My Repeated Return to Viñales

Erasmo Calzadilla

Viñales. Photo: Caridad

Once again I’ve pulled out my beat-up backpack to hit the guerrilla trail, this time in the company of a Venezuelan woman; as well as with Irina and Yordanka, two collaborators with Havana Times.

Before departing, we always go through the pain of deciding exactly where we’re heading, and we almost always end up choosing our destination by sheer chance. But this time, to show our Caracas guest the famous village of Viñales, we steered our prow toward that tranquil town.

As quiet as secondary students leaving school without screaming, or the final game of the national baseball series (in which Pinar del Rio plays) we hardly murmured a word in the silence of the night.

Privately-owned trucks efficiently cover the route to Pinar, though the fare has doubled over the past 10 years… I think next time we’ll go by train.

The bad part about Viñales for us guerillas is that there are hardly any rivers in its back woods, so you have to walk miles to find a cave with water. In hiking, there’s nobody who can get the best of me – and these women have a lot of stamina too. Still, this time the trek was more difficult than usual.

The problem was the sun. It scorched us as we crossed the dusty valleys that the drought — and (I suppose) poor agricultural practices — have transformed into deserts.

Aided by talkative locals, we finally made it to the blessed cave, and in the freezing lake water concealed inside it, we shed our clothes along with the dust and heat.

During the time we were swimming and frolicking in the lake water at the bottom of the grotto, several groups of foreigners passed by guided by campesinos. It’s curious how these locals, who usually look so authentic, transform their behavior in the face of foreigners: adopting poses, becoming mechanical, depersonalizing themselves and dumbing down around the tourists.

But if the guides seemed strange, the tourists were even more so. At the climax of the boring tour (the cave really doesn’t have any special charm), that’s to say when arriving to the puddle, the foreigners (almost always Caucasian or Asian) remained there for a good while simply standing in silence, or whispering very quietly between themselves.

The Cave. Photo: Caridad

“Such unexpressive people! What could they be thinking? What was behind that silence?” we said among ourselves. But then we figured that they must have been thinking: “What kinda shit is this? I’ve been taken. With the wad of money I paid…I didn’t have to leave my county to see a damned puddle in a cave.”

By then, freshened and rested, we left in search of a place to pitch camp and cook, but there wasn’t any suitable place around for us to set up. Everywhere the ground was dusty and turned over for planting, or abandoned fields were covered with weeds, and no shade to speak of.

After years of visiting Viñales, I have the impression that tourism there is conceived of as a means of squeezing the juice out of “silly tourists” (not that they’re that way; rather, that’s how they’re treated).

There’s nothing of an ecological, cultural or integral concept, and much less any promotion of contact between foreigners and nationals. In this hunt for easy dollars, no one has moved a hair to promote or facilitate alternative forms of tourism for the tents that arrive in the valley every spring.

Unable to have found a campsite, we undertook the sweltering trip back. However, in the middle of that journey it hit me — not without sadness — that the splendid mountain chain that used to evoke sublime exaltation within me, now barely moves my sentiments.

But the story didn’t end on a sour note. Just as it was getting dark, we made it back to town hungry, dirty, worn out and with no idea of where we could stay. Fortunately my friend Dago “saved our lives” by welcoming us into his home. We cooked, rested and talked with him and his family until the moment to leave that following day.

I believe that what’s most beautiful in Viñales is its friendliness, but at any moment it can get entangled with a foreigner and we lose it.

One thought on “My Repeated Return to Viñales

  • Erasmo, I have to say I had a really good laughter with this you wrote!

    “But then we figured that they must have been thinking: “What kinda shit is this? I’ve been taken. With the wad of money I paid…I didn’t have to leave my county to see a damned puddle in a cave.”

    Even if what you wrote is true, to come to the realization that the puddle in a cave can be seen anywhere is a good realization. But I think it’s far from true. The countryside in Viñales with the mogotes offers foreigners one of the most spectacular natural views on earth. I have seen quite a few magnificent places and Viñales valley is out there with the best of them.

    Some times one does not appreciate enough what one have because it is already yours and feels attracted to the unknown. It is natural behavior. But your little pool and cave and everything else is also very beautiful!

    Best to you, Irina and friend.

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