Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Cuba: Vinales

May 8, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba. This continues from HavanaWe've also compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.

On Friday, we went to Viñales, a tobacco-growing and cigar-rolling town 2.5 hours' drive from Havana. We went with a state-run tour group, not our usual M.O. (Steph had commented that "we get to be sheep" that way.) But we didn't want to take too much time away from Havana by staying overnight, the return bus left too early, and it seemed too risky to rely on finding a taxi driver willing to drive all the way back at night.

As it turned out, other than the excessively tourist-trap bits (like the first stop at a little shop where the tour guide turned into a cigar salesman), the excursion was fantastic. Our guide was a native Habanero, he spoke excellent English, and he repeated each part of his tour in both languages, which was good practice for us.

We learned that the word guajiro - a person from the Cuban countryside, as in the song Guajira Guantanamera - originated as a mispronunciation of the English "war hero" after the 1898 Spanish-American war in Cuba. (The internet says it originated in a native word for "squire," however, so who knows.)

We also learned that Viñales was named for grape vines, strange considering that there are no grape vines in Viñales (or wine production in Cuba at all). Apparently at some point in the 19th century, the Spanish did try to grow wine there. It didn't take long to realize that was a bad idea in the tropical climate, and they switched to tobacco, but the name stuck.

Casa Garay rum factory. Che Guevara and [19th-century Cuban hero] José Martí on the wall.

We stopped briefly at a rum factory, then visited a tobacco farm, where we learned about the crop, drying the leaves, and rolling cigars. Agriculture has been slightly liberalized over the last decade, but tobacco farmers are still required to sell 90% of their crop to the government at fixed prices. For most crops, it's 50%, but tobacco represents the "third-largest source of hard currency for Cuba," according to wikipedia.

We stopped at the mural de la prehistoria, a fairly mediocre giant mural supposedly depicting the evolution of life. The most interesting part by far were the DIY piña coladas. They're served without rum and and you're supposed to add as much as you want. Our guide said the proper technique was to pour in rum, take a sip, pour more rum, take a sip and so on. After a good lunch (Steph was happy that she got to eat all the vegetables because the other tourists were unwilling to eat raw vegetables), we took a boat ride through the Cueva del Indio, a cave with interesting geological patterns that the guide pretended were images of animals.

There were some very interesting moments on the excursion observing the local prejudices. There were "Indians" dancing in loinclothes for the tourists at the Cueva del Indio, and our guide assured us that "these are not real Indians, because they are beautiful, and real Indians were ugly." It's really interesting to see how colonial stereotypes still persist long after Spanish rule, and to compare the natives' experiences between different countries: In the U.S. the natives that survive still have somewhat distinctive sub-cultures, and are usually called "native Americans" rather than the misnomer "Indians"; in Argentina they were almost entirely annihilated and the little that is known about their culture comes from early colonists' accounts and the archeological record; in Cuba there are a few self-identified Taínos in the east, but the prevailing culture seems to have maintained the colonial attitude towards them. At the cigar factory, our guide reiterated several times that certain jobs were only available to women because of their "delicate hands." We were shown the different ways that men and women are supposed to hold cigars. And we were pretty sure he said - in Spanish and not in English - that black people aren't allowed to work in the cigar factories, with the reason being something about "artists." As Orwell said, even in socialism, some people "are more equal than others."

We made some friends on the Viñales tour, a couple from Greece living in London. On the bus back, we sat in adjacent rows, right behind the guide, and had a really interesting conversation. He told us stories about the ways people string together income in odd ways; about how the authorities tolerate the black market; about recording foreign TV and movies on [illegal] satellite dishes and selling them on hard drives; about the importance (and uneven distribution) of tourists' tips (which can make the difference between a good living as a tour guide and a crappy one as a school teacher). He shared his hopes for the future, very much wanting change and expecting to be able to use U.S. dollars as street cash at some point soon. We talked about Cuban history, and how Cubans perceive the U.S. invasion in the 1989 Spanish-American war.

One of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation was the way he saw the Cuban-American exiles as the real enemy. He had no anomosity toward Americans as a whole, or even recent American governments, but the exiles to him are living in the past, making unreasonable demands for their property lost in 1960, and are responsible for maintaining the U.S. embargo long after the Cold War ended (and he's undoubtedly not alone in this view). He also saw it, correctly, in partisan terms: Democrats are more friendly to Cubans in Cuba and Republicans are more friendly to the Cubans in Miami. I asked our guide if he thought there would ever be reconciliation, and he wasn't optimistic. The narrative he told - "they left 50 years ago, now three generations have lived in that house and the exiles say it's their house and want it back" - reminded me of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and The Lemon Tree.

Altogether, despite the silliness of much of it, the organized tour was very worthwhile, especially for those unofficial conversations with the guide.

- Ben (photos by Steph)

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