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January 27, San Diego de los Baños — Viñales

On Wednesday, Jan 25, we said goodbye to Duñia and Raul and rode off to San Diego de los Baños. It was a fairly easy ride, mostly downhill to the Carretera Central, then about 30 kms west over easy terrain, and not much climbing to San Diego de los Baños, in the foothills of the mountains.

We had more-or-less intended to stay in another casa particular, but we gravitated naturally to the old hotel we had stayed a couple of times before, Hotel el Mirador, and it was as nice as ever.

We asked for, and got, the best room in the place, number 26, with windows on three sides, sun and air pouring in all the time. (It's the room at the very top, left.)

A group of cyclists arrived late in the afternoon, a tour organized by Cubanacan. The guests were Brits and two Canadians, and the guides nice guys. On Thursday morning, we, the guides, and only one guest left for Las Cuevas de los Portales, going through Parque la Guira. (Cuevas de los Portales is a natural stronghold where Che Guevara was stationed when he led Cuba's western army during the missile crisis and also, we think, in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion.) All the other guests opted for a bus, which took a smoother, easier route.

We'd done the ride through Parque la Guira before and written it up in our book, but some of the roads had deteriorated so much as to be almost unrecognizable, and we were trying to do it backwards. We might have gotten lost if we hadn't frequently run into the tour guides and guest on bikes and checked the route with them.

The road in Parque la Guira was absolutely brutal for us. Steeply uphill, with the surface so broken that we couldn't ride it. When we tried, Barbara fell and cut her hand. After that, it was walk, walk, push, push, on and off for several kilometers.

Once we were over the hump, around the turn for Cabañas de los Piños, it was easier, but not easy. We met with the cycling group again at Cueva de los Portales, Che's headquarters hidden deep in the mountains, now a national landmark.

Once over the hump in Parque la Guira, the cycling and views are fantastic.

The ride from Parque la Guira into Viñales was easier, but it was hot. We saw the group having a gigantic lunch at a home along the way, and they invited us to join them. However, we wanted to push on. We stopped for a dip at La Resbalosa (left), a swimming hole that our hosts in Viñales told us about years ago. The water was cool and delightful, but we were fairly hot by the time we climbed back to the bikes, loaded them, and got underway again.

Arriving in Viñales on Thursday afternoon was wonderful. Viñales is a valley noted for its mogotes, limestone upthrusts that give Viñales a magical beauty. See the large photo below.

Approaching Vinales

We found the home of Tony and Ara, Casa la Esquinita, right away. Ara was in Havana visiting a new grandchild, but Tony was home and warmly welcoming. Their rooms were occupied, no surprise, and Tony wanted to know why we hadn't phoned in advance so we could have stayed with them. Tony and Ara didn't have a phone when we were here last, about 11 years ago! Anyway, he introduced us to his son Papo, whose new house is right next door, but it was occupied also. So we are at Papo's mother-in-law's home, just a few doors down the street. We feel like part of an extended family — of great people.

Left: Casa Esquinita;   Center: Tony and Ara on right; Papo in background, Papo's wife Niulvys was not home;
Right: Tony's mother in law whose name we're embarrassed to forget, and sister in law Niurkis, our host

Yesterday, Friday, we rode in late morning toward La Caverna Grande de San Tomas but stopped at a sculptor's home, which was our intended destination. We knew only his first name, Noel. His place was fantastic! He has created a magical kingdom, with creatures appearing in driftwood, and in wooden sculptures of all sorts. There is a stone path leading to stone tables under arbors, with surprising figures all along the way. Noel's home, inside, was just as imaginative.

Eye-catching creature standing guard over Noel's home

More creatures outside Noel's home, in background; detail of one of the posts that holds up the verandah roof

Left: Creature   Center: Noel works with only a sharp chisel and plastic hammer   Right: woodland spirit beside stone bench

Back in Viñales, we bought bus tickets to Havana for Sunday afternoon, sat around in the park for awhile, and then went home, not quite missing a sudden rain shower.

After dinner, we went over to Tony and Ara's for mojitos. Ana is retired now, she was a teacher, and she was home from Havana. We had a conversation, as best we could, about things in Cuba now. From what we understood, one of Tony's biggest worries is unemployment, which may become even more acute with the ongoing layoff of many thousands of government workers. It's not clear how the "private sector," such as it is, will be able to absorb them.


January 28 - 29, Vinales

Today was our last full day in Viñales. We cycled in the morning to Puerto Esperanza. It's a beautiful ride. When we arrived late in the morning, there was perhaps a little more activity and a few more drunks along the waterfront than we'd have liked, but it wasn't bad at all. We read in the shade, and then went to Villa Dora for lunch.

On the Puerta Esperanza waterfront; Dora (standing) with Barbara and long-serving helpers

What fun it was to go there! Dora and her crew either remembered us, or pretended to. They certainly knew the book, because cyclists have been among their best customers. (Dora said that many tour guides, including cycling guides, take their guests to other places for lunch in Puerto Esperanza, places where the guests pay more for their meals and the guides get kickbacks.) Dora didn't want us to pay for lunch — good seafood, trimmings, a couple of beers, and mango juice — and we never got a bill. Finally she accepted something just for "los impuestos," the taxes that small businesses must pay.

On the outskirts of Viñales, Wally fell into conversation with another cyclist. Turned out he was from Maine, just outside Camden, and was a singer! He had sung in the Quasimodal Chorus with Gordon Bok, knew Ann Dodson and many of the Maine Folk Mafia! A surprising encounter!

On the morning of the 29th, we packed and said goodbye to Tony and Ara -- also Niurkis, Papo, anyone else we knew.

We decided to go to the bus stop fairly early, and it was nice that we did. A couple of cyclists who were using our book recognized Barbara, probably from our weird bikes and the Vermont flag, and they photographed us like celebrities. The couple were Rocky and Gail, and they will turn up later in this journal.


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