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 Mogotes, the strange limestone hills of Vinales
Vinales, about three hours west of Havana, was another bright spot, not the least because of the multitude of small colourful houses. Apart from being delightfully green what makes this region special  are the mogotes the strange 'pincushion' hills, which have remained after underground rivers have caused softer rocks to collapse. Rivers still run within these hills and have produced a number of caves which have served various purposes over the years - as a hide -out for rebels and runaway slaves, but now as restaurants and tourist attractions. As I left Trinidad, eagles soared and thunder heads were gathering again. Along the road campesinos were cutting grass by hand, putting it into bags and loading it onto small heavily laden horses. Hitchhikers tried in vain to obtain lifts by waving money or offering cakes, cheeses and plucked chickens. I felt really guilty driving by in the comfort of an airconditioned bus that showed no sign of stopping. Lots of cars had their bonnets up at the side of the road too.Did I mention that it was unbearably hot?

 Typical local architecture and great hospitality too

In Vinales, having almost recovered from my previous excursion, I did a three hour guided horse ride. You always had to have a local guide but at least they were reasonable here. He led me through rich farmland with guavas, bananas, coconuts, pineapples, coffee plants and fields of rice and tobacco. Beef cattle roamed in the distance and birds and butterflies fluttered in the tropical vegetation nearby. A friendly tobacco farmer demonstrated how cigars were rolled. Though his cigars were quite mild and considerably less expensive than those in the city, souvenirs are usually beyond both  my budget and my luggage allowance. Besides I may have fotten to like them and  I already have too many bad habits I can't afford.

Miguel, the tobacco farmer
The next day since the advertised tourist bus failed to materialise, I joined forces with a Belgian couple to explore the  area and especially to see some of the caves. They were huge. In the first there were old stalactites and  stalagmites and a short river cruise to the other side. This was accompanied with the usual palaver like "And over there you can see the seashorse" and "Can you see the skull?" The second, 'Palenque' had once been used by African slaves and near the exit there was a tiny mock -up of what their lifestyle would have been like showing palm leaf beds with banana leaf pillows. The Africans also brought their own culture with them and African elements can still be found in the region today.

African creation myths depicted on a round hut
Though I had most of my meals at Omeida's Casa and they were delicious, there was also an excellent vegetarian restaurant which obtained its produce from the ecological garden up the hill. It was lovely to be going out in the evening and pleasantly warm despite a tropical thunderstorm on most afternoons. While listening to live music at the Casa de la Cultura I ran into an Australian couple I had met while waiting for a bus and we enjoyed a couple of mojitos. That could explain my sudden enthusiasm for dancing though I am inclined to blame the music.

The next day involved a long walk into the mountains with another guide to visit the Los Aquaticos, a self reliant community which believes in the power of water for healing. I can't vouch for the water but the guava juice was certainly welcome. The day was hot and the guide could see that I my spirits were flagging  especially when I kept getting my sandals bogged on the way down so he organised a tractor ride for the last few kilometres back to town. The tractor was old and rusty and already had a complement of campesinos  and a load of sand in the back, but slow, excrutiating and noisy as it was - you should have seen those chickens scatter at our approach, even travelling at 4 kms. per hour it was way better than walking.  

The last day was equally eventful since the people I had planned to share a taxi with stood me up. That meant a harem scarem ride in several collectivos until I finally got back to Havana. Collectivos - shared taxis are a wonderful idea and much cheaper than the tour buses but the downside is that you have to wait until the spruikers have managed to fill all the seats. Normally it woulddn't have mattered but this time I had to be at the airport for my next flight so I was literally on the edge of my seat and not just because of the driving.