Valle de Viñales

By Habeeb Salloum Special to mycompass.ca

Years ago a Canadian traveller I met in Havana became jealous when I told him of a trip I would take to the valley of Valle de Viñales. “I’ll send an email and tell you all about it when I return home,” I laughed as I bid him adieu.

I enjoyed that trip so much that recently I returned to revisit this renowned valley known by the Cubans as Shangri-la.

With the soothing Havana spring breezes our bus set out for the mountainous biosphere reserve, Complejo Las Terrazas, and Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the western Cuban state of Pinar del Río. My expectations were high as we drove westward from Havana on a four-lane highway through the fertile countryside. I was elated thinking of the ‘dream valley of Cuba’ that impressed me so much during my first trip to this region.

We reached the Las Terrazas complex, a rural community of sustainable development located on the outskirts of the quaint village, Las Terrazas. Entering the swimming pool area schoolgirls offered us souvenirs and cold drinks.

Surrounded by tree-covered hills the area is home to 900 species of plants, among which are 29 types of orchids, and some 120-bird species. What has helped in making this all encompassing greenery possible is that some 6 million trees have been planted in the region within the last 45 years.

A short drive away we stopped at Buenavista Restaurant housed in a renovated French coffee plantation mansion – the only one of the 110 French coffee plantations that once filled the countryside. Set atop a breathtaking hill the manor house and its restaurant now cater to tourist groups.

We explored the mansion surroundings containing ruins from the 19th century when coffee was the king in the area. What interested us most was a structure in perfect shape for drying coffee. Just as fascinating were pigs being barbecued whole, Cuban style for the evening dinner.

Later the bus parked under the largest mural in Cuba. The huge 120 m high and 180 m wide Mural de Prehistoria is an imposing mural painted by local artist Leovigildo Gonzalez and is a tribute to aboriginal culture. A well-organized tourist stop, it offered all the modern amenities in an appealing setting.

After dining at the foot of the mural in a tourist restaurant we drove through the Viñales Valley dotted with limestone green-covered hills. Here we toured a tobacco farm where a farmer was drying leaves in a tobacco shed. During our tour as I mistakenly walked through his living room, I said, “Pardoneme! Excuse me!” The owner quickly replied, “Mi Casa is su casa! (My home is your home.)”

As we drove onward fields of tobacco, taro and yucca appeared. In Viñales, a tiny town which some say is the best place in Cuba to live, the locals open up their homes for room rentals. The quaint setting is very popular among tourists who wish to experience authentic country life.

At the Mirador de los Jazmines overlooking the Valle de Viñales, I gazed onto the enchanting valley, all green with a mystic-like aura. The scenery across the valley had a dreamlike character. Surrounded by high mostly green-clad cliffs, the valley was laden in rich farmland with a sprinkling of palms, and rocky outcroppings. It was a wistful scene of how nature without a brush can bring out beauty, even without a painter, to create a Shangri-la.

-30-

photo: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

Facts to Know About Cuba:
1) Cuba has become for tourists much more expensive. It is best to take an all-inclusive package offered by most hotels.
2) For transportation, in Havana take taxis. They are the best way to get around. Rental cars are expensive - around 50 to 80 CUC a day and up and gas is around .75 CUC a litre.
3) In spite of the shortages, all of Cuba is still safe, thefts are rare and tap water is drinkable, even in the villages. However, for tourists to feel safe, they should drink bottled water, found everywhere.
4) The best buys in Cuba are rum and cigars. Beware of black market cigars - often they are not authentic. Seven-year old Havana Club is the top rum in Cuba. It is smoother than brandy and sells at around 12 CUC a bottle. In Havana, the best place to buy Cuban souvenirs is at Handicraft Markets like the one near Plaza de la Catedral.
5) Cubans are appreciative of gifts, especially soap, English-Spanish dictionaries and all types of clothing - new and used.
6) The best time to travel to Cuba is from December to the end of April during the dry cool season.
7) Remember to keep 25 CUC for the departure tax.

Currency:
Visitors to Cuba must use convertible pesos (CUC – at present 1 CUC = $1.10 Canadian or .70 Euro. The Cuban peso, which can only be used by tourists to purchase such products as fruit and vegetables, converts at about 1 CUC to 25 pesos. For Cuban currency information, see website: http://www.webhavana.com/main.php?lang=en&page=cuba_currency.php

Food:
Food in most ordinary Cuban restaurants is quite dull. An average meal for tourists costs from 12 to 15 CUC. Visitors should try the main Cuban dish, Rice and Black Beans - very tasty if spiced. Some good restaurants to try while in Havana are: Floridita Restaurant, famous as Hemingway’s haunt; Eljibe Restaurant, serving large groups; Yeasmin Restaurant, noted for its Arabic food; and for the epitome of meals try Hotel Nacional where for about 60 CUC the best food in town can be had.

Entertainment:
Havana's most renowned nightspot is La Tropicana built in a grotto of royal palms. It features a spectacular extravaganza of lavish scenery, dancing and sumptuous costumes - cost 65, 75 or 85 CUC, depending on the seat. However, there are other cabarets like the Parisian at the Nacional Hotel that costs about half the price of El Tropicana.

Note: All the prices quoted are in CUC pesos.

For Further Information, Contact Cuba Tourist Board:
Cuba Tourist Board, Toronto: 1200 Bay Street. Suite 305. Toronto. ON. M5R 2A5. Tel: (416) 362-0700. Toll Free: 1-866-404 CUBA (2822). Fax: (416) 362-6799 e-mail: info@gocuba.ca; Montreal: 2075, rue University, Bureau 460 Montréal, Québec, H3A 2L1 Tel: (514) 875-8004 Fax: (514) 875-8006 e-mail: montreal@gocuba.ca Website: http://www.gocuba.ca/en/index.asp


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