A Sunset Walk Through Valle de Viñales, Cuba

After a morning of cave-climbing and an afternoon dominated by a leisurely lunch (and a rather tranquil nap if I remember correctly), it was time to get ourselves ready for an evening of activity. When researching and planning what to do, I kept reading that a walk or a hike through Valle de Viñales, Cuba was an absolute must. Seeing as Viñales is touted as “the real Cuba” (thanks NY Times!), I understood that taking the time to walk through the very heart of it was the perfect way to get a taste of the locals way of life.

Valle de Viñales was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 due to its dramatic landscape of karst limestone domes called mogotes, traditional agricultural methods of farming, and rich cultural history. The valley was formed underwater, rising from the sea millions of years ago and ancient ocean fossils can still be found in the caves that dot the landscape. Trails around this area take in caves, swimming holes and numerous viewpoints.

We decided to go for the sunset walking tour from Villa Los Reyes — a highly regarded casa and tour operator in the centre of the town. Lasting about 3 hours, our hilarious (and brilliant) tour guide led the 15 of us through the winding paths of the Valle de Silencio (Valley of Silence). Throughout the “hike” (which was definitely just a walk), he educated us on the flora and fauna of the valley, taught us how to appropriately address the farmers we ran into, and described, in detail, the local way of life.

He even sang for us traditional Cuban songs (as seen in the vlog from this day)!

By the end of the tour, he had opened up to us about growing up in communist Cuba. As a teenager, he was forced to become a soldier and, due to the lack of food, spent the majority of that time starving. In fact, he was so hungry that he used to drink dirty water from puddles which sadly led to him contracting some gnarly water-borne stomach issue that will continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.

As you might imagine, he didn’t have glowing things to say about Cuba and the Castro regime. This shocked us, as we were well aware that any talk of politics is frowned upon and that most Cubans refuse (or are unable) to say anything remotely negative. He was the first (and only) person we encountered who spoke of real issues and touched upon the struggles that Cubans continue to face. Something that we appreciated far more than he probably realised.

{Side note: the photo above right is of a horse skeleton!! It was just lying in the middle of a beautiful field and most definitely is the closest I have ever got to a large, raw set of bones.}

The Cuban Crisis began in 1991, what the government euphemistically called a special period, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its major supplier of fuel, fertilizer and food. During those years it is estimated that individual Cubans lost an average of 10 to 15 pounds. While things aren’t that bad anymore, the Cuban people are still facing a massive crisis. The country is desperately poor, the embargo meant/means that nothing is quite fresh, and restaurants have only been legal since 2013.

Throughout the walk we got glimpses of agricultural life in all its timeless harmony as oxen pulled plows and farmers alternated between tending to their crops and sucking on their cigars. There is plenty written about Cuba’s role as a leader in organic farming, and it is true that all the food produced in Cuba is totally organic. However, this didn’t come about because they were overly concerned about their carbon footprint, or from a desire to remove chemicals from their everyday food. Instead, it came from necessity.

They stopped using chemicals because chemicals disappeared. And they needed food.

Nowadays, about 14% of the country works in agriculture, which contributes just 4% of GDP and doesn’t produce enough to feed everyone. The Revolution capped farms at 40 acres, meaning they are too small to effectively mechanise if a farmer can even afford a tractor. Cubans continue to import more than 80% of their food.

In the past couple of years, reforms were passed that allow farmers to sell 10% of their harvest to private parties, while the remaining 90% is still sold to the central government. Cuban citizens receive a ration book from the government that provides for about 15 days of food a month, beyond that food is subsidised.

The most heart-breaking moment of the walk was when we came across a lady sobbing over two dead baby sheep. At only a couple of days old, they had been attacked and eaten by dogs and now lay lifeless in the middle of her field. The deceased lambs were supposed to be this woman’s livelihood. And as we stood, motionless, watching her suffer, we all knew that there could only be tough months ahead for her.

As we zigzagged our way through the valley, we came across friendly locals going about their daily business — only stopping said business for a brief moment to say hello to us before carrying on. Groups of cowboys galloping back home, little boys learning how to fix a horseshoe, pigs waiting for their evening meal, and mothers taking the washing in while dinner cooks on the stove — these are moments from real Cuban life.

Also, a ridiculous amount of pink farmhouses!

A couple of hours into our walk, we stopped at a coffee farm to learn about the lengthy process that goes into producing amazing brew. Coffee has been grown in Cuba since the mid-18th century, when French farmers arrived in Cuba after fleeing the revolution in Haiti. By the mid-1950s, Cuba was exporting more than 20,000 metric tons of coffee beans per year. A figure that dramatically decreased after the Cuban Revolution and the nationalisation of the coffee industry.

In Cuba, coffee cultivation is done by hand-picking. Many of the coffee plants grow on steep hillsides and the coffee beans are carried out of the area in sacks on the shoulders of coffee farmers, before being carried by mules to drying areas. Then they need to be prepped! This is done by placing them inside what looks to be the world’s longest pestle and mortar and de-shelling each individual bean by hand.

The picture on the left (above) shows an old-school Cuban coffee maker, the bottom part made from a coconut shell.

Cuban coffee is some of the strongest I have ever tasted. Traditional Cuban coffee is dark roasted, finely ground, and prepared espresso style using an espresso machine or moka pot (small coffee machine). “Cuban Coffee”, also known as cafecito, is a type of espresso that originated in Cuba after Italian espresso machines began appearing. The drink is made by sweetening an espresso shot with demerara sugar (a raw, brown sugar), during the coffee brewing process.

Traditionally, the sugar is added into the vessel from which the espresso will drip, ensuring that the sugar and espresso mix in a way that creates a sweet and smooth quality. Cafecito is unlike any espresso drink I have had before, and I highly recommend trying one if you have a Cuban restaurant in your city!

After a quick lemonade (sweetened with honey from the coffee farm), we continued our walk to the final viewing point. Just in time, we made it to see the stunning sunset over the valley. Chairs were already there waiting for us and a local farmer brought out cigars and more coffee, and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by everything I had seen, heard, and felt.

The area of Valle de Viñales, Cuba is so beautiful, the people so kind, the noise so still, but the challenges ahead still so great.

Photos by Tristan Marsh and Jenny Heyside

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