When planning their Cuban vacation most think of Havana as their most anticipated city. However, I found the most magic in Viñales. Viñales is an absolute must for the outdoorsy traveler. Just a 3-hour bumpy Viazul bus ride from Havana, these lush green valleys hide a rural community of farmers. Stepping off the bus you’ll be bombarded by locals looking to fill a room in their Casa or lure you to their family restaurant. Luckily almost all will be walking distance from the main street.
It’s a place where kids play in the dirt roads, people are beyond friendly and the little things in life are celebrated. The colorful homes against the rocky green backdrop of the valley will forever represent Cuba for me. Aside from a surprisingly large number of restaurants this town has quite a lot to offer in terms of activities. But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the Cuban cigar.
Cuba produces some of the worlds best cigars. It’s arguably one of the most iconic symbols of Cuban culture. Visiting the country you’ll receive them as welcome gifts to your Casa Particulares and see street performers and elites alike indulging. Each cigar is stamped with the official seal of authenticity and then sold in certified government shops.
We were much more interested in the ones you can purchase straight from the source. Cutting out the expensive middleman you might say. Those cigars can only be found in the western regions of Cuba, 2-3 hours from the Cuban capital.
So how do they produce such high-quality tobacco? The environment on the western side of Cuba is perfect for it. From Pinar del Rio to the Valley of Silence in Viñales, the tropical climate has been perfection in cultivating tobacco for the past 200 years. It’s grown and dried in these regions and then delivered to factories for further processing.
Exploring the Valley of Silence should be at the top of everyone’s Cuban bucket list. We opted for a horseback tour. You can walk the valley but you’ll take a shorter route and in my opinion, you’ll miss out on a great cultural experience.
Cowboys in Cuba have been riding horses since the Spaniards took control of the island in the 1500’s. Rodeo culture and cowboy attire have flourished in some of these smaller towns partly due to the tourism industry (it’s easier to haul people through the valley via horse) and partly due to necessity. Horses and cattle are vital to a farm. Motorized tractors aren’t present in modern day Cuba (hence the Valley of SILENCE). The ground is still tilled the old-fashioned way with a horse/cow and plow.
Finding your cowboy is easy, any homestay can set it up for you. If you prefer to book in advance, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and Airbnb have some great options. On average you will pay around 5 dollars/hour for your guided horseback tour of the valley. Something not mentioned frequently is that the trails are treacherous. Visiting Cuba post rainy season had left the red clay dirt a sludgy mess of rust-colored mud. The ride will be bumpy with your horses slipping and sliding its way along the trails and across rivers to get to the heart of the valley.
For the much-needed water (beer) stop, the Mirador is around 2 hours into the trek. Mirador is just a fancy term for look-out point. The rolling tobacco fields and mountains behind frame the lake. At this point, I was half covered in mud from an unexpected dunk in the river during a crossing and already beginning to feel the effects of the saddle on my thighs and knees.
CAFE CON MIEL
Another hour into our journey and we reached the coffee plantations. This marks a little over halfway into your ride if you’re doing the full tour of the valley as we did. For those who love their coffee black (come on, live a little) you’ll be in for a surprise here. Cuban coffee is known for its sweet strong flavor, but that’s not enough for Cubans. Cafe con Miel (Coffee with honey) is the go-to way to drink your morning cup of joe. And they drink it all day long. It’s a ritual to greet each guest, friend or stranger, with a cup of coffee in Cuba.
At the plantations, you learn about the process of growing coffee and the little guava for their trademark Pinar del Guayabita Rum. This is one of the few places you can purchase this specific Rum. And it was the only place I found that you can purchase fresh Cuban honey. This honey is used to treat all kinds of Cuban ailments and is also commonly used for dipping the end of your cigar in before smoking.
Saddle up and continue trekking through the green fields past the occasional rogue cow and eventually, you’ll find yourself at the tobacco houses. This is where you buy the good stuff.
The farmers were young and some of the most proficient English speaking Cubans we found in the country. He showed us the drying houses stuffed full of tobacco drying to a crisp in the hot tropical sun. Tobacco here is pesticide-free and organically grown. They use only the trimmings from the previous leaves as fertilizer.
We were given a quick tutorial on the proper way to craft a quality Cuban cigar with a leaf from each part of the plant. The tallest and most sun-soaked leaf is used as the “rolling paper” for the cigar. We were sent on our way with a pack of Cubans perfectly rolled, carefully cut, and fresh from the farm.
Treking home was long. The scenery is more of the same and I was constantly fighting my horse into following the path home. Pancho had a mind of his own from the very beginning. Trying to scrape me off on fences, sudden bursts of energy sending him rushing to the front, and stopping to snack at every. single. bush. He had to have sensed that I was unwilling to spur him on with the stick I had been given. I prefer a softer approach and he had taken advantage of my goodwill from the moment we began.
If hiking or horses aren’t your cup of tea there are plenty of other attractions in Viñales to make your trip worthwhile.
My favorite mirador in all of Cuba is at hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines. Overlooking the Vinales Valley, this bright pink hotel has laid claim to a stunning view of Cuba’s natural beauty. Charging a modest entrance fee you’ll have access to their outdoor pool equipped with a bar as well as access to the viewpoint. Just a 5-minute taxi ride outside of Vinales or a 30-minute uphill walk.
Smack dab in the middle of the town is a free and honestly unimpressive botanical garden. I recommend it only because as an animal lover this was my first opportunity to see (and feed) the Jutias (Cuban tree rat) and Cuban Amazon Parrot. Both are caged at the very end of the garden and kept as pets. They seemed well cared for. Luckily, I had stowed away some mangos I found earlier in the day and was able to feed them through the grates of their enclosure.
SAN MIGUEL CAVES AND RESTAURANT
Any driver you hire will know the place. Just past the mural, you’ll find a cozy restaurant inside a cave. You should stop for a quick drink or bite and then see the real deal at San Miguel Caves. This much larger walk-through area leads to a boat that navigates you through the remainder of the cave system.
MURAL DE LA PREHISTORIA
This is a mural of prehistory NOT an actual prehistoric mural. The eccentric colors and giant size of this mural make it unique, but it’s only around 60 years old. This really is more of a drive-by sight on your way to the caves outside of town.
Many travelers make it to Viñales so tourism funds a lot of day to day life in the town. But the feel of the town is still genuine. Overall it was one of my favorite cities in Cuba. The slow pace of life and the feeling of being in nature are unrivaled by any other area on the island. For now, it remains a small town warm, welcoming, easy to navigate and authentically Cuban.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Viñales, Cuba
- Horizontes Los Jazmines
- Hotel Horizontes La Ermita
- Horizontes Villa Rancho San Vicente
- Find the best price on hotels in Viñales
- Sign up to AirBnB with this link and receive a US $35 off your first booking
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