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Cuba Day 6: Perils of the mogotes valley

· Cuba,Travel journal,Joey

The journey begins

We woke up for an early breakfast, an excellent feast of eggs, ham, cheese, fruit, freshly prepared fruit juice and coffee, and headed to our friends' casa. Shortly afterwards, the guide for our horseback riding tour came to pick us up and take us on a short walk to where the tour would start.

Typical casa breakfast

He set out a couple of options for the tour - a shorter one lasting around 2 to 3 hours and another lasting 4 to 6 hours that included a few extra places of interest. Andia and Arian opted for the shorter tour and the rest of us (me, Iris, Alex and Magda) decided on the longer one. Iris wasn't too sure about the horse riding, as she had tried it when she was younger and had found it uncomfortable, but she threw caution to the wind and went all in!

(Travel tip: The quoted price for the tour was 25 CUC each for the shorter tour and 35 CUC for the longer one. 20 - 25 CUC is plenty for the longer tour, with 15 CUC for the shorter one. We should have haggled, but we didn't - the early hours caught me off-guard!)

We set off on horseback and I couldn't contain my excitement - I felt like a cowboy! We were soon riding amongst the mogotes (giant hills of limestone, renowned for their distinctive shape) valleys - a UNESCO heritage site. The tropical backdrop reminded my of Jurassic Park (or Jurassic World, for our younger audiences).

Horse riding in mogotes valley of Vinales, Cuba

Yes, the horses were uncomfortable, stubborn and kept stopping to urinate and poo, which we had to often jump out of the way to avoid! But the scenery was undeniable. Marvelling at the beauty of nature, the great whole of which we are just a small part, it was somewhat of a spiritual experience.

The discomfort begins

The trip was not without its bumps. First was the discomfort. The ride was hurting our bums, and no one had it as bad as Iris, who for some reason ended up with a swollen and bruised inner thigh. It was also scorching hot and very tiring on the body after a while.

The barbed wire incident

Second was the incident of the barbed wire. At points in the journey, we had to go through some questionable terrain - deep pools that would immerse our legs, unstable rocky roads and narrow crossings. One of these narrow crossings had some barbed wire across it, presumably to prevent people from passing through. Iris was leading the pack and stopped on seeing it. The guide, leading from behind, did not see it (apparently unable to understand Iris' shouts of "I can't go forward, there's barbed wire") and shouted "Caballo!", urging the horse to proceed.

There was a moment of panic as we watched in horror Iris' horse stepping forward, and shouts and screams all around. Thankfully, the guide realised something was not right, stopped pushing Iris' horse on and jumped in to intervene.

Iris luckily escaped with just a couple of shallow punctures(!), which we disinfected and bandaged up. Iris, to her credit, was calm and composed. We offered to turn back, but she said she was okay to continue. To be honest, I couldn't really enjoy myself much after the incident. I was more shaken up than Iris was! There was also a feeling of guilt at not having intervened and just letting this happen...

The lemonade (and when I became a travel dummy)

Soon after the incident of the barbed wire, we stopped at a small hut to get some rest after an hour and a half of riding. A lady came out to offer us some drinks and we asked for four frozen lemonades. The cooling frappe was much needed after two hours in the hot sun.

After some time resting and taking care of our wounded (Iris' punctures and Magda's scratches from some branches), we indicated we wanted to set off. The lady of the hut came out and asked for 12 CUC, or 3 CUC each. We were quite surprised at the price, as these usually go for 1 CUC each in town. In our distressed state, we'd forgotten to ask for the price up front (How to travel like a travel dummy 101).

In our defiant mood following the barbed wire incident (the guide was sipping his lemonade sheepishly, staying out of the way - there was no way he paid 3 CUC), we refused to pay the high prices and gave 8 CUC ("es suficiente"). After some insisting, the lady accepted the payment and we rode off.

Magda almost meets her maker

A further hour or so into our riding, we approached a narrow path leading up the side of a hill. It would have made a difficult hike, even on foot. Alex expressed his concern at the steep climb (of around 35 - 40 degrees), but the guide urged us on assuring us that it was okay. So we persisted.

A few meters in, I hear a scream (which Alex admits was him, not Magda). I look back to see Magda on the floor, with her horse a couple of inches away on its side. Her horse had slipped and fallen! The look on Alex's face - his usually dark complexion drained of colour.

That was enough for us. We briefly entertained the idea of climbing on foot for the panoramic view of the valley, but by this point we were traumatised by the barbed wire and the fall. We requested firmly that we turn around and head back to town.

The return leg

We made the long ride back towards town. Although I was still cognisant of the breathtaking scenery around me, I think we were all eager to return back after the traumatic experience of the day.

About 30 minutes out from town, Iris' swollen leg finally reached its limit and we started to walk back instead! We certainly weren't happy bunnies in that moment, but as we walked back, we noted that days such as today would be ones we would retell in our old age and laugh about. It's funny how sometimes it's the most challenging times that become the best stories years later.

Walking through mogotes valleys of Vinales


Cuban cowboy

Cowboy with our horses.

We took a detour just outside of town to see the tobacco farm that a friend of the guide runs. He told us stories about how cigars are made, how the government mandates that farmers plant certain quotas of tobacco. How the farmers are allowed to sell 10% of the crop directly to tourists. How the famous cigar houses take their tobacco from defined areas of the tobacco trees (e.g. Cohibas are made from only the top layer, giving it its notable strength). How they harvest, prepare and roll cigars - a process that takes 2 years.

Alex and I got given a sample cigar each ("women don't smoke cigars"), with Alex buying a big pack of 15 for 50 CUC.

Who says smoking isn't cool?

Love is in the air

On our return to town, we met back up with Andia and Arian in the evening for dinner. Apparently they had a great time on their tour, which ended up lasting 5 hours. No blood, inflammations or near-death experiences. How boring!

We shared our meal, drinks and stories from the day. Alex and I tried out our cigars. It was GOOD and went really well with a shot of Havana Club 7 anos, a premium barrel-aged dark rum. It was no fine cigar like my favourite Montecristo No. 2, but pretty damn close and at 3 - 4 CUC each! If I was still getting paid, I'd probably have brought a few back!

Iris trying to smoke a cigar...

We called it a day and headed back to our casas after some more drinks toasting our survival!

Iris and I didn't find out about this until the next day, but that night following the traumatic day, Alex proposed to Magda! And she said yes! As with most proposal stories, it didn't go all that smoothly, but that's what makes them memorable (and perfect). Us men (just going with the majority here folks!), would make grand plans that our future wives throw off, and make perfect! I guess they say start as you mean to go on!

Travel tips if you're going on a horseback tour

  • Don't wear jeans - they'll get muddy and take ages to dry
  • Wear sandals not trainers (see above)
  • Pay 20 - 25 CUC for the long tour. We were later recommended to pay just 15 CUC by our casa host in Havana
  • Make sure you stop when you need / want to. If you go to huts, ask for the price and haggle up front - they won't refuse your business
  • Bring sun block, hat, antiseptic, plaster and hand sanitiser
  • Keep a distance from the horse in front - mean horses will kick - and keep your feet away from the horses' bum...
  • Yank hard. Be firm and authoritative in steering and in your voice, otherwise it'll push you around
Urinating horse

Oh to be free as a horse

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