I thought that perhaps if I traveled a few thousand miles away, I could elude 40, but it caught up with me all the same. If I couldn’t escape it, then at least I should make it a memorable day. Armed with a long weekend and enough frequent flyer miles to get me to Cuba, we traded the drab Northwest winter for a few days of dazzling Caribbean sun.
Seth’s mother and step-father live in Old Havana, so we were treated to a glimpse of Cuban life, something cruise ship tourists miss on their brief forays into the city. We rose early to run along the Malecón; had tea with Cuban friends; took in a jazz concert at an art museum; strolled through the streets in search of flowers and vegetables; sampled Havana’s emerging food culture; gorged on Rafael’s black beans, rice, yucca, and plantains; sipped rum from a fresh coconut on the beach; and watched the evening unfold from a rooftop terrace. It was a much-needed vacation from the rush of our lives, and a cultural experience that allowed us to see how varied human existence can be.
Examining Cuban life between the lines was the difficult part of this trip. The everyday conveniences we take for granted simply don’t exist in Cuba. A man pushes a cart down the street offering leftover government vegetables, because there is no grocery store. Another man pushes a cart as he collects your trash. As a resident, you might not have running water in your house for days. If you’re lucky and in the know, you’ll score a coveted loaf of bread that isn’t a stale brick. Bony horses pull heavy loads down busy roads choked with exhaust. Dogs wander in hopes of scraps. Buildings crumble before your eyes. Citizens have only the appearance of moving freely, and bribes unapologetically grease palms in broad daylight. While it seems that things are changing, many Cubans nevertheless live a difficult life. You won’t necessarily see this on the surface—my impression of Cubans is that they are warm people who would never offer a complaint—but the subtext is there all the same. It’s something we reckoned with throughout the trip and after. Traveling there was an interesting experience, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit this country, but I also don’t want to view it through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring the everyday challenges faced by many of its residents. In the end, I believe it’s good for us to see how others live in this world, to give us perspective, instill empathy, and compel us to recognize our own privilege. Perhaps we will also use that advantage to do something for others, both human and nonhuman alike.
For my birthday, I, naturally, wanted to get out of the city and into the wild. Pico Turquino caught my eye, as it’s Cuba’s highest peak. Unfortunately, it would have been a long bus ride from Havana, and hiring a guide is compulsory. My sights then landed on the Valle de Viñales, a Unesco World Heritage site and national park a few hours drive away. Photos of the limestone mogotes rising above the valley drew me in, and whispers of how to sneak into the national park without a guide sealed the deal.
Viñales is a small rural town that sees a lot of tourists yet manages to maintain an authentic vibe. Vast agricultural lands, limestone mogotes, jungle-cloaked mountains, and lush valleys enfold the town in all directions. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place. We called a lovely casa particular home during our stay, which offered stunning views of the landscape from our balcony. Our hosts handed us fresh-squeezed mango juice as we reclined in rocking chairs, rocking away the tensions of the city’s noise and chaos.
After a welcome siesta, we ventured out to scout routes for the next day’s big adventure. This took us through tobacco fields and rural roads dotted with simple homes, the mogotes calling in the distance. Hitting a trail, we continued north toward the mountains, running through a jungle-like setting. We identified a notch leading to the Valle de San Vincente beyond and considered coming back tomorrow to explore it further.
We retraced our steps, trying to connect trails and dirt roads all the way, but a small river and deep mud turned us back the way we came. As the sun set and the magic hour light bathed the fields, we saw farmers retiring to porches after a long day’s work. It was a pastoral image straight out of a Constable painting, with a pinkish filter on the mogotes, voices tinged with the contentment of being at rest, chickens clucking in the yard, oxen unyoked in the fields. It was impossible not to romanticize the scene.
After dinner at a vegetarian restaurant (where our eyes were decidedly bigger than our stomachs), we strolled through the lively downtown, walking off our excess. With the weight of that ominous number 40 looming, I grew a little sullen, and Seth made an admirable effort to pull me out of that funk. He reminded me that I still have much to accomplish, and plenty of time in which to do so. We spent the evening dorking out over maps and potential routes for the morning, which, in my book, is the perfect way to end the day.
If I remember one thing from this trip, it will be the orange glow of sunrise to the east silhouetting the mountain ridges, and the cacophony of roosters crowing in the dawn. I’ve never heard anything like it, the cock-a-doodle-doos from all directions, not another sound audible in the otherwise still morning. 40 was off to a pretty amazing start.
As the town awoke and children made their way to school, we trotted toward the national park. Along the way, we picked up four street dogs, who immediately incorporated us into their pack. Running through the streets, the dogs would bark at passersby, the pack protecting, and claiming, us as their own. The dogs seemed as happy as us to be running in the cool morning, heading for the hills.
The innocent fun took a turn, though, when they ran after a flock of young sheep. Not wanting them to cause harm, we regrettably had to turn on our pack and attempted to chase them away (ok, admittedly, I made Seth do the dirty work because I couldn’t chase off the dogs myself.) They shot us heartbreaking looks of having been betrayed, but we couldn’t create a situation where they killed a lamb. Eventually, all but one retreated. When we reached a rocky scramble, the hold out could no longer follow, and we rushed away from its sad whimpering. [We saw one of the dogs in town the next day, so we feel confident that they all found their way back.]
Our plan was to link up with a trail in the Parque Nacional Viñales, which would take us part way up toward the peak of Mogote del Valle, in the hopes of tagging it for my birthday. The trail gave way to scrambles up gnarly limestone; we hesitated and assessed whether to continue on. Seth climbed up ahead, while I pondered if I would feel comfortable coming back down this jagged rock. He called out to say that things evened out a bit, so up I followed. The trails crisscrossed through limestone mazes and jungle foliage, and our GPS trackers had trouble locating us correctly on the map. It was clear that people used these trails, but it still felt quite remote. They weren’t park trails as you might imagine, with blazes guiding the way. Eventually, it became clear that bushwhacking to the summit would not be possible (maybe with climbing gear, which we didn’t have.)
It really wasn’t a big disappointment not to reach the top of Mogote del Valle, as we’d had a great adventure regardless. Making our way back down, Seth listed all of the things I had accomplished in my thirties, as a way of reinforcing that I have done more than I give myself credit for, and that there’s much that I can still achieve. Once again, I appreciated his attempt to assuage the palpable dread with which turning 40 filled me. Winding down the wild landscape, we expertly navigated the dodgy scramble sections, said farewell to some foraging piglets, and returned to the valley below. The map suggested that we might take a trail to the other side of the mogote, so, not wanting the fun to end, we ran over to check it out.
A steep staircase built into the mountainside led up to Cueva de la Vaca (Cow Cave). At the foot of the stairs, Seth found a tiny puppy, eyes not yet even open. It whimpered and rolled around on the ground, and I instinctively scooped it up. It quieted and nestled into my warm body. There was no mama dog in sight, and we weighed the options. Take it to a farmer? Wait and see if mama returns? My inner dialogue said, “I guess I’m bringing a puppy home from Cuba.” As we deliberated, a group of tourists came down from the cave, mama dog in tow. She immediately sniffed the ground where the puppy had been, so we knew that this was mom. I placed the puppy back, and she licked it all over. Yep, she was mom. Anxious for food, she continued to follow the other tourists, so we broke up a Clif bar for her to find when she came back. This way, she’d have some food, but wouldn’t associate it with us.
Relieved that the puppy would be ok, we tramped up the stairs to check out the cave. Having left my headlamp in Havana, we carefully made our way through the dark, trying not to think about what type of animal was making those high-pitched noises. Soon, we caught natural light ahead, and we realized that the cave was, in fact, a tunnel. Reaching the other side, a view of the valley and imposing mogotes spread before us. It was breathtaking. Later, reflecting on the trip, we both cited this as the absolute highlight. The surprise view, coupled with the unexpected trail leading down the other side, was an absolute thrill. It was one of those rare, magical moments in life, when it feels as if the universe has singled you out to receive a precious gift. Tickled, we bounded down the backside of the cave and into the valley below. Here, we wound our way through tobacco fields, saying hello to old farmers, petting goats, and reveling in the pastoral beauty of this lovely place.
All too soon, the trail turned to dirt path, which soon shifted to paved road. Back in town, our casa particular host greeted us with a special birthday breakfast (she had noticed on my passport that it was my birthday, so she surprised me with balloons and a beautiful spread.)
We didn’t want to leave Viñales, but at least we did so in style: in a 1948 Buick. Back in Havana, Seth’s mom organized a party at a gorgeous old hotel. It was Rafael’s 87th birthday and their 25th wedding anniversary, so there was much to celebrate. The lounge was filled with an eclectic mix of Cubans, expats, visitors, and refugees; a Cuban jazz band performed as we sipped sangria. Seth made my wish for a dance come true, twirling me to the beat while everyone looked on. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince anyone to join us, but we get an A for effort.
With one last run through Habana Viejo and down the Malecón, it was time to say chao to Cuba. Overall, it was an interesting experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have visited this country. Our adventure through Viñales was truly memorable; as we ambled and scrambled, I did not fret about my age and, instead, was simply happy and present in the moment. I can’t imagine a better way to greet this new year of my life.