Valle de Viñales: Touristy and Worth It
Do you like smoking cigars and drinking rum before noon? You should probably go to Viñales.
Does the idea of doing either of those things make you shudder in horror? You should probably still go to Viñales.
Located about two hours out of Havana and easily accessible by collectivo or Viazul bus (runs twice daily), the Valley is everything you want in a Cuban experience; postcard-worthy views, endless anecdotes about Cuban history, and cigars for days.
The town of Viñales is pretty much what you would expect from one centred around tourism, with lots of restaurants and cocktail bars, souvenir stalls and crop-top sporting backpackers. Once you walk a block or two away from the main street, you’ll find endless rows of bright pastel casa’s with lot’s of authentic Cuban family life to enjoy. One of my favourite parts of my visit was sitting on rocking chairs on the porch of our casa particular watching families clinking glasses and chatting. Lurking isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.
The Valley itself is arguably the most gorgeous and lush landscape in Cuba, filled with rolling hills, a variety of different trees, and towering limestone cliffs. For a second I was worried that there was something funky in the cigar I had just smoked, because I could swear I had been transported to Southeast Asia. Don’t worry mom and dad, I’m pure. It really is just that beautiful! I’ve heard about people who have rented scooters or bikes and explored the Valley themselves, but after a little bit of asking around to no avail, I was easily sweet-talked into horseback riding by my casa owner.
As two of the palest people on the entire island, we decided on the earlier tour to avoid turning an unflattering shade of lobster. We were picked up at 9 AM by a serious cowboy-looking gentleman and herded to pick up the rest of the people on the tour, which worked out to be about ten of us. At this point I was worried that our ride would be slower than molasses in January, but luckily they were great about splitting us into fours before we started. After conferring with the others in our group, we all realized that each casa owner told us that we would be paying 5 CUC for a one hour ride. Once we got there they told us that this was true, but that a 5 hour ride was expected, with a one hour tour of the tobacco farm which acts as the launching point. We decided to go for the six hour ride and thought it was definitely worth it, but if you’re looking for a shorter ride be sure to make that clear right off the bat!
As non-smokers we weren’t 100% convinced about the tobacco farm tour, but it seemed almost criminal to visit the Holy Land of cigars without learning how they’re made. I’m so glad we stuck around, because this was easily one of the coolest parts of the day! We were lucky enough to see the tobacco leaves being picked as it was harvesting season, and taken to the straw huts where they are prepped for rolling. The whole process was extremely interesting, but learning about how these cigars are distributed and how the farmers are compensated in a communist system was such an eye-opener. After the tour our hilarious guide rolled us each a cigar on the house, Che Guevara style (dipped in honey), and laughed as us gringos attempted to look cool while subtly choking on smoke. I’m still convinced that I looked like Clint Eastwood, but I digress.
With our cigars still dangling lazily from our mouths, we hopped onto our horses and braced ourselves for the next five hours. I was beyond excited to see the rest of the gorgeous scenery that we had only gotten a peak at, but I was also bracing myself for some serious bow legs. We spent the first hour riding along cliffs, across rivers and through tiny villages, seeing things that we undoubtedly would have missed if we tried to explore on our own. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, our guide asked the question that any normal person but would be confused by at 10 AM.
Maybe it speaks to my character that these words filled me with pure and unadulterated joy, but I was too busy hurling my body off the horse to analyze my reaction. We were led towards a series of straw huts that I assumed belonged to the sugarcane plantation we had been riding through, when we saw it. The tourist takeover.
All of the tourists that we had been separated from earlier were herded into a shaded area filled with picnic benches, being offered different bottles of rum for purchase, tasting tiny cups of coffee, and being serenaded by a persistent guitarist, impatiently waiting to be tipped. Considering that we had joined a tour that every casa had been peddling, this shouldn’t have necessarily have come as a shock, but after riding through a stretch of green that was seemingly untouched by the tourism industry, it was a bit of a wake-up call. We were quickly led through a brief tour of the plantation’s work stations and more unique crops before being sat at our own table and offered several costly drinks. Don’t get me wrong, I still relished the opportunity to drink a fruity cocktail without judgement before lunch, but the artificial experience left me with a bit of an off feeling.
We were quickly loaded back onto our horses and led through the rest of our tour. While the majority did consist of riding and sightseeing, we were shepherded into a few more money traps, including a brief cave tour and a lunch spot where the cheapest option was $12 chicken. The tour ended at the perfect time, just as the beating sun began to make me miss my frozen homeland. We were quickly de-horsed, asked for payment, and sent on our merry way.
The day was definitely one of the most touristy on our trips, and by the end you began to feel like a walking ATM. That being said, I would still tell anyone headed to Cuba that Viñales is a can’t-miss destination. Between the never-ending green of the landscape, the abundance of friendly locals, and the unmistakeable ambience of an industry that is so uniquely Cuban, the tobacco fields were perhaps the highlight of my trip. Instead of skipping it entirely in fear of the terrifying “T word” (touristy), adjust your attitude before visiting and know that you will not be exploring quaint and undiscovered territory. It would have been a real shame if I had missed this spot, and you shouldn’t either!
Do you guys feel the same about Viñales? How did you explore the Valley?