The Inimitable Viñales Valley

By Posted under going+doing

If you’re staying in Havana for a few days and wondering if it’s worth it to make the trip to Viñales, the answer is probably yes. This tiny rural town has long been a popular destination for visitors and has recieved fawning reviews all over the internet, which might lead one to doubt it’s idilic reputation. And while there’s no doubt that the slow influx of tourists over the past two decades has transformed the local economy, it still hasn’t taken away from its charming feel or its rural rhythms. The uniquely contrasting tobacco farms and sheer-cliffed mogotes remain as they’ve always been, inviting visitors to relax, hike and explore.

At about 2 hours 15 minutes west of Havana, Viñales is close enough to be visited as a long day trip, but best enjoyed as a one- or two-night stay. It’s located in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province and an area with much of the island’s (and perhaps the planet’s) richest tobacco growing soil. The town’s slow pace, wide open spaces, and abundant fresh air provide a striking contrast to the capital’s hustle and bustle.

Local, salt-of-the-earth Cuban casa owners typically help guests plan tobacco farm tours, horseback riding, bus tours, guided hikes, and coordinate bike and scooter rentals. Almost every family that lives in the town’s center rents rooms to foreign travelers, and a variety of restaurants and shops catering to tourists are sprinkled along the main road between homes and shops. Several venues have live music in the evenings, including the Polo Montañez Cultural Center just off the main plaza, which attracts lots of locals as well as tourists.

The tobacco farm tours offered by locals are quite informative and include detailed explanations on the processing of the leaves and a demonstration of how to roll a cigar from a local farmer, though during high season don’t be surprised if you run into many other small groups of tourists visiting the same small handful of farms throughout the day. Hikes through the mogotes are another a great way to get out and appreciate the valley’s unique landscape — the longer the hike the better — as well as horse riding, which casa hosts and local tourism offices can reserve. Biking is another great way to get beyond the tourism bubble; after 15 minutes biking into the countryside you’ll find yourself among humble thatched-roof houses and seemingly untouched landscapes for as far as the eye can see.

The views of the valley are stunning, and renting a driver for a few hours to explore the tiny roads around the town center is a great way to see things and visit the various sites dotting the area. There are a few paladares on the rim of the valley as you approach from Havana that have amazing views (especially at sunset), and serve decent food. The daily bus tour of the valley is cheap way to see these sites, but you’ll also have to sit through some gimmicky stops like the Mural de la Prehistoria, a massive rock wall with an amateurish painting of dinosaurs, and the Palenque de los Cimarrones, where an attempt to demonstrate slave history and culture comes off as a bit superficial (and some say offensive).

Among the natural highlights of the area are several caves, the easiest to access being La Cueva del Indio, which involves a brief guided walk and boat ride where the cave is partially submerged under water. The lines for entry during high season can be very long though, so plan to go early in the day,  and if you’ve seen caves before, don’t expect this one to change your life. Much more satisfying, but a bit of a hike from Viñales, is a cave system called Las Cuevas de Santo Tomás, which is located about a half hour away. It’s the second largest cave system in North America, and a 90-minute tour takes you through a 1km section of impressive galleries complete with bats, subterranean pools, and all the stalagmites and stalactites you could ever want.

The many outdoor offerings of the valley are a great way to spend your the time there, but the best part of Viñales continues to be the slowness of the place. Strolling the streets, saying hi to locals, and riding the rural pace is as good a way as any to pass a few days. If you’re looking for a city, the city of Pinar del Rio is about 45 minutes away, though it’s not known for much other than a few cigar factories and local tobacco farms on the periphery. If you’re looking for beach, the best options are around 2 hours to the north, at Cayo Levisa or Cayo Jutías (the better of the two). Hiring a driver and carving out a whole day for this is recommended — it’s a hike but well worth it. The beaches are pristine and the drive through the countryside is illuminating as well.

Collective taxis to Viñales from Havana are available for around 25-30 CUC, and a private taxi will cost around 80-100. There is Viazul bus service from the capital multiple times a day, though seats are often sold out day of, so booking ahead is a must. Tickets are around 15 CUC one way. The best way to book a casa is on Airbnb, and we work with a local casa that we recommend, but there are many terrific casas with truly amazing hosts all over Viñales. Most casas are very similar: a private room with private bathroom, A/C, and breakfast/dinner/drink options, and some of the nicer ones offer patios, rooftops, pools, and other relative luxuries. Hosts are used to helping their guests with guides, and transportation to and from Viñales on the fly, but if you’d like to make reservations ahead of time, we at Bridges Cuba arrange transportation from Havana, and guided day tours.



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