When we visited Cuba I was quite surprised by the diversity of the nature on the island! After some beaches and beautiful colonial cities we traveled to Viñales, located on the west tip of the island. As soon as you get in the area you see the landscape changing: tropical, extremely green vegetation, lots and lots of palm trees, pools of water, smoothly shaped “elephant” hills. This beautiful serene city is the hub of a hiking paradise.
A CITY SURPRISED BY TOURISM
I must admit, when our bus entered the “city” of Viñales I wasn’t that impressed. There were two streets with a handful of overpriced restaurants and cafes and as soon as you get off the main roads you end up in dusty, sandy streets with quite some garbage. The houses look good on the outside, however, the interior seem to have had its day. It is definitely the result of a sleepy village that has been overwhelmed by a sudden increase of the tourists.
Once you accept that, you will appreciate the simple life here.
WHY GO TO VIÑALES?
Hiking in Viñales
Once you enter the region of Piñar del Rio it will become clear that this part of Cuba is perfectly suited for nature lovers. There are not many colonial cities around and you are quite far from the beach.The Cubans that live in the Valley of Viñales decided to settle in small, sleepy farm towns. In between them a lot of acres of cigar plantations with their typical drying barns. Add to that a lot of smoothly rounded limestone hills and you will understand this is the perfect location for a nice hike. There are several tracks leading you through the valleys and fields of Viñales.
- Guided tour
I would recommend you to take a guided tour for the first time you explore the area. Besides hiking with a person familiar with the area, it is also nice to choose this option because the local guides know a lot about flora and fauna around here.
It is easy to find a tour, just go to the main road (the place where the bus drops you off, opposite of the church) and get yourself some advise on the tours, prices and the things covered. Tours start around 9:00 AM, if you didn’t arrange a tour the day before, just walk over there around 8:45 and you will be fine.
After a couple short stops for several healing trees, herbs and flowers, our tour started in the Valle de Silencio. We visited Antonio, who showed us how to grow, roast and ground coffee. We continued into the valley and saw oxen towing barrels, farmers working the fields and a lot of pigs, mules and goats ranging freely. One of our stops brought us to a cigar plantation, where we went into the curing barns where they dry the tobacco leafs. José also explained us how to roll and package the leafs until they are cigars for consumption. It is very interesting to see this process and after hiking through acres and acres of tobacco fields you understand why this is the most important tobacco area of Cuba. Our tour ended at the Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, a beautifully located farm that offers lunch and dinner straight from their vegetable garden.
- Walk your own way through the Valley of Viñales
After exploring the area with the guided tour, we had to see more. That is why we decided to ask for a map in one of the tourist agencies and created our own route.
A good pitstop is the Mural de la Prehistoria. A 120 meter long brightly colored painting by the artist Leovigildo González Morill. Along the way you will find some nice restaurants and if your Spanish is good enough, you might end up eating at a family’s place in the middle of nowhere for a couple of CUCs.
What to bring when hiking in the Valley of Viñales?
- Make sure to buy some water before you start the tour! The shop on the corner opens at 9:00 AM, so ask your guide to wait a minute before continuing to the fields.
- Sneakers will do for this tour. I would strongly disadvise you to hike around here on flipflops.
- Prepare to get dusty!
- Bring your camera, because the landscape is beautiful and so are the people and animals.
- Wear a cap or hat on sunny days, it can become really hot!
CYCLING IN VIÑALES
Cycling is pretty popular in Viñales and a good way to explore the area. You can rent a bicycle for about 10 CUC a day. Just ask around, every casa can arrange you some bikes. Make sure you check the brakes beforehand, since its hilly and you want to get back alive.
We cycled to the Cueva del Indio, a small cave situated about 7 kilometers north of Viñales. You can enter the cave with a small boat tour. Since you only float through the cave for about 5 minutes, without any explanation about the history and the indians, we thought this tour was quite expensive (5 CUC per person).
West of Viñales is the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, with 46 kilometers the second largest cave system on the American continent. Cycling towards the cave is a bit more challenging, since its 18 kilometers outside of Viñales on a hilly road (and you have to go back as well). If you decide to go here, leave early and make sure to check the weather beforehand (thunderstorms are not rare). You can combine this trip with a visit to the Mural de la Prehistoria.
WHERE TO EAT IN VIÑALES?
If you are looking for a spectacular sunset I would strongly advice you to have dinner at Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. This farm is located on a hill just 2,5 kilometers east of Viñales. It is possible to walk there, but any collectivo will know where it is as well.
There is no menu here, it is a dinner in buffet style (12 CUC per person). The buffet is served on your table, AND IT IS HUGE. I have about to meet the first person that can finish it all. The food is delicious, and so is their local cocktail. A piña colada with 5 extra herbs (like anise) from their garden. You will receive a bottle of rum next to it and can decide for yourself how much to pour into the cocktail.
Make sure to reserve before you go here, because it is very popular!
We love vegetables and it is quite hard to find good vegetarian restaurants in Cuba. La Berenjena is a cute little restaurant located just a couple of blocks from the “center” of Viñales. They grow all vegetables themselves and also filter their own water. On the menu are lasagne, boliche and jinete, besides a lot of juice combinations. Don’t be afraid to bring your boyfriend, they also serve some meat dishes.
If you are looking for a cozy, fast, budget option, then head to La Esquinita. This tiny restaurant (on a corner – la esquinita), has 2 barbecues on the terrace. It is not hard to choose your dish here, they only offer skewers. But the skewers are delicious!
Also make sure to order a juice or a cocktail. They are freshly made, full of fruit and without the extra sugar other places in Cuba love to add.
The restaurant only has a couple of tables, but the skewers are ready in a couple of minutes so the turnover is high.
WHERE TO SLEEP IN VIÑALES?
Viñales can be divided into 3 sleeping areas.
- Hotels on the main street
There are some hotel style casas on the main street. Their rooms are nice, however, quite pricy: about 30 CUC per night for a double bed.
- Casas with spectacular views
If you walk towards the hills in the north-west part of Viñales, you will find a lot of good quality casas (homestays). We especially liked the casas near the hospital (ask around or check Google Maps). If you want a breakfast (6 CUC per person) with a view, try Casa El Porry (25 CUC per night for a double room). Take your time, the “elephant” hills will keep you gazing for a while.
- Budget casas in south-east Viñales
If you walk the opposite way of the mountains, with your back to the church towards the south-east part of Viñales, you will end up in the simple, less developed part of town.
Roads are unpaved here, and the houses are really basic. However, the people are very warm and welcoming, and you can enjoy a night in a double room for about 15 CUC. Breakfasts are also less expensive here, about 3 CUC per person.
Note: At the time we visited Viñales, we did see a couple of casas with a swimming pool. However, because of legislation they weren’t allowed to offer the refreshment to their guests. They assured us, it would all be arranged within a couple of months. So who knows, you might dip into the pool by now.