Viñales was one of the places that people hadn’t hyped up but that I was very keen to visit, and I’m so glad we did as it was definitely my favourite part of Cuba that we saw. It is in the Pinar del Rio region, about 2.5 hours away from Havana. I had no idea that Cuba was that green and lush: the region is just a series of beautiful silent valleys with rich, bright green vegetation and red soil. Cars are sparse and people instead have horses; the land is farmed by hand and tractors are replaced by bulls; kids have chickens as pets. People lead a simple yet serene and rustic life. Below I’ll take you through some of the Viñales top activities.
Viñales is so peaceful and colourful that you can’t help but feel as if you’re in a surreal bubble somewhere that looks a little like the magical places the little dinosaurs found in The land before time.
To make my point:
As you drive in you start to notice the bright little houses: all pretty much identical, small, one storey houses, with 3 columns, a little patio out front with two rocking chairs. They are all painted in beautiful bright colours, which only stand out more in the green vegetation that surrounds them. They are simple but so cute and full of character. I love the fact that the architecture stays very constant throughout and you don’t come across massive villas, as the true communist country it is, at least in Viñales, everyone has exactly the same type of house; there aren’t rich and poor, they are equal.
Travel Tip: stay in a casa particular, no real need to book in advance either!
GO ON A WALKING TOUR
The afternoon we arrived we decided to go for a walking tour into one of the valleys. A guide called Julien took us on a magnificent walking tour through plantations of tobacco and beans where silence enveloped us, broken only by the sound of crickets, cicadas and cocks. He told us that he had studied in Havana and become an IT teacher, making all but 12 CUCs a month (equivalent in dollars). So after 8 years in his profession he moved to Viñales and became a tour guide. He now makes 10CUC per person for a 3 hour walking tour. He made around 4 times what he’d make in a month with us in 3 hours..!
We were the only people there, apart from the occasional farmer you’d come across. It was stunning. Almost crimson red earth, bright green flora all around us, mogotes (small mountains shaped almost like a Panettone) scattered the horizon, animals grazing, birds singing.. it was like being at one with nature, breathing it all in.
We stopped at a farmer’s tobacco plantation where he showed us how they make & roll cigars. These are 100% organic as they don’t add any of the chemical crap such as tar, so they are much better for you. They also make their special infusions, where they soak the tobacco leaves in spices & honey to give them flavour. We learned that they are obliged to sell 90% of what they produce to the Cuban government and they are allowed to sell the remaining 10% but only at their farm, not via any retailers. This 10% is only a new thing since the 2010 hurricanes that devastated most of the crops and left farmers struggling to make a living. The guy who explained everything was absolutely hilarious, as was our guide, so I soon started to see that I’d get on very well with the Cubans 🙂 They just don’t take life too seriously! They always answer you making a bit of a joke or pulling your leg, they smile a lot, drink a lot and just enjoy life. They generally love to talk but don’t like to complain and count their blessings for what they have.
As the sun was setting we stopped at a little cabana bar in the middle of nowhere called El Corazón del Valle where we were introduced to our first ‘Coco Loco’ – literally cut open a coconut, add a lot of rum & some honey. Strong stuff. It was one of the prettiest places we cam across.
VISIT ONE OF THE VALLEYS ON HORSEBACK
The next day we opted to do a 5 hour horseback trek around the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence). I didn’t find this valley as scenic as the one we saw the previous day, but is was still lovely and the experience of doing it on horseback was loads of fun (even though I then had a bruised ass for 2-3 days and could barely sit down!!).
My horse was named Palomo and was the laziest horse I’ve ever seen. They must have sedated the poor guy because he did not seem very keen on moving fast but every now and then would just set off in galope mode almost leaving me behind. The other horse were Tequila who was a biter (no surprise there), Marcelo who was pretty chilled and Caramelo who was a born leader, always miles ahead.
The tour consisted of going through the valley on horseback, visiting a cave, stopping for a drink & scenic view, stopping at a coffee plantation for a tour of how they make it, as well as a mini Rum tasting and lastly cooling off with a swim in a lake. The tour costs 10 CUC per hour and you can kind of decide how long you want it to last, but if you want to see it all and not be rushed it does take 5 hours. You’ll be delighted to dismount your horse by the end of it, believe me!
GET SOME GOOD, CHEAP LOCAL FOOD
What was also great about Viñales is that if you looked properly, you could eat really cheap. We went for the local joints where you could have a delicious dinner for 3-4 CUC, all you have to do is stay off the main street and ask the locals where they eat. Of course the menu never varies much: a choice of chicken, prawns, fish or ropa vieja (pulled tasty lamb), accompanied by rice with brown beans, a few leaves of salad/cucumber and fried plantain. It was great for the first few days but we quickly got tired of the lack of variety..
TASTE THE LOCAL RUM
Story behind La Guayabita Del Pinar Rum:
In 1892 a Basque named Lucio Garay found the guayabita del Pinar fruit in Viñales and tried to eat it but it was very bitter. So he thought if I can’t eat it I can drink it! So he put it in a bottle of rum and left it for around 5 months. When he tried it, it had acquired a delicious taste from the fruit and the alcoholic % had gone down to 60%. He then did a second test with another bottle to which he added honey and again left it for 5 months or so. This time, the result was a delicious, sweet-tasting rum that he saw as a perfect ‘love potion’, fit for the ladies. After making his friends try it, they loved it so much that they encouraged him to start selling it, so he founded ‘La Occidental’. The bottle design and shape has not changed since then and they are not allowed to export outside of Cuba. Only a limited number of bottles are made each year and I was lucky enough to get my hands on one 🙂
HAVE A DANCE IN THE MAIN SQUARE
I love that they listen to reggaetón everywhere. One evening, after a 3.5 CUC dinner we went to a square where people just gather and hang out and dance to reggaeton, salsa and bachata. We started chatting to a group of locals that we were admiring cos the guys danced incredibly well (we then discovered two of them are actual dance teachers) and we commented on the fact that the scene was so opposite to what we’d see in Europe: with the guys all letting loose and dancing and instead the girls just sat down watching. But all the people are just so nice, with a fantastic sense of humour. They don’t make you feel like a tourist but rather just someone they are keen to chat to. They may be incredibly smart because even when they approach you, they don’t start bugging you trying to sell something, instead they tell you a story or an anecdote, they get to know you and talk to you as they would to a friend. They are extremely warm and charismatic and have an amazing capability to make you feel like one of them.
JUST SOAK IN THE BEAUTY ALL AROUND YOU