The alarm bleeps me into consciousness at 4am. Blurry-eyed and half asleep, I wonder why I’m crawling out of bed at such an ungodly hour. Slowly, the haze of sleep fades and I start to recall: the night before our homestay hosts insisted that we take a hike to see the sunrise over the Viñales Valley.
Outside, Rai, our guide, stands smiling at the gate. He’s bright and cheerful, even at this time. He immediately begins to apologise for his English, which is near perfect. An ancient Oldsmobile grumbles gently by the side of the road, waiting to take us to the start of our hike.
Viñales is one of Cuba’s most captivating landscapes. Huge green mogotes stick up from the surrounding forest, creating a serene panorama of uneven valleys. Amidst these gigantic limestone kharsts, farmers ply their trade growing tobacco and coffee. Travellers come here in search of all three.
After a short ride, the hike begins. The early morning darkness is complete and, combined with the humidity, it feels thick and tangible, like I could physically peel the night right off my sweaty body. We trudge on blindly behind Rai, the tiny halo of his torch barely making a ripple in the black ocean around us.
As we march through the inky darkness, I ask Rai’s thoughts on Cuba’s current situation. A lot has changed, not least a slight thaw with long-time foe and neighbour the US, and the death of the island’s iconic, divisive leader Fidel Castro.
Rai is optimistic about Cuba’s chances: “Cuba needs more friends in the world. Not many Americans come to Cuba, but that could change. It would be positive for tourism but better on an economic level in terms of trade.”
Like many people in Cuba, tour guide is not his only job. By day, he’s a reporter in nearby Pinar del Rio, the biggest city in the region. Rai believes that Cuba’s long-documented economic woes could change if the island embraced an international foreign policy.
“The state wage isn’t much. Most people have two, maybe three jobs to get by,” he explains. The state wage is in fact 300 Cuban Pesos a month. That’s just under £25. After this hike, Rai will return to the city to start work at the radio station.
The early morning darkness is beginning to recede by the time we reach the viewpoint, half way up a rocky hill, surrounded by forest. The faintest shade of light blue begins to seep across the sky from a crack somewhere on the horizon; the mogotes cut an ominous silhouette, like enormous hump-backed beasts dozing in the early morning gloom.
With the night receding, the Viñales landscape creeps slowly into focus. Thoughts of Cuba usually conjure the crumbling facades of Havana or the white beaches of Varadero, but here in the valley the scene is pre-historic. There’s plenty of talk about Cuba’s future: how it will change for better, for worse, and who will really benefit. I doubt this view has changed for a hundred years, and hopefully, it will stay the same for many more.
Soon, the sun is up. The deep greens of the valley flood into life in the bright morning light. There’s a feeling of vibrancy in the air, and I’m glad I didn’t let the early wake-up call put me off.
As we look out over the new day, Rai tells me he plans to embrace internationalism with an open mind – he’s already learning more languages in addition to English and Spanish.