4 Nights in Viñales
Viñales is like stepping into a land before time. The famous mogotes that surround the village have a very prehistoric quality. If a pterodactyl flew down from one of them I wouldn't have been surprised. Besides the few central streets in the village the area is very pastoral. And the vibrant red of the soil contrasted with all of the greenery made the whole place feel very surreal. We could have easily spent a week here, it was absolutely fantastic.
How we got there:
We opted for a collectivo taxi to get from Trinidad to Viñales. It was easier to ask our casa host, Norma, to set one up, than to buy a ticket from an appointed place. Plus, the collectivo picked us up from our casa. Collectivos usually cost a little more than the connectado busses, so maybe 5-7CUC more than a Vizaul bus. However, the travel time is even shorter in a collectivo, since it's a car.
Collectivos are arranged by region, there are local drivers that do portions of the journey. For example, we had one driver from Trinidad to just outside of Havana and then another from Havana to Viñales. Our first vehicle was a standard beater, with standard Cuban AC (both of the windows in the front rolled down). We traveled this portion with another couple from Europe who were heading back to Havana. Our transfer took place on the side of the highway, literally. We pulled over and our driver told us to get out and pay him 60 of the 80CUC (total for two people) and the rest we would pay to the next guy.
Our vehicle to Viñales was a vintage blue bus. There were three rows of seats that fit four and the whole thing felt ridiculous. But we were on an adventure and what better way to do a Cuban road trip than with a vintage bus? On this collectivo we met another American couple, who we subsequently ran into all over Viñales. The overall travel time was about 6 to 7 hours. The last bit of road leading into Viñales was rougher than the highway and the going was slow.
Where we stayed
We tried for one of the recommended places in The Book, but ended up at Casa Mariela Y El Gallego. The house is located off a side street of Calle Adela Azcuy Norte, almost across from the local baseball diamond. Mariela has a room off the back of her house with a separate entrance. It was clean, well appointed (including some shelves and hangers!) and had the best bathroom of any place we stayed in Cuba. She charged 25CUC per night, making it also our cheapest accommodation of the trip.
I really liked the location of where we stayed. We were far enough off of the main drag that noise wasn't an issue (well, except for the roosters, but that's rural Cuba) but close enough that everything was easily walkable. We enjoyed a few afternoons watching the local kids play baseball and just walking around the neighborhood. Relaxation is the name of the game in Viñales, and every casa either has a porch or rooftop for you to perch on. Most hosts can also arrange for local guides and activities, we liked that option over booking things through Cubatur or other travel agency offices.
Things we did
Our guide, Raymel, arranged by Mariela, picked us up in front of our casa in the morning with one other traveler. Again, we lucked out and weren't so much on a tour, but more of a private guided experience. Raymel was fantastic. He was probably one of my favorite parts of our trip overall. His father runs the museum on the street we stayed off of and he also runs a casa. Raymel pointed out every tree and plant and animal he saw, his knowledge of local flora and fauna was extensive. He told us that in addition to being a guide, he also specializes in appraising quarantined animals and has traveled to Europe and South America for work. Pretty impressive. His English was better than mine.
The Pinar del Rio Province is famous for growing the world's finest tobacco and we visited a local tobacco farmer. We learned that all farmers, be it tobacco or coffee or what have you, must give the government 90% of their crop for distribution. They keep the other 10% to sell privately. All cigars with brand names, like Cohiba or Romeo & Juliet, are rolled by the government. The quality of the tobacco determines what kind of cigar it becomes.
We also went to a cave with a swimming hole, although opted not to swim. And instead swam at a freshwater lake in the middle of a farm. I know what you're thinking, gross. But the lake's water comes from the ground, and you can see the bubbles to prove it. Also, it was sweltering outside and a dip sounded great.
Cayo Jutias is 65 kilometers northwest of Viñales. You can take a bus through Cubatur for 20CUC, but we decided to splurge on a private taxi. We paid 60CUC total, so just 10CUC more per person than the bus. I highly recommend the taxi. Even though the drive should only take about 40 minutes, the road is TERRIBLE and took us about an hour and a half, closer to two hours. Our driver maneuvered masterfully around the numerous and enormous potholes. I can't imagine doing that in a bus.
In planning a beach day from Viñales I was torn between Cayo Jutias and Cayo Levisa. Jutias is undeveloped except for a restaurant, some bathrooms and a drink stand, Levisa has a dive hotel. In the end it came down to the fact that I did not want to see what we missed out on in not going to the dive hotel. I was also hesitant about either beach because I had read mixed things on other travel blogs and bad reviews online. However, I am so glad we spent the time and money to do it.
Our day at the beach was one of those not-a-cloud-in-sight perfect bluebird days. We headed for the far side of the beach away from the restaurant and had a perfectly peaceful time. Beach chairs cost 1.5CUC per person and there were plenty of palapas to choose from. The water was bright blue and warm, it was a great place to spend some time lounging and reading. We brought our own rum and bought cold sodas from the stand there. I would also recommend bringing some snacks. That way you're not beholden to the restaurant (which I cannot vouch for because we didn't eat there).
Our alarm woke us up at 5:40 a.m. for our 6 a.m. start time for our hike up Los Aquaticos. Our guide, Francisco, was another wonderful, local man with extensive knowledge of the area. He too pointed our every plant, tree and animal we came across and launched into detailed explanations of why they were interesting or important to the area.
To do this hike to watch the sun rise over the valley you'll need a guide. The trail is mostly unmarked and has several obstacles to navigate. We came to several forks in the trail and even crossed over some property lines. The hike has some steep parts but overall was a mild trail. I estimate we hiked for less than an hour. Our destination was a local farmer's house where waited for the sun to come up and enjoyed some coffee.
Sunrise was breathtaking, and Francisco told us it wasn't even a good one (he does this most days and when the sky is clearer I guess the sunrise is better). Because there were some clouds in the sky it was very atmospheric and mystical. The colors weren't spectacular, but the eerie light was fun to capture. We stayed up top for a while and when the light finally filled in we headed down and walked across the valley floor. We ran into a local man who sold us bananas and coconuts, which was very welcome since it had been hours since we'd eaten. It was another great way to see the area.
Places we ate
We only ate dinner out one night, our first, at El Barrio, on the main drag. It was okay. We also had some mojitos and delicious ravioli at 3J Bar.
At our casa
The other 3 nights we ate at our casa. For 10CUC per person we were given a FEAST. We simply told Mariela what protein we'd like in the morning and what time we wanted to eat. Mariela made delicious home cooked Cuban food, I still dream of the black bean soup. This seemed to be a popular option, as we noticed our neighbors doing the same. Breakfast at the casa was a special treat too. Mariela made pancakes! And after that first time, and our over-excitement, she made sure to have them every time.
El Paraíso Finca Agroecológica
This really should be under "Things we did." We came here on the recommendation of the American couple we met in the taxi (and ran into on the street). We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into...
El Paraíso is an ecological farm and everything they serve is grown on site. It sits about 3km above Viñales (an easy taxi ride), and has magnificent views. A word of caution, come hungry and come before 11:30 a.m. or after 2 p.m., it's a popular stop for organized tours (or at least the day we were there it was). However, we didn't have an agenda that afternoon and waited patiently for a table. At one point the man who runs the place asked us if we wanted a drink. He recommended their house cocktail, we gladly obliged. We were then given a piña colada type drink and a bottle of rum. "The rum is optional," he told us. Well, fillerup!
One heavy-handed pour later (a la moi) and we were seated. And then the food came. And it kept coming. And coming. And coming. Until the table no longer visible. Sadly, I don't think we touched some of the dishes. But everything was delicious. We tried asking for smaller portions, but that didn't translate well. At the end of the meal I asked where all of the extra food went (surely they re-used it, at this volume I would almost expect it), and we were told that it went to the pigs. So at least it wasn't thrown away.
Viñales was my favorite part of the trip. Maybe it was because we were closer to the end than the beginning of our journey and therefore had a better handle on things. Probably though it was because Viñales was just right up our alley. It's laid back, rural atmosphere coupled with it's many outdoor opportunities just felt right. I gladly would have spent our whole trip in the Pinar del Rio Province.
Funnily enough Viñales is also where we had our one and only money scare. The morning after our sunrise hike, which was a Saturday, we lazily got ready to go back into town and literally missed getting into the cadeca by minutes. I begged the guard to let us in, but he shook his head at me with a smirk that pretty much read, "good luck tourist." Thankfully a woman who worked there came out and let us know that La Ermita (a hotel) could exchange money, albeit at a terrible rate. This is a reminder to ALWAYS check cadeca hours where you are, they are posted on the door. Do not assume that even if you're in a heavily touristed area (which we were) that the cadeca will be open in the afternoon on Saturday. That's Cuba.