Get out of the city.
You’re weary and there’s a bus in town you wait two hours for, to take you to Viñales.
Three hours out and a few coffee stops and you’re in Pinar del Rio.
Let everything that happened before pass over now.
Pass the barns, palm trees, plantations and dark skinned men who ride on horses and this is the town. About three streets long with tiendas, casas with verandahs and rocking chairs, some cafes, all open bars, and one little square.
Find Elsita, she has a little mosaic with her name on the front of her casa particular. She lives with her mama. Elsita is tall, scrawny, with a shirt too small for her flat frame, short shorts, and sneakers. She’s dark and not the prettiest with bad teeth. She parties and drinks and once went to the Olympics for Basketball.
She says she’ll never leave Viñales.
Share a little bedroom build beside her tiny space. She cooks breakfast every day, eggs, papaya juice, bread, honey, black coffee. Want a cigarette?
The roof is a slab of cement and she has an umbrella set up to cover some seats. Smoke and drink up here with her.
She’ll give you her bikes to ride around town, only encounter three or four utes and trucks on the road. The trucks leaving town hold maybe twenty people in the back, with seats of crates and metal.
One guy rides around town on a bicycle selling garlic and onions. Everybody knows when he comes and hang over the gates while husbands and children all watch on their verandahs, talking with their neighbours. Other locals sell their fruit and vegetables on the corners for CUCs.
It’s humid and all the doors are opened, you can see in everyone’s homes and no one minds.
Everything in town is painted bright peeling colours. Dust is on the roads and everyone is happy. People smile, men wearing cowboy hats, when it rains children play. Kids race each other on their bikes.
Get arroz and frijoles and drink a beer on the side streets. Ride the bicycles out of the town and cross a worn barn every few hundred metres.
This was Fidel’s favourite place. Maybe the guerrillas used to hide and smoke in these exact barns.
All the houses in town have small plaques or stones with faces, names, stars, of their socialist saviors.
There are five names and stars in this town. What’s the significance of five? The names are unfamiliar, they aren’t Castro, Cienfuegos, Marti. Write them down for late.
Ride all day past farms, valleys, alongside limestone cliffs, steep sided mountains, rounded with jungly tops.
Mogotes, they look like haystacks and most are filled with caves you can crawl through.
There’s a dirt path leading to dinosaur footprints, another for horses, mystery trails wrapping around the hills.
The dirt is red and the ride is flat. Try to find a stream by crossing through countryside. There’s another little pueblito Moncada, close to Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. No one seems to be around. Someone gives us water and band aids for our spoils of exploring.
Ride back and follow another path to a giant pink hotel high in the hills. See a few cars there, must be a getaway for the out-of-towners. The ride is steep and the expected midday rain washes the heat and sweat. Take a shortcut on a rocky path, there’s a man selling asado meet, go a little further.
And completely out of place stands Hotel Los Jazmines, obnoxiously bright and tawdry. The staff let anyone onto the giant porch that overlooks the entire hillside. Endless hills on a low landscape. The pool is empty and there’s not many people around.
The waiters give you juice, mojitos, beer, carne, arroz, frijoles, and you fill your aching belly. Smoke a cigarette and enjoy the sticky country air. What a place. An untouched limestone dreamscape.
Not until the sun starts setting do you want to leave.
Riding in the dark with naught but natural light is peaceful and days of silent exploration is what the soul needs. Talk and laugh occasionally and observe the universe with your friends.
Elsita loves hearing about your adventures and waits for you everyday at the porch. She’s popular and always goes to visit and drink with the locals, always out later than you.
Find her drinking one afternoon on the street with Manuel. He’s younger than Elsita, handsome and wears loose white clothes and keeps his shirt unbuttoned. He goes to Havana often for work and tells you how Elsita is the funniest girl in Cuba. They’ve been drinking Havana Club all afternoon and Elsita’s cousin brings out the drinks. He fills the cups 60-40 alcohol and once he sees you’re half done, he pours in more rum and winks, no words.
4,5,6 pina coladas he brings. Elsita knew you wanted them.
The local ‘crazy man’ walks around the tables. He’s shirtless and white haired, but he’s dyed his beard pink. He raves in languages known and unknown, talks poetry, lovers, death, he demands you answer him but forgets and keeps talking. He knows Elsita and she knows how to talk to him. He grabs your arm but don’t be frightened. He’s lost interest and rounds the street.
They joke and laugh and ask your opinions. Manuel is fascinated with stories of outside. He passes on a rare coin from the revolution as a gift. People always pass and wave or shout some inside joke with the pair. They say, come back in an hour, there’s a big salsa party tonight, everyone is going, meet in the square.
So drunk and stumbling, get some food, you know there’ll be more and the Cubans aren’t light weights.
There’s a live music night at the main town bar and everyone is there. People sit at tables with litre bottles of Cola and order litre bottles at the bar with plastic cups. It’s surprising. More bottles come over the night and sometimes without the Cola to support.
Everyone knows Elsita and she introduces everyone. People talk and shout while three dancers do their moves to the music and then it’s salsa time.
You’ll have no choice but to dance and you’ll dance with every single person in that room over the night. You get good at it by the end, heated by rum. Everyone calls themselves a teacher. No, really, I am a proper teacher. I teach you. Manuel calls himself a teacher.
The venue closes but the crowds continue in the streets.
A group brings bottles of rum and continue on Elsita’s cement roof while everyone giggles and makes up stories about themselves and take turns kissing each other. Go to bed when the sun rises and remember the night tomorrow.
She arranges a friend with an old Pontiac and bar seats to drive you back to Havana and the farewells over honey eggs and coffee is sad. Her mama comes out to give hugs and Elsita gives a clay sculpture of a frog and turtle for a gift.
Come visit again one day.
Watch the green fade in the car, locals watching the car go by as they cut grass on highways with scythes and ride on horse carts.
This is the Cuba you need to see. A simple red soil landscape with people who make you family and a lifestyle that will continue happily for many more generations.