As we left Havana, despite how much I had enjoyed it, I was pleased to leave the hustle and bustle of the city. The large embassies and homes we saw as we drove out were astonishing (I believe this is where Castro lives), but shortly after, most of the buildings fell away and our surroundings were blanketed in green as we headed West.
The journey takes about 2.5 hours and is well worth it. Viñales is in a valley (Valle de Viñales) and is very different to Havana. This region, part of the Pinar del Rio Province, is famous for tobacco as it’s the best place in the world to grow tobacco plants.
During my initial research I was quite confused by what the casa’s in Viñales looked like – like some sort of real-life suburban Simpson-inspired village with bright boxy colourful houses all lined up (and when I say colourful, I mean all shades of the rainbow are an option for the residents of Viñales). But on arrival it became clear that these little houses in the Viñales valley are incredibly charming and part of what make this place so special. Also, how fun, you want a purple house with turquoise accents – you can have it.
Some recommended casas: Villa Natalie, Casa Elarisol, Villa las Vicarias, Villa Los Reyes, Casa Mariuska y Alexis – but to be honest, you will literally be tripping over them, everyone has converted their home into a casa and there’s not a huge amount of difference between them I don’t think, so you really can’t go wrong!
We also checked out Hotel los Jazmines (1 of 3 hotels on the outskirts of Viñales) it has an incredible view and a pool, but as with everywhere in Cuba: the hotels are government-run, so the rooms are quite basic and it’s definitely not a hugely authentic experience. But if you do stay there, opt for a Junior Suite (separate from the main building and built more recently).
The town itself is really quite small with only a few streets that you can wander in a short amount of time, but it’s a very pleasant stroll, especially in the morning as the sun comes up and everyone is beginning their day.
Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, also known as, Finca ‘Wilfredo’ – this was easily one of the highlights of my trip, and certainly one of the best culinary experiences. Arrive here about half an hour before sunset. Wander around the garden and then settle in for a wonderful meal featuring beautifully home grown organic vegetables from the property. There’s no menu, they’ll just bring lots of different dishes to the table for you to share. Make sure to order a ‘de stress’ drink – which is quite similar to a Piña Colada, but I would argue EVEN better! It’s an absolute must visit. You can walk there too – it’s about half an hour from the town centre.
Viñales Valley has been named a National Park by UNESCO, as well as a Natural World Heritage Site. So a walk through this beautiful part of the world is also an excellent way to spend a morning / afternoon. Life in Viñales revolves around agriculture, so visiting a tobacco farm should be at the very top of your to-do list – this can be done whilst on your walk (or on horseback if you prefer!). The tobacco farmers are required to give 90% of their tobacco leaves to the government, however, the other 10% they can keep for themselves. They use a traditional and organic fermentation process (unlike the commercial cigars made by the government uses chemicals) and whilst on a plantation the tobacco farmers will gladly give you a full demonstration of the process. You can buy the cigars directly from the farmers, they are wrapped in Royal Palm Leaves and can be kept in the fridge for 2-3 years. According to my dad, they’re quite something. Our walking tour also stopped at a coffee farm which was great.
I was determined that I wasn’t going to visit my first Caribbean destination without visiting a beach. There are two beaches (semi) near Viñales, that are beautiful and fairly undeveloped. The first is Cayo Levisa, which is actually an island so I think this option is best if you have enough time to spend a night or two there (the hotel is Hotel Cayo Levisa). The second is Cayo Jutius – about a 1.5 hour drive from Viñales. There is a sort of bus-truck hybrid sort of vehicle that takes visitors to the beach in the morning (departing around 9am – though we didn’t get to the beach until about 11am as you have to make a few stops picking people up) and returns at 4pm.
Now I’m not going to lie, the road is long and, particularly at the end, incredibly pock-marked so the vehicle is swerving all over the road to miss the holes and bumping up and down. You need a reasonably strong stomach for this. The cost was CUC$20 for a return seat and it’s not a bad idea to sit in the front with the driver if you can.
The beach, however, was wonderful. Everything I had hoped for. Lined with mangroves, soft white sand and bright blue water. There is no permanent accommodation at Cayo Jutius, making the beach lovely and serene and relatively untouched. There is one (pretty average) restaurant on the beach and two little bars, as well as a dive shop to hire kayaks from. I can highly recommend a fresh coconut.
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN VINALES:
- Sunrise walk (taken from Villa Los Reyes) – ask to see Arte Mogote
- Cycling / horseback tours
- Visiting tobacco plantations
- Viñales hop-on hop-off bus tour
- Yoan & Yarelis own a casa particular you can stay at, but they are also the go-to people for local activities
Las Terrazas is an eco / biosphere reserve tucked away in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains (about halfway between Havana and Viñales). The community is situation in a natural area of around 12,000 acres which has been, and continues to be, developed as a sustainable rural economy for eco-tourism, and also as a community for creative people. We stayed here overnight at Hotel Moka which is situated at the top of Las Terrazas with lovely grounds. Although the hotel is quite big and looks down on the little town, it was very thoughtfully designed and is too domineering. The rooms are okay – nothing crazy amazing, but spacious and clean.
Las Terrazas is small and so you could definitely just stop there on the way to or from Viñales, however, the two things I most enjoyed there were:
- Discovering the artist’s studios – we stumbled upon a particularly lovely artist, Henry Alomà, who was incredibly friendly and welcoming and was creating beautiful drawings of surreal birds.
- Swimming in the natural pools of Banos del San Juan. Located in the jungle, this is a great spot to cool off and relax – and you can also stay there, in these wonderful huts on stilts. I imagine it gets quite busy on the weekends, as Cubans seemed to be enjoying it as much as the tourists.
Cuba was a true adventure. A place unlike anywhere I’d been before, and somewhere I’d highly recommend – the architecture, the people, the weather, the natural environment, were all incredible. And whilst it’s not the destination for a wonderful gastronomic adventure,, the Piña Coladas were some of the best I’ve ever had – so make sure to have plenty of those.