The gleaming black buick deposits me outside a nondescript metal door in old Havana. Still simmering in the late-afternoon heat, the street is a chaotic throng of tourists, workmen and grizzly, cigar-smoking octogenarians. Skinny jeans cling to my legs in a sticky compress. Nobody seems to be answering the buzzer.
“Daniellll! Daniel, llaves. Lllaaaavessss!!”
I look up to see a woman with a big smile looking down at me from a first-floor balcony. She throws me a big bunch of keys and I let myself in. As I head up the narrow staircase, my suitcase seems to have acquired the mass of a miniature black hole. I stagger my way in through a battered, half-open doorway.
“Bienvenido a Cuba, señor Daniel!” says the beaming woman, whose name turns out to be Julia. “Bienvenido al Casa Yor y Damaris.”
Julia, mercifully, refrains from an immediate interrogation in Spanish. Handing me a glass of chilled guava juice, she shows me to my room. Under an enormously high ceiling and chandelier, I fall asleep to the sounds of rumba, reggaeton and muffled laughter.
I’m here not just to see Havana, but also for a spot of horse-riding — and the best place on the island to saddle up is Viñales, a small town of 30,000 people 110 miles west of the capital, in Pinar del Río Province.
At 10 o’clock the next day I’m reclining in an air-conditioned Chinese bus, as we motor past timeworn Chevrolets, Fords and an array of pastel-coloured facades. The Malecón, Havana’s iconic esplanade and sea wall, is under attack from a choppy sea, with clouds of spume drifting across the baking tarmac.
After three hours on an empty motorway, the first majestic view of Viñales presents itself. Stretching toward the horizon, a series of limestone mogotes (hills) rise up, dome-like, from a sea of rice, cane and tobacco plantations. With its tangerine soil, emerald-green vegetation and cornflower sky filled with miniature eiderdowns of cloud, the so-called ‘garden of Cuba’ is a breathtaking vision of bucolic loveliness. No wonder this is Fidel’s hangout of choice.
My accommodation for the next two days proves to be a whitewashed, single-storey home. Located at the edge of open farmland, the view from the building’s flat roof is simply stunning, with a loaf-shaped limestone buttress providing a magnificent backdrop. Below a nearby stand of palm trees I can see the distinctive thatched roof of a casa de secadora (tobacco-curing barn), while red-faced turkey vultures swoop and soar overhead.
After a delicious lunch of bean soup, pork, pineapple and sweet potatoes, followed by the briefest of siestas, I’m ready for my first equine encounter.
Of leaves & lakes
Pinar del Río protects more land than any other Cuban province, with the Viñales Valley designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park. I’m about to ride through the park with guide Miguel, who doubles up as a ranger. In his spotless Stetson, aviator shades and black leather boots, Miguel turns out to be one cool vaquero (cowboy). We mount up outside his house, and ride slowly through the suburbs of Viñales, past long lines of well-maintained casas and old US cars with their bonnets up.
“Cuba is famous for four things,” explains Miguel, as we emerge into open country. “Fidel, chicas, rum and cigars. Now we’ll go to meet my friend Juan Manuel to experience the last one.”
Apart from a spasmodic tendency to break into a trot, my horse is behaving himself nicely. Under a powerful mid-afternoon sun, we ride along a succession of rust-red paths, past fields of taro, yuca and corn. Arriving at Juan Manuel’s farm, the large tobacco barn is filled, floor to ceiling, with pole upon pole of desiccated leaves. The interior is dark and musky, with an earthy, sweet-dry smell of maple syrup and fresh cigars.
“The leaves stay in the barn for three months,” explains Juan Manuel, as he gives us a quick tour. “They’re hung up in pairs, and turn from green to brown as they ferment. This process makes the final cigar sweet and smooth.”
Cuban cigars are composed of three parts: a filling, a binder and the outer skin. The skin is the most important leaf as it has to make the cigar look good. Juan Manuel demonstrates the rolling process, using a small pot of honey to hold everything together.
“The government always takes 90% of a Cuban farmer’s tobacco, at a low price,” he explains. “The remaining 10% we can sell ourselves.” I take the hint and buy a simply wrapped pack of 15 — for 45 Cuban convertible pesos (£30) — on the way out.
Passing more barns and stands thatched with coconut palms, we continue our journey onward to a well-signposted mirador (viewpoint). Beside a lake populated with stalking herons and a couple of adventurous tourists, Miguel and I take in a distant mogote, shimmering in the afternoon haze.
“Let’s see how well-behaved your horse is now he knows we’re going home,” says my guide with a grin, adjusting his shades.
Way of the guajiro
In the early years of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara travelled through Pinar del Río, drumming up support from the oppressed peasantry. These salt-of-the-earth labourers would later be championed throughout Castro’s Cuba. Today, the Viñales Valley remains the spiritual heartland of the guajiro.
“The guajiros of Viñales are famous,” says 17-year-old Roberto. “They’re the hard-working country people who live off the land. I’m a young guajiro myself!”
Up before dawn the following day, Roberto has collected me from my casa with a couple of chestnut stallions. Enjoying the early morning cool, we ride out toward the nearest mogote. The guajiros of Viñales are already hard at work, ploughing their fertile fields with teams of oxen.
We pass a massive ceiba tree; an old wooden cart resting against its hollow trunk. Renowned for its alleged magical powers, the ceiba is associated with the popular Cuban religion of Santería, practised in areas where the island’s African roots are strongest.
“These trees are very useful,” explains Roberto. “Pigs and chickens can hide inside and are protected from wild animals. In the past, my mother would use the cotton from ceiba pods to fill our cushions and pillows.”
Back at the Casa Jesús y María, owner Anai has concocted a hearty brunch of fried eggs, chorizo, rolls and fruit. With my sunburned neck and arms, she tells me I’m turning into some kind of blue-eyed guajiro.
Later that day, a rather tender backside tells me it’s time to take a break from the saddle. With the late afternoon sun still high in the sky, I wander along the main street of Viñales. Below the whitewashed bell tower of a colonial-era church, clustered around the town’s single public router, smartphone-wielding locals and tourists chat online with friends and check their emails.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Cuba was suddenly deprived of basic staples such as oil, tractors and fertiliser. Today, an underdeveloped manufacturing sector and unwieldy state distribution system means Cuban supermarket shelves are frequently empty, or filled with goods nobody wants to buy. After several fruitless attempts to purchase beer, I settle for a carton of apple juice and some stale crackers.
As an exemption to Cuba’s prohibition on private manufacturing, Cubans are allowed to make and sell ‘handicrafts’. The tourist market in Viñales turns out to be wall-to-wall Cuban kitsch, offering everything from Che Guevara T-shirts to jewellery made from old cutlery. Picking up a straw fedora for the princely sum of 8 Cuban convertible pesos (about £5), I set off for Hotel Los Jazmines. This, I’ve been told, offers the best sunset panorama in town.
I soon discover that the hotel isn’t in Viñales at all, but three miles beyond the suburbs. It’s also on top of a hill. Feeling lazy, I flag down a colectivo (shared taxi) and hitch to the top for a handful of change.
Overhung by belly palms and home to a small population of chickens and cats, the wooden balcony of the Hotel Los Jazmines is, indeed, superbly placed. Accompanied by a cool glass of Cristal beer, I watch the sun drop behind the farthest mogotes, as columns of smoke rise lazily from the valley floor below and fireflies dance in the trees.
Grabbing a couple more beers for the evening, I wander back down to Viñales in the fading light. Huge, hand-painted signs line the road, adorned with Che Guevara’s whiskered visage and revolutionary slogans. I try to imagine what Cuba’s favourite adopted son would make of Viñales today, with its budding private enterprise and expensive tourist menus. At least he’d have enjoyed the views.
The next day it’s time to relocate to Águas Claras Beach Resort, near Pinar del Río city, 15 miles west of Viñales. After breakfast, Felipe, my driver, pulls up outside the casa in an immaculate white Chevrolet, complete with dashboard fan and black fluffy dice. “This road is bad for my springs,” he complains, caressing one gleaming wing with a calloused hand.
An hour later, I’m installed in a compact chalet at Águas Claras, preparing for an afternoon trot. This time, my guide will be the charming Adonis, who’s been working at the resort for 15 years.
“I started as the pool cleaner and worked my way up,” he explains. “I tried working in Pinar del Río city, but had to come back here. I love the campo [countryside] life too much.”
Saddling up, we leave the property across a river lined with picknickers and cavorting children, emerging on the opposite bank into a plantation of medicinal herbs. Adonis points out calendula, chamomile, oregano and eucalyptus, as well as groves of lemon and mango. We spot one guajiro perched precariously in the top of a tree, cutting palm fruits for his pigs.
Adonis introduces me to a family he knows, living on the plantation in their modest, one-storey casa. Smiling shyly for a group photo on the verandah, they invite us in for coffee. Ricardo, the grandfather, shows me his impressive collection of knives and machetes.
“In the 18th century, we fought the British with weapons like this,” he tells me with a gappy grin. “But today I just use it for clearing trees.”
With the sun setting in a cloudless sky, a beautiful afternoon’s ride ends as we take in an amateur baseball game beside a half-full reservoir. As a team of oxen haul a cart along a nearby road, spectators pass round a plastic bottle of home-made rum. It really is life in the campo at its finest. The next day I’m up before sunrise to take a final ride around the countryside. Adonis has a slightly sore head.
“Yesterday evening I was drinking rum with my father,” he explains ruefully. “He’s 81 years old but he still drinks and smokes and works in the fields every day. True guajiros work until they die.”
We ride through a plantation of ripe guava in glorious early morning sunshine. Adonis picks a bagful and hands me one to eat.
“This is a superfruit,” he exclaims. “Good for cancer, for the heart, for diabetes and for immunity. Maybe it will even cure my hangover.”
Too soon it’s time to head back, and the horses break into a canter at the prospect of fresh hay at the stable. Back at the resort Adonis shakes my hand warmly and goes off to distribute guavas among his colleagues. By mid-morning, driver-guide David has arrived to take me back to Havana. We make a quick stop in Pinar del Río city, whose first cigar factory opened in 1760 and is still in operation. Nearby, in pink and white, the Catedral de San Rosendo is particularly beautiful; a giant Cuban flag flutters in the breeze above the main street.
On the way back to Havana, David tells me about a French journalist who he once drove around the Cuban countryside. “He had this little book about understanding Cuba. A tiny little thing. And I thought to myself, how can this book explain Cuba? Understanding Cuba takes a lifetime, if not two or three lifetimes, even for Cubans.” Of course, he’s right. Like the fine tobacco of the guajiros, a proper appreciation of Cuban life is something that develops slowly.
Getting there & around
Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week between Gatwick and Havana. Indirect flights are available from airlines such as Air Canada (via Toronto), Air France (via Paris) and Iberia (via Madrid).
The best way to travel long distances outside Havana is either by bus or colectivo (shared taxi). The Viazul bus company runs air-conditioned coaches to most Cuban cities.
When to go
The best time to visit is from December to May, when you can expect plenty of dry, sunny days. The wet season begins in June, while there’s a risk of hurricanes between August and October.
How to do it
Cuba Direct offers both economy and deluxe seven-day horse-riding packages. The economy package, which includes B&B casa accommodation, guided excursions/rides in Havana and Pinar del Río Province, transfers and visas (not including flights), costs from £620 per person. The deluxe package, which includes all meals, four- to five-star accommodation and private transfers, costs from £2,100 per person, not including flights.
Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)