Vinales Valley, in the province of Pinar Del Rio is striking for several reasons. The first reason are the very colorful, well cared for little homes line that the roads coming into town. Many of these homes have signs saying they have Casas Particulares (rooms for rent). These are roughly equivalent to our bnb’s and are one of the most authentic ways to experience Cuban life; much better than most tourist hotels.
The landscape is stunning; bright green mountains and woods contrast with the deep red of the soil (like Australian outback, except not barren). Looking out over the green valley and seeing big red rectangular patches that are tobacco and vegetable farms is stunning. The tobacco farms are noted by the big thatched drying huts where tobacco leaves are hung to dry.
Strange Shaped Mogotes
Add to this colorful, contrasting scene a backdrop of strangely shaped mountains called mogotess and it is truly a mystical place.
These towering hummock shaped mountains are found only in the Vinales Valley. They seem to stick up out of the valley floor randomly. They aren’t rounded mountains, or jagged peaks. They are vertical, round-topped, unconnected towers. UNESCO has declared this karst valley a World Heritage Site.
We ate family style at Casa de Confianza. A family owned paladar (family owned restaurant, as opposed to a state run restaurant). We are sitting under a thatched roof porch while the owners bring out plate after plate of pork, chicken, vegetables and the best pina coladas ever.
An organic farm (horticultura) is part of the restaurant. Acres of fresh vegetables and herbs being grown just feet away from our tables. Getting produce from the state run producers is difficult and selection is poor. Having a farm attached to the restaurant is ideal. Talk about fresh…nothing is packaged. It’s all grown and picked just feet away. The crumbling mountains make an extremely mineral rich soil perfect for farming and tobacco.
The weirdly shaped mountains are explained to us. During the Triassic era this entire area was a huge limestone mass with underground rivers, caves, sinkholes. The water ate into the limestone over the eons until the whole massive system collapsed. All that is left now are the “mogotes” the big limestone supports that had once held up the roof of the cave system. This entire valley is the collapsed limestone roof of the cavern; this is called a karst valley. The location, weather patterns and mineral rich soil make this the best tobacco growing country in the world
Vinales Valley Tobacco Farms
Cuba is known for cigars and this valley is home to the best tobacco farms in the world. It accounts for 70% of Cuba’s tobacco. We visited a local tobacco farm where we got a glimpse of rural Cuban life. We are invited into Benito’s home, farm buildings. Chickens wander around and horses are tied up. Horses are not pets in Cuba; they pull carts full of people, full of supplies. Horse drawn carts are seen everywhere, more than automobiles. Oxen are used more that tractors on these small family farms.
The house is surrounded by the ubiquitous red soil. It is planting season (November) so the big red rectangular plowed areas just have little seedlings. Benito shows us the big thatched drying huts where leaves are hung to dry. The hut is empty now, except for leaves left to show visitors. Benito also explains how tobacco is grown and harvested. Subtle variations affect the quality of the tobacco. The top leaves (which receive more sun than the lower ones) are segregated during drying to be used differently.
Benito demonstrates cigar rolling. A mixture of leaves is used, chosen for aroma, strength and combustion. This bunch of leaves is then rolled diagonally in another type of leave as the wrapper. He has fast hands and rolls then clips the end and offers the fresh cigar to try.
This is such an idyllic setting we have to remember this is a communist country. The tobacco grown here belongs to the state. Benito says the state keeps 80% of the crop and gives him the remainder to sell on his own. He sells bundles of his home-rolled cigars to visitors and tourists.
Without a doubt though, the money he makes on his own sales contribute greatly to his family. Here, like everywhere else we traveled the people are very friendly and welcoming. I did not know what to expect since the government relationships have been rocky to say the least. The blockade as it’s called in Cuba (not embargo) has been rough on the people since it was imposed in 1960’s.