The Viñales Valley is a unique landscape a little more than 100 miles southwest of Havana.
To get there, we leave Habana Vieja where the tourists stay, pass by the Centro Habana area populated with ordinary Cubans, skirt Vedado where better off Cubans reside, then through a tunnel beneath Rio Almendares and into the Miramar district.
Before Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, the mafia was well on their way to doing the same thing. Tired of being hamstrung by pesky US laws against gambling, prostitution, extortion and murder, mobsters including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky had decided to make Cuba their own, and the exclusive seaside district of Miramar was where they had taken up residence as they worked on their plan. Among other well-known US citizens such as Frank Sinatra, then-Senator John Kennedy was a guest of these would-be potentates here in Miramar...irónico is the Spanish word comes to my mind. The mafioso were forced to flee following the revolution, and now many foreign embassies are located here. One of these might be the ugliest building on the planet: the Russian embassy reminds me of some sort of hideous concrete spear that has impaled itself into this otherwise pleasant place, and I wonder how the same culture that created the elegant onion domes that crown buildings in their own country could construct something so grotesque. Just before the city gives way to countryside, as cities inevitably do, we pass a fenced compound between the road and the sea. Steve Anchell speculates that Fidel might be living out his remaining days here. I speculate that having ceded power and in failing health, he no longer has to sleep in a different house every night to stay ahead of CIA assassination attempts as he once did.
We travel west toward Pinar del Rio on Cuba's version of an interstate highway. Unlike limited access freeways in other countries, dirt lanes frequently lead from the road to houses and farms, and cross- roads are common. Adjacent to several of these crossroads are bridges that had been constructed to carry traffic over the highway, but for which approach ramps had not been provided. Monuments to what was to be, I think, and I am heartened to know that US Senators are not the only politicians that can build bridges to nowhere. We leave the highway and take a twisty, hilly, two-lane road that challenges the skill of our driver and eventually arrive in Viñales.
Valle de Viñales truly is a unique landscape. The valleys are rimmed by strange looking limestone mountains called mogotes, formed when the island rose from the Carribean eons ago. Rumor has it that Steven Spielberg scouted the valley and wanted to film Jurassic Park here; the Cubans agreed but with the economic embargo still in place Washington did not, so it was instead filmed in Costa Rica, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Hollywood. I could not verify this story elsewhere, so rumor it remains. In any case, it could have been shot here, the landscape certainly looks prehistoric enough. Perhaps Spielberg will get his wish with Jurassic Park III currently under development and commerce with Cuba now more easily arranged.
Royal Palms share the rich, dark red soil of the valleys with fields of tobacco, banana trees, and other fruits and vegetables. Many of the barns have thatched roofs and some even with walls of thatch, allowing ideal air flow and humidity to properly dry the valley's tobacco crop, said to be the best on the island and used to make the most expensive cigars sold in Cuba.
At one time the state took all of the tobacco crop from the valley to produce these cigars, but as economic conditions worsened following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, farmers were allowed to keep and sell 10% of their tobacco, along with other crops grown here. So even though Valle de Viñales may appear prehistoric, it may in fact be a harbinger of the future in Cuba.