Viñales – The Gem of Cuba’s West

After three nights in Havana, enjoying dinner and drinks with Simon and Saskia every night, all four of us headed to Viñales on the recommendation of many other travellers. We had been expecting a taxi, but ended up waiting over an hour for a beaten up old van, packed full already, which we and our luggage were somehow jammed into, in a Mary Poppins kind of way. The speedometer didn’t work, the dashboard was virtually non-existent, the seats weren’t secured properly so you had a choice of slipping off or having the backrest hit into you with every motion of the car (this turned out to be the favourable option), there was no air-conditioning and the only windows that opened were the ones right down the front. Every one of the eleven passengers were around our age, and, in a way that only travelling several hours in a barely-road-worthy van together can, we pulled together and cheerfully chatted with one another about where we’d been, where we were going, and other travel stories. We met a European couple who had to speak in English to one another as one person was Italian and one was Dutch; a group of travellers at least one of whom was Italian but spoke fluent German to Saskia; and various other interesting, well-travelled people, all of whom were from Europe.

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Our ride to Vinales, photo courtesy of Simon S

We arrived safely at our casa and were greeted cheerfully by our hostess Elisabeth, who immediately showed us to our large, well equipped and comfortable room, and then promptly organised a tour of Viñales for the four of us for that afternoon. After getting settled in, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch and mojitos (at $2, how could you say no?). Lunch was plain but large and filling, and very cheap. We then headed back to our casa for our tour, which was CUC $30 for the four of us, and lots of fun. We were driven about by a young man in an old car to several different places in Viñales, the stand-outs being Cueva del Indio, the Mural de la Prehistoria, a tobacco farm, and Hotel Los Jazmines. At Cueva del Indio (cave of the Indian), we paid another CUC $5 each entry, but it was worth it. We saw a brief cultural performance outside the cave with Cubans dressed up in traditional costume. The performance involved a Cuban hutia, which is a rat about the size of a small adult cat. After this, we wandered on through the caves, only to find ourselves at the banks of a river. We were pondering if we should now walk back the way we came, as there didn’t seem any other option, when a boat showed up and ushered us on board. We were taken up and down the river for a short while, having various rock formations in the cave pointed out to us for their similarities to animals and people. After being dropped off outside the caves again, we got back into our vintage ride and continued on.

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Our boat ride inside the caves

The Mural de la Prehistoria is an absolutely enormous mural on a huge rock face, featuring several dinosaurs, snails, and humans. It is intended to symbolise the theory of evolution, and is famous in this area for its 120 metre length, and the fact that it took eighteen people four years to complete. At the tobacco farm, we saw what tobacco looks like before it’s dried, and watched cigars being rolled by an expert, whilst hearing about the process from workers. The farm was so proud of its product they gave free cigars out to tourists to try, and encouraged people to try them dipped in honey, as Che Guevara enjoyed his. We finished our tour at Hotel Los Jazmines, which has breathtaking panoramic views over Viñales.

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Watching cigars being rolled at a tobacco farm

We enjoyed dinner at our casa that evening, before heading out to Casa del Mojito a few doors down. A second German couple who were staying at the same casa as we were had recommended it to us, so the six of us together whiled away the evening enjoying traditional mojitos, and then trying more exotic, flavoured mojitos. The guayaba (guava) and mango flavoured mojitos are my picks – absolutely delicious! We ended up heading back almost every night of our Viñales stay, and voted the mojitos here some of the best in Cuba (read more about that here).

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Some of Cuba’s best mojitos at Casa del Mojito

In Viñales, there is one main street with almost all of the town’s restaurants on it, as well as the banks, the biggest shop, and most other things you will need. If you follow this road far enough in one direction (the opposite to the way you came in from Havana) you will reach the Jardín Botánico de Viñales (botanical gardens), which are free to enter and well worth a look. There are plenty of beautiful native plants, all of which will be pointed out and explained to you by a friendly and knowledgeable guide. Here you will find the güira fruit, from which maracas are made; a spiky tree which is used by Cubans for aspirin; the cacao plant (though we were told they don’t harvest the cacao here, the plants are purely for aesthetic pleasure); along with various other Cuban plants. There are also some Cuban parrots and a Cuban hutia (also known as a tree rat) to look at. Some people keep tree rats as pets, while others eat them, according to our guide. We were lucky enough to see a hummingbird’s nest, though a few weeks too late to see the baby birds themselves. The humidity and heat in Cuba is ideal for growing orchids, so there are several different varieties of orchid here to admire. At the end of the tour a tip tray is placed on a table but there is no pressure whatsoever to donate, though I encourage you to as it’s a beautiful place and it would be great to keep it going for future generations.

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One of the fantastic plants we saw at the Botanic Gardens

If you continue on this road for another few kilometres, you’ll reach Cueva del Indio, though it’s perhaps easier to visit this on a tour rather than walking. Near Cueva del Indio but on the opposite side of the road is a cave that features a restaurant during the day, and turns into a club at night time. We didn’t visit this, but did drive past it and it is certainly a nifty idea. Further away from Viñales there are other caves with pools in which you can swim, though again we didn’t visit them. Simon and Saskia hired bicycles and rode out to them, though they are a bit of a distance away. You can also take a horseback tour to these caves, which we would have loved to have done but ran out of time.

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The guira fruit, used to make maracas

A short walk from our casa was Cueva de la Vaca, which was a great little adventure for us. We had no intention of walking there initially when we set off, we just intended to see where the street lead us. After walking a little while, we came across a couple walking in the opposite direction, so I asked them if there was anything worth seeing further down the path. They told us about the caves and we were sold; it definitely sounded like an interesting place to visit. We ventured on and found a sign to a farm, which is what the couple had told us to watch out for. We entered the farm and wound our way down the dirt path to a hut set up with hammocks, chairs, tables and a tree rat on a chain. A man greeted us amicably and asked us if we wanted anything to drink here. We said no thank you, and he said we were welcome to continue on through his farm to the caves. We wandered through a field with a pond that a couple of horses were cooling off in; past a pig sty with piglets rolling around in the mud happily; over an interesting make-shift A-shape ladder that humans can climb but the farm animals can’t; and onwards towards a lengthy, slippery, damaged stone staircase winding up and up and up…

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The entrance to Cueva de la Vaca

We made it to the top, puffing and sweaty, but it would turn out to be worth our effort. The cave was small, but L-shaped, meaning that if you stood right in the middle, it was almost pitch-black. We used the light on Alex’s phone to make it safely to the other side, and then decided to clamber down the stony hillside to the paddocks at the bottom. We found a couple of cute little goats chomping on some grass, who were all too eager to say hello to us. They were tied up so couldn’t quite make it, but I decided to risk it and ventured carefully over to one. Inexplicably, the goat thoroughly enjoyed licking my legs, which was one of the strangest feelings I’ve experienced (and I’ve had my feet nibbled by fish in Cambodia). We said hello to the other goat, wandered a bit further through the fields, and then turned back when we came to a barbed-wire fence that silently said “You shall not pass!”. Once we made our way back to the cave, we were surprised to hear tiny little squeaks we hadn’t heard the first time around. We paused, pondering the odd noises, when we suddenly realised what it was. Bats! With the trusty phone torch lighting the way once more, we were lucky enough to look up and see, huddled in the crevices of the cave’s ceiling, hundreds of minuscule bats just starting to wake up. We took plenty of photos and a couple of videos to capture their unique voices, and then went on our way to let them grab a cup of coffee or perhaps some breakfast bugs to munch on.

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Some of the tiny bats in Cueva de la Vaca

Watching the sunset from the roof of our casa while sipping on Havana Club rum, we wondered what other excitement lay ahead of us on the next two and a half weeks of our trip in Cuba. So far, we were loving every minute of this relaxed, diverse, happy country, and we couldn’t wait to find out what was next.

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