12 Jul 2017

Wobbling precariously along the edge of a dusty road by one of many little farms outside of the tiny rural town of Viñales, my feet scrambled for purchase on the pedals of my little-too-tall-for-me bike. I finally managed a smooth turn of the pedal when my wheel went over the lip of the road and steeply tipping me forward, down into the tobacco field I had been struggling besides.

As I hurtled through the leafy plants at an alarming speed, I thought:
“Tobacco is going to kill me and I’ve never even smoked in my life!”

Somehow I was able to NOT kill myself and stop my bike, unscathed and a little shaken up. Understandably, I hailed a taxi to take me back instead of tempting fate and cycling back to town myself.

Aside from that potentially dangerous incident, the couple days I spent in Viñales was blessedly calm and refreshing, surrounded by nature in a tiny town that surprisingly had so many adventures to experience!

Why should I go to Viñales?
If you have limited time in Cuba and you’re spending the majority of it in Havana, Viñales is an ideal getaway. It’s close enough that you can go for a quick day trip or if you can spare a couple of nights away from the capital, this rural town is a welcome contrast to the bustling city while still experiencing traditional Cuban culture. Located in Western Cuba, Viñales is distinguished by sweeping, verdant landscape – ideal for cultivating the most flavourful fruits and vegetables – coffee plantations, tobacco fields, and rounded limestone hills known as mogotes.

How do I get to Viñales from Havana?
Two and a half hours by car, I found the most cost and time effective option was via collectivo that is essentially a shared taxi. Go to the tourist desk at a hotel like Hotel Inglaterra and they’ll arrange an 8:30am pick-up from there for 20 CUC per person. For the same price tag (but an hour longer ride) you can take a bus or if your pockets are deeper, go down to where drivers are lined up near El Capitolio and hire a private driver for around 130 CUC. Book sooner rather than later for prime availability.

Where should I stay?
Literally every home in this quiet town doubled as a casa particular which is similar to a bed and breakfast. Most were colourful, single-storey structures and more well-maintained than the casas in Havana. For a mere 25 CUC a night, we stayed at the highly rated Casa Hostel Juana that was located on a quieter street, hosted by a sweet couple who welcomed up with fresh fruit juice.

How do I book tours/excursions/activities?
It’s best to book your activities or tours upon arrival at your casa with your host family. We discussed what we wanted to do and our schedule and once we made decisions, they handled everything for us with a simple phone call. For example, having arrived mid morning, we had intended to go on the horseback riding tour that afternoon but Juana and her husband suggested we do it early the next morning instead as the sun got really hot in the afternoon.

7 Adventures you MUST have in Viñales:

You can rent a bike for 1 CUC an hour or 10 CUC for the day and roll through the picturesque farmlands set against the characteristically rounded limestone hills of Viñales. We made a pitstop at a roadside fruit stand and sipped fresh coconut water while munching on the meat inside drizzled in honey.

The ride is a breeze on the way out as it’s downhill but what goes up must come down….but the opposite. The dusty dirt roads were not very wide so huge trucks would pass by alarmingly close to me pedalling unsteadily.

Arranged through our casa, we were picked up at 8am for our tour and hiked to a clearing at the edge of town where saddled horses grazed. Our small group trotted along rough paths that made way through abundant farms with oxen forging tracks in the dirt, tobacco fields, and coffee plantations set against towering mogotes in the background.

Silent Valley was so hushed, like all the sound got sucked up and lost in the expansive landscape hence the name. That is, noiseless except for when I was spitting out colourful, bilingual expletives when the tour guide would urge my horse into galloping (for Kelly’s amusement).

Cigars are considered the ultimate Cuban souvenir as the Caribbean climate is ideal for cultivation and where better to learn about how they’re produced than at a tobacco farm? We were walked through the entire cigar-making process from harvesting to the parts of the plant that were used, to fermenting the dried leaves with a mixture of honey, rum, lemon, and spices.

It was mesmerizing to watch a cigar being rolled with nothing but tobacco leaves, knowing puffing on one of these babies would be guilt-free (or as guilt-free as you can get) as they are organic, lacking the harmful chemicals that are added in the factories in the city.

Caves, or cuervas, are a thing in Viñales. When the area was first developing, it swelled with runaway slaves from the Caribbean who hid in caves like Palenque de los Cimarrones, a recreation of their nomadic homes, except now it’s a restaurant/bar where you can drink yourself silly on a bottle of Havana rum and dance the night away at their salsa nights.

Another cave activity is swimming in the natural pools at Cueva del Palmarito, but first you have to pick your way around the rocky terrain. If you’re not going to take a dip, I wouldn’t bother going but it’s a refreshing and surreal experience to slip into these seemingly ominous waters after a sweaty hike.

The food I had on Finca Raul Reyes, an organic farm in Viñales, was THE BEST meal I had the entire trip! Surrounded by pecking fowl and pigs lazing about, we savoured juicy criollo-style chicken, marinated in lime, onion, salt, pepper, and garlic accompanied by beans and rice, salad, and the most flavourful fruits – papaya, mango, pineapple, guava – that you can only find on organic farms like this one. The meal was washed down with giant coconuts filled with with pineapple juice and rum.

While the food was not AS spectacular, the spread was still pretty impressive at El Campesino, a paladar in Viñales located a bit beyond the rest of the establishments. You can enjoy a spectacular view of the farm from the open air restaurant while dining on roasted chicken or grilled fish.

An hour before darkness falls, you should start the straight, uphill trek to one of the few hotels in the area, La Ermita, to catch a view of Viñales as the sun sets, icy mojito in hand. Between the trees and gently rolling hills, homes are pocketed in large swathes of land as the light fades. You’ll also get a lot of great photos of tourists staying at the hotel taking photos of the view.

No matter where you are in Cuba, you can’t escape the spicy salsa beats and why would you want to?! Every night of the week you can enjoy live music or take a turn on the dance floor with an enthusiastic local at Centro Cultural Polo Montanez in the Main Plaza of town.

If sipping cocktails and checking out cute bartenders is more your speed, 3J Bar de Tapas across the street is your best bet. Not only is the service friendly and cheerful, they make a mean mojito daiquiri!

ETC is the overflow of thoughts in the mind of Teri Yeung. It’s a place full of stories of travel adventures, imparted lessons learned from life’s achievements and failures, behind-the-scenes of projects and experiments, and anything else that inspires excitement and joy.

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