Our day starts with a good breakfast in our Casa – omelette, chorizo, toast and a huge amount of fruits*. Delicious. We can hear some music coming from the direction of the main street… Today is the first May – Labor Day! This is also a holiday here of course . We hurry up and run down the terrace to the main street. A parade is heading our way with some local salsa school pupils performing on the street and stilt walkers walking in between them. There are also some pupils holding up self-made banners. If some (somewhat casual, but still uniformed) military would not have been here, this would look like a casual village procession. Stoping at the market place there is also some politics are getting mixed in to this: Alternating to pupils reciting poems and some bands playing music (a lot of songs are about Cuba’s popular hero Che by the way ), some speeches are also held by some politicians (or the mayor? Citizen council?). I think we are the only foreigners here – probably the only ones who got up this early (7:00!).
We don’t stay there very long, after about an hour we decide to rent a scooter and head north of Vinales. Aleida said that you could rent scooters and bicycles behind the “Casa Don Thomas” restaurant. Unfortunately, the shop is closed due to the holiday. Crap, we didn’t expect that. Alternatively, we consider to go to the Tourist Info, opposite the market square. Again, no luck though. The office is open, yet all available scooters are already rented for 24 hours and have not been brought back yet. The hop-on-hop-off buses do not seem to run today either. I wonder if the caves we wanted to visit are also closed today? It wouldn’t be worthwhile to rent a scooter then. The man in the office reassures us though that the main attractions here are also open on Sundays and on holidays . We could simply wait in the office or on the terrace in front – shouldn’t take too long for the scooters to be returned. I decide to get to the nearby supermarket to get some water and some snacks… And maybe… yes, ice-cream sounds like good idea right now. Frank is also quite happy as I return with something refreshing.
We sit down on the terrace and watch the slowly dispersing crowd. Slowly, everything changes to the typical daily routine again: Vegetable and fruit vendors drive through the streets, make themselves noticeable by yelling what they have loaded and stop when they get hailed on. Selling pineapples out of a trunk? Not unusual here. Same as having sugar cane all over the back seats for transport. Each passenger car is a multi-purpose vehicle here. The time flies by quite fast with watching people on the street, talking to a couple of other travelers (also waiting for a scooter) and some locals who are probably friends with the officials of the tourist info and have dropped by for a chat. At some point, two couples with both a scooter arrive at the bureau. Great. Getting the formalities done (25 CUC (25.00 USD) / 24h), then we can start – it’s almost noon.
Palenque de los Cimarrones –
We drive north of Vinales – even here, quite a few km away from the village center, there are Casa Particular. Everyone who has a spare room is also renting it – tourism is after all a great source of income here. We stop at the Palenque de los Cimarrones. The caves here have a historical significance: Escaped slaves were generally called “Cimarrones” (or Maroons) in Cuba and in the rest of the Caribbean. Those were mainly forced to work on sugar plantations at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The Cimarrones had to to survive on themselves in the wilderness when they managed to successfully escape from the plantations. Here, in these caves it is said that they managed to build up a settlement. For the black population, the Cimarrón symbolized the hope of escaping slavery in general, especially since they were also occasionally recruited and armed by European colonial powers in war with Spain. These Cimarrones were able to perform guerrilla attacks on Spanish settlements for example. Today you can only guess some sort of pirate romance in these grottoes: At the front and back of the caves are a bar and a restaurant with some rustic decoration.
The most impressive in here is the grotto itself. We pass through once and find ourselves at a restaurant – which just has “tourist attraction” written all over it. “This is where they dump the passengers of the tour buses, mhh?”. Though we have brought some water with us, we decide that we could drink something cold. There aren’t many guests in here – I wonder how this place will look like when several buses arrive? Hmm, there are soft drinks, beer and tons of cocktails on the menu. We decide for a cocktail since they sound quite creative. The Canchanchara variation sounds interesting… with coconut water and maracuja juice. Alright. “Can you also order this one without rum? I’m driving, yknow…?”. The bartender looks at me puzzled. He seems to be wondering if I’ve made a joke… and laughs. Okay, now I’m forced to laugh too. Seems noone seems to bother about this here. He makes us two virgin cocktails and puts a bottle of rum on the table – “Just put in how much you like”, he grins . If you haven’t noticed by now: You can get rum everywhere here… and that quite cheaply.
Cueva del Indio –
Refreshed, we continue to the Cueva del Indio. We are in luck: There is no tourist bus in front of the visitor center of the most famous karst cave in the national park of Vinales. Ther entry is 5 CUC (5.00 USD) per person. The over 165 million years old cave was once home to an Indio tribe. After the cave was discovered by farmers in 1920, it was opened for tourists quite quickly.
We stroll quite leisurely through the cave, which is lit quite sparsely. We seem to be the only ones in this area. After a while we arrive at a subterranean river, where a boat awaits us. Every few minutes, one of the three available boats here does a tour through the flooded parts of the cave. We are the only passengers – slowly we ride further into the cave while the boatman shows us various structures (usually named after animals) with a laser pointer. We reach the cave exit after a while and get to a pier – you have to get used to the bright sun again.
We are on the backside of the cave on a valley – here you can book different activities like horse riding trips or birdwatching. Birdwatching? Why not? 7 CUC (7.00 USD) / 2h with guide and hike through the valley. Okay, booked. An elderly woman sells some fruit here – a snack for between? Sure. Since most of the money she has in her cash register are Cuban Pesos (CUP)** than Pesos convertible (CUC), we get our change money back in the “small” currency. Fine with us, we plan to visit a local market soon anyways and buying something with CUP is easier there.
Since we still have some time before it gets dark, we take the streets leading us a little further north while gazing at the beautiful landscape – hardly anyone else on the road. Also hardly any street signs. We really have to remember the path we took, since everything will look the same in the dark. As we start to get hungry, we make ourselves on the way back.
Aleida is already busy with cooking and it doesn’t take long until dinner is served. No dish served in a restaurant can compete to this here. The dish Aleida cooked is called “Ropa Vieja” which translates to “old clothes”: Pulled pork with tomato salsa, beans, fried yuca and rice. Yum ! Interestingly, the tomatoes and cucumbers here do not seem to be the highly cultivated species that exist in Europe. The tomatoes fruit pulp is much more firm and the cucumbers have thicker kernels. Strange. We decide to visit the Mirador again after the meal since it was quite cloudy yesterday. But it does not really look like a visible sunset today either. Generally speaking, there seems to be quite little clear sky at the season we came here. Which does not mean however, that it is not warm and the sun is not burning. My arms have gotten quite some dark tan already just while driving on the scooter . A little later we walk towards the city square to a bar, which was built in the courtyard of the community center. Salsa, cocktails and live music – this will be a looooong night…
*By the way: If you want Papaya here you have to order “Fruta Bomba”
**1 CUC (1.00 USD) ≠ 1 CUP (0.04 USD)