonderful. The people. From saying goodbye to Mary in Habana Vieja, who warmly sent us on our way. Then meeting Ernesto, being able to watch him have these minor failures on this ride, yet continue with grace and humility. At the farm, learning about the tobacco and cigars, and rum, was awesome. It really was, but then talking to that same man about music and movies, it was kind of surreal in that setting. Then after a long day, arriving to the casa particular which was beaming with the welcoming Senor Jose Carlos; who didn’t miss a beat.
I see you, Havana.