A childhood dream comes true in Cuba. Kinda.
26.02.2013 - 06.03.2013
We all have those. Childhood dreams that we know, as adults, are a bit silly and will never really happen but we occasionally drift into them anyway. One of my friends sings in the shower, pretending to be at Wembley; another one still hopes she will accidentally bump into Prince Harry (it used to be William, but lets face it, Harry just is cooler) they'll share a joke, fall in love, and she will live happily ever after as a princess. My secret daydream is climbing up to the highest platform at the Olympics, with my bronze and silver medalist companions looking at me, enviously, as I gracefully accept the flowers and the gold medal for winning the showjumping, and wave to the crowds, becoming a Finnish national hero.
Well, a lesser version of this is just to own my own horse. And when I heard that in Cuba, you could buy one for about $200, it was just way too good to pass by.
For my last week in Cuba, I wanted to take it easy, and, after almost 5 weeks of constant movement, sit still. I wanted to be somewhere beautiful and quiet, to sit on a porch, in a rocking chair like the Cubans, with a small glass of rum and a cigar (ok, maybe not the cigar. But definitely the rum) and watch sunsets. But I also wanted to ride horses; I'd not done much of it in years, but going horse riding in Cuba made me realise how happy it actually makes me. So, I headed for the Viñales Valley in the Western end of the island, the most beautiful, tranquil part of Cuba where even I, a fairly seasoned traveller, adamant in being hard to impress, was impressed. Viñales is a karstic depression, measuring roughly 50 square miles, meaning, to those who had to google "karstic" like me, a landscape made of porous substances such as limestone and dolomite, which forms sinkholes and underground drainages. In this valley, the whole ground has sank, leaving stark islands of mountains dotted around the area where the original highland was. Driving into it made me lean out the bus windows, just so I could take it all in, and on arrival, I knew Viñales was exactly what I wanted for my last week; two main roads and a few smaller ones, a quiet plaza with a church, around which the tourist tat sellers congregated much like in every single tourist-friendly destination in the world. The further you walked, the more the houses thinned out- I had someone waiting for me, a friend of a friend, a nice, middle-aged man who, along with his wife and their son, ran a casa particular at the edge of town. I was given a little room with a bathroom at the top of the house with my own entrance, and, the best of all, a massive roof terrace which overlooked the valley. As I unpacked, little chittering birds settled on the rocking chair as the sun started to set over the ancient limestone clifffs all around me.
The next day, I set off to find a horse. At this stage, I wasn't really thinking of buying one, just maybe renting one for a week or so. My lovely landlord had called his nephew the night before, and I went off to find him, the impossibly beautiful (they are all impossibly beautiful, and impossibly relentless) Rodrigo who owned six horses and frequently took tourists for riding trips. I found him easily, with his horses grazing by his house in a small enclosure. We talked for a bit, and he suggested we go for a ride to the nearby cave systems, passing by tobacco fields in the bright morning sunshine. After I asked him how much a good horse might cost, he nodded gravely and said they were pricey, from $150 upwards. I didn't dare to tell him that's how much I paid for my leather boots the winter before. Suddenly, his face brightened up and he told me that there was a breeder who was looking to sell a beautiful sorrel stallion for $250. He was cheap, but he was cheap because he didn't much get on with the other horses. Rodrigo said he was keen on it; he could keep it at his uncle's house, separate from the other horses, but he didn't quite have enough money for it. We sat by the cave, in the absolute stillness, waiting for the midday heat to creep up on us, me frantically re-applying sun cream and drinking water like a camel, when I asked him how much he could pay for the stallion. Apparently, $150, but the breeder wouldn't sell for that price- even $250 was low for a young stallion. I plucked a few bits of grass and thought for a moment. The water bubbled along slowly in the caves, and a cool breeze wafted up from the dark depths. I said, How about, Rodrigo, if I bought the horse, and kept it, for free, at your uncle's enclosure for the week I was in Viñales, and then, as I left, I would sell him to you for $150? Would you loan me a saddle and bridles for the week? I looked up to see him, grinning, and so we made a deal to buy a horse together.
My horse is called Tequila. A lot of horses are called Tequila, Whiskey or suchlike. I'm not entirely sure why. The lovely dark bay mare I rode on the first day was Marguerita, also a common horse name. I wouldn't be surprised if the government gave people a list of suitable horse names they were allowed to use. No paperwork was completed; everyone in Viñales knows one another, and so the horse went on "loan" for a week- after I'd leave, I would give my $100 to Rodrigo who would then go and complete the deal. So, officially, Tequila was never mine, but he was a fantastic horse and I sorely missed him after I left. I was a bit apprehensive at first- a young stallion is hard to ride in the best of times, but in a terrain I wasn't sure of and after several years of not much horse-handling experience, I thought it would be a real challenge. However, the first time I went along with Rodrigo's tour group, and the next I went alone but followed much of the same route. Eventually, I ventured further and further afield, even climbing up to the surrounding hills where the posh hotels were. They were rather surprised to see a foreign blond girl on a horse that seemed to be doing a side-stepping dance as soon as I pulled the reigns the slightest bit, but waved cheerfully at me anyway. Tequila was eager and energetic; and my heart nearly broke as on the last morning when I came to meet him, carrot in hand, he trotted over to me. And there I was, leaving the next day.
Viñales has been one of my favourite places ever, and not just because of the lovely family I stayed with, or Rodrigo and Tequila, but for the amazing scenery and for the fact that I very much got to live out my Cuban dream of rocking chairs, lazy days and neat rum in little chipped glasses. I had to leave and go back to Havana, but a little of me stayed in the valley. But I had a plane to catch, and a long trek to Medellin which would take me another five months, was about to begin.
Tomorrow, I would be in Mexico.