Lesson #1 of the Cuban Countryside: Royal palm trees grow wild. You know the trees I’m talking about. A slender 60- or 70-foot trunk arcs upward to a feathery umbrella of fronds. We’re used to seeing them lined up along iconic streets in Beverly Hills or Vegas. In Cuba, they’re as common as oak trees in English meadows or Douglas Firs in the Canadian Rockies.
In fact, the royal palm is the national tree of Cuba. It’s illegal to cut one down. Fallen fronds are used to thatch roofs. When the trees shed shards of bark, farmers turn them into boxes for curing tobacco leaves.
And this is what you start to learn within just 15 minutes or so of leaving downtown Havana for the Viñales valley about 120 miles to the west. Spending time in the countryside is essential to understanding Cuba. As Havana prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding, it’s a real eye-opener to see how close the rural part of the country remains to its historic roots.
The first surprise is just how close the country is to the city. There are essentially no suburbs in Havana. The city stops abruptly. In the blink of an eye, fields surround the highway. First you notice the solo animals – a bull, a horse, an occasional donkey – grazing just a few feet from the edge of the pavement. They’re tethered there, it turns out, to take advantage of the forage.
After the bustle of Havana’s streets, other vehicles become disconcertingly rare. You spot a few commercial trucks and, almost as often, horse-drawn carts, hauling hay or field hands. At random intervals, clusters of people stand at the edge of the road. They are waiting for a notoriously unpredictable public bus, still the most viable way for rural Cubans to go from Point A to B.
There’s no denying that rural life is rudimentary in other ways. At a small local school, chickens scratch along the sidewalk and lonely family dogs pant at the open classroom doors. The kids all walk to school because there aren’t any buses or car pools here. The vice-principal steps out to greet us with a big smile and proceeds to answer questions about everything from curriculum to school uniforms. A teacher invites us in to talk to her third-graders who say they want to be biologists, teachers and doctors—goals that are all more possible than you’d automatically expect due to state-provided education all the way through grad school.
The scenic highlight is the Viñales Valley itself. Nothing about the route prepares you for the spectacle here. From our hotel on one rim of the valley, the view stretches for miles. You see patches of typical rust-red soil next to emerald fields of tobacco. There are more royal palms, of course. And over it all stand the mogotes, abrupt islands of limestone that jut improbably from the fertile valley floor.
For me, walking in that valley is the highlight of my time in Cuba. In the company of Oscar, a local resident, we follow the lanes that the farmers use. The small farmhouses are almost all identical: one-story cinderblock affairs, open front to back in “shotgun” style for maximum ventilation. In small gardens, goats bleat at us. You spot the occasional pet hutia, a cavy-like animal that lives in the trees. We yield right of way to garlic man—a vendor who pedals from house to house on a bicycle draped with three-foot-long strings of bulbs for sale.
You can’t miss the fact that tobacco is this region’s primary cash crop. Stopping at a field of mature plants, Oscar shows us how leaves from the top, middle and bottom sections of the stalk are different and have unique functions in the making of cigars. Scattered around us are tobacco drying barns with chalet-steep roofs covered in palm thatch. You absolutely don’t have to be a smoker to appreciate the exotic humid aroma inside—and all of the rich tradition and natural science that go into cigar making. A thick upside-down canopy of leaves hangs from poles that rise all the way to the roof’s ridge, and you can see how the natural drying changes them from green to gold.
The farmer we visit is the sixth generation of his family to grow tobacco here. Like all farmers, he is required to sell 90% of his crop to the Cuban government, but the remaining tenth of his crop is where his passion lies. He explains to us how the leaves are fermented before being rolled into his personal brand of cigars. Perfectly dried leaves go into handmade palm-bark boxes, and then he sprinkles on his own secret “juice” that includes tea, honey and rum. (Like every good family recipe, you’ll never pry all of the details from him.)
Finally, he lays a board across his lap and rolls a cigar. Of course, he lights up one of his private reserve for anyone who’s game for a puff. More to my taste is a piña colada under a shade tree at the farmhouse. Here, they whip them up from homegrown pineapple. For proof that you’re not at a city bar, the farmer hospitably sets out a fresh bottle of Guayabita del Pinar, the local rum-like liquor flavored with guava. You pour your own measure (and maybe go back for a bit more when you get near the bottom of your glass).
The pace is oh so slow. Over there, a boy washes down a horse in a small pond. An old man, comfortably astride his donkey, trots to a halt just long enough to ask where I’m from, tell me about his time in Fidel’s army in Angola, and how he just received his nearby house as a reward for his service. Machete in hand, another farmer hacks his way through a field of taro.
Back in Havana, the fleet of ‘50s cars rumbles past. Laundry flutters in the sixth-floor windows of once-elegant apartment buildings. Icons of the revolution fill entire museums. Yet still it feels like those days in the country were the ones that really revealed Cuba to me.