Today was a full day!
Our first stop today was the Vinales National Park. The topography was pretty awesome, mountain formations that erupted out of nowhere.
We hiked through tobacco fields, learned about tobacco farming, plants and harvesting. We learned that tobacco farmers turn over 90% of their crops to the government for the creation of branded cigars, but can age, ferment, flavor and sell the remaining 10%. After having bought 3 Cohibas for $45 in Havana, I bought 12 cigars from the farmer that are better for $30.
We had lunch at el Palenque de los Cimarrones, which was entirely touristy and unremarkable. In fact, we were stuck in a bus traffic jam getting out of the parking lot.
We stopped next in the town of Vinales. Our tour guide gave us the assignment of going into a casa particular (think AirBnB) and talk with the owner and go into a local store and price in the local currency. Cuba has 2 currencies, the CUC which foreigners use and the local peso. Well, that was the plan. The CUC is now a hard currency that is pegged to the dollar and is used by Cubans for anything more than the basics. It’s complicated, I’ll maybe do a blog entry solely on currency and inequality issues.
Ellen was a little reluctant to enter a casa particular, but I thought it might be fun to use the little bit of Spanish we’ve learned from taking a class. We picked one at random and walked in. We spoke with the owner, who was very nice. Her room was already rented for the day, but we learned its price of 25 CUC per night and that she really likes her telenovellas. She asked where we were from and told us she has had US guests from New York, DC, Miami, and Texas.
We went into a grocery store that sold things priced both by CUC and pesos and got a sense of what locals pay.
I had wondered how the casa particulars market themselves. And we found out when a bus from Havana pulled up. The owners were right there to meet the bus, delivering impassioned pleas to bewildered travelers. I liked the one-to-one sales efforts!
For dinner, the tour group was going out to a paladar, but we decided to go on our own. Walking past the hotel, one of our fellow group members, Hillary from Austin, ran after us to scout where we were going for a smaller group that was looking to break away. We had researched in Moon and had a couple places in mind. They were on our street, but we had some difficulty finding them, as the street numbers went down and then back up again. A local took on the task of “helping” us find the paladar. The one we were looking for was closed, but we found one further down the street. We were gone so long that the others had gone to the group dinner, so it was just the 3 of us. I didn’t have small Cuban bills, so I tipped him $3 for his “help.” After sitting down to dine, the local came back in to “check” on us. He told the restaurant we were his friends. He left, but came back again maybe 5 minutes later, again looking for his friends. At this point, we think the restaurant owner came to check that we didn’t know him and escorted him away. Our waiter told us he was loco.
The menu had appetizers for 1 CUC each and main courses for 4.50. We had 3 appetizers, 3 main courses, 3 drinks and it cost us 26.40 CUC with tip. We had a great conversation during dinner and felt we had our most authentic Cuban meal of the trip.
We found out that the tour group had dinner at the paladar right next to ours. Except they had been there 1 ½ hours and didn’t have their dinner yet. We win! We walked back to the hotel with Hillary, had a drink and then went to bed. Still before the group got back to the hotel.