Exploring Finca la Guabina on horseback

We woke early our second day at Finca la Guabina. I’d like to say it was the excitement of going horse riding, but that would be a lie. Even after a few rums the night before, it’s impossible to sleep through the cacophony of noise that dawn in the Cuban countryside brings with it. Cockerels shattered the peace and quiet well before the sun actually rose, something we’re just not used to hearing anymore.

Judging by the level of the noise, I’d say there were easily two or three thousand cockerels hard at work alerting anyone who would listen (as if we had a choice) to the arrival of a new day. I dragged myself to the bathroom silently hoping that it would be pollo for lunch.

Our horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Our horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

After breakfast we met Ernesto our guide and our unenthusiastic looking mounts. At first my horse refused to move. I didn’t blame him, it was early morning and I wouldn’t have fancied carrying me around for four hours either. Our guide rode back with a switch he’d cut from a bush. I didn’t have to use it, the horse knew the power had tilted in my favour and decided to cooperate.

We were soon out in the open countryside and our guide asked if we wanted to go up into the hills. For the next three hours we rode on trails through the forested hills that stretch across the north of the estate. It was blissful, silence except for our horses’ hooves and the wind in the trees.

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Turkeys, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Turkeys, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

We emerged into a small village where time seemed to have stopped half a century earlier. People sat in rocking chairs, pigs wandered about, hens and geese scraped for food, and washing hung in colourful lines in the hot sun.

Cowboys rode past with machetes dangling from their saddles like it was the most normal thing in the world. I was half expecting Sergio Leone to pop out from behind a bush and shout ‘cut’. We arrived back at the main house in time for lunch, our horses seemed relieved to be rid of us and happily parked themselves in the shade of a nearby tree.

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Over lunch we met a Dutch family who advised us to take a walk down a trail to a bridge that was “a lot of fun to cross” and that “locals run over it”. It was the sort of bridge that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom. One false step, one rotten plank and you’d plunge into the water below. Half way across I realised I should have checked whether Cuba has alligators.

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Rickety bridge, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

We reached the other side safely and walked around the lake to a hilltop with lovely views. There were a group of men constructing a barn on top of the hill. In a scene reminiscent of the barn building scene in another Harrison Ford film, Witness, they were stood on the building and using an ox and cart to pull the roof upright. It was fun to watch even though there weren’t any Amish in sight.

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Barn building, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Barn building, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Barn building, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Barn building, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

It was only from the hilltop that we realised there was no alternative way back to the main house. We’d have to cross back over the bridge, only this time in fading light. It was Xmas Eve and we had a traditional treat of roast pork for dinner waiting for us when we got back. We had an early night planned thanks to a pre-dawn pickup and what was supposed to be a five hour journey to Cienfuegos…

A taste of gaucho culture, Finca La Guabina

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.

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

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.

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Spot the pig! Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Spot the pig! Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Horses on the Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

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.

Geese, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Geese, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Sheep, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Sheep, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Pig, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Pig, Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

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).

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

Finca la Guabina, Cuba

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…