Riding a horse through Cuba’s revered tobacco fields whilst smoking a cigar has to be one of my all-time best travel memories. But there’s more to it than that. Seeing these parts of Cuba you can only get to on horseback is truly a great experience.
There’s so much more to Cuba than the populous streets of beautiful Havana. The Cuban countryside is spectacular and riding a horse through the hills and tobacco fields of Vinales, meeting farmers and learning about life outside the cities fascinating.
Our most recent visit to Cuba took us back to Vinales – a town west of Havana that’s famous for 2 things: its mountains and its tobacco.
The majority of the tobacco in Cuba’s legendary cigars is from around Vinales.
It’s possible to hike from town into the tobacco fields, but better than that is to ride a horse there. Not only do you get there quicker and therefore see more, it’s also simply an amazing experience.
Here’s our quick video highlighting our horse ride through the Viñales Valley to the tobacco fields. Make sure you catch the outtakes at the end:
The best way to see Cuba – on horseback through tobacco fields
When we first visited Vinales in 2014, it was a little country town with one main street and about 3 blocks back from it where most of the township lived. On that main road, there were 2 restaurants, a shop and a bank.
Now, it’s much busier, with more traffic and more people, but the main street has many paladars and restaurants, the town stretches back further than 3 blocks, and there’s a sense of life here that development always brings.
How to organise and book a horseback tour of Vinales tobacco fields
The casa particular we were staying in – Casa mis Cumbres – is owned by Ridel and Claribel, who also have another property in town plus a couple of restaurants. It’s clear they’re pretty well connected.
In a single phone call, Ridel had organised a private horseback tour, a vehicle pick-up and negotiated a price for us. And for US$50 each, I think he did well by us.
Private horseback tour of Vinales tobacco fields and coffee plantations
Our guide picked us up in a rickety old car that rattled its way across town to his farm. In the paddock at the back, we met our horses.
Christina has had quite a bit of experience with horse-riding recently and was excited about the ride. I hadn’t ridden a horse in quite some time, but our guide placated me with a smile and a single word:
Christina asked our guide what her horse’s name was.
“Caballo,” he shrugged. Literally ‘horse’.
We saddled up and the three of us clip-clopped out of town and were quickly trekking along the deep red dirt tracks and thick foliage of the Vinales Valley.
Coffee and honey in a coffee plantation
Soon we passed the border that marks the start of the Parque de Vinales. The farms within this national park – including the many tobacco fields – must all be organic and use traditional, non-mechanical methods.
After about an hour of spectacular views of the valley and the approaching mountains, which draw climbers from around, we put our ‘auto-caballos’ into park to meet with a local coffee farmer.
First the farmer, whose English was excellent, showed us the coffee plantation that swept away in front of us. He explained the organic methods they use to grow the crops and then showed us the rest of the process.
After drying the beans in the sun on trays, the farmers roast the robusto beans on a blackened cast iron skillet over a wood fire. You can buy whole beans from them or ready-ground coffee, which they also grind manually. Both come in re-used plastic water bottles.
We approve of recycling.
We sat and enjoyed a cup with the farmer and he told us more about the area. He explained they also keep bees here, and that the honey is excellent – especially with the coffee, which is surprisingly smooth.
It was then that he brought out the rum.
Rum that’s not rum
Well, ‘rum’ isn’t the right word for it. Guayabita del Pinar isn’t rum and it isn’t whisky. In fact, there is no word for this liquor, but it’s from this particular region of Cuba.
The origins of Guayabita have been lost, but this manufacturer – La Occidental – started in 1892 in Pinar del Rio, the region’s capital.
Like rum, it’s aged in wooden barrels and made with sugar, but also the fruit from a kind of dwarf guava tree only found here. It’s smooth, fruity surprisingly light. And it makes a superb mojito!
To the tobacco fields
Feeling refreshed, we remount and trot on to our next stop: the tobacco fields.
The narrow path we’re following soon opens out onto broad expanses of fields full of plants between a foot and 5 feet tall. They’re all tobacco plants. And they’re all growing with one purpose in mind: the finest cigars in the world.
We make our way to a thicket of trees and the farm’s rustic homestead. Our horses parked again, we meet the farmer, who talks us through the growing, harvesting and processing of the cigar tobacco here.
Once the tobacco leaves have been harvested (all but hand), they’re initially dried on stands in the sun in the field before they go into the drying sheds. These amazing barns are almost all roof and are thatched with palm fronds.
To get the tobacco onto the sheds, farmers ‘stitch’ between 120-200 leaves together with fine twine and hang them in stacks. They dry for up to 60 days. After that the leaves are fermented for up to 40 days before they go to sorting factories.
The process after that is lengthy and a tale for another time, but it’s fascinating. Leaves we see drying today will have to wait another 6 years in some cases before they become cigars.
Back in the homestead, the farmer has some leaves he’s kept for himself that he rolls for us. It’s amazing to watch the four important elements of the cigar coming together: the filler, binder and wrapper all made from whole leaves, and the cap at the end.
We’re able to buy some of these ‘farmer cigars’ from him, which is pretty cool. They’re not quite the same as factory-made cigars, which are far higher quality, but they’re not bad.
I get a cigar to smoke on our ride back to town, which is so cool. Riding a horse… caballo… through the Cuban countryside of where the cigar leaves were grown. It’s a highlight.
For Christina, fording a river on horseback is as much of a highlight. I manage to get this photo just before I almost fall off.
Back in Vinales
We arrive back at our guide’s paddock and say goodbye. It’s a short walk in the sun back to the main street, where we find a bar for a refreshing Cristal beer. I also have another cigar to celebrate.
We sit and watch the world go by and reflect on the amazing experience we’ve just had.
You might also enjoy these stories about Cuba:
When you book this horse-riding trek, here are a few things to remember:
– bring some water with you in a pack – it gets hot on the trail.
– don’t wear jeans – cotton slacks or cargo pants are ok. Leggings are perfect
– don’t wear shorts if you can help it – I wore Christina’s compression socks, which protected me from rubbing on horse hair and the sweat from the horse. Not sexy, but it worked
– wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty or wet
– pack sunscreen and don’t wear any strong perfumes.
To book your tours, accommodation, and even flights and visas to Cuba, we highly recommend Cuban Adventures Cuba Tours.