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February 6, 2017

We ate our final breakfast at Casa Obrapía before loading on the bus to drive west for 1.5 hours to Las Terrazas, a very interesting community. A reforestation project was designed around the community which provided countless jobs and government housing to many. The hills, once full of trees were left almost barren after timber logging by the Spanish and Cubans, and coffee planting by the French. Only 14% of the forest remained in 1957. A 12,000 acre reserve was created in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains where trees were replanted and in 1984 it was named a biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

The number of families who lived in the area has grown from 171 to 1,014 since the project was initiated. Now its number one source of income is from tourism. The community, which is almost like a commune, operates a movie theater, disco club, library, coffee shop, and Cuban ration store. Those who work for the government project receive their salary as normal, and the money earned by the community is divvied up, most of it being returned to the state. Las Terrazas plants an organic garden, produces 30 tons of honey, offers several guided hikes and ziplining tours, has an in house veterinarian, and is a haven for birdwatchers who can stay at the Hotel Moka, where we ate lunch.

In addition to government workers, there are also independent workers who pay a 15-20% tax on the goods they sell. Many of these independent workers are artists. We visited two of their art studios. Lester Campa, who wasn’t there, owned a studio on the shore of the quaint Lago San Juan and his work was quite fascinating.

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Ariel’s studio was located up on a hill. He recycles paper to use for his paintings. We got to learn how he makes his paper. He makes different colored paper from different woods such as bamboo, the “tourist” tree which is red and peels, purple cardboard apple cartons, and used office paper. To clean the office paper, he soaks it in a large vat of water where the ink rises with the foam. He takes each piece out and one by one creates a pile of 50 that are then pressed to squeeze out excess water before they are hung to dry. Most of his work included birds, specifically hummingbirds and the Tocororo (or Cuban Trogon), the national bird of Cuba which is red, white, and blue. Ariel was actually assigned to Las Terrazas by the government to pay back his free University schooling. He fell in love with a girl from the area and stayed. He is an example of the education/work system I explained in yesterday’s post.

After enjoying lunch on the open-air patio of the Hotel Moka, we loaded on the bus and continued to Viñales past farmland and hills. The Viñales Valley, home to a somewhat mountainous terrain of porous limestone, is just spectacular. It’s beautiful scenery and caves are its biggest attraction for spelunkers and climbers.

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The town of Viñales is quite wonderful as well. Once an agricultural town, it now caters to tourism. Its three main streets are lined with colorful and quaint colonial homes. Each donned a patio with rocking chairs and most rented out at least one room for a homestay. Page and I were assigned to Casa Mirta. Mirta was so kind. She walked us into her gated patio with an iron picnic table shaded by a canopy of flowering vine and showed us to our small room painted in grey and red. While the decorations were limited, her house was much more charming than our homestay in Havana.

Of course, comparatively, each home had its pros and cons. Here we had one extension cord with three plugs…one for the lamp that hardly weighed more than an empty plastic water bottle and two for charging, so we could get by, but in Havana we had our choice of wall outlets. In Havana, we couldn’t get rid of the sewer smell no matter what drain we covered. In Viñales, this wasn’t a problem. The shower in Havana was hot with some pressure while luke warm water trickled out of the showerhead in Viñales. In fact, the shower set up was remarkable in a rustic way. There were not any faucets. We simply had a shut off lever that ran perpendicular to the horizontal pipe. To turn the water on, we pushed it parallel to the pipe like we were turning on a gas valve. There didn’t appear to be any temperature controls though the shower head looked like it could be adjusted for water flow. The mattresses sat up on a bed frame this time, though I can’t say they were comfortable.

As we settled in, I climbed over my bed to turn on the overhead light, and we closed the plantation shutters to take advantage of the window unit A/C and fan. Regardless of the little idiosyncricies, Page and I both liked Mirta’s home and its charming surroundings. After unloading our bags, we took a brief stroll around the small town before we loaded back on the bus to visit Hotel La Ermita to lounge by the pool and enjoy a beautiful view. I actually brought my bathing suit along and thought I might do a few swim laps for my triathlon training, but the pool was recently painted and empty! So instead, we took cover in the shade and washed down some rum before we Restaurant Mirador Balcón Del Valle for our cooking lesson and dinner.

Here, Annia demonstrated how to make a dip chock full of homemade mayonnaise, bread crumbs, dried milk, garlic, sugar, onion, tomato sauce, cumin, oregano, and spicy peppers. This dip didn’t make my food elimination diet, so I skipped the tasting and focused my attention toward peeling plantains and taro root along with marinating a pork roast….lots of orange, salt, garlic, cumin and oregano.

After we prepped the food, we were escorted through the kitchen to the back grill where Annia fried plantains, cooked beans and rice together, and whipped up a curry vegetable soup. Our stomachs growling, we took a seat on the outside patio overlooking the stunning valley tucked beneath the limestone cliffs. After a tasty meal, we returned to our homestay for the night. ETB

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