Our driver and guide weren't just on time, they even arrived a few minutes early. We got into an 80s looking Peugot and took off for Pinar del Rio. The weather was great for a drive through the countryside. With the windows a bit open, we were very comfortable. Once we exited the city, the view turned to farming areas with the occasional mountains off in the distance. Cattle and horses roamed. We passed fields with nice crop rows as well as areas that appeared to be jungle brush. It was all a bit more brown and yellow than I expected, but occasionally we passed an especially verdant patch. We also periodically passed hitchhikers or folks waiting for the bus on the side of the highway. Other people used machetes to cut the grass on the side of the road. We also saw several people driving horse-drawn carts. As we traveled, our guide, JuanCarlos, told us all about life in Cuba. He helped us understand what the government does and doesn't provide for all citizens. Apparently, housing is passed from generation to generation, with new families typically having to decide which set of parents to live with until a grandparent leaves an inheritance. The exception is university students. If you attend university away from home, room and board are included. But most majors are available at your local university, the food provided needs to be supplemented by your family, and transport can be expensive, so many people don't go away to university. The other problem is that a profession (teacher, doctor, engineering) doesn't pay as well as tourism. Government salaries can be 20 CUC per month, maybe 60 for a doctor. Tips from tourists can quickly top that. Tourism is actually encouraging a lot of people out of careers necessary for the country.The USA loosening the tourism restrictions does actually seem to be undermining the government in a way, although it may be hurting the people as well in the process. It will be interesting to see how this saga plays out. Eventually, the fields turned into mountains covered in scrubby plants and the wide highway turned into country roads. The car in front of us got pulled over by the police for a random check. Apparently, they set up checkpoints to pull over whoever they feel like whenever they want. These aren't at a border, they're just wherever. They do a "paperwork and taxes" check. Does the driver have the right licenses to drive, to drive a taxi, for car registration, for permission to use intercity roads, and are all the fees for these paid and up to date? If so, good. If not, the driver encounters problems. We stopped at a hotel that has a great view of the valley, but just for the viewpoint. The guide showed us the mogotes, or karst. The area was limestone created by sea life. But, much has been eroded away, and so these beautiful mountainous formations are left. We continued on our way and passed through a few villages, one of which had beautiful tiled houses. They were built after the revolution. We arrived at San Tomas Cave. The cave is the largest in the area, but the tour only covers a fraction. As we waited, JuanCarlos pointed out the various birds and birdsongs that surrounded us. Birding seems to be one of his passions. I don't know much about birds, but if you are a birder, I think you'd be in great hands with JuanCarlos. He also knew a lot about the flora. He pointed out a tree to us that is called the "Tourist Tree." It's called that because it's red and peels, like tourists with sunburn.
The visitors center handed out helmets and dollar store handheld flashlights to the group. We waited for everybody to be outfitted, and then our park guide unceremoniously took off-no intro or anything. We climbed a huge steep hill just to get to the mouth of the cave. There were a few loose handrails, but mostly it was just climbing up rocks. By the time we got to the cave entrance, I was sweaty and disgusting. The guide allowed us a break and explained that the cave has 7 levels, but we will only see the 6th and 7th. The others are wet or inaccessible due to cave-ins. We walked through the caves slowly. We never had to crawl, but there were plenty of places that required turning sideways or ducking low in order to pass. Some areas required climbing a ladder or using a rope as a handhold for a steep section. The floor was never really flat. Because there were kids and some elderly in our group, the pace was slow. But, everybody made it to the end. Some areas of the cave were very dark, and the handheld flashlights didn't help much. Others were well-lit by the natural light. It was actually pretty different to be in the lit areas, looking up at the vegetation from "underground." The other uniue feature was that this cave not only had stalagmites and stalactites, but some sort of rock feature that grows sideways. It required a lot of effort and caused me to be stinky the rest of the day, but it was worth it. We hopped back into the car for a quick stop at a huge mural. The mural was planned by Diego Rivera and Leovigildo Gonzales, then painted for 5 years by locals. For perspective this mural is a painting the way Mt. Rushmore is a statue. The climb to/through the cave had exhausted us and we had worked up a huge appetite, so we delighted in hearing that lunch was the next stop. They took us to this organic farm run by the locals. The food that we ate was all grown on the farm. The servers brought it out family style, and we got to try lots of vegetable dishes, as well as some meat and rice dishes. The best part though, was the view. The restaurant is at the top of a mountain overlooking the whole valley, and the view is stunning. Next up, we visited a tobacco farm. I was excited to see the cigar process, but I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. The tobacco guide made a lot of sex jokes, but didn't explain a lot other than the different leaves receive different amounts of light, which changes the cigar. He pulled out some dried leaves, stripped the middle vein, and rolled a cigar. There wasn't a lot to it. Everybody else smoked one, but I wasn't interested in dying of a self-imposed asthma attack. They briefly showed us a plant and a drying house, but didn't go into a lot of technical detail, other than how long the process takes. It felt more like a sales pitch (this is why our cigars are the best and why you should buy here) than an informational tour. Unless you're a hardcore cigar enthusiast, it's probably worth skipping. Our last stop for the day had about an hour line, but that was not worth skipping. It reminded me a bit of a Disney ride- the wait is longer than the ride, but it's still magical. The pathway through the caves to the start of the ride was paved and flat, with generally enough room vertically to stand and horizontally even for a wheelchair. They were much more developed than the last caves. As we waited, we had an in-depth conversation with JuanCarlos about how relationships in Cuba function. He was pretty amazed that my boyfriend "let" me travel abroad without him. He admitted that Cubans can be very sexist, but then seemed to wish the women behaved as if they weren't in a sexist society. His opinions were quite interesting, and definitely gave me some perspective about life in Cuba. The boat ride through Indio Caves was fun, again like a Disney ride. The guide drove us around, using a laser to point out various formations. (That one looks like an elephant. That is the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. There's one that looks like a skull.) The caves were beautiful though, and there are reasons the tourists all come to ride the river through the cave. Based on today, I highly recommend TaxiVinales as a tour company, JuanCarlos as a guide, and this specific tour (Vinales Day Trip). We had a great time. Our tour ended just as rain was beginning to fall. We waited out a pretty loud thunderstorm at our Casa in Vinales- Candita y Jose. Fortunately, it was over pretty quickly. The casa is simple, but clean and fresh. As much as Havana could use some paint, Vinales is covered in it. Walking down the main street in Vinales is definitely not authentic Cuba. It's like Aguas Calientes in Peru- there's only one main street and everything of it is for tourists. Every building on the middle part of main street is a restaurant or souvenir store, with exception of the money changer and the 2 banks with ATMs. I hadn't seen 2 ATMs in all of Havana, and Vinales is sooo much smaller. At the edges of main street and on all of the side streets, the rest of the buildings are casas particulares. They all have signs declaring their amenities via symbols- 24 hr hot and cold water, AC, food, etc. If you are backpacking and end up in Vinales, don't worry, there is no lack of lodging options. When the rain let up, we headed out to check out the food choices. Many restaurants were advertised as "Italian," meaning pizza and spaghetti. Cuban was also a choice. Many had 3.50 deals, but some were rather pricey. We randomly settled for one- Pomodoro. Of course, they didn't have the menu item that pulled us in, but the food was still good. What surprised me was they put mayo, mustard, and 2 other sauces on the table, like you'd get at a regular burger joint elsewhere. Also, my lasagna had mint on it. I'm still not sure if there were any actual spices in the lasagna, but the pasta wasn't spaghetti. The other surprise is that they added a 10% charge to the bill automatically. Do people not think they have to tip in Cuba? Everybody in Vinales is a tourist, so you'd think they were already tipping at least that much. Or maybe they thought it was a way to make people tip on the tip if they weren't paying attention. In any case, we finished walking the main street end to end after dinner, and then rested a few minutes at the casa. We had been told that there is a great party with salsa music in the town square at 9, and we wanted to go. They did have recorded music. But I now understand how guys feel about sausagefest frat parties. The square was filled with tourists like us, and almost no Cubans. Eventually,we danced a bit on our own, and a guy did dance with my friend while I played bag check. But the party was short lived. The music ended after only a few songs. I'm guessing the locals spread the word about the party to get the tourists out. One guy had a room in the main building on the square, and he was offering salsa lessons (paid, of course). Two bars flanked the right and left of the square. It's a good idea to draw everybody out and then give them someplace to go when the music stops. We just weren't up for anything but dancing, so we headed to the casa for the night.