Nestled in the mountains of western Cuba, amongst the soaring cliff faces and tobacco fields, is the bucolic valley hamlet of Viñales. With the exception of the tourists, life is much the same as it has always been, with men working the fields with the combined power of brawn, determination, and draft animals.
The town has embraced tourism and healthfully merged the old ways with the new. The main town square hosts music and dancing and peddlers hawk their crafts and tours. The restaurants offer quality local food at reasonable prices. (We had probably our best meal in all of Cuba here.) A hop-on/hop-off tour bus plies its way throughout the valley, past the numerous caves, underground rivers, tobacco plantations, and valley view points, all arranged nicely for your touring pleasure
Our host greeted us as we hopped off the bus from Trinidad, and escorted us back to his home on the border of a field looking out into the valley. The main street was well cared for, with homes and businesses with fresh paint and happy people. Chickens roamed about, goats mowed the lawns, and young pigs and dogs wandered about. We even saw a young pig and dog playing together
Our home for the week was clean and comfortable, with a great roof terrace where we sipped our coffee and ate fresh fruit each morning. A story all in itself, the owner of the home had built this place from scratch over the past 15 years. Lacking money, he raised pigs on his small piece of land and sold them for building materials. Through his own labor and that of friends, he slowly built a 1-room home for his family. As money and time allowed, he expanded one room at a time. Today he has a multi-room home for his family and 3 private rooms and baths to rent to guests. He even has an (smuggled) iPhone 5S and other unheard of luxuries (and here we are sharing an old iPhone 4 between us…) In the dual economy of Cuba, those that work hard and have access to tourist dollars can get ahead
One afternoon we picked a random dirt path at the edge of town and began walking. We strolled past fields, small homes, and streams, just drinking in the scenery. Free-range pigs of all sizes passed us by, and we were even adopted by a flock of young turkeys for a time. Unsure if we were trespassing, we were not sure what to expect when a farmer approached… but he just smiled and asked if we needed directions, pointing us towards a path across his farm that led to a nice viewpoint. Everybody we passed had time to say Hola with a smile.
We decided to take the tour bus, which for 5 CUC/person (~$5.50) would take us to all the sites around the valley. But then we met a taxi driver that offered to take us on our own tour for the same price. In a 1955 Chevy. Of course we accepted
Our driver was a Mechanical Engineer by education, but he had been driving a taxi for the past 14 years to make more money. His $40/month engineering income just wasn’t cutting it. His mechanical skills didn’t go to waste though. He beamed as he showed us the photos of the car restoration, his pride and joy.
Everybody seemed to know everybody wherever we went. Our driver explained the history of the people and the town around us, and would often slow down or stop to wave or say hi to passersby. This was almost the best part
We hit the highlights around town; Cuerva del Indio (a cave and underground river), Palenque de los Cimarrones (a huge cave that was the home of escaped sugar slaves, now a dance club), a tobacco farm and cigar shop, and the Mirador with a view over the valley.
Having a private car / tour guide was fantastic. At the tobacco farm we walked through a field and the drying shed with a farmer, just the 2 of us. He talked through the whole process of growing tobacco, how to harvest the seeds, how each type of leaf has a different use in a cigar, and how to roll a cigar. Neither of us smoke, but we bought some cigars for gifts for 1 CUC (~$1) each. Just as our tour finished, the tour bus showed up with 30 people on board.
At la Cuerva del Indio, we walked through a cave system with some cool stalactites before taking a short boat tour on the underground river.
Outside the cave was a small petting zoo, with a water buffalo and other monstrous animals. But by far the coolest part was a mother goat with her 2 babies, born yesterday. I wanted to take one home with us
On our last day in town we hired a couple horses to ride through the valley. They were both a little lazy, preferring to eat anything that crossed their path than to walk or run, but it was a fun way to explore a little deeper into the countryside.
The valley is incredibly beautiful, and we felt quite content to let the days slide by while breathing deeply of the fresh air and the majestic views. Of all of the places we visited in Cuba, it is the only one to which we would consider returning.
1 night in Casa Particular: 25 CUC (~$27.50)
Breakfast in the casa particular: 4 CUC (~$4.50)
Tour bus around town: 5 CUC/person (~$5.50)
Private tour in 1955 Chevy: 10 CUC
Appreciative lunch for driver: 10 CUC
Dinner at El Olivo: 20 CUC (~$22) (best meal we had)
Horseback riding (includes guide): 5 CUC/person/hour (~$5.50)
1 hand-rolled Cuban cigar: 1 CUC ($1)