Despite Viñales' treasures, poverty hurts retiree

Juan Echevarria, 83, watches tourists arrive to audacious Cuban salesmen

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba – A land of emerald green surrounds the "poblado" of the Valle de Viñales, one of the world's best kept ecological gems, according to the United Nations World Heritage list

All is fairly quiet in Viñales' downtown plaza, named after national hero Jose Marti, until the tourists get off their buses. Cuban entrepreneurs are ready to bombard them with their sales pitches.

A man holding laminated scenic photographs of the valley rushes French tourists. He tells them he is opening the doors of his home for a price. His promises: A private bathroom, hot water, a television and a refrigerator.

"Look, this has a view of the mountains," he said.

When the tourist rejects his rental offer, the man turns to selling something else.

"I am a singer," he said.

Sitting on a bench nearby was 83-year-old Juan Echevarria, who in true Cuban cowboy fashion wore a woven "sombrero" and held up a cigar. The province of Pinar del Rio is known for growing some of the best tobacco in the world, but Echevarria smokes a "puro" of less quality. The best quality is for foreigners.

Aside from the tobacco farms, the area's attractions also include caves to explore, a colorful mountainside mural to honor the pre-colonial natives and plenty of charming architecture.

But even when tourism money flows into the valley, Echevarria said he doesn't feel much hope, because he struggles to survive -- even though he has worked hard all of his life.

NEW PLANS : A Cuban official recently told Granma that they are focusing their efforts on ecoturism. They want it to be a destination for thrill-seekers and plan on hiring tour guides for hikers and climbers. During the first week of December, the area will host the Titan Tropic Cuba, an international mountain biking event that was last held in Morocco as the Titan Desert. The event's registration already has participants from Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica.


He worked in coffee plantations, with cattle, and he remembers waking up after midnight to milk cows. But he no longer has the strength to do hard labor, so he has retired.

About 18.3 percent of the 11.3 million Cubans living on the island were older that 60 years old in 2013, according to government statistics. In 2030, authorities expect the population of retirees to increase to 30 percent. Although they have access to medical visits, their pension remains low. 

Some retirees said they get up to a $15 monthly pension. But $15 is not enough, they said. Most of the retirees said they work on the side selling peanuts, cigarettes or whatever they can to get supplemental income. They scrape by with their monthly rations, which can last for about a week. Echevarria said he gets about $8 a month.

"That's barely enough to eat," he said.

INTERACTIVE: Why UNESCO protects Valle de Viñales