Current Location: Viñales Valley, Pinar Del Rio, Cuba
We chose to head to the Viñales on a 3-day tour to escape the hustle and bustle of noisy Havana. The internet hails this lush green oasis as a must-see part of Cuba. Tobacco, coffee, sugarcane and numerous other crops are cultivated at the bottom of the valley and towering limestone cliffs (called mogotes) offer tourists numerous hiking and rock climbing options. Among these elevations are the oldest mountains existing in Cuba and some of the oldest in the Caribbean. There are also impressive geological formations and cave systems throughout the hill faces.
Viñales is about a three hour drive from Havana, although naturally it took us about six in the ancient truck that was sent to fetch us for our tour. It kept breaking down on the highway and needed to be restarted by hot-wiring. Still, it beats the crowded sweat-soaked buses, or horse-drawn carriages that many locals still ride into the city to sell their crops.
Though it is small, Viñales thrives on tourism. The town consists of rows of beautiful pastel colored casas—each distinctively named—-where visitors can rent out rooms. We were dropped off at a bright pink house (much to my delight) called Casa Musica. However, this pastoral place is not just houses. Just down the road is the seat of commerce, where numerous small businesses—-including a market, shops and restaurants—-make their home.
We were immediately swept up and shown around town. We were taken to the popular Cueva del Indio to take a short boat ride through the caves and then to the “pre-historic” mural, which is gaudy and was really painted in the 1960’s as a propagandistic public works project under Castro. In my opinion you could skip both of these and be no worse for wear.
However, we were also taken to the Jardin Botanico as an impromptu side journey. The garden is small, beginning as a backyard garden started by a nice old lady, and maintained by volunteers after her death. Thousands of plant varieties native to the region are on display, both edible and not. With the help of a well-informed guide, we even discovered a fruit new to us—the Mamey. It’s like a sweet avocado (same texture, same look) that is great in shakes and smoothies. We ended the day with a farmhouse-style meal and I got to try my first yucca (highly recommend)!
On our second day, we rode native horses throughout the Valley. It was my first time riding since I was young and I forgot how much pain my thighs would be in the next day! Since I didn’t fall off once (even when we were swimming across monsoon-swollen riverbeds) I consider this a success.
My horse (Sebastian) was super enthusiastic and loved to lead the pack. K’s horse (Tometa) seemed more concerned with his next meal than showing K the sights. Somehow we managed to keep control of them enough to visit both a tobacco plantation and a coffee plantation. We stopped off at a despalillo (where tobacco leaves are dried and selected) and learned to roll our own cigars. We also got to taste coffee and rum made with guava syrup. We didn’t pick up any cigars, despite all assurances that Cuban cigars from this region are the finest the world had to offer, but you can bet I grabbed some of those coffee beans.
On the final day, we left our casa and drove through the mountains to a beach out on Caya Juitas. It was completely worth the day trip from Viñales. Caya Jutias is one of the most beautiful and secluded beaches in Cuba, with white sand and crystal clear blue waters. It looks like one of those paradise beaches in a beer commercial. It’s not nearly as crowded as some of the ones in Havana and offers water sports and family friendly activities. They also make the best “coco loco” – a dream with rum and cane sugar mixed inside a freshly hollowed out coconut.
Overall, Viñales offered stunning visuals. Unfortunately, it was only moderately comfortable. Since we elected to visit during the rainy season, we lost power at our casa routinely each night. Because of the torrential downpours, we were relegated to staying inside quite a bit of the time after 4pm. Finally, perhaps because this region of the country is still finding its footing as a tourist destination, many of the activities were too much like tourist traps for our comfort. I would recommend a day trip for a nice climb and a quality cigar.
Stay tuned for the first chapter of our cross-country train trip!