24. - 28.10.2016: Viñales - Cayo Levisa

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Monday, 24.10.2016: Havana to Viñales, 173km - mostly sunny, 29°C

The taxi Lourdes had booked for us wouldn't arrive until 11-30am so we had time for a relaxed breakfast (omelettes with fruit juice and fruit salad) and to pack up all of our stuff. We left a bag with them containing our thick fleece jackets and some other things that we wouldn't need in such warm temperatures as we would be returning in 3 weeks and also showed our hosts some of the photos and videos that Kirsten had already prepared. Both Lourdes and Jose are really nice and were very happy to receive a tip.

Our taxi was 10 minutes early but we were ready. We shared it with Christian and Annette from Denmark who had stayed in a hotel in Havana for 120 Euros per night for B&B. They were also being charged 5 CUC more each for the same taxi ride which may be because Lourdes had got us a better deal. Our taxi driver even spoke English and is an engineer but can't find a job in that area so he drives a taxi.

The drive took 4 hours including a short break at a café. Once out of Havana we drove along the main highway which goes most of the way along the island. There was hardly any traffic using it. It was a hot and sunny day and even the air conditioning worked. There was a stop to hand over a large bottle of cold Coca Cola to a police officer watching the traffic on the main highway. A bribe? American products aren't sold here but now and then you can find Coca Cola in some shops and hotels that is probably imported from Mexico. After checking the drivers ID we were allowed to continue.

We also pulled into a farm where our driver tried to get petrol at a cheaper price - probably subsidized by the government and sold off by the farmer if he has too much. Unfortunately he had already sold it but we had enough to get us to Viñales!

Christian asked our driver if we could visit a tobacco farm along the way as he wanted to buy some cigars. Just outside Viñales we pulled into a small farm where they dry tobacco leaves and roll cigars. The owner rolled one for Christian explaining the various leaves and the process.

Tobacco farm Vegueros near Viñales

Christian bought 40 CUC worth of cigars that would have cost a lot more in Europe. The farm also grew manioc (a tuber that is a bit like potato) and sweet potatoes. Then it was just a short drive into Viñales where Christian and Annette were dropped off first before we arrived at our Casa that was about a minute walk from the town centre and in a side street.

We got a warm welcome from our host Nirma who made us a cup of tea and showed us our room. We had more space here and there was also a garden with a terrace and rocking chairs. The room was very clean. A very good tip from Lourdes.

We went for a short walk into town to check out tours and fetch water and some mango juice from the local shop. The town isn't very big with only 17,000 inhabitants but there are a huge number of Casas with rooms to let. Apparently they all get full in the main season which is January, February!

Lourdes told us that Nirma is a very good cook which she proved that first evening - our dining table seemed to be full of plates! We had a very good vegetable soup, frijoles (beans), rice, a salad of cucumber, tomatoes, avocados, and beans along with really tender chicken pieces marinated in a curry sauce. Oh, and home made bread! Delicious. We booked evening meals with her for the 5 nights we would be staying!

Tuesday, 25.10.2016: Viñales - mostly sunny, 28°C

Unfortunately we had left a window open during the evening and let in mosquitos that kept us awake most of the night. I didn't get bitten but Kirsten was obviously tastier and had two bites - one on her forehead and another on her hand. Some American guests were leaving at 8am and they had their breakfast very early right outside our room, so we didn't get the chance for a sleep in either!

Despite the lack of sleep we still enjoyed our 9am breakfast of omelettes, home made bread, fruit and juice. We had also ordered sandwiches from Nirma to take with us and set off on a 14km walk around the valley.

Our aim was to get to Cueva de la Vaca (cave) and then up to Mural de la Prehistoria. We somehow missed the Cueva and never got to the Mural but we had a wonderful 14km hike!

We had some maps and Nirma had shown us where the path goes the night before and on our way through the town we booked a tour to Cayo Levisa for the next day. The island has wonderful white sandy beaches and is surrounded by a coral reef and is very popular. We paid 29 CUC each for the bus, boat ride to the island and a packed lunch but we only had 50 CUC notes and required a passport to pay. We didn't have them with us so Kirsten ran back to the Casa to get one. (Smaller denominations don't need a passport.)

So we didn't get onto the path until 11-45am and set off to explore the area. The 11km by 5km valley was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 and is one of Cuba's best natural settings. The valley has dramatic limestone outcrops called mogotes that protrude out of the valley like giant haystacks. It reminded us of Guillin in southern China and Cuba, China and Venezuela are the only countries where these formations exist. No wonder Viñales is such a tourist highlight.

Although we followed the path we found out later that we had walked right past the Cueva de la Vaca - there are no signs. Most people go on a guided walk but we prefer exploring on our own and promptly missed our first destination! There are numerous paths criss-crossing the area so we followed the main one with all the horse manure!

There were lots of butterflies, tropical plants and flowers and we met Victoria and Ayling from Ireland. They were also guide-less and we walked along the horse trail through the valley with them. They told us they had stayed in a hotel with the best sunset views over the valley. For 43 CUC per person incl. breakfast they also picked up some bites from bed bugs! But the views were spectacular!

Victoria had also picked up food poisoning from a fish restaurant and had been up all night being sick! Not exactly the best welcome to Cuba. They told us they were heading for a natural lake where you can swim and after asking a local we managed to find it. There was even a small bar where you can buy drinks and a wooden platform leading out into the lake.

We stayed to eat our lunch and take a few photos. Victoria and Ayling stayed longer and we continued on our walk. Another local told us about Cueva del Silencio so we followed his instructions to get there. We met two Mexican ladies who came with us to the cave. There were two guides there who lead us into the cave with good torches after we paid the small entrance fee of 2 CUC each.

We spent an hour walking 250m into the cave that had interesting stalactites and stalagmites, with a river leading to a pool. The water had formed this cave over thousands of years and every year the water gets so high that it reaches the ceiling and the cave is inaccessible. One of the Mexicans went for a swim in the pool at the end which gave Kirsten more time to take photos whilst I pointed the torch for extra light.

We really enjoyed our time there and as we got back to the entrance I used the torch to take a closer look at the walls and ceiling whilst Kirsten took photos. I managed to find an odd looking insect high above us. It was some kind of mix between a spider, scorpion and beetle. No idea what it was. Even the guides didn't know and said they had never seen one before!

As we walked back out the two Mexican ladies told us where the Cueva de la Vaca was but that it was nowhere near as interesting as the cave we had all been in. So we hadn't missed anything! The Cueva del Silencio was so good that we no longer have to pay 23 CUC per person to see the largest cave Cueva de Santo Tomás that is part of the second largest cave system in the world after Mammoth Caves in the US which we have also seen.

We took a different route back and walked past farmers planting Manioc using oxen. We followed various paths and managed to find our way to the main road. A farmer accompanied us on the last stretch and we enjoyed talking to him about life as a farmer. We managed to understand him even though he spoke rapidly and the Cubans don't pronounce the S in their words.

Hike around the country side of Viñales

We followed the road back into town and just had time for a shower and to get changed before our evening meal was served - fish, red snapper for Kirsten and Tuna for me, along with rice, bean soup, salad and fresh bread.

Wednesday, 26.10.2016: Viñales to Cayo Levisa - mostly cloudy, very windy, 23°C

Kirsten woke up with a blocked nose and the start of a migraine. Just what she needed for the tour we had booked to Cayo Levisa. I hadn't slept much so neither of us did justice to breakfast - toasted cheese and ham sandwiches (which we wrapped up to take with us) along with fruit and juice. Not a good start to the day but we still packed our bag and walked into town to catch the bus.

The tour was full and we ended up getting seats near the back of the bus. It would have been better for Kirsten to sit near the front and we had a sick bag ready just in case! The bus left punctually at 8-30am and we set off along the road out towards Cueva del Indio.

We'd only driven a few kilometres when there was a really bad smell. I shouldn't have looked back - a little girl around 8 years old sitting across the aisle and one seat back, had been sick all over herself, her seat and the floor. Yuk! She was the youngest of a family of 5 from Germany and mom walked down to the front of the bus obviously looking for something to clean her daughter up. We had some wet wipes with us so we passed them over. Our day just got worse! Somehow Kirsten managed to stop herself from adding to the stench!

The bus ride took about an hour to get to the coast and then we got on a boat for the 35 minute ride across to the Cayo Levisa island. We ended up sitting next to the German family again and the young girl was sick over the side of the boat!

We disembarked onto a board walk that took us through mangroves across to the other side of the island (only 500m wide) to a restaurant where we were given a welcome drink. The island attracts 100 visitors a day and up to 50 guests at the hotel bungalows because it is the best beach in the area - 3km of white sand and deep blue water.

We had until 4-45pm before we needed to be back at the dock for the return boat so we walked out onto the beach, got ourselves two loungers under a palapa and Kirsten lay down and stayed there for the whole day - she really wasn't feeling very well at all.

I went on a short walk with a guide and 3 young back packers from Germany along the beach and through the mangroves to the eastern end of the island at Punta Arena. There were a lot of dead trees because of the high salt content. The little excursion took an hour and the clouds had started rolling in and the wind had picked up a lot.

It was so windy that when I fetched us our boxed lunch from the restaurant - toasted cheese and ham sandwiches and French fries on a plate each - by the time I got them to Kirsten the chips were cold! At least Kirsten managed to eat a few of them though.

We had brought the same sandwiches with us from breakfast and so most of the lunch went in the bin. The tour had cost us 60 CUC and we'd booked it for Kirsten because she is the beach bunny of the two of us. It was a real pity that we had picked the day when she wasn't feeling well and she ended up sleeping on a lounger for the majority of the time.

My day got even worse when I went to use the toilets. There was no light inside and I didn't see that the toilet bowl was already full to brimming. When I flushed it the contents overflowed - double yuk! So then I wasted a bit more of our time here by having to clean my sandals and feet. I was definitely not amused!

For the remainder of the time I endured the, by now, gale force winds and went for a walk to the western end of the island. It's only 3km long so it wasn't very long and the strong winds meant I got pushed one way and had to really battle at a 45 degree angle to get back! A cold and windy day is not ideal for such a beautiful beach. At least there was a TV in the restaurant where I could watch some of the Champions League matches taking place!

It was finally time for us to leave so we packed up and walked back along the board walk to the pier. People were already boarding and the boat filled up quickly. We were left behind with others to wait 15 minutes for another boat to pick us up. There had been another group of about 30 Germans on a private tour and the two groups got mixed for the boat ride back. At least we spotted some of our group still waiting.

The second boat looked a lot older and as we set off at a snails pace out of the bay, thick black smoke billowed out of the exhaust. The Captain didn't look worried and carried on. The smoke was so thick that the passengers at the back of the boat quickly moved further up to save themselves from getting gassed!

The Captain looked back with a frown and then speeded up into second gear. We didn't seem to speed up much and we knew it would take us longer than the 35 minutes for the return journey. The smoke got worse and worse and I wondered whether we would even make it!

Then we heard the pistons knocking and the boat deck under our feet got very warm. Our own experience told us that the engine had no oil and it was overheating. We weren't going to make it! But the Captain just kept going. After 40 minutes we weren't even half way across to the mainland when the engine died! At least it hadn't exploded even when we saw black smoke coming up through the deck!

Now we were drifting and it looked like we were heading towards Mexico! There didn't seem to be any life vests on board! Neither the Captain or any of the crew had phones out or used a radio - there wasn't one! They just sat and waited. In the distance we could see our destination and the other boat moored up. We waited, and waited. Finally the other Captain must have realised what had happened and set sail towards us.

The other boat came alongside us and both crews tied the two boats together, side by side, with practised ease. They have obviously done this numerous times before!! We found out that the boat had had a new diesel pump put in yesterday but had not been fully tested. Well now they have to replace the engine aswell!

Beach day and engine problems - Cayo Levisa

When we finally made it across to the mainland we all cheered! It had taken us an hour but we had survived! Our bus was still waiting for us, thank God. We got on board and avoided the smelly back seats. We told the others what had happened - a real adventure trip!

We finally got back to Viñales at 7-20pm. It was already dark but there had been no more sickness or other incidents. We apologised to Nirma for our late arrival and it was a good job we had only asked for soup and bread for our evening meal. We had showers, ate our reheated soup and then Kirsten went straight to bed. What a day!

Thursday, 27.10.2016: Viñales - mostly sunny, 25°C

We decided to take a day off today but we'd forgotten to switch the alarm off. So we got woken up at 7am! Our lie in went out of the window! I got up and made us a cup of tea. We had omelettes for breakfast along with fruit etc. but Kirsten still wasn't back to normal. She no longer had a migraine but her throat was sore and she had a runny nose.

We walked into town to change money and picked up some more drinking water. There were no more 5 litre bottles left anywhere in the town so we had to buy the more expensive 1.5 litre bottles. Afterwards Kirsten lay down in bed for a nap. I went for a 2 hour walk up the hill to the visitor centre. There were large topographical maps of the area on display boards along with information on the geology of the area. I continued uphill to get to Hotel Los Jazmines and a super view over the entire valley. Beautiful but hazy.

When I got back I made Kirsten a cup of tea (me too of course!) and her nap had done her good because she was feeling better. Our evening meal was pork with mashed potato (the packet version as there are no potatoes here), salad and bread. Our hosts contacted our next Casa in Playa Girón to let them know we would be arriving at around 1-30pm on Saturday. We had booked a shared taxi which should take around 5 hours.

We read in a local paper that the UN had made a resolution to lift the 55 year blockade against Cuba. 191 countries voted yes and the USA and Israel abstained. It was seen as an historical moment for Cuba.

Friday, 28.10.2016: Viñales - mostly sunny, 25°C

Nirma asked us last night what we would like for breakfast this morning and we immediately said pancakes! We got the Cuban version, with a bit of rum added to the mixture - yummy! Then we walked into town to catch a hop-on/hop-off bus that runs nine times a day between the valley's spread-out sites. Starting and finishing in the town plaza, the whole circuit takes 1.5 hours. There are 18 stops along the route, which runs from Hotel Los Jazmines to Hotel Rancho San Vicente and costs 5 CUC per person for the day.

Our first stop was the Cueva del Indio, a small cave that costs another 5 CUC per person. We walked through the well lit cave and then got onto a boat for a 10 minute ride through one tunnel and down another. The formations in the cave were really nice but what should have been a peaceful boat ride was disrupted by very loud Russians and Italians on our boat!

Boat ride through the Cueva Del Indio near Viñales

Our tour of the cave hadn't taken very long so we had 45 minutes to wait for the next bus. We wandered through a small area with tropical flowers so Kirsten could take a few photos. Only a couple of meters away from her I spotted a snake and quietly told Kirsten, not wanting to alarm her ... or the snake! It was very well disguised in amongst the leaves and brush so I was surprised I'd even seen it.

We hopped back on the bus and enjoyed the ride up to Hotel Jazmines and the lookout point for the view over the valley I had seen yesterday. Afterwards we stopped at the Mural de la Prehistoria - a 120m-long painting designed in 1961 by Leovigildo González Morillo that took 18 people four years to complete. The huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans on the cliff symbolize the theory of evolution.

This was the place we had wanted to walk to three days ago and never got there. The bus stopped right inside the entrance gate and stopped to let us off. We realised that we could just get off to take a couple of photos and get back on the bus. It saved us a 90 minute wait for the next one plus the 3 CUC each entrance fee. Just what we needed!

We went to a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant El Olivio for a snack because we would be eating back at the Casa tonight. We ordered croquettes with French fries and followed it with absolutely fantastic Apple strudel and English custard. The strudel was more like a cake with apple slices and the custard was a cold vanilla sauce but, Oh My God, it was delicious!! We should have left out the cappuccino though - extremely strong and bitter. Heart attack in a cup!

We relaxed for a couple of hours before we started packing our bags. Our evening meal was chicken soup, followed by roast chicken with rice and salad. Then we had to finish packing, have showers and get into bed early because our breakfast was set for 7-30am.