There are 2 bus lines for tourists in Cuba-- the state-run ViaAzul which leaves from bus stations in various towns across the island, and Transtur which departs from selected city hotels. Both were fairly reasonably priced, and both appeared to have modern-looking buses like we'd used in Mexico.
But, alas, Cuba's transportation system is not in the same league as Mexico. You won't find an unlocked, functional bathroom on a bus in Cuba. That's because they don't seem to have a septic infrastructure system anywhere in the country to pump out the holding tanks. And, forget about onboard WiFi, wide leather seats, on-time departures and arrivals-- that's Mexico, not Cuba!
Our Transtur bus to Viñales was 2 hours late to pick us up, but in their defense, they had a good excuse that day-- traffic in Havana was snarled by the Fidel Castro funeral procession going through town that morning.
Once we finally boarded our bus, there was a pleasant English-speaking guide to orient us, and I had an interesting young woman as my seatmate who was originally from Poland and now a graduate student in Dublin. Lots of European tourists in Cuba!
The Cuban countryside had some sugar plantations and small farms here and there, but was curiously mostly undeveloped. I got the feeling that most Cubans had migrated to Havana or larger towns around the island (or else had left Cuba completely). The island seemed quite under-populated for its size.
To make up for the lack of onboard bathroom facilities, there are a few tourist rest stops in Cuba between popular tourist towns where the buses stop. Our stop on this day was 2 hours after we'd left Havana and 1 hour before arriving to Viñales. The tourist stop had flush toilets (which you were expected to pay 25 cents to the attendant), and also had a gift shop, and open-air bar/restaurant. It was a pleasant half-hour stop.
As we departed the bus in Viñales and began walking through town, we realized that the entire town was focused purely on the tourist trade. Restaurants, tour operators, gift shops, and casa particulars (B&B's run by individual Cubans). If we didn't feel like "walking ATM's" to the residents of Old Havana, we most certainly did here!
After a quick lunch at a restaurant along the main road, we zig-zagged our way down 6 dusty blocks to our casa particular, Villa Marta y El Chino. They apparently had built 3 guest rooms across the back of 2 houses. Cubans have little choice when buying bath and bedroom fixtures for their B&B's, so they apparently make up for this with vibrant paint colors. My room at Villa Marta y El Chino looked nice from the outside--
But inside, was decidedly "Pepto Bismol Pink"! The hot pink bedspreads aren't shown in this photo, but combined with the walls, it was certainly quite a pink palace---
The bathroom was a mis-mash of various colored fixtures, typical of most Cuban B&B's---
At least it was clean and air-conditioned, and for only $25/night, not such a bad deal.
The next day, Ursula, Hans, and I went on a "Walking Tour" of Viñales Valley offered by one of the tour operators along the main street. The tour was supposed to last about 3 hours and require about 3 miles of walking. But, it turned out to last a few hours longer and was at least 5 miles of walking, including one short/steep hill-climb.
The first few hours of the tour were fascinating and enjoyable. We started out at a small coffee plantation that had a delightfully colored casa--
The plantation was run by a man our guide called "Antonio Banderas"--
As Antonio showed us his coffee beans and ground some for coffee---
His daughter cleaned some coffee cups in their simple kitchen for guests to drink out of--
Our next stop was to a small tobacco farm run by a farmer named Luis. We met him in the tobacco leaf drying shed where he showed us how they rolled various kinds of leafs to make a cigar.
Once the cigar was rolled, he passed it around for each of us to smell. Of course, I had to ham it up a little for my photo!
Some of the men in the tour decided to try smoking their cigars, and all agreed that they were very good. Thanks to the Castro regime, local tobacco farmers own their own land, but they must only use tobacco seeds from the state-run tobacco business, and then must sell back 90% of their crop to the state. For the privilege, they receive only around $30 for each 50kg package of dried tobacco leaves. Fortunately, the farmers can sell the remaining 10% of their crop directly to tourists. Luis sold his bundles of 10 cigars for $25, and while this may seem expensive, it was far cheaper than the cigars sold in the state-run tobacco stores in Havana.
After visiting Luis, we headed out to see the tobacco fields and the karsks of Viñales Valley--
As we walked through some forested area near the karsks, our guide pointed out 2 birds unique to the area: the Cuban Trogan, and the Cuban Pewee. Unfortunately, both birds were too fast-moving for my little point & shoot camera, but they were wonderful to experience in-person!
When we returned to the tobacco fields, we stopped at a small shack to visit with a farmer named "Paul Newman." His blue eyes were mesmerizing!
The walk back to our casa was long and hot. By this time, it was mid-afternoon and I'd run out of water. I knew the long walk (and dehydration) would not bode well for my back, and that night proved to be one of the most painful of our entire trip. My Ibuprofen was clearly no longer cutting it.
The next morning, I asked Hans to send Ursula to my room for an emergency back massage. The looks on the casa owners' faces after hearing my moans and then seeing Ursula and I emerge from the room were priceless! The casa owner, Marta, was actually quite sympathetic though. She, too, had long suffered from back pain and offered to take me to the local clinic. But, the massage seemed to have helped a bit, so I decided to just head back to the bus stop with Hans and Ursula for our departure out of town.
Our next stop would be a quick overnight in Havana, and we all seriously thought of ways to end the trip there and get back to Mexico. But, the lack of decent internet and phone service made it practically impossible to get our flights rescheduled, so I decided to continue on with the remaining 10 days of the trip in hopes that my back pain would be manageable as long as I refrained from any long walking tours.
Viñales did have some cute aspects to it-- the town square and small church:
The row of colorful houses coming into town--
The ox cart that was just as "at home" along the main paved road as large tour buses and classic American cars--
and the bicycle parked in front of the bread bakery that seemed like a scene more out of the French countryside, than out of Cuba--
Our return trip to Havana was interesting. Our Transtur bus was an hour late picking us up (a common theme), and was so crowded that the tour guide had to sit on the engine compartment next to the driver. But the three hours flew by thanks to some interesting fellow passengers-- a young man originally from Germany who was now living in Montreal, and a young woman originally from Austria who was now living in Sweden on a houseboat. They were intellectually curious, animated, and fascinating to watch as they interacted with the passengers around them. They had a nice long conversation in German with Hans and Ursula, then spoke French to a woman sitting ahead of them, and finally spoke English to me and a British man sitting in front of me.
After driving along for a few hours, passengers began asking the guide if we would be stopping at a Tourist's Rest Stop on our way back to Havana. She replied that there were no rest stops on the return trip but if anyone needed to stop, they would (meaning that any large tree or bush you'd like to squat behind, they'd oblige!). Ok, dokey! Another interesting Cuba bus trip.
We arrived to our final bus stop, the giant Havana Libre Hotel, and decided to grab some sandwiches at their large coffee shop/diner. What a surprise to see a menu that had much more variety than the basic staples we'd come to know at the B&B's. Being a large state-run hotel has its advantages, I guess. But spending over $200/night for a basic room there would not be our preference. We, instead, stayed at a nice little Casa Particular a mile away run by a sweet woman named Mariel, who greeted us with European-style cheek kisses upon our arrival. Tomorrow, we'd head back to the Havana Libre to take a 6-hour bus ride down to Trinidad to see our next UNESCO Heritage site.