When I pictured Cuba, my brain conjured images of Havana – of classic cars and Cuban cigars – but what I didn’t know was just how stunning the Cuban landscape is outside of the capital.
Havana blew me away – it’s probably the most photogenic capital city out there. But stepping into the country town of Viñales changed everything. This town, with its abundance of activities and beauty, stole my heart. From cycling among limestone karsts to horse-riding through tobacco farms, this was my favorite spot in one of my favorite countries.
As our bus pulled up in Viñales my friends and I felt a bit like rock stars. We had a welcome party. You see, Cuba doesn’t do hostels and hotels like other countries. They have what are called casa peculiares – home stays. So this crowd of people were local home owners collecting their guests. Staying with locals is arguably the best way to experience a country, and Cubans definitely know how to host. In every place I stayed I felt like a part of the family. Hosts would explain through broken Spanglish the best places to go and the best things to do, they cooked us delicious dinners giving us a taste of local cuisine, and always served up either a beer or a mojito!
Wifi is pretty new in Cuba, and pretty rare – I was offline for my entire trip. In a way, the lack of information made everything feel that much more spontaneous and magical. We had no expectations because we couldn’t Google what the waterfall or the cave looked like before we went. It was a good lesson to take away and apply to other adventures – trust the locals, and be ready to go where the wind takes you. This is where the wind took us…
Sunrise at Viñales
The best way to start the day here is with sunrise. There is something so beautiful and calm about a sunrise, watching nature stir from slumber while most people are still snoozing. It feels like you have the world to yourself.
In Viñales, there is a perfect spot to see the day begin. Walk down the main road that runs through the town in a south-westerly direction, and take a left turn to follow it up and away from the houses towards Hotel Los Jazmines. It’s approximately 3.5km to the viewpoint, so leave yourself an hour. Believe me, that early start is so worth it. The hotel, along with some small restaurants either side, is perched in a perfect position to watch the mist burn off the valley and reveal a lush green scene. We sat in silent awe. You could see for miles.
My camera had broken only a few days before arriving in Cuba – it was a real tragedy – but in the end it turned out for the best. My travel buddies shared their photos with me (and I was in most of them!). But more importantly, I was never looking through a lens. Instead I took everything in as it was. Photos wouldn’t have done that sunrise justice, anyway.
Bike ride to caves
Once you’ve loaded up on breakfast it’s time to get active again. The landscape around Viñales is stunning and unique. Limestone karsts rise up out of the valley making for a very picturesque scene. A popular activity is to rent bicycles and have a ride out of town to nearby caves.
Be warned: some are beautiful and secluded, while others are a little more touristy and tacky. The best way to learn where to go is to trust your hosts and ask for their recommendations.
But there is another, less physically demanding (read: less sweaty) mode of transport available in Viñales. Our host put us in touch with a charming guide who took us to explore the area on horseback. Outside of the capital, it seemed that horses were almost more common than cars. Cars are expensive and rarely new, making them a hassle to maintain. So saddling up and riding around felt very authentic.
Me and my buddies commented on how it felt like we were getting back to basics, leaving behind wifi, technology and motorized vehicles in exchange for these majestic animals who’d carried humans for centuries. This romanticism was all amid random outbursts of galloping – the horses clearly wanted to keep us on our toes. All the same, the experience was incredibly special.
Visiting a Tobacco Farm
Cigars are a quintessentially Cuban sight. It feels like anywhere you turn, you see a Cuban smoking a cigar – male or female, young or old. They hang casually from mouths like an extension of the person. Not held, but balancing between teeth while they continue with life’s demands. It’s the height of cool.
Most of the tobacco produced by Cuba comes from the region Viñales sits in, so it’s the perfect place to visit a farm and test out the nation’s famed cigars for yourself. Our horse-ride brought us to a lone barn sitting in the middle of rolling countryside, with beautiful views on every side. As we gracelessly dismounted from our horses, a beautiful blue-eyed Cuban emerged from the shade of the barn to greet us.
Inside the barn we sat among the drying tobacco leaves, and our host – the farmer’s son – rolled us a cigar there and then. Talk about fresh. He dipped the end in honey to soften and sweeten the taste, and gave us all a try smoking. I was nervous that I’d be a coughing, spluttering mess. But when in Rome…
If you fancy cooling off during your stay, jump on a bike and head uphill to Hotel La Ermita. You can pay a small fee to spend a few hours lazing by the pool and enjoying the views of the valley. Be warned – the uphill cycle will get you pretty sweaty. But you’ll have earned the refreshing dip in the water (probably take a shower first), and the ride back down is a breeze.
The definition of farm-to-table
Farm-to-table is such a buzzword nowadays, but Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso really delivers. An organic farm set just above the scenic splendor of Viñales, you can both learn about Cuban farming here, as well as indulge in what might be the freshest meal of your life.
The food is simple yet memorable for being varied, served in abundance, and with a view you won’t forget. Read more about it here, and don’t forget that Intrepid trips to Cuba visit this delicious dining spot.
Salsa and a surprise party
Once your day’s activities are all done and dusted, it’s time to enjoy the famous Cuban nightlife. Our homestay hosts explained that on weekends the town hall turns into a salsa party, and not just for tourists, but for the locals too. Our horse-riding guide arrived just as we finished dinner looking ready to party, no longer in his cowboy outfit. He made us mojitos, crushing the mint right in front of us, and we headed into town. Locals were queuing up to buy liquor from a hole in the wall and getting merry in the town square. We made our way through a bottle of rum and noticed that the crowds were heading down the road, so we followed.
Up to this point on our trip, we’d seen Cuban flags hanging from every window in every town, and simply marveled at their patriotism. But it turned out to be Cuba’s Independence Day, and a huge stage and sound system had been set up in a sports field to celebrate.
Thinking we might have missed the chance to join the fun, since surely an event of this size would be sold out, a friendly stranger explained that tickets were only $2. So in we went and we stayed until the sun came up. Thankfully the rum was giving me the confidence to get involved with the dancing – Cubans cannot be rivalled when it comes to moves!
It was the perfect way to end our time in this beautiful town. A town that’s so special I think everyone should visit.
Ready to experience the culture and beauty of Cuba for yourself? Intrepid have a Cuban small group adventure for everyone.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Jen Welch, Rebecca Shapiro, Jen Welch, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch, Rebecca Shapiro, Jen Welch, Rebecca Shapiro)