Pick up time at the Hotel Inglaterra is 7.30am, so breakfast is ‘not possible’ says Barbara. The coach goes around the hotels and picks up customers. As we get the suburbs there are grand villas where the wealthy moved out from the old city. Some are recently painted, others faded and flaking.
Even further out, there are more modern dwellings, flats and houses of the 20th C, their drab architecture suggests Soviet lack of imagination and a new coat of paint wouldn’t go a-miss. We head out West on the Russian-built motorway towards Vinales. Our guide reports that the motorway stops near Sancti Spiritus in the East exactly at the time that the USSR collapsed.
From Habana, we pass though the province of Artemisa which is supposed to be one of the main agricultural producers for the country. I’m somewhat surprised by the lack of agricultural activity, spotting some small-scale sugar cane fields, haphazard banana plantations and quite a few dairy cows. From the 60’s USSR was Cuba’s main trading partner and large quantities of sugar were required by the Russians.
After the collapse, is known as the ‘hard period’ when few would trade with Cuba. Canada came to mine the nickel and Spain to build resort hotels. There is a great shortage of housing – It used to be illegal to sell your house so they were kept and rented out. Now it is possible to sell though there is still a large rental sector. We pass the ubiquitous Royal Palm trees which have many uses – the fruit is fed to pigs. There is nothing of interest in Pinar del Rio the major town of the region.
Arriving in Vinales we can see first hand the rental market in action. Just about every house in the town has been brightly painted and advertises rooms for rent to tourists. Obviously the Air b&b industry has taken over and is an opportunity for families to make some decent money. Government jobs pay so poorly here that tourism seems the best hope to get ahead.
Our guide explains that the order in which we visit places depends on how many other buses are pulled up at the same place. I’m hoping for lunch sooner rather than later and regret not buying a banana from the street trader, when we stop at a Liquor factory.
This is an unashamed retail opportunity which you can expect on any bus excursion, anywhere in the world.Our guide whips out a pan full of fermenting berries from a vat for us to taste. Apparently this place is the founding site of a now-extensive business and we are offered samples of Dry and Sweet versions of the Liquor. It turns out to be brandy, perhaps not the perfect beverage on an empty stomach. We are crowded into the sales room of the factory where the brandy is sitting on shelves ready for purchase. The Sales woman also does a fairly heavy promotion of cigars which become cheaper, the more you buy. On the coach, I’m sitting next to Malcolm, a retiree from Worcester on holiday with his wife and 19 year-old son. He has a 40 year old son and grandchildren as well.
I comment that he had a bit of a rest between sons. He laughs. They have a property near Orlando in Florida where they come every year. The family apparently love all the Disney stuff, to which I offer no comment. He also loves Florida and I avoid enthusing by telling him it’s one of the places in the world in which I gets lost – it’s so flat – no mountains for directions. It turns out that we’ve been to many of the same places in the world.
He’s probably a conservative voter, but is unsure about Theresa May, except that she seems efficient. Having missed (on purpose) hearing her recent broadcasts, I can only say that as Home Secretary, she seemed rather dull. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ by contrast, ‘seems to want to take us back to the 40’s’ he tells me. I’m thinking that perhaps that might not be as bad as he imagines, but also that it’s impossible to turn the technological clock back.
Lunch is postponed because there is a gap at the caves we are to visit. The district is littered with rounded hummocks of eroded limestone covered in vegetation. They are similar to the ones in Hanlon Bay, Vietnam and in southern China.
The cave we enter is likewise full of strange shapes formed by stalactites. There is a river through the cave, but no glow worms as in New Zealand’s caves at Waitomo. We take a boat up river and return to another entrance.
There is an opportunity at the tobacco farm, a gap in the buses.
This is a shed in the middle of a field used to dry the tobacco leaves. Ninety percent of the crop is bought by the government leaving the rest for the farmer to do with as he will. This one does demonstrations of how to roll a cigar after which we are invited to try it out and possibly buy some, although the farmer is not able to have a brand name, but this means they will be cheaper.
Once the test cigar is lit, there is a noticeable evacuation of the area by the non smokers. Surprisingly quite a few of the young women are having a go.
At last it is lunch-time and it’s a sit-down en mass affair with crusty bread, a salad of red cabbage, rice and beans with some quite acceptable roast pork. There’s a young man with a London accent travelling alone, sitting at our table, next to the wife from Worcester. He thinks Jeremy Corbyn might win the election. The wife looks worried. He says he’s buying and selling property but this turns out to be not in London but Milton Keynes. We talk about the state of the pound and how expensive it makes travelling. The Worcester family think it will improve after the election (they’ll be able to afford Florida) but I think that it probably won’t and will get worse with Brexit. The young man nods in agreement – interesting to meet a young leftish-leaning capitalist. On my other side is a Frenchman from near Avingon. He is also travelling alone and we manage to make some conversation about the Palais de Pape and the famous bridge. Canadians are also on this tour – Cuba is a favourite destination. Perhaps this connection traces back to the nickel trade, or is it a psychological act of defiance against the US policy? Until last year US citizens were forbidden to travel here, so maybe the Canadians got one up on their neighbours.
Our lunch destination is sited under what is claimed to be the largest mural in the world. It depicts evolution and is possible the worst piece of art I’ve seen. Malcolm from Worcester agrees. I can only hope that vegetation will encroach and hide the work from the eyes of future generations.
Later after a two hour journey back I return to my sea-front bar on the Macón and try their menu. A dish of fish and shrimps sautéed in white wine is delicious.