A journey to Cuba's
by Walter Lippmann, May 16, 2003

Yesterday I took a journey out with some Cuban friends to the Viņales National Park in Pinar del Rio province, a normally two-hour drive east of the island's capital city.

We went in the 1972 Volkswagen beetle owned by my friend and neighbor Jose Charon. (Everyone refers to  him simply as "Charon", a 60 year-old retired Cuban accountant and former foreign services officer who's my neighbor two doors down the street. This vehicle, a venerable friend, has taken me and others all over the city of Havana, and a couple of times on longer journeys outside of the city, as far as Cienfuegos, near the island's center.


Our trip was extended on each end due to problems which may be all-too-typical in a country where public transportation is often problematic and individuals learn to maintain these ancient vehicles personally.

On our way out a problem which developed in the carburetor, which got clogged up with some kind of dirt. Charon managed, with a simple screwdriver and his considerable skills, to get it going after an hour's fiddling.

One thing which came vividly to life for me with the site of so many tall, slender palm trees jutting out into the sky, and, later on in the Viņales valley the steeply-inclined mountains adjacent to valleys of extraordinary expanse and color was that so many of these images are, and always have been, very vividly reflected in the island's visual arts. Not the images I've seen in so many photographs, and in so many paintings have a greater emotional and visual resonance for me. In some places it seemed I could literally "see" many of the landscape which appear in Cuban art so pervasively.

We enjoyed the view of the countryside and saw  men standing out on the highway selling such food items as onions, long strands of garlic, white cheese and guava paste, these later being simple home- made products. The white cheese (queso blanco) is home-made and delicious. In the city people often bring it around in large bags by hand, selling it in  the island's active informal economy. (That's the pseudonym people use to refer to Cuba's black market). We only occasionally see police officers out and it's obviously not something the authorities are overly vexed about.

Viņales is a national park but one in which people reside normally. There are tobacco plantations and drying and processing facilities, though we didn't take the time to visit these.

The city of Viņales itself (really not much more than a village) is small and nicely maintained. Most homes are nicely painted outside. I've never seen so many licensed "casas particulares" in one city than we saw in Viņales. It seemed almost as if every or perhaps every other home was licensed to rent rooms. Since these private homes, which provide an even more economical alternative to the large hotels in the area) are required to pay for their license with a significant monthly fee (typically $100. US dollars) per month, whether they are occupied or not, it's obvious these homes must be doing a pretty good, and pretty regular business, to maintain their licenses. The city was otherwise clean and quiet, a typical smaller Cuban town except for all these places being commercially rented out.

We ate lunch at a place called El Palenque in the center of the mountainous rural area of the park. The name Palenque resonates with Cuban history as these are places where runaway slaves usually hid to get away from their masters prior to the abolition of the Cuban form of what the historian Kenneth Stampp called the "peculiar institution."

There's a tiny road sign in front of El Palenque. When you look at it, it appears like the open jaws of a massive shark's mouth opening up. The picture below, showing Charon getting out of his car, gives you a sense of the scale of the place. Drive up and you see a bar inside with tables, chairs, a loudspeaker system and a stage, carved out of stone, on which people dance or performers can sing or play music. A sign at the bar noted the upcoming appearance of Los Zafiros this coming Saturday night, a very famous acapella pop singing group whose historical roots go back to the nineteen fifties. (Think "doo-wop" in Spanish and you'll get the idea, even though "doo-wop" isn't a term which was actually used during that time.)


We stopped for a drink and a chat, but then proceeded through a 150 meter subterranean passageway out to the other wide where we found a large covered outdoor restaurant at which we had lunch. Remember this was early afternoon on a Thursday. At first there were but a few others present, but not long afterwards a pair of large modern tour busses drove up and the place was soon nearly three-quarters full of visiting tourists. They didn't seem to be from an English-speaking country, but somewhere in Europe.

Service in El Palenque was definitely on the excellent side, which is not invariably the case in such state-owned locations. The waiters and other staff came quickly, were friendly and very helpful. The menu was simple, carved on a small wooden sheet, Spanish on one side, English on the other. The food was simple, traditional Cuban food: roast pork, roast chicken, beer, vegetables, fruit salad and so forth. The food came quickly and was very tasty overall. If I were to out of my way to complain I might way that the tomatoes in the salad should have been red rather than green, and the pork and chicken, obviously prepared in advance to serve many dozens at a time was just a touch too dry, but everything was delicious and it was one of the best meals I've had in ages.

And, such a bargain: meals (ample portions!) including drinks and desserts for three people: $29.00 US dollars.

A six-piece Cuban band, primarily black singers and musicians, performed traditional Afro-Cuban music, in familiar costumes. Later the switched out of that garb and into normal street clothing and performed more familiar Cuban son music.

As one who often finds music, whether live or recorded far too loud to permit conversation in many places, here everything was perfect and visitors and performers both seemed to have a good time. Indeed, many of the tourists were occupied with taking snapshots and some of them got up to dance with one another, too.

At the far end of the tunnel to the restaurant a replica of the palenque, the secret camps where runaway slaves lived in the woods, there for the visitor to examine. Talk about a Spartan life...

(To learn about the lives of the runaway slaves, read Miguel Barnet's BIOGRAPHY OF A RUNAWAY SLAVE (Biografia de un Cimarron) first published in the 1960s. Barnet, one of the island's best-known writers and poets, continues to live in Cuba and to strongly support the Cuban Revolution. For example, he was a speaker here at the May Day rally at the Plaza of the Revolution. He's also one of the initiators of the "Letter to Friends Who Are Far Away" in which leading Cuban writers and artists respond to criticisms of the island's policies from left intellectuals abroad.)

Though Cuba is in many ways quite a modern country, with a TV set and computer in every school room, it's also a blockaded country which works hard to conserve resources for survival.

On the way out of El Palenque we saw one of the rare but unforgettable sights here: a  refrigerator being taken in for service to a repair station, but being hauled on a cart powered by a pair of oxen. I managed to get a photograph of this, along  with a few other images from the journey.


We then drove again through the city of Viņales and dropped in to look at two commercial hotels, part of the Horizontes chain, which were located in this valley. The signs outside described these places as "three star" hotels but they looked just great to me. I didn't go into any of the rooms but they were clean, new and modern places less than ten years old from what I could see. Each had moderns swimming pools, restaurants and outdoor bars near the pool. Each had shops for souvenirs and basics like detergent, Cuban coffee, cosmetics and so on.

Each of these hotels, Los Jazmines and La Ermita, were located high up on the mountains and overlooking broad expanses of valleys with vast expanses of both mountain heights and deep valleys below. The rates were given as about $60 US dollars per month, double occupancy. Unlike hotels in the center of the city, we were told Cubans could and did stay in them, though we didn't see any Cuban guests during our short stops in each one. If you had to choose, I would say Los Jazmines had the more spectacular view.


It wasn't possible to tell how full the hotels were, but there were new (evidently rented) cars on the lots of both, and people basking in the sun by the pools. It's evident that these hotels reflect an infrastructure prepared to accept a good deal of tourism. Along with the "casas particulares" we see a functional set of institutions now which are also ready to accept a good deal more as tourism expands. Cuba's tourism authorities report now that tourism is continuing to expand as the post-9-11 declines, which affected tourism everywhere, has begun to recede, at least here in Cuba.

Immediately adjacent to Las Jazmines is a small covered outdoor area where souvenirs are sold like guayabera shirts at $11.00 (polyester fabric), T- shirts, bags of Cuban coffee and so on. Also there was a small stand, not much bigger than a desk at which a man sat quietly preparing, shaping and assembling cigars by hand, which you could then purchase for what seemed very inexpensive rates.


Since I gave up smoking long ago, I admit I don't pay close attention to these things, but it is quite the beautiful process to observe when performed by an experienced practitioner of this old tradition.

On the way back into town we found that our gas tank had sprung a leak. This we discovered by running out of gas on the highway. We managed to get going again when Charon, highly skilled at these things, managed to put just a touch more gasoline into the carburator using a torn up beer can to get the last half-cup out with a short length of rubber hose he keeps for such occasions.

It's a good thing we found we were but a single kilometer away from a gasoline station where we were able to tank up and get going for Havana.