“Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road. I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more,” is playing from my 19-year old son’s iPhone as we trot through a valley of immense mogotes (limestone karst hills), deep in the Unesco-listed Parque Nacional Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province of western Cuba. When I’m not shouting “Más lento!” (slower) to Lucero, my horse, which is either at a standstill chewing grass or at a trot to catch the other horses up, I am drinking in the view of the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, dotted with ranches and farms growing pineapples, potatoes, coffee, and tobacco.
The vista could not be more quintessentially Cuban (it is said to have been Castro’s favourite) and is one of few places left in the world where tobacco is grown using traditional methods. Alexis, our Cuban cowboy guide, is a huge hit with my sons, Josh, 19, Ben, 18, and Freddie, 14, as he leads them to a gallop across the fields (calling Freddie a natural “gaucho” as they ride). They are clearly having the time of their lives.
The region’s main town, Viñales (meaning vineyard, named after the vines that were planted by settlers from the Canary Islands in 1607), consists of one main strip with a handful of minor roads shooting from it. It is filled with pastel-hued one-storey casas with porches, where, come evening, the creak of rocking chair can be heard. Some surprisingly stylish restaurants and a daily craft market with panama hats and paintings of vintage American cars cater to passing tourists.
Nightly, at the Centro Cultural Polo Montañez, we watch live bands play son cubano, a blend of Spanish and African beats, while locals dance salsa in the courtyard under flame trees awash with fire-red blooms. For such a small town, there is always something going on. Our base is Hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines – a pale pink casa with rooms plus a swimming pool and a few chalets – located on the outskirts of town. The accommodation may be basic, but the view of the valley from its elevated perch is worthy of five stars, and I sit in a swinging chair on the small veranda of our chalet with a mojito in hand watching fireflies light up a dusky sky.
Alexis, the owner of Riding Viñales, was born in the valley and is third-generation farmer-cowboy. “Small but feisty,” he explains, when my 6ft 2in husband, Neil, queries the size of his horse. Alexis winks and gives Neil’s steed a slap on his bottom; it immediately takes off, leaving the rest of us hooting with laughter. I have to resist the urge to spoil the fun by voicing concerns about safety (forget all about riding hats), particularly when we pass another tourist on a horse who is coated head to foot in sticky brown mud.
When we stop for a coffee (served black in tin cups with a shot of rum) at a coffee-growing ranch where cockerels and dogs run feral on rust-coloured dirt and pigs snuffle in a stick pen, Alexis fills us in on the differences between American and Cuban cowboys. Number one is that they grow crops rather than tend to cattle. In 1957, the population of Cuba was 6.5 million; equal to the number of cattle. Post-revolution in 1958, the government confiscated the largest ranches and an industry that was Cuba’s strongest dwindled.
“It was hard, but we kept going,” Alexis tells me. “We became farmers, but we remain cowboys in our hearts.” “What about your boots?” I ask tentatively. Cuban cowboys don’t wear leather cowboy boots, but rather plastic gum boots with spurs. “They protect us from mud and rain,” he tells me. I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that leather is hard to come by these days. In such a tight-knit community, everyone knows everyone.
“Buenas, Mario,” Alexis shouts later, as we pull up at a tobacco farm. A leather-skinned, cigar-chewing farmer takes the measure of us before inviting us in to take a look around. There are no tractors or combine harvesters in sight; here, ox-drawn ploughs endure and harvesting is done by machete. Mario leads us into a vast barn where the tobacco leaves hang from twine suspended from wooden beams, and the drying, curing and grading is done by hand. We watch him roll a cigar, which he smears with honey at its tip both to seal it and add a little sweetness to the taste, then light it, and with a twinkle in his eye, he hands it first to Freddie.
“Can I?” Freddie asks me. “When in Rome…” I reply. “Just don’t inhale.” The flavour is milder than I expected, with a salty aftertaste. With Alexis acting as translator, we strike a deal for 20; our ears pricking as we hear the word “gringos”. Alexis is quick to point out that it is a term used by Cubans that simply means foreigner (particularly of the American variety), but thanks to my dad, I’d watched enough spaghetti Westerns to know that “gringo” is often used disparagingly. Either way, being called a gringo by a cowboy feels like something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
We end the ride at a natural swimming hole, bordered by bulrushes, hovered over by iridescent dragonflies, where we take a dip while the horses drink. For dinner, Alexis recommends Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, a local organic farm known for its good honest food and sunset views across the valley. We settle at a trestle table on the veranda and drink a rum punch – three quarts rum, one-quart juice, making it worthy of its name – and watch the sky turn to tangerine until the banana palms in the fields below are silhouettes of black. There’s no menu, so instead we are served a homestyle meal of fried plantain, chargrilled pineapple, pork braised in a rich tomato sauce, and refried beans.
A full bottle of rum is placed centre table, and Josh makes quick use of it. I fear all the activities we attempt here may look rather tame after riding with cowboys, but this region is captivating. The second-largest cave system on the American continent is found 12 miles west of Viñales in Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, which has 28 miles of passages, with just over half a mile accessible to visitors. In Viñales, Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian), once a hideout for slaves, was rediscovered in 1920 and has a walkway that leads through jagged rock formations to the edge of the underwater lagoon where we explore further by boat. We hear butterfly bats and see the milky white scales of albino fish.
Che Guevara’s lofty headquarters, Cueva de los Portales, where he hid for 45 days during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, is a taxi-ride away over a steep, pine-forested, potholed road. In this vast damp hideaway, we find his sorry-looking iron bed and desk where the guide tells us he liked to sit and play chess. “Perhaps to take his mind off the threat of nuclear apocalypse?” muses Ben.
I have one last treat in store for my sons. On our way back to Havana, we stop at Rancho La Guabina, a lakeside horse breeding centre, near to the city of Pinar del Río, where there’s a thrice-weekly rodeo. Thanks to Future Ranchers, a group that formed to preserve and pass on ranching skills in Cuba, the passion for rodeo has once again been stoked and a new generation of cowboys is emerging.
It’s Friday, rodeo day, and we watch as a parade of teenage boys take to the arena, their appaloosa horses (bred for their colourful spotted coats) kicking up dust with excitement, as their riders twirl lassos above their heads, ready to test their skills in catching nimble-footed cattle. My sons are spellbound, no doubt imagining another life in which they are cowboys.
A chalet-style double room at Hotel Horizontes los Jazmines starts at £77 including breakfast (hotelhorizonte slosjazmines.com) A five-hour riding excursion costs $25 (£18) per person (horseridinginvinales.com).
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