Around Vinales - Triplogue

Friday, 27 December, around Vinales, 25.3miles

It was a sticky heavy day in the Vinales valley, even in the wee hours. Fred and I did our usual thing of watching the sun rise –in this case, an awesome spectacle—and waiting for the restaurant to open for breakfast. Not surprisingly, breakfast was another service nightmare, taking forever to get a half cup of coffee from the bitchy waitress (named Trufina, we later learned). But it felt great to jump onto our unloaded bikes sans helmets for a day of aimless exploring. First we visited the tacky, bewildering Mural Prehistorico, which consists of limestone cliff painted in lurid colors, depicting snails, dinosaurs and cavemen. We met a nerdy guy from Norway there who informed us of the stated penalty for Americans visiting Cuba: $50,000 and up to ten years in prison. Oops! And we’re going to publicize that we did this? Part of me wants to get into trouble and become a cause celebre, with every ACLU lawyer begging to represent us; but of course that could mess up our plans to spend the next two years on our bikes.

We lunched in a beautiful old house in lovely Vinales town, la Casa de Don Tomas. Its menu stated its commitment to "Cuban gastronomy," but on our plates we found the same canned vegetable medley they dished out everywhere else we’d been. Fine food and communism don’t mix, it seem; and the Casa de Don Tomas was a state-run enterprise, where the chef and waitress, and even the musicians, were government employees. The ambiance was great, though, and so was the view of the town’s elegantly colonnaded main street, in which a constant stream of Chinese bicycles languidly passed by.

Remounting our own trusty two-wheelers, we headed out towards the Cueva del Indio on a road which passed through more breathtaking scenery. Another state-run tourist trap, the Cueva could have been skipped, especially the carnival of beggars and souvenir sellers that descended upon us at the exit.

Heading back towards town, I insisted we take a side road. More gorgeous scenery, two boys killing a heron for the hell of it, and increasingly menacing clouds. Just as we got into Vinales proper it started pouring. We took refuge under the colonnades and eventually made our way a couple of blocks up the street to La Casa de Dago, a bar and paladar.

"Paladar," Anita explained to us later, was the name of a fictional restaurant started by a fictional woman on a Brazilian soap opera. In Cuba it now refers to any privately-run restaurant, a new phenomenon that seems to be enjoying unbridled success. While we didn’t sample Dagoberto’s food, we enjoyed his beer and hospitality as the rain came down in sheets. It soon became clear that Dagoberto is Vinales’ most visible capitalist, and that everyone around town had a strong opinion of the man.

I then made the huge mistake of capitulating to Fred’s impatience. He had a big hard-on about getting back to the hotel –a 3km uphill pump. When the rain subsided a bit, we got on our bikes, but no sooner had we done so than it started pouring again –a hardcore tropical downpour. We were completely drenched in a matter of seconds. The episode had its humorous side, I suppose, but it also taught me to hold my ground against Fred’s impatience next time. He was perfectly capable of getting his ass up that wet hill on his own.

Of course, once we made it to the top the rain stopped.

Dinner was yet another exercise in frustration. For some reason, Fred preferred not to go down to Dagoberto’s (who said he’d even come pick us up in his ’48 Ford), opting instead for the insular tourist hell of our hotel’s dining room. Trufina was our waitress again and her strident avoidance of serving us drove Fred nuts. At the end of the meal he stood up and dressed Trufina down, screaming at her in English before running off to Anita to tattle on her comrade. I thought Fred was overreacting and was embarrassed to be associated with him. This wasn’t the Hilton, after all, and what did he expect from communistic service anyway? The boy still has to learn that the world is a big place and it doesn’t always operate by his rules. For me, that’s part of what makes travel fun –but apparently not for Fred.

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A huge painting of prehistoric life created by an understudy of Diego Rivera serves as a tourist attraction

Our bikes were often the center of attention

No shower necessary today!

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Andrew and Fred sharing a popsicle with some friends in Santa Lucia

Fred and his guides in Sta. Lucia, looking for the local McDonald's

Dramatic "sugarloaf-like" landscapes abound

Saturday, 28 December, Vinales to Santa Lucia and back, 62.6miles

Saturday’s bike ride was more ambitious, and by the grace of God, the weather cooperated. It was clear and crisp as we set off, first to breakfast at a competing state-run hotel called La Ermita (the boycott of Trufina was on), then on past the Mural Prehistorico, though Cuba’s pristine countryside. We climbed and dipped through a lush valley full of tobacco fields and tall trees. After 20 miles we hit our first town –Pons—where we caused a sensation at the guara stand. Guara is pure, freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice and a supposed energy booster. A fellow patron said we’d be needing it, too, since the road to Santa Lucia was hilly.

And he wasn’t kidding. Fred said the road must have been designed by Puerto Ricans, for it twisted up and down in search of the highest and lowest points, just like the road we took over the mountains in Puerto Rico a year before. Soon we were pedaling through pine forests. During a roadside stop another Cuban racer zoomed by, sporting all the fanciest cycling duds. Then a rather inbred-looking peasant cruised by on his oxsled, which scraped noisily against the asphalt. The only other vehicles we noticed were an unlikely-looking taxi parked in front of a shack and a broken-down truck.

It was blazingly hot when we rolled into Santa Lucia just before noon. The town was ugly and poor, an old mining center gone to hell. The town’s only restaurant wasn’t open yet, but a local youth said he knew of a place for refreshments. He led us on foot through a ridiculously long labyrinth of increasingly scruffy lanes. Fred cracked at about the tenth time the guy said "only a hundred meters more," whereupon we jumped back on our bikes and rode back to the town center for palettas –frozen treats on a stick.

The coastal road back to Vinales was boring, long and in piteously bad shape. We also had to fight an evil headwind and a blisteringly hot sun. Just as we had run out of water, at about mile 50, a mirage appeared as we rounded a bend: a glistening gas station in the middle of nowhere. Yes, they had a dollar shop, too, where we gleefully dropped four Yankee greenbacks on water, a coke and various sweet and salty American agouti snacks –all in a sanitized, overairconditioned environment. We met a Cuban-American here who was cruising his native land in a flashy rented Hyundai. The locals, meanwhile, drooled over our bikes and mysteriously carried gasoline away in little plastic bags.

From here the scenery turned awesome again as we reentered the land of mogotes. On the climb back up towards the Cueva del Indio we stopped to chat with a geeky Swiss dude who had just begun his cycle tour of the island on a Flying Pigeon that he had purchased in Vinales for $40. He said he planned to stay in people’s houses, since you "couldn’t bring a girl back to your room in a hotel." Fred and I pronounced him officially brain-damaged and continued our climb.

In Vinales we stopped at Dago’s again for beers and Cuban pizza (it was a rather greasy concoction, and we made the unfortunate choice of ordering it with ham). The place was hopping. Dago was obviously drunk, wearing a Che Guevara tee shirt and dancing with Italian tourist ladies to the three-piece combo who probably weren’t working for the state (nor for pesos, for that matter). Enrique, our cycling friend from two days before, cruised by in the street and we invited him to join us for beers. We talked politics. His view of America was that it was a dangerous place full of criminals and homeless people who couldn’t get health care. His wife, on the other hand, had just delivered a baby in the state capital free of charge, and his baby would be able to attend free schools. His dad, he explained, had known real poverty –even famine—under the former regime.

We followed Enrique back to his nearby home, where we met his family and scoped out his living conditions. His wife was shockingly young, but they said they didn’t plan an having another baby for at least five years. His mom lived in the house too, a rugged-looking woman who made us delicious coffee as Enrique showed us around the yard. There were dogs and pigs and chickens and banana trees and coffee trees and God knows what else. And nearby, he explained, he had a field full of various crops. We decided that we didn’t have to worry about Enrique’s family going hungry, and wondered what he thought of our bourgeois, decadent ways.

Exhausted from our ride, we turned in early that night without dinner, thus forgoing another ordeal with Trufina.

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