Before I had ever set foot on Cuban soil, I had an idea of how certain places would be and how I would explore them. Often, things turn out to be very different from what you expected, but one day in Vinales things happened exactly the way I had imagined them. Vinales is a small town surrounded by big farmland. In the middle of this farmland are the Mogotes, big hills that stick out of the relatively flat landscape. Some people say you have to be with a guide to explore this area, but we just started walking. We would find out how far we could go.
A bright orange dirt road took us out of town. We walked past the cowboys, waiting for customers for the horse riding, into the fields full of tobacco. Since we didn’t really have a destination in mind, we turned into a private road after we saw a sign for the ‘cueva de la vaca’. A friendly old farmer came out to greet us and we got to see the hut where he dries all the tobacco leaves. It was packed to the rafters. He also showed us all the fruits he grew and a little stand where you could order drinks. It was a bit too early for a Cuba Libre so we said we’d go to the cave and come back. I climbed over crooked pieces of rock towards the entrance of a tunnel. It turned out there was an amazing view at the end of the tunnel with a path that led us back down into the fields, so we didn’t return after all.
We had entered the fields where two farmers were working. It is hard work in the blazing sun and it seemed like the farmers welcomed a distraction. An old man held the gate open for us, a friendly smile on his face, with a cigar sticking out of his mouth. We walked further into the fields, not knowing where we were going exactly. First a farmer looked at us questionably. It turned out we were on a dead end street. The muddy track just led to the field he was ploughing. In the other direction we saw a man in a small wooden hut. He was happy to give us directions; one way was to the mural, one way to his brother who could show us coffee, one way to his neighbour who could show us tobacco, and yet another to a cave with a swimming hole. If we wanted a refreshment he could also point us in the right direction.
Our aim way to make it all the way around the Mogote, so we took the path in the direction of the mural de la prehistoria. The fields don’t have signage so occasionally we walked the wrong way. Once we tried to pass a house. A dog ran out from under the house, barking loudly and scaring us back onto the path we came from. In another place a path led to a paddock full of bulls. We also got chased by pigs for a little while. We didn’t see that many other walkers, but at times someone passed us on horseback. It wasn’t until we got very close to the mural that we saw groups of people. This was where the tour buses stopped to show people the mural. After being out in nature, this was a bizarre place to see. The bright mural wasn’t ancient or anything. It was just a clever idea by someone who thought he could make a tourist attraction and make some money with it. Because we came walking from the other direction, we didn’t pay to see it.
Unfortunately we were now several kilometers out of Vinales and the only way to get back was to follow the road. Before we tackled that, we sat down at a little tropical bar at the side of the road for a cold drink. After a few sips a man with a horse drawn cart came by. He offered to take us to town for 4CUC. Since it was a mode of transport we hadn’t done yet, we decided to take it. “Finish your drinks”, said the man. He could wait. It also gave him some time to drink a beer as well. The cart just had two wheels, so it was a balancing act with four people in it. The man told us a bit about things to do in the area, hoping to get us to come on a tour with him the next day. When we didn’t agree on anything he let us off right at the start of town, so we still had to walk quite a way back to our casa.
There are several ways to explore the area around Vinales, but in my opinion this is one of the best ways to do it. We met really friendly people without obligations to do certain things or tip certain people. We got to see what we wanted to see instead of where all the tourists are taken. In the end it is the same area you go through, but it was nice to have this freedom on our first exploration of this place. We saw one side of the valley by ourselves and saw the other side on horseback the next day. Vinales is just a gorgeous place to visit, perhaps touristy, but that happened for a reason!