Revisiting Viñales in Cuba’s west is something we’ve been looking forward to pretty much since we left the first time. Now we’re back and we’re excited about doing a few things we weren’t able to do the last time. We’re also keen to show you why you need to get to this area asap before things change too much. This is Viñales revisited. This is Viñales on horseback!
Returning to Cuba has been one of the most rewarding travel experiences we’ve had. Our first time here in 2014 was amazing, but being back and being able to see the contrast that the last few monumental years have brought to Cuba is so fascinating. On the other hand we wonder how much more Cuba will change in the next few years.
Here’s what we’ve found:
After a few days in Havana getting back into the vibe and ‘recompressing’, we’ve travelled west back to one of our favourite parts of the country: Viñales. It’s also one of Cuba’s most important rural areas, as it’s here that a lot of the highest quality tobacco is grown for premium cigars.
The mountains and famous tobacco fields that edge the little town of Viñales set the scene for one of the most Cuban places you’ll find – if there is such a thing.
As our taxi pulls into town, we’re surprised once again by the changes we find. When we were first here, Viñales was a town of 2 streets, a couple of restaurants, a bank and a town square which turns into a dance hall at weekends.
The whole district really only stretched back a few streets from the main part of town – simple houses with porches and rocking chairs.
The rocking chairs are still here, but those 2 streets have multiplied into several and are busy with cafés, bars and restaurants. There are ATMs, a supermarket and even a daily street market, which sells trinkets and souvenirs.
Even stranger is the traffic. Viñales is now busy with cars, bikes, horse and carts, and even coaches rolling by; and there are throngs of people walking around too. When we were last here, there was barely any traffic at all and we were pretty much the only travellers to be seen.
The changes are good in that there’s more to do here and people seem to be prospering, but we miss a little bit the feel of the old Viñales. It also makes us wonder how much more will have changed here by the time we’re back again.
As for where to stay, the call of the day here is still to go with casa particulares but these days you’re really spoilt for choice. You see the blue anchor-like symbol for casas everywhere in town now.
Our casa particular – and one we’d really recommend for the best quality bedrooms, breakfast, beautiful views of the mountains and your own terrace – is Casa Mis Cumbres (“My Summits”). It’s a bit away from the main street, but the house is brand new, the facilities are perfect and being able to look out over the Viñales Valley and to the mountains is priceless.
Thanks to Sigñor Ridel Batista and his lovely family, we’re able to do 3 things we’ve wanted to do in Viñales since we were here last time: ride horses to the mountains, see the tobacco crops properly and smoke cigars (that last one is more for me than Christina!).
Ridel helped us work out a great deal with a local tour guide so that it was just us and him riding a trail through the national park here. It’s an experience we’ll never forget. Here are some of the highlights of one of the best things you can do in the most beautiful part of this stunning country.
Exploring the Cuban tobacco fields of the world’s most important cigar region – on horseback
In the morning a taxi picks us up and takes us to the edge of town where farmland starts to make itself known. We meet our guide who takes us to his paddock and sets us up with our horses.
Soon we’re riding the trail out of Viñales towards the row of mountains known as the Sierra de los Organos. At the foot of these round-topped mountains is the national park of Viñales and Pinar del Rio. It’s here that the best tobacco in the world is grown and made into some of the most highly prized cigars.
Our first stop is at a local coffee plantation.
Here in the national park, people can grow crops, harvest and sell what they can, but they’re not allowed to use pesticides and they’re not allowed to use machinery either. Everything has to be done organically and by hand.
Farmers roast and grind the coffee they grow by hand. It’s a fascinating process and the coffee itself – all robusto bean – isn’t too bad.
We add a little honey to the mix, which helps. They honey is made here in the national park and the farmers here harvest it using natural methods.
Another crop the farmers of the area grow is sugar cane. And from sugar cane, you can make rum! This rum is only available from the farmers of the area. It’s a non-exportable product, which is a shame. It makes a pretty good mojito.
Soon we’re off again, but not before Christina makes a new friend! This puppy is so young, it falls asleep in her arms when she picks it up.
Our next stop is the tobacco fields and something I’ve been looking forward to for years.
As we ride up to the plantation we see the early stages of the tobacco plants’ growth. These will end up being over a metre tall before they’re harvested. The last time we were here, harvesting had finished and the fields were empty.
The ‘crown’ – the top of the tobacco plant – is where the more valuable tobacco leaves are. Each cigar has a mix, which is specific to its brand and the type of cigar it is within that brand, of leaves from the crown, the middle and the base. The further down the plant the leaves come from, the stronger flavour they are and the more nicotine they contain.
Once the leaves have been harvested, farmers hang them over these wracks in the sun to dry for a while. This is the first part in a long process – up to 2 years – before they become cigars.
The next key point in cigar tobacco manufacture is the fermenting and curing process. In these amazing sheds are stacks of tobacco leaves slowly turning into components of beautiful cigars.
As part of our tour, one of the farmers takes us round to see inside the tobacco sheds. This is the only part that we’ve had to share our experience with anyone.
Being inside this shed and seeing all this tobacco is blowing our minds a bit. It’s extraordinary to think that this is where everything comes from – how it all starts – before things come together to make the finished product. It makes us even more excited about the cigar factory we’ll be visiting when we get back to Havana.
The farmers shift the rows of leaves up further towards the roof the longer the tobacco is in the shed. You can see the different colours coming out in the leaves – gradients of the ageing and maturing process.
Finally we get to see how cigars are rolled. We find out later in the proper factory that this is a very rustic demonstration of a true art form, but it’s amazing to watch nonetheless. We also get to smoke one, which is the bit I’ve been looking forward to!
It’d be nice to sit here and relax with our cigars, but it’s back on the horse and away on our trail.
Thankfully our guide assures us our horses are ‘semi-automatic’, so I’ve taken my cigar with me.
This is pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever done: riding a horse through the cuban countryside smoking a cigar I’ve just seen being made. And the guy who made it helped to grow the tobacco that’s inside it. Mind fully blown.
Although our horses do seem semi-automatic, there are still a couple of challenging bits. This river crossing is a bit worrying – shortly after this photo I very nearly fall off.
I’m once again cursed with a horse that wants to race, bite or hump every other horse in the area. And it seems he loves running through rivers too.
It’s all too soon that the relative wilderness of the national park ebbs away behind us and the relative civilisation of town starts to show its hand again. Our ride is almost over, but that doesn’t mean that our adventure is.
That’s the most wonderful thing about Cuba: you never really know what you’ll find round the next corner.
How to get to Viñales – why things are changing both fast and slowly
Viñales is certainly changing quickly, but not as fast as somewhere like Havana. I think it’s probably a mix of being a country town – where locals are more stoic to change and like things the way they were thank you. Also it’s much further away from any international airport.
Getting to Viñales takes a bit of effort. You can get a taxi here, which will cost you around US$100 or you can take a local bus which could take forever. Tour companies like the amazing Cuban Adventures do trips here – if you’re short of time, these guys are your best option.
Hiring a car in Cuba fills me with dread – mostly because I’ve seen how the locals drive!
Post-horse trek refreshments are needed as soon as we get back to town. We head to La Cuenca – a paladar Ridel recommended but that was busy last night. It’s cool little restaurant with amazing people-watching opps. It seems only the right thing to do to have another cigar with our Cuban beer. Why not?
Not only was this place not here when we last visited, you’d never have seen the sign behind me either: wifi zone? We’re amazed.
By the way, wifi in Cuba means you can buy data cards like those old phone cards you’d scratch the annoyingly long passcode off the back like a lotto card. Then when you’re in a place that has its own wifi – like La Cuenca for example – you can piggyback off their signal to use your credit.
There’s no other way of getting online here.
What I was saying about not knowing what’s round the next corner in Cuba – this is exactly it.
On our first day, we were having a drink in what we now consider our local – a bar called Rompiendo Rutina – when a tropical storm hit and we were trapped inside. The owners were lovely and sheltered us in the back room.
While we were there, we met the guy on the left – Michael – who runs Viñales’ dance school. We convinced him to give us a salsa lesson. I think he regretted ever saying yes!
The little girl’s having a great time though. She skipped and frolicked round us for the entire hour.
As is Christina’s way, we’ve managed to find the only rooftop bar in Viñales – something else you would never have imagined existing a few years ago.This bar – ‘100% Cuba’ – looks down over the street market and is prime for watching this amazing little world go by.
I just wish we were hungry – the barbecue they have here on the roof looks very convincing.
Now that we finally are hungry though, we’ve decided to take another of Ridel’s tips and have come to a little paladar called La Cocinita del Medio. It’s a good tip.
My ropa viera (slow-cooked pulled beef) is awesome and the sides are perfect too. It’s not too expensive here either – though it’s also not as cheap as some of the other little places you’ll find. We’ll always have a special place in our hearts for Rompiendo Rutina.
The night life in Viñales is another thing that surprises us. When we were here last – just 4 years ago – things got even quieter after dark. These days there’s so much more going on. It’s no Ayia Napa, but that’s not such a bad thing.
Viñales is still holding onto its quaint, small country town spirit. And I hope that continues. For us it’s not just the prestige of its tobacco fields that makes Viñales such a magical, unique place.
And although the signs that this town is changing fast (which means you need to get here even faster) Viñales is still managing its Instagram-pretty profile well – even though it’s not on Instagram quite yet:
We hope you’ve enjoyed our story of Viñales and that it’s inspired you to visit this fantastic town. You really do need to get here soon though, before things change here forever.
Have you been to Viñales? How about salsa dancing? Have you given that a shot? Tell us about it in the comments below!