There's something equally exhilarating and terrifying about riding a live animal who, if he put his mind to it, I'm sure could kill me. Or at least throw me off if he didn't like my swagger. In reality, our horses seemed to be far more concerned with each other - nipping at each other's ears and what not - than with the people riding them, so we were safe I suppose.
Our first stop was a tobacco farm where we were offered cigars and taught how to roll them. I asked our host how many cigars he smoked a day and he said "Three or four a day. They are much healthier than cigarettes. All natural." But he coughed and snorted and hawked loogies constantly so I wasn't convinced. However, when in Cuba..
As I puffed on a cigar I learned three things: that I really dislike smoking cigars, that real cigars are made entirely from rolled leaves (none of the chopped up tobacco inside a leaf business), and that tobacco farmers are required to sell 90% of their crops to the government for a dirt cheap price. They're also not allowed to brand their tobacco or cigars and can only sell the remaining 10% to "family and friends" and tourists that stop through on horseback. Yay communism.
Pancho (our tour guide and horse wrangler) couldn't coax any of us to buy cigars so we set off for our second stop - a cave with a pool of purified water we could swim in if we so desired. On the way, Pancho occasionally slapped our horses so they would take off galloping which I found absolutely hilarious. Like, pee a little bit in my pants kind of hilarious. Watching my friends bounce around on their horses and and imagining what I looked like only added to the hysteria.
We arrived at the cave and had to pay 2 CUC to enter the cave, which my cheap ass normally wouldn't pay but the promise of a nice fresh water pool at the end of the cave lured me in. We hiked for a few minutes through the dark muddy cave using our phones as flashlights (what did they do before phones?) and arrived at a dark, murky pool that seemed more like a muddy puddle than anything else. But I didn't pay 2 CUC not to swim and wanted a good story, so I dunked myself in the knee deep, dark, creepy water. I convinced myself that if monsters did exist, they would most certainly live in the caves of Cuba. That was enough to dry off quickly and head back out into the bright sunshine.
Our last and final stop (thankfully - who knew riding a horse could make us so damn sore) was a coffee farm. We learned all about the coffee making process and why Cuban coffee is far superior to all other coffee, and then were urged to buy stuff - no pressure of course - surprise surprise. We also learned that the government only takes 30% of coffee crops to give people incentive to grow coffee instead of tobacco. If that's not incentive then I don't know what is.
On the way back to Viñales we rode through the beautiful valley with limestone cliffs and rolling hills while huge birds rode the airwaves and I pondered humanity, love, natural beauty and the meaning of life, mixed with intermittent bursts of galloping where I held on for dear life while nearly peeing myself laughing.
Cuba is a funny place. I've never cared too much for horseback riding or dancing, but after horseback riding through a valley and then dancing in the main plaza with the entire town of Viñales all night, it made me want to take salsa lessons and learn how to actually ride a horse (well). I suppose that's what traveling is all about - pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to learn more about yourself - and discovering a penchant for dancing salsa, smoking cigars, riding horses, trekking through mountains or whatever else it may be.