Encounters in Cuba: Meeting the horse whisperer of Trinidad

“The map,” philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously observed, “is not the territory.” His words rarely seemed more apt than in Cuba: a country where the warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape belie fifty years of bad American press.

As U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba loosen up, more and more travelers will fall in love with our island neighbor to the south. They will discover, as I did, that there are many kinds of social experiments, and that the one in progress since Cuba’s 1959 revolution is in some ways better, and in some ways worse, than the one that began with our own Revolution in the 18th century.

They’ll also find that a traveler in Cuba has two main choices where to stay: at one of the clean, often charming hotels located near each town’s main plaza; or at a casa particular, the home of a Cuba family authorized to rent rooms out to foreigners. The latter is a wonderful way to meet Cubans, butcher Spanish in a forgiving atmosphere, and gain insights into Cuba’s often bipolar society.

And the equation, of course, can work both ways: Sometimes it’s the Cubans themselves who are transformed by their visitors.

This is exactly what happened to Julio Muñoz, Cuba’s best-known horse whisperer.

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Muñoz comes from a line of prominent Spanish immigrants; his two older brothers are gynecologists. Their spacious, ochre-colored family casa sits on a brilliantly sunny corner of Trinidad, adjoining the maternal clinic where Julio and his brothers were born. The house has been in his family for generations, though they lost their other properties and businesses after the revolution.

Trinidad is Cuba’s tourist Mecca, a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial town founded in 1514. In 1988, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sunlight slants down the back streets at photogenic angles. By night, the plazas and restaurants are alive with music. It is colorful, rustic, and HOT. Trinidad is a town where you can sit absolutely still, in the living room of a well-shaded casa particular, and still feel rivulets of sweat running down your sides.

Muñoz brings me a cup of hot, black coffee. “Why didn’t I leave Cuba?” he shrugs. “I am a survivor. And I’m a person who loves my people, and loves my country. I find ways to be happy. With my horses, and with my friends, I am incredibly happy.”

After our coffee we hire a cab, and roll off along the cobblestone roads leading to Finca del Chino, the ranch where his horses roam free. During the bumpy ride, Muñoz describes the serendipitous series of events that utterly changed his life.

“Since I was a kid,” he says, “I’ve been interested in photography. But good 35mm cameras were hard to get. Also, Cuba didn’t have a tradition of scenic photography. Normally, Cubans take pictures of weddings, birthdays, quinceañeras, things like that. But no fine art photography at all.”

In the mid-1994, when tourism restrictions were relaxed in Cuba, the intense, wiry Muñoz turned his home into a casa particular. Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of Trinidad and his command of English, Casa Colonial Muñoz quickly became popular.

“Journalists, photographers, filmmakers; they were greedy to come to Cuba, to make films, to write articles. And Trinidad was one of their favorite places. Some of these people hired me as a ‘fixer’: to scout locations, translate, find people. That’s when I learned about documentary photography.”

Inspired and encouraged by several of the photographers who stayed at his casa (one of whom, on assignment for National Geographic, left him dozens of rolls of color slide film), Muñoz expanded his horizons. He began to explore Trinidad with fresh eyes, and a new appreciation for the city’s culture and landscape.

“I wanted to record everything.” Muñoz rolls down the taxi’s window, letting in the heat. “And one of the most beautiful parts of Trinidad is the countryside. But the only way to reach it is by horse. And when I started using horses to reach the countryside-well, that’s when I fell in love with horses.”

Muñoz falls momentarily silent, awed-as travelers often are-by how one encounter leads to another. “It was a loop of events. Because I rent rooms in my house, I was led to photography. Because of photography, I was led to horses-and through my love of horses, to horse whispering techniques.”

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We arrive at the ranch (named for Chino, the rugged owner), where I accept another cup of strong coffee and a wedge of delicious farm cheese from Chino’s wife.

There are many styles of “natural horsemanship,” Muñoz explains, sipping his demitasse, “but the core is the same. Never treat badly the horse. Never give pain to the horse. I don’t use spurs; I don’t use a whip. And most important, use the horse’s psychology. And when I say horse psychology, it means, how do they live in the natural world? How do they communicate between each other? When you learn to use this kind of body language, you can do amazing things.”

One of Julio’s first horses, Diana, was born and raised insidehis Trinidad casa.

“She was living in the house like a dog. She was walking throughout the house – I have videos of all that.” Diana died after an injury, but Julio has immortalized her by starting a foundation-Proyecto Diana-that seeks to educate Cuba’s horse owners about equine care and training.

Muñoz leads me past napping cats, rusted farm implements and muddied boots toward the pastures. There are spurs on a wall-proof that the other ranchers at this fincadon’t use Muñoz’s progressive method, despite their positive results. Most locals continue to train their horses in the traditional way: through pain and intimidation. This clearly upsets Muñoz. But he continues to teach by example, hoping his methods will ultimately catch on.

“It’s very difficult to change the way Cubans treat horses. They use them like disposable tools-or, how do you call it, a handkerchief. They don’t understand. With natural horsemanship, the horse is happy. It’s willing and glad to do things. There is a joy. There is a connection.”

Julio’s latest love is a filly named Luna de Miel: Honeymoon. We climb through a barbed wire gate, and Julio disappears over a small rise. He returns a moment later astride the brown quarter horse. The affection between man and beast is evident. Julio dismounts, and shows me exactly how trusting she has become. He tickles her ears, waves his hand in front of her eyes, picks her nose, and even takes hold of her thick, wet tongue.

Luna endures the routine patiently, then snuggles gamely up to me (I don’t go for her tongue) while Julio snaps a photo. It’s a cute shot, but it doesn’t compare to the pictures of him with his horse. Together, they’re practically a centaur.

“It really is like that,” Muñoz laughs when I remark on the telepathy between them. “When I drink rum, my horse gets drunk.”

Like many Cubans, Muñoz is a devout Catholic whose observances were long suppressed by the socialist regime. During my visit, thanks to policy relaxations by President Raúl Castro, a historic event took place in Trinidad. For the first time since the revolution, a statue of Cuba’s patron saint (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, akaOur Lady of Charity) was carried through the streets.

Muñoz himself arranged the horse procession. “I was the boss of the horses,” he laughs proudly.

Celebrations like this are yet another sign of how Cuba is changing, and allowing long-suppressed traditions to be openly expressed. Our own government needs to make a similar transformation. Cuba needs to be back on American’s travel maps, so we can explore its marvelous, surprising culture and territory for ourselves.

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Jeff Greenwald is the Oakland-based author of Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World and- most recently-Snake Lake. He also serves as Executive Director of Ethical Traveler (www.ethicaltraveler.org), a global alliance of travelers bent on saving the world. Jeff’s critically acclaimed one-man show, Strange Travel Suggestions, is seeking out small theaters everywhere. You can contact him through www.jeffgreenwald.com.

[Julio Muñoz and his beloved horse, Honeymoon. © 2011 by Jeff Greenwald.]