I'll never know the reason three stuffed teddy bears were suctioned cupped to the ceiling of our Korean-made bus, but mysteries like these were part of the fun of traveling on our own in Cuba for five days after our tour with Global Exchange ended.
We traveled three hours from Havana to the rural community of Vinales, a UNESCO site known for its national park, limestone cliffs and traditional farms harvesting tobacco and corn. Scenic hikes and cave explorations await, but the best reason to come to Vinales is to stay in a casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast.
Casas are inexpensive, usually $20-$25 a night, and privately-owned. Staying in one is a great way to meet and find out about the ives of ordinary Cubans, something that's difficult to do on a group tour. For families lucky or resourceful enough to create space in their home for guests, running a casa is a valuable source of hard-to-come-by hard currency (convertible pesos). In Vinales, nearly everyone has at least one room to rent in one of the many of the colorfully-painted bungalows around town.
I looked over reviews on Tripadvisor.com, then made an online booking at Casa Papo y Niulvys. They requested no deposit, only asked that I call the day before to reconfirm.
Papo met us at the bus stop on his bike, and we walked to the peach-colored house the couple built few years ago on what was a vegetable garden next door to his parents. What luck! Their house was one of the nicest in the neighborhood. Niulvys wasn't home, but her English-speaking sister-in-law came over to us. Cubans rarely move, since until recently, they could only trade, not buy or sell houses. So it's not unusual for families to stay close. Niulvys' parents live down the street.
Niulvys, 36, is a gracious and talkative hostess, and a great cook. She talks so much, in fact, that voice problems forced her to take some time off from her job teaching high school physics and electronics. She said she plans to go back, but running the casa is far more lucrative than her $20 per month government job, especially now that she has more time to cook dinners. Papo was laid off a while back from a government administrative job.
We paid $20 per night for the bright, spacious room below, with windows overlooking the garden, AC and a private bathroom. A breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, juice, coffee and cerial was an extra $4 each. Dinners (lobster one night, chicken the next) were another $8. Add a couple of Papo's pre-dinner Mojitos spiked with fresh mint from the garden, and we paid around $50 a night for the room, breakfast, drinks and dinner.
Niuvys uses her libreta or ration booklet to buy cheap sugar and a few other staples, but not much is available, or if it is, it's poor quality, like the coffee mixed with pea flour to make it stretch. For good coffee, pork, chicken, lobster and most everything else she serves her guests, she goes to farmers' markets or stores and pays in the hard currency- pesos convertibles - she earns from the tourists. Government taxes are high - $150 per month in low season and $200 in high season - whether or not guests occupy the room everyday, plus an extra 25-30 percent at the end of the year, depending on how many nights the room is actually rented. With the income they earn, the family is able to buy things they could never otherwise afford. They turned a closet into a computer room for their children Ale, 5, and Maria Karla, 11, and recently bought a second air conditioner for the house. Note the late model Peugeot in the driveway. It's fun seeing all the old American cars, but there are lots of newer, foreign cars on the road in Cuba. Many families own Peugeots and Soviet-made Ladas.
Niulvys gets the kids ready for school as her father-in-law kisses Maria Karla goodbye. Life in Vinales is very much a family affair, with brothers, sisters, parents and in-laws living close by.
We spent a day hiking in the valley with Sandy Morales, 27, one of Papo and Niulvy's neighbors.
Sandy speaks English and paints houses for the government, although his real love is painting scenes like the one above. It was his son's first birthday the day we went on the hike, so he was especially anxious to earn some money to buy rum for the party. We walked togheter in sweltering heat through farmers' fields on paths of red clay. Along the way, we met the tobacco farmer below who was selling cold beer and cool glasses of sugarcane juice laced with honey and rum.
He also grows coffee, but tobacco is his cash crop. He is required to sell 90 percent of what he grows to the government at a fixed price, then he's free to sell the other 10 percent on his own. Like most farmers, he holds back the best to sell himself- for hard currency, of course. He grows his special crop without chemicals, and hangs the tobacco leaves from the ceiling of his barn to dry. Then he hand-rolls cigars which he sells to tourists. Above, he crafts a cigar box out of palm fronds. I'm afraid we weren't very good customers. We don't smoke, and even if we did, U.S. customs law prohibits anyone from bringing back Cuban cigars, run or coffee.
More photos at http://www.cuba2011.puciello.com/
Next: Back to Havana, this time at a casa particular in Centro and a look at a side of Havana the tourist brochures don't you.