It’s tipping it down with rain outside and Roo is recovering from her second double ear infection in as many weeks so it seems a good time to make the most of being inside and write up the second part of the Cuba Babymoon post. If you missed Part One you can read it here – Holidays when pregnant: Babymoon in Cuba
After a fantastic start to our Cuba holiday with time in the capital of Havana, we headed west on an independently arranged leg of the trip to Hotel Los Jazmines near Vinales in rural Pinar del Rio province.
Pinar del Rio and Vinales
The province of Pinar del Rio lies approximately 175km west of Havana and is the most westerly region of Cuba. Pinar del Rio is primarily an agricultural landscape, with 70% of Cuba ‘s tobacco production grown here. Pinar del Rio is also home to one of Cuba ‘s three main mountain ranges – the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, from which the limestone outcrops (or mogotes) jut out like islands in a sea of green crops and sparkling sunshine.
Getting to Pinar del Rio
Getting to Pinar del Rio from Havana is fairly easy, although unless you are forking out for a private taxi then be prepared for a long, sweaty journey. The roads aren’t great in places either so don’t expect a smooth ride but having said that, I managed the journey just fine and didn’t feel too uncomfortable with a five month bump to accommodate.
We decided to hitch a lift to Pinar del Rio with a tour bus from Havana, which we booked through a tour operator in a neighbouring hotel. Most trips, tours and transport can be arranged from the major hotels. As discussed in part one, the government in Cuba regulates most tourist activity so prices are standard and you are unlikely to bag a bargain by going elsewhere and the same minibus or coach will do the rounds of all the main hotels, picking up guests from each location. For this reason, unless your hotel is on the outskirts of Havana, don’t expect to leave the city for a good 45 minutes after being picked up!
Another exciting aspect of the journey that we were unaware of before we set off (and despite both of us speaking good spanish) was that rather than joining a direct minibus transport service we were actually joining a day tour. Still, it was good value for money as the trip included a stop at a rum distillery – an interesting diversion. If you are taking this journey when pregnant then do take a fan with you and plenty of water – it can get quite hot and sticky.
Accommodation – Hotel Los Jazmines, Vinales
The minibus dropped us off outside Hotel Los Jazmines, just outside Vinales. Hotel Los Jazmines is perched precariously on the edge of the Vinales valley and offers comfortable but fairly simple accommodation with views that more than make up for any shortcomings in the decor. After reading other reviews, we were lodged in one of the cabins set down hill from the main hotel and were able to enjoy some spectacular sunsets and watch midday thunderstorms rolling in across the valley from the comfort of the hammock on our veranda.
Los Jazmines is set in a beautiful, isolated spot overlooking a valley dotted with the surreal ‘mogotes’ jutting out of the farmland below. You could quite happily spend several days here just relaxing and enjoying the natural wonders of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and watching the farmers at work in the tobacco plantations below with their mule-drawn ploughs or the aerial antics of the vultures and other birds in the skies overhead. The Los Jazmines has a good outdoor pool, also with lovely views and the staff are friendly, if a little laid back at times. Do not however expect much from the food. As elsewhere, whilst there is plenty of it there is a surprising lack of fresh food and quite a lot of the offerings are fairly bland. Dinner we felt to be overpriced for the quality and some guests went into Vinales or elsewhere for dinner in the evenings. However for the pregnant ladies with sensitive stomachs out there, there are plenty of plain options -rice and beans, plantain, eggs and similar are in plentiful supply and the pancakes for breakfast are pretty good.
Located near to Hotel Los Jazmines is a National Park Visitors Centre. On exiting the hotel, turn left along the road. You can either continue walking on the road or you can turn down the dust track on your right hand side, turning left again when you meet the road on the other side of the trail. This route is no shorter but makes for pleasanter walking than the roadside. You can’t miss the visitor’s centre – it is about ten minutes walk from Los Jazmines and is a large building with parking on the left hand side of the road. There is also a small cafe here. The visitor’s centre offers information on the geography, history and economy of the local area as well as showing different walking routes available through the valley. You can arrange for a hiking guide here or to go horse-riding, with English speaking guides available. The guides will pick you up from your hotel at a time convenient to you. Of course, you can also ask Los Jazmines tour organiser to arrange all this for you (when not on lunch break) but the visitor’s centre is worth exploring and especially if you speak a bit of spanish, its nice to get out and meet some Cubans who are not entirely centred on selling you excursions!
I resisted the urge to go horse-riding and instead we arranged for a local guide to take us on an afternoon hiking trip in Vinales valley instead. This was one of the best excursions we had in Cuba – with just myself and my husband with our guide for a few hours we learnt more about Pinar del Rio and the ‘real’ Cuba than we had in our entire stay to that point. The hike was insightful – we visited the farmland and crops, marvelled at the thousands of tobacco leaves drying in the barns along the way (all individually hung by hand and graded), got up close and personal with the bizarre ‘mogotoe’ limestone oucrops and even sheltered from a thunderstorm in a farmer’s house where we were welcomed warmly and offered steaming mugs of syrupy black coffee – some of the best I have ever tasted.
It was fascinating to see pineapples growing and our guide was knowledgeable on the local geography and economy, giving us a detailed lesson on the climate and its suitability for growing and drying tobacco. The humidity has to be just right or entire crops can be ruined – a disaster for Pinar del Rio – Cuba’s foremost region of tobacco production and the source of the higher quality leaves used for international export.
An insight in Cuba
Whilst walking past an avocado tree I commented to our guide that it was a shame they were out of season as I love them and had had high hopes of pigging out on avocados during our stay in Cuba. To my surprise he picked up a fallen avocado which was perfectly ripe and explained they were not out of season but that Cuba’s centralised system means that every product of the land – whether avocado, sheep or pig, must be administered centrally through state run cooperatives. Therefore, despite that avocado tree growing close to the Hotel Los Jazmines, the hotel cannot buy avocados directly from the farmer on whose land the tree grows but instead both farmer and buyer must use a centralised market system so that the goods may be properly accounted by the state and often goods from one part of the country can be transported miles to their final consumer. The result is that by the time fresh food gets to its final destination it is often no longer particularly fresh and given the country’s reliance on their own production, a little must be shared out a long way. Unless a hotel grows its own goods therefore, many sacrifice fresh food for reliance on rice and other staples whose condition deteriorates less quickly.
For someone coming from the Western world with its capitalist ideology, the system is bamboozling. Our guide explained to us that the farms are communally worked and that every single animal is recorded by the authorities. Every time a calf or piglet is born, the farmer responsible for that animal must register its birth. We asked our guide what would happen if someone didn’t follow the law and kept the animal for their personal use. Failure to do so, he half-joked, would earn you a jail sentence longer than the one you would receive if you murdered your mother-in-law.
It was on the walk also that we learned of the increasing worries of the rural communities of Pinar del Rio. Many in the Vinales valley still have no electric lighting and their children, who benefit from a compulsory free education up to and including university, find themselves overqualified to justify returning to the farms they grew up on. Whilst their parents are proud of their children for obtaining degrees in medicine or law, what use are these in a country where nearly everyone is a civil servant, doctors have to wait tables or perform music at hotels to earn enough to live on? What use is a degree in a country that depends so heavily on agricultural production? With its reliance on exporting tobacco products it is alarming that young people are given often false expectations of careers where they can use their qualifications whilst their parents despair of who is going to work the farm as they get older. Lack of electric lighting and basic facilities hardly helps entice the younger generations to stay.
One glimmer of hope is Cuba ‘s growing tourist industry and its move to gradually open up to trade and private enterprise. It was good to hear our guide talking about eco-tourism and the growing appreciation of the local communities of Pinar del Rio for the sustainable income their beautiful landscape can bring them. There was a local initiative he told us for farmers in the Vinales valley to open up a room of their homes to tourists for a small fee, allowing hiking groups to stop overnight with local people whilst exploring their surroundings. Like anything in Cuba though such schemes are slow to develop. The local community was enthusiastic but it could be many years before the local authorities are able to process and authorise the scheme.
On our return journey to Hotel Los Jazmines we passed a plot of land with beautiful views over the valley. As we were still on the topic of tourism, I commented that such a location would make a fabulous spot for a sympathetically developed small hotel. Apparently a French company had similar thoughts and had bought the land a couple of years previously with the intention of developing an eco-hotel there. As yet, nothing has been done and our guide was cynical that this project would ever emerge intact from the machinations of government bureaucracy.
Returning to Hotel Los Jazmines we discovered first hand exactly why the Vinales valley is such a beautiful red colour. Walking over the wet earth after the heavy rain storm, we arrived back coated in thick layers of red clay mud which resisted our efforts to clean it off clothing equally – be warned if you travel here in the rainy season!
Caving: Cuevas del Indio and Gran Caverna de San Tomas
With its network of limestone caves the Vinales region is justly famed for the opportunity to explore the many caves scoured out of the mountains. A popular trip is to Cuevas del Indio where you can travel through the largest underground watery network of caves in Cuba and the Carribbean by boat. These caves were orginally a shelter for the local indian tribe and used as a retreat during the days of spanish invasion. Today they are heavily geared up for tourism, with boat trips possible to arrange from any self-respecting hotel in the region and plenty of shopping and eating opportunities at the caves themselves.
For an alternative and more secluded caving experience, the Gran Caverna de San Tomas, 15km from Vinales, is worth a visit. The tour starts from the visitor centre in the town of El Moncada and it is possible to have a private guide if you prefer. As we were travelling outside of high season, we had a private guide without having to pay extra! Hard hats and head torches are provided and be sure to wear sturdy boots or good walking shoes. For a pregnant lady, the most taxing part by far is the short steep climb up the cliff face on a small rough path up to the cave entrance. There are plenty of trees to help steady your way but do take it very slow and steady and don’t attempt if you are not fit and enjoying a healthy pregnancy. Having said that, despite having to take numerous breaks to catch my breath and enjoy the view, at five months I managed the ascent just fine and the descent was a little easier.
The tour lasts approximately two hours and explores the huge caverns set into the mountainside. In places the caves open onto the open cliff face giving spectacular views across the surrounding countryside. In one place the cave roof has collapsed and bringing you blinking out of the darkness unexpectedly into the bird song and humidity of the jungle above. For those nervous of caving, be reassured that I am not keen on cramped dark spaces and was also nervous of this expedition but these caves are of the lofty variety and there is only one section that involved negotiating a very sizeable gap. The fascinating limestone structures, the views, the shimmering pillars of fool’s gold sparking under torchlight and the sheer darkness of the deepest caves should you dare to switch off your headlights for a few seconds all make it well worth it.
We would gladly have lingered a little longer in Pinar del Rio province, perhaps exploring the region’s Biosphere eco-reserve (you can stay in tree-house style accommodation ) or the region’s beaches. Unfortunately our time was up and we had to head east again to Havana airport’s domestic terminal in a very bumpy taxi, ready for our onward flight to Guardalavaca, Holguin no Cuba’s north-east coast and our luxurious beach stay at the Hotel Paradisus Rio de Oro.
Domestic flights, Holguin’s beaches and the final leg of our Cuba babymoon at Hotel Paradisus Rio de Oro coming up soon in Part 3…
I’m joining in with the fabulous Time Traveller Linky over at Maris World. This was one of the earliest posts I wrote for Baby Routes and my style has changed quite a bit since. So lovely to have the chance to revisit old places as well as new – this trip has to be amongst one of my lifetime favourites. A wonderful place to spend time before entering the world of parenthood.