I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on my three days in Viñales.

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Sunset Over Viñales, Cuba

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Viñales

Viñales is a tourist town in the middle of a tobacco growing valley dotted with spectacular rock outcroppings known as mogotes and amazing caves to explore.

I spent three days in Viñales walking, spelunking, swimming, scooter-ing, dancing, and mojito-ing.

Day 1: Leisurely Organized Walk

I arrived in Viñales about about noon and headed first to a restaurant that the Cuba Lonely Planet gushes about: El Olivo, a Mediterranean spot.

I got the patatas bravas and three-meat cannelloni.

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The food was fine. It was a bit more complex than food from my casa but no better. I later sampled a few other restaurants on the main drag, and none stood out. They were all 10 CUC or less for a meal and offered OK food.

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After lunch, I set about finding a casa particular to spend three nights. In Viñales, this couldn’t be easier. Literally every house I saw was renting rooms. I popped into one that looked fine, but the owner said the room was rented already and suggested her friend a block away. I headed there, looked into the detached room, negotiated the price down from 20 CUC to 18 CUC and plopped my bags down.

I walked into a tour office at the main square and inquired about hikes that afternoon. I was expecting a challenging, up-and-down hike that would make me break a sweat.

Instead the three hour walk that afternoon was more like a leisurely stroll. It was lovely, just not what I was anticipating.

We basically just walked out of the small village and immediately hit fields. Can you spot the pineapple?Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.13 AM

While Viñales itself is a town that must be more affluent than average from all the CUC coming in at casas particulares, just outside of town, you can see families more representative of rural Cubans, like this grandpa and grandson riding an emaciated horse.
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Early on in the walk, we made two stops intended to earn the guide a little extra cash. The first was at a tiny “bar” to offer us a drink. Similar structures dot the countryside, so I assume tourists are being herded into them for 15 minutes on a variety of tours. There was no pressure, and I just sat there drinking the water I had carried.
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Then we stopped at a tobacco warehouse where leaves were being dried and got a short presentation on cigar rolling.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.34 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.40 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.47 AM

We were each given a free cigar and then offered the chance to buy cigars. Again, no pressure.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.22.54 AM

From there we walked to a few caves and a pond to swim.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.27 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.23.34 AM

Finally, we went to a house with a beautiful view of sunset over the mogotes.
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Day 2: Another Leisurely Organized Walk

The next day, I took another 10 CUC walking tour that was similar but covered different areas.

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We walked down dusty paths past small houses and family farms.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.24.53 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.04 AM

We saw the biggest land mammal in Cuba, this delightful tree rat.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.16 AM

We saw plowing…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.29 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.42 AM

…super skinny horses…Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.25.52 AM

…and farmers going about their routine.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.26.02 AM

We got back in time for lunch, so I popped into the first restaurant where I saw ropa vieja on the menu, the dish I most associate with Cuban food.

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It was 6 CUC and, again, fine, but not anything spectacular.

That night, I went to Centro Cultural Polo Montañez, which is right on the town’s plaza. It feature a live show nightly, mostly music with some dancing interludes. Cover is 1 CUC.
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During the music, patrons are encouraged to get up and salsa. Any girls sitting and watching will be invited to dance by the local guys who hang out around the place.

Polo Montañez seemed to draw about 100 people every night, starting at about 10 PM.

There is only one other place in town with live music, Patio del Decimista, on the main drag, but it doesn’t have the dance floor that Polo Montañez has. Patio de Decimista draws maybe 40 people, starting earlier in the evening.

Day 3: Moped Rental

I rented a scooter for the day for the exorbitant cost of around 30 CUC (they’re about half that in Southeast Asia) from a rental place at the same location as Restaurante la Casa de Don Tomás, Salvador Cisneros No 140.

The scooter was a really fun way to explore Viñales because some of its interesting sites and caves are 10 km outside of town.

First I scooted west of town on a paved road toward the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. I was in no hurry, so I pulled off to follow a dirt trail to a promised view point, which was lovely.

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I passed the Mural del Prehistoria, which was a 120 meter long painting with a huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters, and humans that symbolized evolution. I’m as confused as you are.

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Finally I got to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás where I paid 10 CUC to go on a 90-minute group tour of the second largest cave in the Americas.
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This was a highlight of my time in Cuba.Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.49 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.27.56 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.04 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 10.28.11 AM

After the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, I went east back past Viñales to check out other caves. I really wanted to see Cueva del Indio where you ride in a boat on the underground river. I paid my entry fee and walked into the cave, but a tour guide in front of me said that the line was probably 40 minutes to get to the 10 minute boat ride, so I just left. Get to Cueva del Indio early in the day to beat tour buses.

Finally I just blasted through the countryside for an hour on the scooter, following road signs to any towns mentioned. It was a fun way to see parts of Cuba mostly unseen by tourists and to see Cubans going about their daily lives.

That afternoon, I used the internet at the ETECSA office in Viñales. More on internet usage in Cuba in this post.

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The wifi works on the front steps 24 hours even though you can only buy the scratch off internet cards during the day. I found that having an extra one with me at all times was nice if I wanted to check email at night.

Getting To/From Viñales

I took a Viazul bus from Havana. Here’s more information on Viazul buses and other transportation options in Cuba.

Bottom Line

I definitely think any trip to Cuba should include Havana and not-Havana, but I can’t say with any certainty that Viñales is the most interesting not-Havana on the island. I can say that I really enjoyed Viñales. It’s close enough to Havana to justify a two or three day trip to see the countryside, caves, and tobacco farms. The city has tons of casa particulares to stay in, a great place to salsa dance, and lots of easy walking tours.

 

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