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rocks and caves

Vinales Valley is famous for its amazing rock formations, domed limestone outcrops known as mogotes. The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site not only because of its natural beauty but also for the cultural significance of its traditional agricultural practices which have survived unchanged for centuries.

It certainly is a picturesque scene.

Mogotes...

...rise up...

... unaccountably from the surrounding landscape.

I pass through Vinales, pausing only to stock up on food, and head 20 kilometres further west along the valley to the Caverna de Santo Tomas, a massive cave system that extends, on seven different levels, for over 46 kilometres. I arrive at the turn off to village where the entrance to the cave system is at dusk and find a quiet place off to set up my tent.

In the morning, I find my way to the visitor centre near the cave entrance. I wait for some time before people start to appear. First to arrive is the man who proceeds to start cutting grass, followed by two men with a large collection of head torches, and finally a women, bearing sheaves of paper.

“Are you here to see the caves?”

I admit that this is the case.

“Where is your voucher?,” the woman asks.

“I don’t have a voucher. I thought I could buy a ticket here.”

“No. You must have voucher.”

“Oh. Where do I get a voucher?”

“You must go to Vinales and buy one from your hotel.”

“But I came here on a bicycle. I’m not staying in a hotel. I camped.”

“You must have a voucher!”

Other tourist start to arrive in taxis. I question them about their vouchers. One Spanish couple also, it transpires, does not have a voucher, although they have paid and have some other form of documentation.

A lengthy discussion ensues between the two guides, the woman who is, it seems, the master of bureaucracy, and several of the taxi drivers. The woman is adamant that nobody without a voucher can enter the cave. However, finally she relents – the Spanish couple can go. She stalks off, clearly disgruntled, ignoring my presence completely.

The guides put batteries in the head torches, check that they are all working, and then hand them out to the waiting group. One guide starts off with the group in the direction of the cliffs while I watch disconsolately. They are about 100 metres away when the second guide calls out.

“Take her,” he says.

He hands me a head torch. I hurriedly lock my bike to a palm tree, grab my valuables out of the handle bar bag, and rush after the group.

Santo Tomas is Cuba's most extensive cave system.

Peep holes in the walls...

...and above give glimpses of the outside world...

...and provide light for life underground.

We descend deeper...

... and view the subterranean wildlife.

There are plenty of pretty crystalline mineral formations to admire.

More wildlife outside the cave entrance. Our guide assured us that these snails make excellent eating.

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