Our first stop on the trip was to the small town of Soroa, a place I remember because of a picture from there (one of my favorites of myself). The drive was short and we had the afternoon to explore the nearby waterfall and lookout point before cleaning up for dinner. The next day was a trip to the orchid gardens (another stop for my mom to plan!) where I took so many pictures you would think I actually knew something about these flowers! Since a large tour bus full of people had arrived moments before we did, there was no local guide to explain the differences between the yellow orchid and the mini purple ones, so we made it up as we went along. It was a nice walk and we had some laughs, but I think twice in a lifetime is enough for me. We opted out of the second lookout point and just killed time for the half an hour that we were waiting for Boris to arrive.
From here we headed to Viñales, a place which held another fond memory. The town had grown up quite a bit since I was last here, however, and I was surprised to see the amount of people out wandering around! If I’m not mistaken, Emma, Erika and I were the only three tourists within miles when we were there years ago! This was our first time in a homestay (for me as well as everyone else), and our hosts were very helpful and cheery. After setting plans for dinner and cleaning up a bit, we meandered into the town square (where did all these tour offices come from?!) with some wanting to swim and others happy to explore town. There is a new (to me) hop-on-hop-off bus that takes you around to all the sites in the area, so most of us jumped on that for the 1.5hr long tour, where I chatted with Jose, the driver, and had a relaxing drink at a gorgeous viewpoint while one of my pax took a ride on a cow. That night I had dinner at my “casa” – deliciously prepared chicken, yucca and rice and beans. Yum!
The next day started with fresh breakfast and meeting with my group in the square. From here we met up with our guide, Sandra, for a walk through the Viñales valley, where we learned a bit about the flora and fauna, stopped at a local farmer’s house where he showed us the process of planting, harvesting, drying and preparing tobacco to roll into a fine cigar (which we enjoyed on the spot!) and tasted freshly roasted and ground coffee. While this was extremely reminiscent of the horseback ride I took with Erika and Emma, it seemed less authentic due to the tourist traffic. Still a great experience, though! After another hour or so in the strong sun, we rested in the shade of a fruit tree and were served fresh pineapple, starfruit (called a plum here), guava and banana.
Our tour ended about midday, giving everyone a chance to explore the town some more or hit the pool! I chose to visit a local garden full of flowers and fruit trees where I had planned on writing my post cards (to no avail). I thought it best to avoid the heat, so took a break from the strong sun to head inside and do some writing. I didn’t achieve much before Ariday, the 8-year-old daughter of my homestay family, came wandering into the house. She saw that I was on my computer, and before I knew it we had spent two hours looking at pictures, playing pinball and solitaire and chatting about whatever you chat about with a little girl! She was absolutely hilarious, asking me all sorts of questions about my tattoos, piercings, ex-boyfriend, travels, family, friends and work. Ahh to be eight again and not shy about anything!
The next day saw us in Pinar del Rio (and a visit to the local booze factory!) where we wandered around yet another Cuban town, stopping for beer and coffee and checking out the sites. I split up with Rob and Brenda and we – of course – went for a beer. After heading out of town a few blocks, we came across a giant grey building, designed in a combination Gothic/Asian style, which we learned was the Natural History museum. Even though it was closed temporarily while they were updating the exhibitions, a few smiles and positive attitude allowed us to enter for a short visit. After our curiosity had been satiated, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this place was familiar, and I proceeded to study the outside of the building with more interest. It hit me that, on our way back to Havana from Vinales years before, the three of us girls were hitchhiking but only made it so far before having to wait for hours until the next truck arrived. Could it be?
Across the street was a paladar, or small restaurant, where Rob, Brenda and I sat for a beer. The inside sparked a memory in me, and I was closer to being sure about the location. Upon arrival in Vinales and a quick search on my computer, I found what I was looking for: the picture of Emma and I “still hitchhiking”, sitting in front of none other than the Natural History museum in Pinar del Rio. Small world indeed, and another mystery solved.