Apr. 8-10: Soroa is a rural village, up in the mountains, almost halfway between Havana and Viñales. It was settled by a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Soroa, who developed a plantation and the coffee trade in the region in the 19th century. Most people skip over it to go to Viñales, but I liked the sound of hanging out in a smaller town for a few days. And it turned out to be a delightful place to enjoy nature and engage with every day Cubans.
Negotiating Travel within Cuba
In case you were wondering how the bus station issue was resolved in Havana, I took a 1950’s cab to the bus station near the cemetery to arrive at 6 AM to hopefully get in the lottery. But the station was closed and there were no other passengers there! And the bus station didn’t have a posted schedule. Since there is no internet, I somewhat believed a cab driver hanging out at the station who said the bus came at 8 AM. But not wanting to press my luck, I negotiated with the driver for a taxi ride to Viñales. We settled on what was probably an exorbitant price, but it was fine for me. And in an hour, we were slowly twisting through the hills, drinking in the sunrise.
By this point in the trip, I was learning that there is a bit of figuring out to know when to pay what people ask and when not to. It’s true a Westerner will be getting hustled from all directions and often for things that they may not want. In short, if there are plenty of people offering the same product or service or if it is not that important to you, it is easy to pass. In other cases, like the 6 AM taxi, there was only one sitting there. The alternative of being stuck for who knows how long and the uncertainty of obtaining a ticket was too unappealing. So paying more than a reasonable price makes sense sometimes.
Arrival in Soroa
My room at the hotel in Soroa was not available at 7 AM, but they were willing to hold my bags at the front desk, which freed me up to talk to other tourists and start checking things out. I got a lead from a man leading a tour from the San Juan Islands on a casa particular up the road that served great food. I wasn’t going to sit in the lobby until afternoon, so in short order, I was hiking up The Mirador, a nearby lookout point.
The views halfway up started to be impressive and I whipped the camera out. When I got to the top, I kicked back and enjoyed the sound of drums in the distance. I love getting spots like this all to myself! Although I love to share them with the right people too. And indeed I got the opportunity to do just that.
Beautiful Jewelry from Seeds
A Cuban man arrived with his son and he sat down with his bag of tree seeds to work. I told him I loved plants and inquired about the seeds. He handed me the dozen or so different varieties one by one and named them. My eyes got wide when he took out another bag with his seed jewelry. There were so many different things to be made from a couple of handfuls of raw ingredients. Sort of like cooking – how many things can you make with onions, apples, butter, cinnamon, etc. Countless!
Almost as if it were placed there for the purpose, there was a bare tree with lots of branches, which he used for display. I asked if I could help him display them. We separated them by small necklaces, large necklaces, and bracelets. He even had a piece of broken mirror that he hung from a branch, for hikers to see how they looked with the jewelry on. I coaxed a smile out of him when I said we made a Christmas tree. His son kept himself busy by digging up coconuts that I assumed he brought up there the day prior. Those too were for sale.
He told me he typically sells eight to twelve pieces in a day, which results in about $10. That is not much to cover the time he has invested in creating the jewelry and in traipsing up and down the mountain. He likely felt very little connection to me, since he was in his normal flow of his days. Yet, I felt one to him and was eager to take some of his handiwork to friends back home. Since I have been home, I can tell you in earnest I get a lot of comments when I wear the jewelry and people ask about the backstory, because it is very unique.
I met another Cuban man, Javier, on my way down giving horse rides to other tourists. He mentioned he worked at the hotel where I was staying. He didn’t own the horses, but he was friends with them. We made plans to meet at 4 PM for a horseback ride to the river. This gave me time to eat at the private restaurant, the only official one in Soroa, and check into my room which had a view of the pool.
Horseback Riding in the Hills
4 PM rolled around and Javier was there waiting for me. I was still scratching my head over everyone’s promptness in Cuba. Completely unexpected and totally great! It took about 40 minutes to reach the river and the prize was our own swimming hole. Being up in the mountains, it was not super-hot, but nonetheless, a dip was in order. I got the sense that Javier did not always get to enjoy his work days and that didn’t seem fair. I had as much fun watching him climb branches and dive as I did riding horses.
Javier pointed out the tall palm trees, which were clearly different than coconut palms. The common Spanish name is palmeche and the fruit is fed to the pigs. Pork is very common in Cuba, as well as other tropical places I have visited, so it stands to reason they found a use for the fruit that may not have been choice for people. Note, it is also called the Royal Palm, Roystonea regia.
Javier’s English was about on par with my Spanish and we managed to touch upon a lot of different subjects. He was born in Soroa and his family is poor, but gets by. He would love to meet a girl, but being in a rural area, he is not sure it will happen. Lots of women are mucho loco (very crazy). I smiled and told him people in the states have trouble meeting a good partner and lots of men and woman there are also mucho loco!
It became so clear that the rural Cuban vibe was a world away from the Havana vibe. They all like rum and music, but the rural citizens seem to embrace their pace of life and do not envy the hustle it takes to manage in Havana. It was also the first day I was not drug by someone to one of their friend’s places to buy drinks. For me, a splendid vacation mixes up the size of cities and towns visited. And you should keep such things under consideration for when you travel as well.
Enjoying Rural Hotel Life
Now, you can only imagine how happy I was when I got to that the hotel and found that they had a reliable internet connection. It was like Christmas Day! The one hour internet card that I bought in Havana was running out, so I asked at the front desk if I could purchase one there. They were out of cards and said they hoped to get some more in a few days, although by that point, I would be on to my next destination. Had I known, I would have been more proactive about finding the cards in Havana. Luckily I bought one by chance from a man walking down the street. I didn’t get more from him, suspecting it could be a scam, as a tourist from Brooklyn told me happened to him when he bought one on the street. Normally it would not be that big of an issue, but with my mom’s health being questionable and just having found out my uncle died, it was a bad time to be disconnected. Welcome to Cuba!
I am not one to complain about hotel rooms and I was totally accepting of the ant infestation. Such things are to be expected in rural areas in the tropics. But there was no hot water, meaning there was just a dribble of cold water to take a shower. The lack of running water was not fun. Miguel at the front desk informed me the region was having a drought and all the rooms were like this. The hotel only pumped water at certain times. On the other hand, he was nice enough to give me his internet card that had 30 minutes left on it. Welcome to Cuba!
Did I mention it is best to remember everything you need before going to Cuba, since you won’t be able to buy it there! I had put batteries in my water filter, but they appeared to be dead and so I had to resort to drinking bottled water, at least in Soroa. Note to self, check all batteries before you leave home. Welcome to Cuba!
Hiking to a Coffee Plantation
But I was not about to let no running water or drinking water get me down. I met Javier bright and early for a hike to a coffee farm. We visited El Castillo on the way. From the hotel, I had seen the castle nestled into the hills. And after hiking up in elevation, the hotel and pool looked bucolic down below. Javier knew the man working at the castle so they stopped to talk. While we were stopped, I noticed the man who made jewelry from tree seeds sweeping the parking lot. I think everyone knows each other, hires each other, works for each other, and hangs out with each other in Soroa. I guess this is not all that different from when I lived in Woodstock, NY. Small towns are close knit and the sense of community is strong.
While I had fun pretending to serve drinks at the castle bar, it was time to mosey on to the farm. From my conversations with Javier and other Cubans I met, I was coming to realize that even though Cuba is a communist, or egalitarian country, they too have their haves and have nots. For instance, a handful of wealthy and powerful families control the regions. Some Cubans also have relatives in the States who send them money, so they have nicer places to live or can afford to come to the States to buy consumer goods to bring home. The same American sense of lamenting that the grass is always greener on the other side seemed to emanate from Javier.
However, some great news is that everyone is assured of having their medical needs met. Javier’s dad is a farmer who fell out of tree a few months ago and broke his leg. He got the care he needed without paying for it. I explained that it didn’t work that way in the states. An accident like that could cost someone big bucks and possibly their home or their life. He was totally incredulous to find this out.
Thinking about health care did make me wonder what the rates of lung cancer were and what sort of treatment is available for those who have it. It seems as though most people smoke and while it was less of an assault on the senses in Soroa than in Havana, it still could not be a good thing for the health of the Cubans. Though since tobacco has been such a long tradition there, I don’t see the rates of smoking going down anytime soon.
Comparing notes of our own countries and talking family and love and life got woven into our farm day. I got a kick out of the piglets tromping around the farm. And we found different fruit trees and sampled them at will. The citrus that looked just like an orange, but tasted like a lemon was fun. He said I was a crazy girl for eating it straight. The tocororo, the national birds, were joyfully flitting around in a nearby tree. They were red, blue and white like the Cuban flag.
Scenes From Our Hike to the Farm
When we got back to the hotel, I gifted Javier with spices. He was excited to share them with his parents. I was thinking of sharing some with the private restaurant, since the rubbery pescado was not up to snuff, but in the end figured cumin flavored rubbery pescado would not be much better.
As if to confirm my observation that people multitask with jobs here, I was amused that Pedro, the massage therapist also guarded the bridge that led to the Cascada Trail (waterfall). The next day was his day off, so I decided to schedule a massage when he got off of bridge duty.
Swimming at the Falls and a Vigorous Massage
Before the massage I hiked up to the falls, which was dry. It was the dry season after all. But the swimming hole beneath it was full and lovely. I almost lost track of time swimming and drying out like a lizard on a big rock, back and forth, back and forth.
After my swim I went to the nearby massage studio. Pedro immediately gave me instructions to enter the dark stone building and get in the mineral water. Get in, take five steps down, now rub the water into the skin creating friction, go another step down, swim for two minutes, tread water for one minute, now make friction on your face, now swim again, and at last, you are ready to receive a massage.
The mineral water was great, but the real medicine was his strong hands, muy fuerte! His techniques were less common and he said he studied Chinese medicine in Havana. Another testament of the multiculturalism of Cuba. He had me sitting up, standing up, and pulling and twisting and contorting. Probably the most active massage I have ever had. I took it easy that night, but another highlight was when a waitress handed me a large fruit she called mamey. All I knew about it was that it is muy bueno!
The Perfect Stay for Exploring Soroa
Three days was the perfect amount of time to explore Soroa. I could do everything there was to do in the village in that amount of time. With a different style, the tour buses came and went from the sights all day long. I can see why people would stop in Soroa en route to somewhere else, as I have done in other places. And I am also aware of when I do that, I am missing the essence of the place!
The nearby orchid garden was a gem. The paths would get busy with groups of travelers, but there were plenty of side paths that tucked around a tree or down a rock formation and they were all very peaceful. And who knew there were so many types of orchids. The chocolate orchid truly was reminiscent of cacao. Like tulips, people just seem to have an affinity for these sexy flowers. They exude showiness and elusiveness at the same time.
The Orchid Garden Was So Much More Than a Home For Orchids
While I was in the garden I dug into the mamey fruit that that I had been gifted earlier. It was papaya colored and very creamy and sweet. The flavor was pleasant but not particularly distinctive. There are lots of tropical fruits that don’t make it to the states. I assume they are not as easy to grow or store as bananas, mangoes, and pineapple. And they are much more seasonal and not ever bearing. But do keep your eyes out at markets for new types of fruit. They are not better per say, but have their own yummy quality about them. When I researched mamey online, I found pictures of it under a common name el sapote.
I got off the trails to talk to the gardener, who said he loves when the garden was muy tranquil (quiet). And I also spoke with a woman selling jewelry made out of seeds and she explained how she makes a hole in each bead with an electrical tool. At least they had a tool to make it easier!
I hope I am not beating a dead horse here, but I have to stress that the quality of my trip was being elevated by the interactions I fostered with the locals. If absorbing and understanding the culture of another country is your goal, then you must get off the proverbial trail and see what’s around the corner. Everyone has their story to share. Each story is a colorful strand. And you have the ability to weave these strands into a unique tapestry. Your tapestry will hold the keys to understanding the world as it is and help you shape your views of it.
More Cuban Hospitality and Well Prepared Food
After my visit to the garden, I made my way to Jesus and Aliuska’s casa particular and inquired if she cooked for tourists. With her sweet and gentle ways, she confirmed what I wanted to eat and told me to come back in an hour. I came back with spices and she was elated. It was actually wonderful to see a home that had so little plastic in it that she had to hunt for something that could be used as a container.
I was outside enjoying my simple and well prepared lunch when a German family showed up and mentioned they were staying there and asked who they check in with. They went inside to talk to Jesus, and came out explaining to me that there was a water problem. Jesus cannot take guests since it won’t be fixed by night, but he directed them to another casa particular. They were very calm and I shared that I had very little water at the hotel, as Cuba was late into her dry season. We agreed this is part of the Welcome to Cuba experience!
Having enjoyed lunch, I gave myself half a day at the pool. I am not a sit by the pool type, but it was Monday, the crowds were gone and I had seen all the sights in Soroa. Plus, it was a good excuse to finish reading Havana Fever, a novel by Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes, which was definitely a page turner. I find that reading fiction from the country I am visiting is a great way to soak up some of the culture and complement the guidebooks and internet research. Also, speaking of my sojourn poolside, our little secret, I didn’t want to return to Oregon with the pasty white skin look.
I had liked lunch so much, I told Aliuska I would like to come back for dinner and have fish. This time I checked out the inside of their home, which was turned into Jesus’ art studio. Shelves of colorful pottery lined the walls. He gets the terra cotta in Havana and then paints them psychedelic style. I selected a small bowl that actually looked prettier upside down, like a stand.
A Convivial Evening at the Casa Particular
Dinner started with juice from a fruit I was unfamiliar with. Then French fries with salsa — better than it sounds. Then a soup with a root she called malanga, which I later found out is taro root. She said it is used for medicine, if someone has a tummy ache and also to help increase mother’s milk. Most tropical places cannot grow potatoes, but Cuba being just on the verge of the tropics, grows a lot of them. I have seen them at markets and regularly on menus.
I was so happy to see that my dinner contained the spices I gave her! She cooked in a very similar style to me. And her garden had a similar feeling to mine. I believe part of the reason I was loving her scene was because it felt like the Cuban equivalent of my kitchen and garden and home in Oregon. Even down to having the kids run around with their friends in the yard.
I stayed pretty late, long after the sun passed over the mountains. Despite the language barrier, we were connecting about plants and sharing medicine stories. I was teaching her about hibiscus flowers which I have seen in gardens here, but they don’t use for medicine. They call it marpacifica (Pacific Sea). We were getting into the finer details of how to infuse the flowers for tea. It was one of the sweetest moments of my trip. By the end of the evening, I felt like we were old friends and we were sad to hug goodbye.
The moon was full and I felt energized to go for a long evening walk through the village. Mostly quiet, I did tune into the sounds of locals gathering and playing music. Welcome to Cuba!
Click here to see what I did next in Viñales.