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Vinales
Lost in Smoke of Time

 

Tabacco Vinales Valley Lost in the smoke of time
Reina María Rodríguez, Cuban poet and novelist, author of La Foto del Invernadero (Casa de las Americas prize, 1998) and Te daré de comer como a los pájaros (La Habana, Letras Cubanas 2000). (Source: UNESCO.org)

The Viñales Valley, near the western tip of Cuba, is a magical landscape of hills and caves where life centres on growing tobacco. A Cuban writer recalls discovering this World Heritage site through books well before setting foot there

In the west side of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, at the foot of the Sierra de los Órganos, lies a region of limestone outcrops known as mogotes. These huge round-topped hummocks rising out of the ground emerged from the sea more than two million years ago and were formed during the Jurassic period. Born in the vicissitudes of history, the land still bears the marks of precipices, chasms and seams carved out by erosion.
Tobacco grows in the valley—strange red leaves almost starved by the salty soil but brought to life by permanent sunshine.

Farmer in Vinales I always dreamed of the Viñales Valley but never ventured there. In school I could touch the lush tobacco leaves pictured in textbooks and see the caterpillars that live off them, slowly and avidly taking on the aroma of tobacco before devouring the plant.

My life was that of the concrete city, though the sensation left by dew on my hand was so strong that I still recall it as if it were real. The leaf, bright and green like a child, turns a deep toasted brown before it is smelt, chewed or burnt, becoming like time itself and ending up, in old age, as wisps of smoke.

 

Farmers, most of whom came from the Canary Islands, arrived around 1800 and began cultivating tobacco across the region, which is commonly known as the Vuelta Abajo. Two hundred years later, tobacco is still the lifeblood of the Viñales Valley, which produces 661,000 quintals of it every year. Only the best leaves get sent to Havana, where hundreds of workers called torcedores and anilladores handroll them into cigars. Cuba produces 65 million cigars a year, packed in cedarwood boxes and exported to the entire world.

Growing tobacco calls for patience. Some even say that the plant grows better if you speak to it. Once the seeds are sown (between October and December), the moment to reap and pack is of critical importance, marking all the difference between acidity, sourness or waste-product.

 

Rockingchairs Vinales The valley is like its tobacco discreet, thrifty and tranquil, stuck in the same serene pocket of time as its villagers.
People who have never been to the Viñales Valley, in the Cuban province of Piñar del Río, should know that it boasts a unique variety of plant and animal life, some of it in danger of extinction, such as the cork palm, the agabe, the macusey hembra, the alligator oak and the dragon tree. Unaccustomed to the ways of civilization and to music unlike their own songs, the valley’s birds also come in a kaleidoscope of species, with names as evocative as the pine-forest grass quit, the mockingbird and the totí.

 

Returning to Viñales is a bit like returning to a museum. A silence hangs over it, a mysterious calm that dwells in the early morning mist. In Viñales village we visit a church built in the last century with sombre pews that have been repaired countless times. The musty odour mingles with the smell of warmed-up food. Heavy rainfall in the wet season has spoiled the splendid facades of the houses, which now look like faded mosaics.

And Cuban hands, always touching and caressing things, cherishing the past, have worn out the fine wooden railings at the front of the houses. As in every village in my country, Viñales also has a central square—a byword for order amid confusion.
Four kilometres from the village, on one side of the Dos Hermanas (Two Sisters) mojote, stands the Mural of Prehistory, a impressive 120-metre high fresco painted by Cuban artist Leovigildo González, disciple of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Depicted are the animals and other creatures that lived in the valley in prehistoric times.

People who have not read the poem of José Lezama Lima (1912-76), Bajo el arco de Viñales (Beneath the arch of Viñales), or have never seen the paintings of Cuban artist Domingo Ramos or contemplated the Mural of Prehistory, should know that this valley, which rose from the bottom of the ocean near the western tip of the island, is above all a place of art, a site where Nature provides the frame and waits for the painter to be seated.

But how does one take leave of the valley? Through its cliffs, its hollows? Through the passage in a mojote and its columns of gentle stalagmites? Through the long line of big-belly palm trees with their fiery plumes lit by summer? Through its chattering streams full of blind fish? Through the echoes of cockfights left in an old sugar factory? Or through a cheap painting on the yellow wall of a restaurant somewhere in Havana’s tourist district? Which path home is best?

Where Nature invites painters to take place

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