Friday, April 3, 2009

Pinal del Río

The vistas became more and more beautiful (as you can see in the picture of sugar cane fields above) early Friday morning when we left Havana and drove 50 km west to Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the municipality called Pinal del Río. Sierra del Rosario occupies the easter half of the Guaniquanico mountain range. The area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1985. A major project in this community of farmers was founded by the revolutionary government in 1968; it integrated sustainable development with tourism and aimed to focus on reforestation, historical preservation, environmental balance and on helping farmers to make a living. The name of the community derives from the terraces that were laid out and are now a characterisitic feature of the area. When we arrived at Rancho Curujey, the reserve's visitor and information center right by the small Lago San Juan, we were served a welcome drink called Curujey (which is also the common name for the epiphytes that grow abundantly); it consists of Fanta orange pop, Pepsi or Coke, ice and Cuban rum. I drank coffee instead.

I had great fun walking through the lush area filled with wild orchids, ferns and, my most favorite, mimosa pudica (the shy/sensitive plant). That seemed to be growing everywhere! Mimosa pudica is a creeping perennial herb native to South and Central America; its leaves curl inward and close at night or when touched. That type of movement is called nyctinastic; essentially, the movement is caused by turgor pressure, that is, stimuli unbalances the water in each of the cells. Botanists believe that this plant's ability to shrink is a defense mechanism. Of course, I didn't know any of that when I was a child and spent endless hours entertaining myself with this amazing plant. Back then I called it "morir-vivir"--to die-to live! I was thrilled to see them again!
From Rancho Curujey, we went on to Cafetal Buenavista, a coffee plantation built by the French in 1801, worked by African slaves, and now exquisitely restored. The vistas from there are outstanding, as you can see in the picture on the left. (Note the tree; its botanical name is almácigo/mastic lentiscus, but now it is commonly known as "the tourist tree," because the peeling bark is red, like white-skinned tourists who forget to wear suntan lotion.) Pinal del Río, the easternmost region of the island, is famous for producing the finest tobacco leaves in Cuba and maybe even the world. Perhaps that's because of the abundant pine trees that shade tobacco plants. This picture, taken by Vicky, shows the man or/and mule-powered coffee grinder:

Today, Pinal del Río contributes 70% of the raw material used to make cigars. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch in the veranda of the restored plantation house. Of course, there was live music and invariably various renditions of the very popular song "Hasta Siempre Comandante Che Guevara." I think we heard that song at least four times a day; it was especially fun to hear it with Vicky, because she'd learned it while growing up in Greece, so she'd sing it along in Greek while everyone else was singing in Spanish. (Picture of performers by Vicky.) Here are the two versions: in Greek (with loads of pictures), then in Spanish (sung by Compay Segundo and Buena Vista Social Club).

"Hasta la victoria siempre!"

Well, since I'm on this reminiscing kick, I might as well tell you about how psyched I was during my early teens, because my parents allowed me to wear a beret, just like Che's, and to line my bedroom walls with pictures of him. I often imagined being his sidekick and fighting for justice in mountains unknown. Oh my... If by chance you don't know about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, check out his life, here and here. (Picture of Che from the web.)

After lunch, we went to the San Juan river; supposedly, the water has mineral and medicinal properties.

We also visited primary and secondary schools; teachers seemed just as resourceful as those in Havana.

I should also tell you that I survived the week by eating, almost exclusively, rice, beans and cabbage. It's hard for vegetarians in Cuba! It's amazing, but fresh fruit and vegetables are very limited. So is milk. Once, at a restaurant, I ordered coffee with milk, and I was told they were out of milk. But, a plate of Morros y Cristianos has all that you need: proteins from the beans and carbs from the rice. It's a national dish, and rather symbolic of the synergy between black and white people in Cuba (and elsewhere in the Caribbean). The dish is not called Moors and Christians for nothing.

Below is a typical country house, an updated bohio. Bohios are the homes built by indigenous people on the island. They were made of tree trunks, wooden posts and palm leaves. The dirt floors were compacted and brushed smooth. Today's bohios have tile roofs and cement floors, plus lots of windows and doors for the breeze to travel.
And, here's a picture of a doctor's house. Each municipality has one house exactly like it (that way everyone knows where the doctor can be found). The doctor and her/his family live upstairs; patients are seen downstairs. After the revolution appromimately half of all doctors left the country, so the government made huge efforts, and was successful, in training new doctors and sending them out to the countryside. Consequently, today Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the region, with the average citizen living to age 76, even though the blockade dramatically limits the availability of medicines.

We spent this Friday and Saturday nights at Rancho San Vicente Hotel in Viñales only 5 km from the center of town and on the banks of the Río San Vicente surrounded by flowers, palm, pine and fruit trees and the sounds of the country side.


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