If you want to see another side of Cuban life, head to the countryside; if you want to see a different side of the countryside, head to Finca La Guabina. Cuba’s most important horse breeding ranch sits only 10km outside the regional capital of Pinar del Rio, but it feels like you’ve travelled light years from modernity and a couple of hundred years into the past.
The ranch has a variety of beautiful landscapes encompassing mountains, valleys, lakes and pastures. It’s a long way from the nearest road which, coupled with the slow pace of life, brings a sense of calm and tranquility. The exception being sunrise when the dawn chorus of cockerel calls shatter the early morning quiet.
Other than taking long walks through the surrounding countryside, or hiring a horse and guide to explore on horseback, there is little else to do at Finca La Guabina. Depending upon your disposition this is either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Apart from when they ran out of beer, it was a very good thing.
We stayed for two nights, including Xmas Eve, and had planned to stay for Xmas Day but they didn’t have any availability. This meant we had the prospect of travelling on Xmas Day, but since it’s a pretty low-key event in Cuba that didn’t present much of a problem. In the meantime, we tuned into the rhythm of ranch life.
The Finca is home to a couple of hundred horses and numerous cattle, sheep, pigs, rabbits (bred for food), geese, turkeys and chickens. The real attraction are the pedigree Cuban Pinto and Appaloosa horses with their wonderful spotted patterns. In a land where horses still play a significant role in agriculture and transport, Finca La Guabina was (and, for the time-being, still is) a vital breeding farm.
The thousand acres of Finca La Guabina was originally established as a Spanish ranch, and the Cuban Pinto horses may well be descendants of Spanish horses brought over with the Conquistadors in the 16th Century. The current, once luxurious, main house was built in 1956, just in time to be swept up in the revolution and nationalised three years later.
Like many government run places, the main house feels a bit down at heel and in need of a few improvements; the service when we arrived was the worst we experienced in Cuba. Things improved a lot during our stay, and with a mojito in hand and views from the first floor balcony, we had a chance to absorb the enviable location before going for a stroll into the countryside.
It’s a truly beautiful place, and we walked for a few hours before coming back in search of food. Lunch was over, dinner was some time away, and they’d run out of beer. Things looked grim. Extensive pleading finally persuaded the woman on reception to rustle up some rum and coke, pan duro and an alarmingly pink chorizo dip (don’t ask).
We were hungry and gladly accepted what was on offer, all the while hoping it wasn’t an indication of what dinner might be like…luckily it wasn’t, the food was excellent and, on Xmas Eve, featured a huge pig roast that we shared with a Dutch family. That first night we went to bed anticipating a morning in the saddle with a cowhand as our guide…