The pulsating Cuban sun begins to drift away as the evening sets in and a cool breeze dances over our faces. Alvaro Garcia smiles with anticipation. ‘Now we can play,’ he announces, as he looks towards his brother Carlos. They sit in their usual seats at Cafe Viñales as they do every Sunday, take out their old and battered domino set, and prepare to battle once more.
It is the very same dominoes set they have used since they were kids. Each piece represents a different story and memory. ‘We were boisterous kids,’ says Carlos. ‘Always outside, always playing, always together. When it was time to come home and settle down, we would still be running wild. To calm us, our mother bought us a set of Dominoes. We would sit for hours on end, without so much as a word spoken. Deep in concentration, overthinking each possible move.’
The lazy sounds of sleepy jazz play over the radio, as the absurdly beautiful green landscape stares at us. Alvaro sips on his golden brown coffee and takes in his surroundings.
‘It’s the small things,’ he tells us. ‘As you get older you appreciate them more. it is a well-worn cliche, but it’s true. Probably why it’s a cliche.’ Carlos laughs, his dark kind eyes beaming. ‘When I beat him, he won’t be so pleasant. Just watch. He is the worst kind of loser. There have been times when he hasn’t spoken to me for days because I win.’
Alvaro grins. ‘it’s true I hate to lose. but mainly just to Carlos. Ever since we were young it’s been the same. Soccer, baseball, rugby; we’ve always been competitive. I think it’s why we’re still alive. We drive each other on.’ Carlos looks at his brother, ‘I tell him this but he never believes me. When we were younger I’d often let him beat me. If I didn’t the whole day would be ruined. He would sulk, and tell me how I had cheated. Sometimes winning was more hassle.’
Just like that the two of them are off, bickering and firing insults like veterans of verbal wars. ‘Anyway it doesn’t matter,’ says Alvaro. Today I will win.
VIÑALES A HAVEN OF TRANQUILITY
Alvaro, 74, and Carlos, 76 have been inseparable all their lives. Brothers and best friends. They grew up here in Viñales and it’s a place that has always been home, and It’s not hard to see why. After ten days of exploring Havana, and navigating its busy stress, I now find myself faced with a quiet landscape of breathtaking beauty.
It is a haven of tranquility, draped between vast, steep-sided limestone hills known as mogotes, and endless rolling hills of green. The town retains an effortless and sleepy charm, a million miles away from the frantic and frenzied energy of Havana. Locals walk quietly and peacefully, greeting everybody with a smile. The stresses of the world seem a million miles away.
Viñales is located in Pinar del Río, one of Cuba’s biggest tobacco-producing regions. It is a place that begs you to live your life in the great outdoors; hiking trails and horse riding tracks lace the countryside, and amongst the lush, there are little thatched houses, speckled across the mountain-backed field.
The countryside is spectacular and a breath of fresh air. It is here in a local cafe where Alvaro and Carlos duel. At this stage in their contest, it’s 3-2 to Carlos. There is no sign of relenting from either. Our waiter brings us a plate of churros. ‘Maybe, you can eat these and it will stop you from asking so many questions.’ says Alvaro, as he searches for concentration.
Viñales is an agricultural area, where crops of fruit, vegetables, coffee and are grown. It is also a place well-known for its tobacco. So, it is no surprise that Alvaro and Carlos should have spent most of their days working on them. If you visit one of the town’s many tobacco plantations such as the Casa del Veguero, this is where you can see the process of tobacco being produced and the world-famous Cuban cigars being made. As it happens, where we currently sit there are half a dozen patrons lost a cloud of Cuban smoke.
It is my opinion, that everybody who can, should visit Cuba at least once in their lifetime. It is a country rich in heritage and history. Beyond that, its food, culture, and charm are endlessly appealing. Havana is, of course, a great starting point should you journey to the island for the first time. Make no mistake about it through, there is more to Cuba than just Havana.
There is of course Viñales. Now, I could simply describe it as a humble municipality with a population generally living in colorful, colonial-influenced, ground-floor houses, mostly built by the owners, which will transport you to one of the most authentic rural settings in Cuba. But that wouldn’t do it justice. In fact, I’m not sure much of what I could say could quite describe just how special this place is. Perhaps, after my days in Havana, I have simply been overcome by the gallons of fresh air now in my lungs, but there is something truly seductive about Viñales.
Home to the Parque Nacional de Viñales, (Viñales National Park), also known as Valle de Viñales, it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in all of Cuba. It is a valley that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The incredibly impressive and exclusive landscape is located in the Sierra de los Órganos, where you can see the famous mogotoes, and small limestone mountains with rounded tops. It is here where you are able to truly appreciate everything which makes this place so magical.
For miles, you are greeted with the flawless countryside, watching people hiking freely, and cowboy-like figures riding their horses, whilst tourists flock to coffee and tobacco plantations. All the while feeling like you are the only person in the world who exists. You can just simply lay back on the grass, and let the sun kiss your face.
I MET CHE ONCE YOU KNOW
Alvaro and Carlos were only young when the Cuban Revolution overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s regime. For many, the ideals that the revolution preached never came to fruition, and, Cuba was left in a permanent time machine. As the rest of the world moved on, Cuba stood still. ‘We never knew any better. Would life have been different if the revolution never happened? Who knows,’ says Carlos. ‘I think our parents ended up resenting it, although they never showed it. Promises were broken and money that should have been their own lined the pockets of the government. Having more money though is not the mark of happiness. It does not guarantee a smile on your face.’
‘I think we went to bed each night content’ Alvaro adds. ‘I think that is what is important.’ He looks me straight in the eyes: ‘Look you have visited Havana. Undeniably it is beautiful and exciting. But here, it is peaceful and calm. I think ultimately that is what people want from life. The happiest people I know are peaceful and content. This land gives you that’
‘I met Che once you know.’ Announces Carlos. ‘When I was younger and used to run around Havana, I saw him. He walked by me looking like a giant with Camilo Cienfuegos. It was like being in the presence of Jesus.’ Alvaro shakes his head. ‘He must have been hallucinating. He didn’t see any of them.’ ‘Yes I did.’ barks Carlos. Alvaro laughs and adds: ‘more importantly it’s now 7-5.’ ‘JINETERA‘ Carlos howls.
A TRUE TASTE OF RURAL CUBA
I would come back here. Time and time again I would come here. I grew up infatuated with Cuba. Mostly as a result of my dad telling me all about Che and Fidel, and reading about the revolution. It seemed like another world.
Everything here seems infinitely more relaxed. There is no waiting on trains that will never arrive, or standing in endless queues, cursing everything and everyone. There is just a tranquility of calm. This is of course is helped by outstanding excursions to the nearby Cayo Jutias, a paradise of turquoise waters and fine white sand. It owes its name to a friendly rodent typical of the Caribbean. It is an ideal place if you like to practice snorkeling or make a route in a kayak. Or if you just simply enjoy being hypnotised by the beauty before you.
Attractions in Viñales also include the municipal Museum, Casa de Caridad Botanical Gardens, Museo Paleontológico, Palenque (a Maroon village), and the nearby caves (Cueva del Indio, Cueva de José Miguel, Cueva de Santo Tomás) in Valle de Viñales National Park, which was a refuge for runaway slaves.
For the even more adventurous, the closest of the caves, the Cueva del Indio, can be explored by a boat trip along an underground river, while further from town, the Santo Tomás caves, home to vast stalagmites and stalactites, help make up the most extensive cave system in Cuba.
There is also a plethora of places to eat. Sunset Restaurant is an Incredible family-run restaurant with a great view of the sunset no less. 10 minutes from the centre of town but worth the short walk, it has great organic food and superb service to boot.
Finca Agroecológica El Paraiso is another. Arguably it has the best view in Viñales and the food is delicious and pretty varied. For around 15 € per person, you eat an array of dishes including different kinds of meats and salads, a cocktail of your choice, a piece of cake, and coffee. You can also enjoy your meal watching the evergreen and astonishing landscape. Then there is Los Narra Restaurante which offers possibly the best food in town. There are also bars such as Zona Verde, La Casa Del Mojito, and Jardin del Arte Sano. All of which give you a true taste and flavour of rural Cuba. The music and atmosphere is palpable and will leave you smiling until the very next day.
HAVANA MAY HAVE HEMINGWAY BUT VILAÑES HAS EVERYTHING ELSE
More important than food and turquoise seas though, is that Carlos has sprung into a 9-8 lead and is closing in on victory. ‘We see each other every day of course.’ Carlos says. We live side by side, so we need to. Even if we didn’t we still would make the time to cross paths.’
Assessing his next move and taking a sip of his coffee, Alvaro looks wistfully into the distance. ‘Our wives passed within 6 months of each other. Nearly 10 years ago. I think if we hadn’t had each other we would have soon followed.’
Carlos, sighs, ‘my wife Ella passed and then Rosa shortly after. We said that the thought of Rosa having to put up with us both sent her over the edge.’
‘They would have both laughed at that. We all grew up with each other. We were all the best of friends,’ says Alvaro.
‘A lot of our friends and families have now passed but we have been so lucky and I would not change a thing. If we did then we may have missed out on memories that keep us warm at night,’ Carlos adds.
Alvaro looks tense as he places his Domino down. He tells us that, ‘every Sunday all four of us would come here and chase away the hours. Coffee, food, drink, and dominoes. When we became too old for horse riding and running wild, we got out our old and battered case just like we did when were kids.’ He looks up at Carlos. Carlos grimaces in frustration, ‘I have nothing.’ Alvaro rejoices and announces, ‘then, my friend, it is 9-9.’
Carlos stands and shakes the hand of his brother and looks towards me. ‘Winning is important, but enjoyment and a good game are more so. Whenever it becomes 9-9 we agree on a draw. It is our gentleman’s agreement. We are both deemed too good to lose. It is our way of acknowledging a game well played. This way, we both win.’
The brothers light a cigar and put away their domino set for another day. Conversations are alive all around as we sit back and enjoy the view. It is glorious. Havana may have Hemmingway, but Viñales has everything else. This is heaven on earth.