I view a cool and serene-looking Viñales Valley from the Mirador nearby the bright pink Hotel Loz Jazmines. Little homes and grey, palm frond-rooved tobacco-drying houses dot a lush green landscape of tobacco farms, trees and palms. Rust-red soil contrasts. Interspersing the flat land, Limestone mogotes look like monster termite mounds. Vegetation covers much of the near-vertical monoliths, white or orangey red cliffs showing through. This Cuban UNESCO World Heritage site entices.
I book a three hour walking tour of Viñales’ Valle de la Guasasa at the government’s Cubanacan tourist office and at 9a.m. the next day I’m heading down Calle Adelaide Azcuy Norte with local guide, Alex. People greet us with a “Hola!” Alex seems to know them all, shaking their hand, embracing or cheek kissing.
Red leaves of poinsettia and orange hibiscus in gardens add more hues to the street lined with vivid one-storey casas painted in what looks like every colour from a 1950’s paint chart. Signs on casa walls, above rocking chairs on the verandahs, advertise rooms for rent. There are around 2000 available in Viñales. It’s a glum place to be in the off-season, Alex tells us.
The sealed road ends and we turn right along a wide, red dirt road past freshly turned, rusty-red earth newly planted with bright green tobacco plants. They’ll grow here for three months and then be cured in the drying sheds from February through to May. In other fields, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, corn, onions and garlic thrive.
In a field nearby, two black oxen pull a wooden plough. If it weren’t for the young man in a red t-shirt and jeans holding the plough handles, it could be a scene from Little House on the Prairie. Following behind, chickens feast on worms and insects in the fresh furrows.
We reach a thatched, white wooden home where black, green, yellow and red cherries from coffee trees dry on a mud-splattered black polythene sheet in the sun. In the backyard a wooden, thigh-high, mortar contains dried coffee cherries. The wooden pestle, shaped like a dog bone, is longer than my arm, and probably thicker.
The lean-to on the home is a museum of kitchen items. Coffee beans roast in an old blackened pan on rungs over a fire flickering in a concrete base supported by wooden legs. A coffee grinder, made by Landers, Frary & Clark, Connecticut in possibly the early 1900’s, sits over an enamel dish. In a rickety wooden stand, a coffee filter – a conical-shaped cloth and small metal funnel - has a dented metal cup below to catch drips. Hanging on a nail is a clothes iron, one heated by fire.
The modern chest freezer and refrigerator look out of place near the doorway to the unlined kitchen. A few plates and glasses, and a dated electric rice cooker and blender sit on wooden benchtops. Three glass shelves hold chipped cups, plastic bowls and old tins while pots and pans hang from nails in beams.
“Hola!” smiles a woman leaning out an open glass-less window washing dishes in a tub attached to the outside wall. A pipe leads from a water tank in the front yard to a tap over the tub.
“What’s that?” I ask pointing to a metal frame supporting a maybe three inch thick bowl-shaped stone. Water drips from its base into a large earthenware urn below.
“A water purifier,” Alex explains. He points out the bulky sacks above on open roof beams. “They’re coffee beans. 80% of those grown must be sold to the government. Farmers are allowed to keep the rest for personal use or to sell privately.”
The numerous plastic water bottles I saw in the lean-to, given by tourists or obtained from restaurants in town, are filled with roasted beans and sold for 5 CUC, around £4. The bottle holds enough to make 30 – 35 cups of coffee. But then coffee is served in cups around 2 inches high and 2 inches in diameter in Cuba.
Along narrow yellow dirt tracks through farmland, occasional eucalyptus and pine giving a little shade, we pass hand-hewn timber and concrete homes. Water tanks perch on tin rooves or in yards where rooves are palm fronds. On a back porch I spot an ancient green, square washing machine, the wringer gone – or maybe it’s one of the very first automatic washers. A Singer sewing machine, circa early 1900s sits on a front verandah. The hurricane shelter, a small wooden hut roofed with palm fronds to the ground, looks unable to withstand a bad storm, let alone the hurricanes which normally arrive mid-August to early October.
Alex points out various plants. A Calabash fruit, a green spherical gourd the size of a cantaloupe is used to treat infertility. The shells are made into maracas and filled with the seeds from long brown pods hanging from another tree. He picks a mouse pineapple from a vine. The tiny, knobbly yellow fruit apparently kills bacteria in the stomach. I taste one. It’s a little tart. A silky-feeling, five-pointed leaf is used for toilet paper out in the fields.
We wander through farming life. Dogs chase clucking chickens disturbed from having dirt baths. Children play alongside men hoeing fields with old wooden-handled implements. Grass is cut with machetes. Ducks paddle in the brown water of a backyard dirt pool dug for swimming in. The 4-year-old boy out horse riding with his dad is already a dab hand at tying his horse, tethering it to a tree root. Possibly he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps, the farms usually passed on from generation to generation.
Too soon, it’s time to head back to town via Calle Adelaide Azcuy Norte leaving this serene rural world behind. Horses clip-clop up the street, ridden by men wearing cowboy hats and gumboots while others chat around a wooden cart, the horse waiting patiently.