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Viñales after Dark

The beauty of Viñales, and everyday life stories from a foreign traveler’s point of view
Photo by Katya Bleszynska

Living in Havana is heated, heavy, and hectic. Ever so often, for the sake of my soul and my sanity, I need to get out of the city and spend a night in el campo cubano, the Cuban countryside. A rickety old classic car, with luggage tethered to the roof and packed with passengers, trundles west, the driver violently swerving potholes and various stray animals in the road. Preferably, we would like to get to our destination alive. As soon as we pass into the Valley of Viñales I instantly feel like I can breathe deeply again. I never realise how asphyxiating it feels in Havana until I take my first big gulp of countryside air. We drive through the main town to drop off the other tourists but we are headed to a cabin in the middle of a tiny village that nobody has ever heard of. 

Here, we set our stuff down and take in the awestriking beauty of our surroundings. The land is green as far as the eye can see, save for a twinkling blue lake in the distance, encircled by majestic mogotes – limestone rock formations that loom on the horizon like watchful guardians. We sink into the afternoon with the intention of doing what Cubans do very well: absolutely nothing. No horse riding excursions, no tobacco plantation tours, just gently swinging back and forth on rocking chairs on the back porch, breaking into random bouts of chatter, and then falling into extended silence. A family of chickens occasionally clucks past us, a much too skinny horse grazes in a neighbouring field, pigs grunt as they snuffle at the dry earth, and the shouts of farmers commanding their oxen echo through the valley. We spend hours watching the numerous showers throughout the day from the shelter of our porch. In a matter of minutes, the mogotes go misty and a downpour begins. Then, just as quickly as the rain began it disappears, and blazing sunshine takes its place, the instability of the weather mirroring the instability the country faces. 

Still not moving from the positions we’ve been in all day, late afternoon turns to twilight and dragonflies take to the darkening skies. As the minutes pass and the purple-grey evening becomes inky indigo blue, suddenly, the lights from inside the cabin switch off and the fans slowly spin to a stop, plunging us into darkness. The inevitable blackout. It will surely last for six hours at least, scheduled by the government in an attempt to manage the mounting energy crisis. We weren’t doing anything before and we certainly won’t be now. 

Mere moments later, a light pops out from around the corner of the cabin, followed by a floating head. 

“God you scared us!” 

“Perdón perdón, I live up the hill, I wanted to come down and see if you needed a light,” the head says. 

Our neighbour places the lantern on the patio floor and instantly a crowd of nighttime creepy crawlies flutter, hop, and buzz toward the bright white light. We thank him but he lingers, leaning against the porch pillar, the three of us staring out into the dark nothingness. After a while, he breaks the silence.

“I feel a little sad this evening.” 

“Why’s that?” I reply. 

“My friend got murdered by her husband today.” 

Lost for words, the silence starts up again. It’s not exactly your typical neighbourly back porch small talk. After a while, curiosity gets the better of me.

“Wow, I’m so sorry… do you know what happened?” 

“I know that they had been having some problems. They got into an argument and he chopped her head off clean with a machete. They could have resolved things in so many other ways. Now, two little children are left behind with nobody.” 

This is the silent underbelly of rural towns such as these, events that rarely make it into national news for fear of tarnishing Cuba’s reputation of being free from violent crime. But crimes of passion, of stress, and of desperation are more commonplace than you would think, perhaps now more than ever. This is a darker reality that is hidden behind the doors of the town’s quaint and colourful houses and underneath the noble and knowing smiles of the campesinos. 

Silence again, and although his lingering presence is making us feel a little awkward, we didn’t ask for it after all, his loneliness is palpable, so we allow him to join us in our quiet contemplation. We try to move the conversation along, touching topics I’ve had a thousand times over with Cubans: the price of fuel, the price of everything, the blackouts, the shortages. These are the topics that are dominating almost every conversation across the island. 

“Back in 2016, Viñales had so much tourism that every single house was full and tourists had to camp out in the park. The town seems so empty now,” he sighs.

This commonly told story is now so far removed from the Cuba of today that it feels more like fiction than fact, an ancient myth from the glory days of a declining civilisation in its final phase. 

“The pandemic has been tough all over the world. Bit by bit it will get better” I say, but I don’t know if I’m telling him that or myself, and I’m unsure if I even believe it. 

If I was in my country, the UK, a stranger coming to my back door uninvited in the middle of the night and telling me a story about decapitation would certainly not be well received. But here I am used to random and surreal Cuban encounters, in fact, most of the time, I welcome them. Once you get a Cuban started, even if you didn’t ask them to start, it can be hard to get them to stop, rarely picking up on your polite yet feeble British hints. 

Eventually, he seems to have had enough for the night, and we definitely have too, so we say good night and retire to the cabin to try to get some sleep in this blackout-induced, mosquito-filled heat. The next morning, light has returned, both the natural and the artificial, and I come out of the cabin to stretch my body, heavy from the tossing and turning in the night. Coming back up from my stretch I catch eyes with our nighttime companion loitering in his doorway. He waves at me with a beaming smile. 

“Hey neighbour, how you doing today?” He shouts.

“Good! How are you?” 

“Good!!” 

The troubles and the darkness of yesterday have faded away as if they were a blurry part of a fever dream during a hot Caribbean night. Life in Viñales goes on.

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Viñales after Dark

The beauty of Viñales, and everyday life stories from a foreign traveler’s point of view

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