An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

Viñales is part of any Cuban tourist itinerary, recommended as a place to enjoy nature, cigars and rural culture and recover from noisy, chaotic Havana. Approximately a three hour drive from the Cuban capital, the straight roads along the “tobacco route” turn into twisty roads through dark forest which suddenly open up into a breathtaking valley. This UNESCO park is known for its limestone karsts or “mogotes” jutting up over the large fields, dotted with palm trees, lush vegetation and tobacco plantations.

The natural pool in Vinales.

The natural pool in Vinales.

The town is no stranger to tourists, with a couple main streets filled with restaurants and almost every house containing a sign that it’s a government-endorsed casa particulares where you can rent a room.

Just An Innocent Walk Through the Valley

My casa was on the edge of the valley, and while my hosts offered to connect me for a guide for a walk or a horseback ride, I looked forward to exploring the area on my own. So I set out the next morning, with a giant bottle of water, following my host’s directions, “the path is behind the tree. Just go straight then when you can’t anymore, turn right!”. I found the path and the valley, walked by patches of trees vibrating from pruning by machete, walked across a sketchy “bridge” of haphazardly placed planks and suddenly, the foliage opened up to the valley. Vast fields, oxen hooked up to wooden ploughs waiting to start their workday and explosions of purple wildflowers caused my jaw to drop and I couldn’t help whispering “wow” to myself. I walked until I could no longer go straight, turned right and jogged past a sweet smelling bush that buzzed with bees. I found a wider dirt road that was flanked with tall bushes on each side so it wasn’t very scenic. Well, until a cowboy trotted by, in a small herd of five horses. “Quires un cabalagata? Hay una piscina natural” (Want a horseback ride? There’s a natural pool), he asked as I tried to avoid the miniature stampede. “No tengo mi ropa de nadar y estoy caminando,” (I don’t have my swimming clothes and I’m walking) I responded, thinking about how warm it suddenly felt, my cheeks flushing.

A horse train

A horse train

I continued to march down the large dirt road, even though I couldn’t see anything over the tall shrubs. After about ten minutes, I admitted defeat and retreated to try the other path at the intersection, just to run into my cowboy friend again. “Change your mind?” he asked from under his cowboy hat, and I stubbornly said “I’m walking”. So I walked past the horses, tied to trees waiting for tourists, past the office and suddenly I was in the street of the town, lined with casas on each side. I sighed, because I was supposedly to be visiting the valley but it seemed my navigational skills failed me and I didn’t even have a map. So I slunk back where my cowboy friend was now sitting on the steps of the office. “Regresé. Una hora.” (I returned. One hour) I told him, and I told myself that a short ride would get me to oriented so I could continue to explore on my own, and there no other reason I gave into the guy that mysteriously made my heart beat faster.
I hopped on “Cuba Libre” and we headed off. He was pretty quiet, punctuating the comfortable silence with occasional names of crops in his limited English. When he tried to take me to the coffee planation tourist stop, I declined, anticipating the awkward part where they’d want me to buy something. I started sharing random travel stories in broken Spanish, about drinking “cat-poo-chino” in Bali, with little indication if I was making sense from my silent tour guide.
When we returned to the starting point and I tried to pay him but he refused and asked what I was doing later and offered “sunset, rum and galloping” as an option. “Soy libre. A que hora?” (I am free. At what time?), even though I knew it sounded like trouble.

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

Fireflies & The Milky Way

At 5, I returned to the office where I didn’t see Yasmani, so I found a dog to pet until I got covered in a dust cloud generated by a horse that halted in front of me. He hopped off to help me up, then climbed on behind me, kicked the horse into a trot and we headed further up the path to get a second horse. He pulled a plastic bottle of rum out of his gumboot, “Havana Club Especial” he explained with a wink as he offered me a sip. We headed into the valley as most tourists streamed out, stopping every few meters to offer rum to his coworkers as they passed. We left the main route and settled into a nice lookout to watch the sunset, and as we waited, he offered me a flower in exchange for a kiss. After watching the mogotes light up as the sun dropped, I told him I had to go back to my casa for dinner. He asked what I was doing after dinner, I shrugged, and he told me to meet him at 8 PM at the office.
A few hours later, my Romeo was waiting at the office with his horse and reggaeton playing softly from the cell phone in his pocket. “But it’s dark?” I asked. And he looked at me like, “duh” as he lifted me into the saddle and swung himself behind. We took the same path into the forest but it was infinitely more terrifying in the dark, with only the light of fireflies and the Milky Way to illuminate our way. “Can horses see in the dark? Do you want me to turn on my flashlight?’, I sputtered nervously. He quilted me, “el caballo sabe” (the horse knows) and kicked him into a trot, and then a canter. Suddenly, I was blindly racing through the forest with a Cuban cowboy behind me, feeling simultaneously terrified and exhilarated. Eventually, we reached a clearing, where we dismounted to enjoy the stars, jilted conversation and an occasional squeal when I spotted a falling star.
“Tengo un autobus a las seis, manana”, I interjected hesitatingly, not wanting to end the magical moment but with the realization I hadn’t packed He helped me up and kicked the horse into a gallop (oh dear), yelling “yeehaw” into the abyss, which I echoed in a yelp, suddenly emboldened by exhilaration. When we got back to the office, I tried to jump to safe, familiar ground. He grabbed me around the waist and directed the horse through the town streets so he could drop me directly at the doorstep of my casa. I gave him a huge hug and thanked him for the magical, terrifying, amazing evening and tried to say goodbye in awkward Spanish. He silenced me, and said “Cienfuegos. Trinidad. Viñales.” in an attempt to encourage me to return after I visited the next couple cities in my itinerary. He turned and trotted off, and I was surprised to feel my eyes tear up, perhaps relieved about arriving safely and that the enormous trust I placed in him hadn’t been misdirected.

One of the tobacco plantation owners

One of the tobacco plantation owners

When I left Viñales, I didn’t expect to return but I got to Cienfuegos and was instantly overwhelmed by the city traffic, noise and general business. While Trinidad tends to be everyone’s favorite city in Cuba, I was still a bit too overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan craziness to enjoy it. The next day was Thanksgiving, so I thought, “Why not? In Viñales, I won’t spend Thanksgiving alone”.
So I shortened my stay at my casa, arranged for a shared cab ride to make the long 8 hour journey and when I showed up in Viñales, I headed straight for the street near the horses to find a casa to stay. I chose a lime green one, owned by Maria Elena who was infinitely amused that I chose to come to Viñales twice in my two week trip to Cuba. Her husband interrogated me knowingly, “Is it for the mountains or a man?”. I blushed and responded evasively, “for the horses!”. Then ran a brush through my hair and headed down to the horse office. A woman told me to return in a couple hours, so we were chatting in rocking chairs when Yasmani pulls up on a horse cart with his best friend. When he saw me, I said shyly, “Regresé” (I returned) reminiscient of our first meeting.  His face stretched in a smile and the squished eight-hour car ride was suddenly worth it. He motioned for me to join him on the cart, and he put his arm around me to keep me from sliding off as the cart navigated some massive potholes that threatened to flip the vehicle. All of a sudden, I was being introduced to his family with a shot glass of rum in one hand and a sweet shot of espresso in the other. I spent Thanksgiving surrounded by laughter, dogs, goats, pigs and of course, rum, dishing out a molasses and grain mixture to hungry horses. He wanted to take me out for mojitos after he showered. I returned to my casa and awaited his arrival. When he turned up, four generations piled out of the casa to see which Cuban boy was responsible for my return. Vinales is a small town, so they knew Yasmani already, but everyone from the grandkids to the grandma took a moment to wag their fingers at him and instruct him to “cuidale!” (take care of her). They lined up and waved as they watched us head off to enjoy the evening.

Racing cowboys in carts on the way back from the watering hole

Racing cowboys in carts on the way back from the watering hole

One of the Cowboys

Although I told Maria Elena, I’d only be staying a couple nights, that quickly stretched into the rest of my trip. I spent my days with him and the other cowboys, hanging out and drinking of rum in the evenings and riding during the day. Our encounters were extensive, but spontaneous and absent of cell phone communication so I felt like I was being “called on” like a Victorian maiden. Sometimes, I’d get back from the town center and one of the kids would run toward me, riding an imaginary horse and yelling, “Your love was looking for you! Get dressed and head down to the office” then he’d be waiting by the office so we’d ride to the lake. Or he’d send a friend to pick me up, have a horse waiting and send me off cantering so I could go on one of his tours. Or we’d head to the Saturday cowboy watering hole with his best friend, which was maybe a thirty minute ride out of town but it took twice as long because we’d stop at every farmhouse to share the rum stowed in his gumboots.  Or he’d decide the perfect time for horse races was about 9 PM so I didn’t leave Cuba before experiencing flat out galloping in the dark.

Dancers at the cave party

Dancers at the cave party

And then the police…

On my last weekend in Viñales, the boys wanted to take me to Palenque, a discotheque in a cave for a bizarre but infinitely entertaining evening. After an hour of dance music, suddenly there was karaoke contests and live music and dance performances. After a slight interruption for thirty minutes <!!!!> of Fidel propaganda, the pop music started and the club really started rocking with all sorts of sensual dancing. Not dancing in Cuba is not an option, and they don’t leave space for baby Jesus (if you know what I mean) so I was rocking out with the girls and dancing with Yasmani. After a couple hours, police officers came up to him and brought him to the parking lot for questioning. I was nervous, but the girls kept me dancing even though my eyes kept darting to the parking lot. But he came back, “toda bien” (all good) he replied to my stream of concerned questions, we danced to a couple more songs then headed back to town.
When walking me back to my casa, his friend led us down an alternate route that avoided the main road, which I thought was strange. His friend explained, “when the police see a Cuban man with a tourist, they think there’s force involved. They worry about the tourist getting raped and the locals get in trouble. They care more about tourists than the Cubans”. As someone who had been harassed in other countries, I appreciated the sentiment but it sounded like the police’s concerns were often misdirected in Cuba.
Nothing more came of the police interaction until Monday morning when I was scheduled to leave Vinales on a 1 PM bus to catch my flight the next day. Yasmani’s best friend was knocking on my door, sputtering about a “multa”. Apparently, that morning, Yasmani received a $80 fine from the police for dancing with me. While $80 may not seem like a lot to Americans, I was absolutely aware that was an impossible price for a Cuban. The cowboys charge $5 an hour for a horseback ride, but I’m sure the guides have to give most of that to the company and government. Average salaries in Cuba are around $20 a month so it wasn’t an insignificant price. The friend wanted me to join Yasmani at the police station to tell them that there was no force and he was my boyfriend, in hopes the fine would be reduced or eliminated. “Por supesto,” (of course) I replied, shoving things into my backpack and following him out the door.
Even though the police station was empty, of course we had to spend 30 minutes waiting for the police chief, who had absolutely no desire to talk to me. I made myself heard anyway and made the secretary write down my information. They told Yasmani to show up to court on Thursday (which was of course after I left the country) to protest his fine, and refused to do anything at the Station.

Yasmani and I after the police debocle, right before I was going to leave on the bus

Yasmani and I after the police debocle, right before I was going to leave on the bus

Oh Cuba!

I’ve seen hundreds of cities around the world, and I like some more than others, but Viñales was one of those rare places that instantly felt like home.  Of course, as an American, it’s a place I don’t even know if I’ll be able to freely return to and this ordeal reminded me what a confusing, frustrating place Cuba is. The police do not want locals associating with tourists, and come up with impossible fines to maintain that separation. I emailed Yasmani to see how court went and he didn’t say much more than he took care of it. Despite the Cuban “cheers” of “Health, love, money… and a passport”, Yasmani never talked about leaving the country and never complained about the ticket, so it’s hard to know how much it bothered him, but it’s probably not the first or last time something like this happened.
Viñales is the only town I’ve switched my travel plans to return to, and it absolutely stole my heart. Sure, Yasmani was part of the reason I returned but I loved the red, rust covered mud that got on everything and the friendly people who would let me hitch a ride on the horse train back to town when I was walking around the valley in my flip flops and a short dress. I loved being surrounded by the sounds of horses, chickens and dogs. I found the valley to be one of the most breathtaking places I’d ever been, and even though I rode the same trails a dozen times, but depending on the weather, it felt like a different experience each time.
The lifestyle in Viñales was also incredibly refreshing. Unlike “kids today” who grow up with television screens and virtual friendships, Yasmani grew up playing outside, as a communal kid of the valley, so everyone we met was a “brother”, “father” or “mother”, even if they weren’t related by blood. As a friend of Yasmani, I was instantly welcomed as part of the family. Despite the small salaries, there was no such thing as private property and people constantly shared rum, coffee, food, snacks and their time. This place felt like an idyllic paradise because of its beauty, the strong bond between people and the slow paced, small town feel, removed from city stresses. With Cuba, there’s always a flipside and this incident with the police was a clear reminder of injustice and a nation that values tourists more than its own people. It’s one of those places that pulls at your heartstrings, in all of the best and the worst ways.

Songs of the Moment: We Found Love – Rihanna & Good Nights by Whethan-Mascolo

If YOU go to Viñales: The Viatur bus goes there from Havana but takes 4 hours and makes a million stops.  Collective taxis are about the same price and they’ll pick you up in your casa in Havana and drop you off where you belong in Viñales in less than three hours so it’s a much better option.  Because of the rural location, you won’t run out of food because there’s so many tourist restaurants but the market did run out of water while I was there (which I read happens often) so come with supplies!  Maybe stay away from Cuban cowboys if you don’t want to end up in the police station! 😉

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