The Real Cuba – From the Saddle
By Shawn Hamilton
The words Finally a Horse Back Ride in Cuba jumped out at me when searching through the Unicorn Trails website. The Tabaqueros Ride going right through Valle Viñales, my favourite part of the island, sparked visions of oxen-powered carts, tobacco fields, and memories of watching the sun burn off the mist in the valley of limestone mounds. Having lived in Cuba for just over two years in the mid-1990s, I had a strong desire to revisit the country to see how it had changed. My passion for the people who have endured continual hard times, having next to nothing but willing to give you half of it, drove me to return occasionally with my family for Christmas, yet it had been just over ten years since my last visit.
Cuba’s unique heritage, beautiful beaches, and simple lifestyle draws tourists from all parts of the world, yet since the Revolution in 1959 when Fidel Castro took over, changes have come slowly. Always wanting to return and see for myself if parts of this region still remained timeless, I could not resist the opportunity to do so from the back of a native Criollo horse. I packed my helmet, half chaps, and camera, and headed off with high hopes that this place would be just as beautiful as I remembered.
The lush vegetation on the ride in Finca Charco Azul.
As all good Cuban adventures should start, sipping mojitos in a lobby bar, we meet the riding group in the Hotel Presidente outside the city center of Havana. From Belgium, France, Spain, and Mexico, four languages are spoken among us. My travelling companion, Ali, and I are quickly dubbed “The Canadian Girls.” Dining in a nearby paladar, the term used to describe a restaurant in someone’s private home, my Cuban version of pulled pork known as Ropa Vieja, meaning old clothes, is delicious.
As we breakfast by the pool the next morning, the bright sun shines on the colorful 1950s-era American cars lined up in the front of the hotel. Ten dollars US buys a tour of Havana in one of these authentic automobiles left over from the revolution and often kept going with whatever car parts can be homemade or scavenged. I was happy to see that a greater percentage of the cars had recent paint jobs compared to my last visit, but never before had I seen the yellow coco taxis shaped like large, yellow football helmets.
The view of a local farm on the outskirts of Finca Charco Azul.
Our driver, Tony manages to fit all 11 of us and our luggage into a van. Minutes from the ranch, where our horses await, we pile out of the van to finish the last leg on foot as the rains have made the road impassable. Rafael is quick to manage our expectations by pointing out that our nice-looking and well-tacked mounts on this private farm will be the nicest horses we will see all week. The saddles are comfortable for our three-hour ride through the countryside, which brings us to Playa Este beach, where a swim is followed by an amazing seafood lunch.
Back in the van, Tony whisks us out of the city and into the countryside to enjoy a Mojito at the pool bar before dinner at Finca Charco Azul in Artemesia. This state-run farm crosses Canadian Belgians with the local Criollos to create stronger carthorses. I awake early to witness the stables’ activities, which include a visit from the vet who arrives by horse and cart. Our morning’s ride around the large farm is followed by lunch and a relaxing afternoon by the pool. A traditional Cuban meal is served for dinner and we head off to bed early to be ready for our next day’s adventure.
The Canadian Belgians at Charco Azul are used for breeding, and are crossed with Criollos to produce stronger cart horses.
The mounds of the karst topography in the distance while riding at Mil Cumbres.
Riding through a village at Mil Cumbres.
The morning sunrise view of Valle Vinales.
A typical tobacco farm in Valle Vinales, with oxen working the fields.
Further west into the Pinar del Rio province, the van pulls up to a small house nestled in the woods of Mil Cumbres, a 13,000-hectare reservation of flora and fauna. Our boarding house accommodations have six of us in a room where the single beds barely fit. We are truly experiencing the simple life in the countryside of Cuba – eating as the local Cubans do, sleeping in bare bones accommodations, zero internet, limited electricity, and nightly entertainment provided by local musicians. As the rum flows, the music plays, and the dancing starts, suddenly the lack of amenities is forgotten.
The morning sun streams through the windows as we breakfast in the dining area of the house, with our horses tacked and waiting outside in the front yard. Our ride through the lush reservation with pristine river crossings is beautiful. People smile, wave, and gesture bon dia (good day) as we pass through their small village of colourfully-painted homes with gardens of pink, purple, and yellow blossoms. We dismount to enjoy fresh lemonade served on the porch of a small farmhouse, whose owner raises fighting cocks. Continuing our journey through the forest and valleys, we stop at an outdoor restaurant in El Buren to lunch and allow our horses to rest. During our return ride, I begin to spot some of the familiar limestone mounds of the karst topography of Viñales in the distance. We say goodbye to our horses, hop in the van, and head west again.
At the farm we visit in Valle Vinales we are given a demonstration of how coffee is dried.
I am excited to be staying in the village of Viñales, but disappointed when our accommodations in a Cuban family’s house, a casa particular, did not provide the stunning views of the valley that I had remembered from the windows of the Hotel Los Jazmines. So Ali and I wake early to take a short cab ride to the lookout point where we watch the warm morning sun slowly reveal the valley’s haystack-shaped limestone mounds known as Mogotes. The vibrant-green tobacco fields are accented by old tobacco drying houses, and the view is just as I had remembered. We return to the house for breakfast and then hop in the van to go and meet our horses.
The ride through the valley bordered by uniquely carved limestone walls and active tobacco plantations takes us to a small farm where honey is processed and served in the purist of lemonade. A lesson on how coffee is processed and how guarapo, a common drink made from squeezing cane stalks, is made, precedes lunch, which includes fresh pineapple carved in front of us while chickens fight for the scraps. As we continue our ride, the recent rains have flooded the path but the horses trudge through the mud much better than the rental bikes convey the tourists we pass on the trail.
A large herd of Cuban Pintos being pushed to pasture at Finca la Guabina, a state-run farm.
Horses are collected in the morning for our ride at Finca la Guabina.
The afternoon ride takes us through the valley of the Sierra de los Organos, weaving in and out of the giant limestone mounds that make up the karst topography of the valley renowned for its traditional methods of tobacco farming. A tobacco farmer comes out to greet us and welcomes us into his farm for a lesson on how tobacco is grown and cigars are made.
Back in the saddle, we enjoy a nice long canter through an open field before arriving back at the van. Minutes after dismounting and getting into the van, the heavens open in a downpour. The van stops at the lookout Ali and I had visited in the morning, but by now the weather has fogged in the view.
One of the prize Cuban Pinto stallions we are shown on our ride at Finca la Guabina. The Cuban Pinto descends from the Criollo horses brought to the island in the 15th century and is commonly used by cattle ranch hands.
We arrive at our final riding destination, Finca la Guabina, a state-run farm just 15 km from the city of Pinar del Rio. This 1,000-hectare farm is well-known for their breeding of Appaloosas and Cuban Pintos. We check into our small cabin overlooking the lagoon, then walk up to the main house for dinner.
In the early morning, I visit the stabling area to see an incredibly large number of pintos being herded to pasture by a gaucho. The farm is extensive, and a flurry of activity is underway. After breakfast, we are introduced to our mounts, matched not by our riding abilities but by the length of the stirrup leathers. Once aboard our horses, we head to the main stable where we are presented with some of the stallions.
Our ride continues uphill on steep terrain, providing stunning views of the area. Passing through the small village that houses the 150 staff who work on the active cattle farm, we see rice being dried on the store’s rooftop. We return to the main house where lunch is provided, and in the afternoon take advantage of the local horse and buggy. Ali convinces the driver to let her take the reins. She has already driven a horse and cart on the busy Malecon in Havana with buses flying by, so a trip around the ranch is a walk in the park for her. In the evening, we are entertained by local musicians who have made the long trek from the city to perform for us.
Rice is being cleaned on the roof of the store in the workers’ village at Finca la Guabina.
The author poses with her guide at Finca la Guabina.
The sunrise on the lagoon paints the sky orange and pink as we confiscate a rowboat and head out for a morning paddle. Horses are grazing on the shores of the lagoon. This area of Cuba that I never knew existed is a worthwhile destination with a relaxing atmosphere.
We hop on our horses and head down the laneway, passing the Cuban Revolution sign sporting an image of Fidel himself – coincidently, this day marked the one-year anniversary of his passing. At the open area of the farm surrounded by water and tall palm trees, we enjoy some full-out gallops. Our guide entertains by having his horse rear like the Lone Ranger.
The view from the top on the trail at Finca la Guabina in Pinar del Rio.
The author holds the Cuban flag by the Revolución sign at the entrance of Finca la Guabina in Pinar del Rio province.
Our hearts are heavy as we return to the farm, knowing that this was our last ride. We say good-bye to our horses and climb in the van to head back to Havana, our mounted adventure at an end.
This trip delivered just what I wanted – the real Cuba experienced from the saddle. Reflecting on the past week, I was very happy to find that with the exception of a few new tractors, and houses being expanded to accommodate the increase of tourists, the simplicity of living in the countryside of Cuba has remained unchanged. Although the hustle and bustle of Havana now screams tourism, with buskers and bicycle taxis galore, the people who have endured this island of little, coping with no more than the bare necessities of life, are just as I remembered. This is not goodbye but hasta la vista – until we meet again.
For information on Tabaqueros Ride, visit: www.unicorntrails.com.
Main photo: Ali poses with her horse and an old American car at the beach Playa Este (east beach). Photos by Clix Photography/Shawn Hamilton.