During my first visit to Cuba, I decided to take a few days outside the big city in a beautiful area called Viñales. Today’s post is about some of the picturesque, hilarious, and downright terrifying moments I experienced along the way!
Tobacco smoke filled the room with every puff, the white strands swirling in the sunlight then slowly disappearing. My three friends had decided to try some freshly-rolled Cuban cigars, as I, the lone non-smoker, decided to watch and listen. The jefe sat behind a pile of aged tobacco, beer in hand, with the Cuban flag, a photo of Fidel, and a picture of Ché Guevara situated so conveniently behind him. The sun was beginning to set behind the ridges of the mogotes nearby, casting shadows around the cabana where we sat. No one was really talking; the only noises we could hear were the birds nearby, cars in the distance, and the puffs from the cigars.
Evenings in Viñales seemed doable.
Months before, I’d posted a status on Facebook about finding cheap flights to Cuba. I didn’t think anyone would hop onboard, but much to my surprise, three of my guy friends from university decided to join me! It was an interesting crew, but a lively one, and I knew traveling in a group in this particular place would help me keep costs low and stay safe.
When I first decided to go to Cuba, I knew the nature-lover in me would kick myself if I didn’t spend a couple of days in the countryside. So, for the first leg of our trip, we took off for Viñales, a picturesque little town about 3 1/2 hours away from Havana. Here, I hoped to find beautiful scenery, outdoor activities, ice-cold mojitos (the absolute best of all of the tropical summer drinks, in my opinion) and a taste of Cuban culture a little bit more relaxed than in the hustle and bustle of Havana.
Arriving in Viñales
Finding A Ride from Havana to Vinales
After a short flight from Orlando, my friends and I arrived at Havana’s Viazul station at an awkward time between the morning and the afternoon buses to Viñales, so we had to look for alternative means of transportation. As we exited the ticketing center, a man approached us.
“Van a Viñales?” he inquired. We all looked at each other and nodded. He cut us a deal – $15 CUC per person for the 3+ hour drive to Viñales in his colectivo. It seemed like a pretty good deal, so we agreed and he escorted us to his blue jeep-looking vehicle. We stashed our suitcases on top of the car and prepared for a thrilling ride.
Surviving the Colectivo Ride
We finally arrived in Viñales after our somewhat life-threatening colectivo ride from Havana (sorry mom!). Our driver, Josué, was a little bit nuts – at times we barreled down hills at ungodly speeds, at other times we straight up went off the road. However, we made it there in one piece, and with a few new Spanish friends to boot.
Our colectivo dropped us off in front of our Airbnb, where a smiling woman named Yamilé and her daughter, Gabriela, greeted us with smiles. Sweating from the non-air-conditioned colectivo and the sweltering heat of the sun, we finally took a seat and got a moment to breathe normally. Our room was a cute, blue house with yellow window shades in our hosts’ backyard, complete with two double beds, a bathroom, two ultra-powerful fans, and a patio with a dining table. All for just $29 ($7.25 per person for the four of us).
Man, I thought to myself, I could really go for an ice-cold juice right now.
It was as if the travel gods heard my request, because just seconds later, Gabriela walked out of the house with four shimmering glasses of pineapple juice. I beamed with excitement. This trip was off to a fantastic start, and it had only just begun!
Day 1: Caves, Cigars, and Café ‘Correcto’
Our host, Yamilé, offered to set us up with a taxi driver who would take us around for the rest of the day for just $30 CUC. The best part? He had one of those cool old cars that I’d been dreaming of riding in – a red antique car with silver door handles that were barely hanging on. My friends and I grinned at each other and boarded our noble steed. This, it seems, was about as Cuba as it could get.
Our first stop on our old car tour was the Cueva del Indio, a sizeable cavern in one of the limestone mogotes. I’m typically not a huge fan of caves, mostly because a) because I hate the smell of bats and mold, and b) because they give me mild claustrophobia. Luckily, there was no bat stench in this particular cave, and I didn’t experience any significant claustrophobia while inside.
The cave was beautiful on the inside, with staggering stalagmites and stalactites everywhere. However, about 3/4 of the way through the cave, we were stopped. For some reason, there was a line of tourists as far as the eye could see. However, we were already blocked in by the hordes of tourists behind us, and there was no other way out but to go forward. After waiting in this line for about 30 minutes, we finally realized what was causing the backup – the rest of the tour had to be done by boat. When we finally boarded our boat, the ride was short but really cool, as we got to go deep into the cavern and see some of the most striking formations in the whole cave. The Cueva del Indio was beautiful, but the lines of tourists kind of put a damper on the experience. Womp.
Afterward, we drove off to a tobacco farm on the outskirts of town, where we got to learn about the process of farming, fermenting, and rolling tobacco. Now this was cool. The farmers escorted us into a large farmhouse where they dried the tobacco leaves and fermented them in a fruit concoction that sounded like a tropical juice mixture. Then, we walked to a small hut where our Cuban friend from above was demonstrating the process of rolling and smoking the cigars. It was quite fascinating to see the end-to-end process of how the world’s most revered cigars are made.
At the end of our farm visit, my friends smoked a cigar each, dipped in honey by the experts at the farm, and thought they were wonderful. I don’t generally smoke tobacco, but I did find the leaves at this farm to be quite pleasantly fragrant, and the smoke around the cabana made for some epic photos. We then climbed atop a small treehouse/watchtower-type structure at the farm, where we watched the golden sun begin to set behind the limestone mounds in Viñales.
But our driver had other plans for us! He ushered us back into his red vehicle and we drove, high-speed chase style, to Hotel Ermita, where we watched the final moments of sunset from an even better viewpoint. From up there, we could see all over the Valle de Viñales, from the towering mogotes to the vast fields of tobacco and crops. It was a vibrant spread of greenery with a beautiful orange sunset above. After the sun finally set, we ordered some mojitos in true Cuban fashion and toasted to a wonderful day.
Little did we know that even though the daylight was gone, our day was far from over.
Remember those Spaniards from our colectivo? We met up with them again before dinner and enjoyed a few cuba libres with the hosts of their casa familiar. Then, we grabbed a traditional Cuban dinner of rice, vegetables, plantains, and assorted roasted proteins at a nearby restaurant. Here, our Spanish friends suggested we check out Palenque, a bar in a nearby cave with live reggaeton music. It sounded intriguing, so we agreed.
Before anyone could go to this bar, though, we decided we needed to drink some coffee to reenergize and stay awake. We ordered a few cups of coffee after we’d finished our food. Once it arrived, I began putting sugar into mine and picked it up.
“Aren’t you going to do it correcto?” My Spanish friend inquired.
“Umm…what?” I replied, not really sure what he was asking me.
He then pulled out a bottle of Havana Club (please let me never drink that stuff again) and proceeded to add it to his coffee. Soon enough, this table full of guys was toasting to “cafe correcto” and howling in laughter. I decided to take my coffee…erm…incorrecto, but it was hilarious watching my American friends and my new Spanish friends hanging out like old buddies and drinking spiked coffee which I’m sure tasted terrible.
We then caught a taxi to Palenque, which was just $1 CUC each. It was everything in a cavern-gone-club that you could ever dream of. There was a stage with a colorful array of lights. There were projectors on the towering limestone cliffs behind us. There was a cave bar that served drinks for the cheapest prices I’d seen so far. And, best of all, there were tons of people and amazing music blasting from the speakers. As my friends so aptly named it, it was a ‘rave in a cave.’ We spent the whole night walking around, listening to the amazing Cuban music, and dancing the night away.
Day 2: Hangovers, Hikes, and Heavenly Hills
And then, the morning came. As you can imagine, it was a rough morning for some. Luckily, I’d gone light on the alcohol, so I felt ready to explore the town and hoped to catch some time outdoors before heading back to Havana later in the afternoon. Our kind Airbnb hosts served a delicious breakfast of fresh fruits, cold cuts, eggs, and coffee. It was the perfect pick-me-up after a late night out.
The town of Viñales is stunningly bright, houses in all shades of color standing between streets full of vibrant, old cars. There are tons of people out on the streets too, selling fruits, chatting with friends, or simply going about their days. After a long morning of wandering around the town, our group decided to walk a few miles to a nearby lake. The Spaniards told us they’d heard it was a nice place to go swimming, and that there was a beautiful view of the valley from there.
A windy back road led us up a few hills, and for about an hour we walked in the sweltering sun to arrive at a cute lakeside area, where the tourists who’d opted to ride horses that day stopped for an afternoon siesta. We then stopped at the nearest restaurant, a home-owned institution, where we waited another hour for some of the best Cuban food we would eat on our trip. The weather had been perfect – with clear blue skies speckled with fluffy white clouds. It was definitely a picturesque way to spend our last few hours in Viñales.
Coming from our hectic jobs, where everything is set to a strict rigidity, the laid-back kind of lifestyle in Viñales was extremely nice. At any rate, it was a good way to unwind and learn about a way of life much different than our own. Viñales treated us so well, and I hope one day I can return once again to revisit this beautiful, colorful paradise in the heart of Cuba.
Getting to Viñales
Getting to Viñales from Havana is fairly straightforward. There are three main options you can use to get to Vinales (details below).
Viazul bus: $12 CUC from the Viazul bus station
Colectivo*: $15-20 CUC from the Viazul bus station
Private taxi*: $80+ CUC for up to four people from anywhere in the city (airport is generally more expensive)
*Often, you must haggle these prices, or they will try to get more from you. This is 100x easier if you speak at least a basic level of Spanish.
Where to Stay in Viñales
We used Airbnb to find our lively hosts, Yamilé, Piña, and their daughter, Gabriela. Their listing, La Caban Azul, can be found here. I highly recommend booking in advance with them, as casas in Viñales fill up pretty quickly during the high tourist season. You can save $40 off your first Airbnb booking by using this link!
If you’re not into Airbnb, that’s totally cool. You can alternatively just show up in Viñales and ask around at the homes that say they have rooms for rent on the small signs out front. It’s probably the cheapest way to find accommodation in Viñales, but not by much. Just be warned that this is a pretty risky way to find a place to stay, as Viñales fills up with tourists quickly.
Additional Viñales Resources
- I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do in Viñales, given my short amount of time. If I were to do it over, I would have done a few more of the activities in this post here.
- …and here.
- …aaand here.
Have you visited Viñales? What do you think? Share your thoughts, tips, and questions in the comments below or on Facebook.