The white-knuckle way to see island
Drive through rural countryside opens eyes and gets heart pounding
Apr 05, 2008 04:30 AM
Special to the Star
NEAR VINALES, CUBA–My life won't flash before my eyes until later.
All I'm thinking about now is: we should have bought travel insurance,
how will I phone my family, how will we deal with the language barrier,
will we ever get to Vinales?
I should be more concerned that I'm not wearing my seatbelt and we're
fishtailing towards an oncoming truck with nowhere to go except the
steep ditch on our left, or bashing against the diesel-spewing bus on
It all started as a loosely planned vacation; buy a cheap all-inclusive
package to Varadero, ditch the resort, rent a car and see Cuba. Not the
English-speaking, all-you-can-eat-at the-buffet Cuba, but the farming,
rural, Spanish-speaking, revolutionary Cuba.
Up to this point it's been amazing.
While rental cars aren't cheap here, (200 pesos – about $200 Cdn. for
three days) and there is an impressive lack of street signs (even the
highway lacks exit signs), getting around is pretty easy.
Heading to Vinales is something we've wanted to do since we heard about
the place. And when we mentioned it to the car rental guy, his eyes
rolled back in his head as he described its beauty.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999, the Vinales Valley is a fertile
plain of several valleys separated by pin-cushion hills that jut out of
the landscape in great limestone cliffs, all covered in an array of
foliage. Or so we've heard.
Rheanna, my girlfriend and hopefully competent driver, had been
following a passing bus, only to realize that it itself barely had room
to overtake. And once that bus merged back into its lane, it revealed
our present situation – with the bus to one side of us and a truck about
to hit us head on.
So far on this more than 200-kilometre trek, we've seen some of the Cuba
we'd set out to see; we'd passed by farms of tobacco, all interspersed
with mango, papaya, banana, rice, sugar cane, corn and beans in a lush,
green mess. Pine trees mingled with bamboo stands while pigs and
chickens roamed freely.
We'd passed through national parks where Cubans gathered beneath
waterfalls to escape the sticky heat of the jungle. We'd seen the
massive billboards of Viva La Revolucion! with Che Guevara's proud face.
Beyond Varadero, Cuba reveals itself as a utopian island where the
people grow everything they need to survive. The old cliché that
travelling is about the journey, not the destination, has rung true so
far; a road trip through Cuba is an intoxicating way to see the
landscape and the culture.
Pulling her foot off the brake, Rheanna manages to correct the fishtail
and point our tiny Hyundai through the tight gap between the bus and the
oncoming truck. I grip the dash in white-knuckled fear and we pass
through the eye of the needle to the sound of yelling and smashing.
We look at each other in shock. The only casualty of this cultural road
trip has been the driver's side mirror. Shakily arriving in Vinales we
find the drive has been worth it; the tiny village is surrounded by
farmland and massive mogotes, limestone peaks that jut out of the
landscape to massive heights. Their cliffs are ripe with caves and the
area has been touted as one of the best rock-climbing spots in North
While there are hiking tours and horseback tours offered throughout the
valley, we decide instead to calm our nerves at a café on the main
street. There we sit sipping café con leche and watch as the world rolls
by. Old, sun-wrinkled men sit on the porches of small houses that line
the street, while groups of younger men talk animatedly on the roadside.
Massive ancient tractors cough out plumes of smoke as they pass while
horses pull carts of farm produce.
It is here we get a first glimpse of the traveller scene in Cuba. It's
easy to spot them, they gather at one of two coffee shops in town.
Japanese, Canadians, Dutch, people from all over the world, independent
travellers who are spending months at a time in the Caribbean end up in
Vinales. It is the Caribbean equivalent of Bangkok's Ko San Road, only
without the kitschy vibe to it.
For less than $20 a night, casa particulares offer clean rooms,
featuring delicious homemade dinners and breakfasts and a genuine
glimpse into the life of Cubans.
In the morning we hike around in the Cueva de San Miguel. The cave, a
wrinkled old mess of limestone, juts to unbelievable heights. There is a
reason most tours are offered on horseback: the humidity is stifling and
an afternoon hike would be torturous. And there is a reason why Vinales
is becoming popular as a tourist destination: it is stunningly beautiful.
Colin Field is a Collingwood-based freelance writer.