Pinar de Rio, Vinales, Salon Rojo
4. April (Wednesday): We leave our room early for we must be at the luxurious Hotel Nacional by 7:00.
Annewien has a headache so I organize a coffee which might help her from the bar. There are continually day-trips picking up passengers and leaving the hotel and we're continually wondering which one of them would be ours. None of them is and we are some of the last ones left in the lobby.
Eventually our bus does arrive and we hop on. It is a new luxury bus with the air conditioning turned to super-cold and a lady guide mumbling in a low voice and is therefore quite difficult to understand. Although the bus is almost full, we still have a couple of stops to pick up additional people. One of them is at 'Marina Hemmingway' which is a quite a luxurious yacht harbour unfitting for a country like Cuba. I wonder whom all those yachts belong to.
Unbundling a pile of Tobacco leaves
Sorting out Tobacco leaves
We set off on our journey proper and eventually reach the Town of Piñar del Rio. Here we are to visit a Cigar and a Rum Factory.
We are herded into the Cigar Factory "Fabrica de Tabacos Francisco Donalñen" like cattle. This is a new experience on our trip, we've been traveling on our own and this type of organized mass tourism is unsettling. We are moved through the cigar rolling room, where rows of mostly women workers are busy rolling the cigars. They are friendly and talkative, giving Annewien a sample special tobacco leaf used for the tip of the cigar. They also expect tips (mostly a dollar, but we don't comply).
There are other stations in the factory such as sorting the cigars by size and colour, labeling, quality control and boxing. A number of workers have a cigar in their mouths and some of them look quite interestingly weird. The tourists are flashing their cameras for all they are worth and after about 15-20 minutes it's all over.
We may of course visit the cigar shop to purchase a few goods and then we continue on to a 'Case del Ron' which is within walking distance of the Cigar Factory. Here each of us gets a plastic cup into which a small sip of rum is poured. After testing, we may then buy some rum in the shop. We continue on to a 'Rum Factory Casa Garay' which is rather small and looks like a bit of a showcase than a real factory. There is a large fermenting tank and some other paraphernalia to be seen. Our guide is explaining but she's not very interesting to listen to so we explore the place on our own.
That's all we are shown of Piñar del Rio.
We're carted off back to our bus and we continue on to Viñales. Viñales is not a town but an area rich in tobacco and sugarcane cultivation. We don't get to be shown much of that but the focus is on visiting a large mural on a rock face, a cave with a boat ride, and lunch. Before that we stop at a lookout which offers a beautiful view of the Viñales landscape from a higher vantage-point. It is a beautiful sight, the earth is strikingly reddish-yellow, the vegetation green and seeing it from above is something special. There are enough souvenir stands and hawkers here catering to the package tourists who come here by the busload.
We continue with the bus to the giant murals which had been painted by one Cuban artist on a cliff. They are striking by virtue of their size but don't appeal too much to me. We may walk around a bit here and drink something and then we're off to our next destination, the 'Indian caves'.
Entrance to them is by steps in a hillside. At the base of them a young Cuban couple dressed in fierce-looking 'Indian' battle clothes pose for tourist pictures.
The cave itself is nothing spectacular. We queue for a boat ride within the caves. Today the boats are motorized, originally they were rowed by human power, which must have had much more charm. We tour the caves by boat and then exit the caves and stop at a restaurant in a large thatched hut. We take seats there and are served a package-tourist lunch. The usual Cuban combo is playing Cha-Cha's, Rumbas and Son.
After lunch we return to Havana by bus, it is a long drive and I'm sleepy. Since we were the last to be picked up in Havana, we are the first to be dropped off, what luck!
We decide to go for a night of Salsa at Salon Rojo, which is the nightclub of the large 'Capri Hotel'. Entrance is steep at 15$ apiece, but comparing to the famous 'Tropicana' show, it's cheap. You have to show a copy of your passport to enter.
We get a good table from where we can see the stage and order some drinks. The show is varied, with a salsa band playing more or less famous songs and live singing and dancing. Overall, the show is good, if spotty. After the concert the audience storms the stage for dancing, I guess they have already had so much alcohol to be ready to do anything. There are a number of tourists here seeming to be Italians. We try some dancing on stage but it's too crowded, and off-stage we're in the way of the personnel clearing the stage of instruments, so we give up. Unfortunately we realize that drinks are included in the entrance fee just before we leave.
It's time to go back to our Casa Particular, and again, we can walk back.
5. April (Thursday): Havana, Playa Santa Maria
We decide to spend a day at the beach today, we decide on Playa Santa Maria since Guanabo didn't really seem that spectacular the last time. Santa Maria is quite near to Guanabo.
After checking our e-mails at the Capitolio, we take a taxi, for 15$.
Seeing the sea is great. There are some unoccupied sunshades at the beach but are only available if you eat or drink something at the corresponding beach restaurant or pay a "fee". There is neither shade, nor beach-umbrellas nor beach chairs to be had.
After some discussion whether our bags would be safe unattended by the beach we just place them next to the water and splash into the sea. It's quite nice with good waves. After awhile we retire to the back of the beach to find shade underneath some palm trees.
There are quite a few people on the beach, mostly Cubans. A local Combo plays music and some of the Cuban women are dancing. They sure can move their bodies! We have some drinks, sleep and then take a taxi back.
Tonight is our last night in Cuba.