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Cuba Day 7: Pina coladas with a view

Testing assumptions and challenging old habits

· Cuba,Joey,Travel journal

Hotel Jasmines and the best pina colada ever

After the excitement of the previous day's adventures on horseback, Iris and I decided to take some "couple time" by ourselves. Our friends headed out by taxi to check out the caves (I think Cava del Indio). Having missed out on the panoramic views of the mogotes valley, Iris and I planned to walk up to Hotel Jasmines that's about a 4km gentle climb from the village.

On the way, we picked out a hat for Iris at a souvenir shop to protect her face from the stinging Cuban sun. As ever, we haggled the price down from 8 CUC to 7 CUC (the shop keeper wouldn't take 6 CUC and the hat was the nicest we'd seen throughout our trip!) and made our way to Hotel Jasmines.

The gentle hike took us around an hour and a half, with Iris still sporting a swollen thigh from the horseback ride and the sun beating down my neck. The walk isn't very tough, but there are no designated pedestrian pathways so you have to watch out for speeding cars around corners.

Close to Hotel Jasmines you'll find a visitors' office for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Vinales mogotes valleys. It sets out very nicely a few tours and activities you can do during your time in Vinales, including zip-lining, caving, and horseback riding, taxi, walking and bicycle tours. The office looks out to the valleys and is a good spot to take in the views. The lady working there is also very friendly and can organise taxis back to Vinales (3 CUC - 5 CUC for the 10 minute drive).

Valle de Vinales Paisaje Cultural de la Humanidad

The hotel itself is another 10 minutes' walk from the visitors' office and definitely worth the visit. The views are incredible and the restaurant and bar (both just outside of the actual hotel) are decent in terms of quality and price. Smoked pork leg seemed to be the local delicacy around here, and the delicious barbecue smell wafting through the air tempted weary walkers to try the slow-cooked hunk of meat. There was also an acapella band providing a lovely if repetitive musical backdrop.

I found this rather saddening. The ox being used for tourists' entertainment... Is it fun, really?

We noticed a bar in a wooden shed dedicated to serving pina coladas, with a sharply dressed older gentleman behind the counter. Now, those that know me know I absolutely HATE pina coladas. I had a stint in a cocktail bar several years ago and during that time refused to make them as I couldn't stand the taste. Iris isn't much a fan of coconut either. While checking out the bar, however, an American traveller noticed our curiosity and advised us to try "the best pina coladas in the world". It was a good sell, and the old man looked like he could make a mean pina colada!

Pina Colada bar at Hotel Jasmines in Vinales, Cuba

Probably the best pina colada in the world. Love how the rum is served separately for you to pour as you wish :)

So we ordered one (3 CUC) to try between the two of us, and the man got to work. The way that the Cubans make them here is to make a virgin version and provide a bottle of rum for you to free pour to suit your taste buds and alcohol needs. As the bartender instructed, I took a big swig of the cocktail to make room for the rum, expecting myself to hate it... and oh my god it was SO DELICIOUS! I guess when you make one drink all day everyday, you get really good at it!

It was also yet another example of how during this trip I was testing my assumptions that I tell myself ("I hate pina coladas") and challenging old habits. We all have stories that we tell about ourselves that often go unchallenged in our mind. It may not be as frivolous as "I hate pina coladas" (where have you been all my life... although, perhaps I wasn't ready for them), but these stories are self-imposed limitations that hold us back from living life to its fullest.

Happy with my deep reflection of the day, I poured us a healthy portion of rum (it was past midday by this point) and we sat down with a pork sandwich to enjoy the breath taking views with the band providing background music ("Soy Cubana").

Taking a "risk" on a taxi collectivo

We headed back to Vinales by taxi (5 CUC from the tourist office) and decided to swing by the taxi agency, which is located in the same office as the Viazul desk. As you know, we thought the taxi quote strongly recommended to us by Sadie was on the high side at 40 CUC per person. We spoke to the agency staff and enquired about availability and price for leaving Vinales the following day for Playa Giron. The guy said he had spaces and quoted us 35 CUC per person, which we haggled down to 30 CUC each - a saving of 10 CUC each or 20 CUC overall!

Iris and I quickly discussed between us and decided to take this agency's quote instead. Yes, Sadie's scare tactics on arrival had its intended effect and did worry us but the guy was in the "official" office and it looked half-legit. We paid the 20 CUC deposit, took the guy's name (big dude called Humberto) and number, and got a receipt in return with instructions that someone will come to pick us up at our casa at 8:30am the following day.

(Travel tip: If you decide to organise a taxi collectivo in advance of your departure, please, please, please do this at the official agency and make sure you get a name, number and receipt. If you're not sure what the official agency is, ask your casa owner to show you where it is. Never, ever arrange anything through men on the street offering taxis.)

We walked to our friends' casa to let Sadie know about our change of plans. Sadie understandably didn't take our cancellation very well initially and commented that she didn't know of any Humberto working at the agency. She did however correctly point out that the date of departure written on the receipt was today's and not tomorrow's!

We headed straight back to the agency to confirm the dates, but Humberto wasn't there! Moreover, the guy at the desk said that the taxi agency is at a different desk (in the same office). I was starting to get quite worried, but thankfully the woman at the agency confirmed that she knew Humberto ("hombre gordo" - fat man) and told us not to stress out about the date written on the ticket.

Just to be sure, we asked our casa owner Tatiana to give Humberto a call to double check everything was in order. Now, this was very nice of her as the number was Humberto's mobile number and phone calls to mobiles are very expensive. Tatiana initially didn't want to make the call, but she saw the worried look on our faces and demonstrated us the quiet kindness that we recognised from the moment we met her. We were ever so grateful so her help, and she stands out as one of many kind people we met during our travels in Cuba. Yes, Sadie might have spoken excellent English and been full of jokes, but genuine kindness cuts across many tongues.

Cheap booze at a local watering hole

Vinales is a touristy location. It's far from being Trinidad in terms of how much they try to rinse tourists, but most places command a higher price than Havana. On our final night in Vinales, Iris and I managed to find a local watering hole, which we'd recommend if you're ever in the area. It had cheap drinks at 1.5 CUC for cocktails including mojitos and 1 CUC for a generous helpings of Havana Club 3 Anos, Unfortunately we don't remember the name but it was on the western edges of the village, has blue walls and a giant wooden door (see picture below).

We met up with our friends in the evening afterwards, grabbed a simple dinner (rice, beans, meat) and a few drinks to celebrate Magda and Alex's engagement, which we'd now been told about! Tired from the walking, sun and the sweet rum, we called it a night to pack and get ready for an early start for Playa Giron the next day. I didn't share this with anyone, but I went to bed nervous about the upcoming journey, unsure whether the taxi driver would turn up or not in the morning...

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