We felt like we’ve had enough of Havana. So the next morning we woke up to our second omelette with sausages while SeÃ±or Paolo waited for us to finish eating. There’s bread and butter on the table. But there is no milk like yesterday. We didn’t ask and drank our coffee blacker than the sky last night. We arranged for Paolo to drive us out to the province of Pinar del Rio, west of Havana, to the small town of ViÃ±ales in the valley of Sierra de los Organos. It’s a three-hour drive, but Paolo kept us company by telling us about his life and about Cuban life in general.
During the drive, we witness a lot of Cubans waiting for rides. If our car had not been privately hired, it most likely would have been flagged down as Cubans are sometimes required to pick up other Cubans. Uniformed policemen stop big trucks, herd groups of passengers into the back, and keep the country moving. There were constant reminders of the RevoluciÃ³n and of the country’s most admired men. The highway is almost empty and our drive is smooth. We could have swerved from lane to lane if we wanted to!
As in so much of rural Cuba, there are chickens, pigs, goats, horses and cows everywhere. The drive to ViÃ±ales is pleasant because we are finally out of the city and into more lush surroundings. Mogotes, limestone mountains formed during the Jurassic period, rise from fertile red-soil valleys. We pass farmers cultivating tobacco and vegetables while vultures circle overhead.
In the town center, we find Las Brisas, a small restaurant with no other amenities aside from a few chairs and tables. We order pollo frito, fried chicken, with rice and a salad. But today, there is no lettuce. So we are served sliced green tomatoes on the side. We eat with Paolo as he flirts with our waitress. They banter with an easy sort of intimacy that you’d think it’s how all conversations between strangers are carried. We finish our Cristals and head out.
After lunch we drive to the Mural de la Prehistoria painted under the direction of Lovigildo Gonzalez, a disciple of Diego Rivera. It depicts the story of evolution on the island. If you don’t read about the process of how it was painted stone by stone, you can’t help but think that it looks like a rock face that has been slapped with graffiti.
We visited two caves as well. Inside Cueva del Indio we drifted on a subterranean river and looked up at stalactite formations. At the other end of Cueva de San Miguel we came upon El Palenque de los Cimarrones, a hokey re-creation of a hideout used by cimarrones or runaway slaves. Both venues were touristy and somewhat cheesy.
Before sunset, we arrived at Soroa, another small town in the Pinar del Rio province, known mostly known for its spas and a visitor’s center. We got the chance to hike to some nearby waterfalls before closing time. The Orquideario or Orchid Gardens was already closed as was El Mirador, the most accessible point for views of the surrounding landscape.
Our drive back to Havana was uneventful except for the sight of young men selling blocks of cheese and guava jelly by the side of the highway. We ask Paolo to stop so that we can sample some of their goods. Lacking knife or a fork, we ended up buying the whole block for about P13. I asked Paolo why they were selling it on the side of the road. Clandestino, he says. Clandestine, a catchy word that sticks with us for the duration of our travels in Cuba. We would have something in common with the Cubans after all.
Back in Havana and we’re looking for something to eat. We ask a gas station attendant if he knows of a place where we can eat a real meal. At El Hueco down the road we have bistek Creolan and Uruguayan styles. We congratulate ourselves for getting a recommendation from a Cuban instead of settling for the sketchy-looking Yang-Tse “Chinese” restaurant down the block.