Upon our arrival in Vinales, a park ranger stopped by our casa to see if we were interested in booking any guided tours of the park. One I’ve been really keen to do is Los Aquaticos sunrise hike. A few Google searches have shown some incredible images and I’m excited to see it with my own eyes.
There are a few companies that do this tour, but I never heard back from any that I contacted before leaving. The ranger tries to convince us it’s not worth doing, almost no families live there anymore, people don’t really do that hike now. But I’m insistent and he talks with our casa host. She tells us not to worry, she’ll make sure we have a guide in the morning.
We’re up at 5am, ready to be picked up at 5:30. We sit in the dark on the front porch, waiting for our guide. And waiting. And waiting. At 6am, we’re still without a guide and wonder if maybe we got the dates mixed up, or there was confusion on what exactly were hoping to do. Neither Maggie’s nor my Spanish is all that great. Finally at 615, one of the neighbors shows up and says her son is on his way to pick us up. I’m nervous because sunrise is around 6:30 and I really don’t want to miss it!
We climb into a horse-pulled cart and set off down the road. My guidebook says it’s possible to do this hike without a guide, but it’s around 4km from town, and it’s pitch black out. You’d have to be crazy to do this on your own.
It’s just starting to get light as we begin the hike. I can barely make out the mountains (or mogotes, as they are called here) and farms as we pass through.
The trail starts pretty flat, though I fall quickly behind as I stop to take photos that don’t really turn out. But then it gets steep and rocky, so I put my camera away and concentrate on breathing. Fortunately it doesn’t last too long, maybe 45 minutes. Man I’m out of shape!
I knew the scenery from up here would be fantastic, but it literally takes my breath away. Okay, maybe that’s just the hike up. But these views though.
I think I could happily live here waking up to these views every day. It would never get old.
On that note however, there used to be many families that lived up here, those that follow the belief in the miraculous healing powers of water. It’s more than a way of life, but it’s slowly dwindling and today, only three families remain.
Even this spider knows the best spot to build his home.
Goats and kitties and even a puppy keep us company and entertain us with their playing.
Coffee and a view. Does it get any better?
We spend roughly 45 minutes relaxing, drinking coffee and juice, watching the sunrise before continuing back down to the valley. The trail takes us through several tobacco farms.
Unexpectedly, we stop at one of the farms for a tour. We’ll be doing this later in the day during our horseback ride, but this is a private tour, just for Maggie and I. Since this was arranged through our host and not a professional company, there’s no set itinerary. It’s actually a very nice way of doing this.
We follow the farmer to this little shed behind his home. He doesn’t speak any English, so we attempt to communicate in our best Spanish.
Inside, tobacco leaves dry on racks.
The farmer explains to us the entire process of making Cuban cigars. The stem, which contains 90% of the nicotine, is removed, soaked in water and used as a natural pesticide for the next batch of crops. The remaining leaves are stacked together, rolled carefully into the cigar and sealed with honey. The end is rolled into a point and you have an all natural, organic Cuban cigar.
When it’s ready to be smoked, the tip is dipped in honey to add sweetness to the flavor of the tobacco.
Neither Maggie or I smoke as it’s just not something we’re in to (and I already have asthma), but when in Rome, right? Plus, I feel better about there not being nearly as much nicotine in these.
The farmer also explains to us that due to communism, the government owns 90% of the crop he grows. After the leaves have dried, they come in and soak them, stems and all, in barrels of chemicals for a year before bringing them to factories to be made into the famous Cuban cigars. This leaves the farmer with 10% of his crop to do with as he wishes. He offers to sell us some of his organic, non-chemical, reduced nicotine cigars, but we’ve been told so many times that when trying to leave the country, if the cigars don’t have specific labels on them, they will be confiscated.
It’s worth noting, when I do leave with a box of “official” cigars, nobody checks them for the labels. Perhaps they were scanned in the X-ray machine? But it seems maybe the rules aren’t as strict as they once were.
After our tour, we continue our hike through more farmland. It’s so bucolic here.
This is our ride for the morning. Horses are a common form of transportation in Vinales and it’s not the last time today we’ll use them to get around.
We take the long way back to town through the park for more scenic sights.
We also pass the Mural de la Prehistoria – a giant painting of dinosaurs on a cliff wall. There’s an official visitors center and restaurants, but of course it costs to get in. I’m perfectly fine seeing it from the road.
Then it’s back to town, and it’s not even 9am. We have more adventures coming this afternoon.
If you make it to Vinales, I highly recommend the Los Aquaticos hike at sunrise, especially because it might not be around much longer. Don’t let them tell you it’s not available, someone can show you the way. It’s worth the early morning wake up call to experience the last of the mysterious water healers, or at least share a cup of coffee and their views of the valley.