Whilst Havana had delivered everything we wanted in terms iconic Cuban sights and sounds, Viñales – a 5 hour Viazul bus ride west – was a taste of quiet village life in the Cuban countryside. The two main streets running through the village were lined with brightly painted houses. Each one a small one-storey building with the front porch reserved for two wooden rocking chairs, and the flat roof used as an extended balcony for patio furniture, drying laundry and potted plants.
Almost all the houses also had the blue upside down anchor symbol painted over their doors, signifying a casa particular (homestay). Anticipating the lack of internet in Cuba, we’d booked our stay at Casa Carmen y Daniel on hostelsclub.com in advance but, given how often we saw the blue anchor symbol in such a small place, it would have been easy to find a casa on arrival in Viñales.
Daniel was a great host, not only making us big breakfasts and dinners, but sitting us down as soon as we arrived, with Cubano tostadas, fresh fruit juice, a map, and his wealth of local knowledge.
Viñales sits in a flat valley bordered by ‘mogotes’; hills that shoot straight up out of the fields forming sheer, sudden cliff faces. Fanning out from the village there are hiking routes and horse riding trails that we were keen to explore.
Daniel introduced us to his friend Miguel, whose cousin Juan took us horse riding. Saddled up on Mojito and Caramel, we set off from the village out into Valle de Silencio. It was soon clear just how accurate this name was. We left behind the spluttering engines of the 1950s cars and the salsa music drifting from open casa windows, and soon the only thing breaking the silence across the valley were the occasional shouts of “caballo!” from Juan and other caballeros to guide and control their horses, or to keep Caramel in check who took every opportunity to dive into the hedgerow and devour as much as he could before Juan noticed. When that game was up, Caramel’s next trick was plunging Timian knees deep into the stream whenever he felt like a sit down.
It wasn’t only Caramel snacking though; a farmer we passed gave us a bunch of bananas from the tree in his garden. We also passed orange trees, avocado trees and mango trees, but it wasn’t yet the season for those.
The next farm we came to was a tobacco farm. The Viñales region is famous for producing the tobacco that goes into the most sought after cigars in the world. The young farmer we met had trained as a chef after finishing school, but later decided to go into the family tobacco business with his father and uncle.
Like most other Cuban farms and manufacturers, all tobacco plantations must sell 90% of their harvests to the government (presumably for a non-negotiable price), the remaining 10% must be kept for personal use, rather than being sold privately. The farmer told us that his family can make thousands of cigars from their 10%. Even after the cigars that the family smoke themselves and the cigars rolled to demonstrate the process to passing tourists like us, they still have a big enough surplus to use them as projectiles to hush squawking chickens in the back of the barn!
They were proud of their organic fermentation process and a mixture of fruit juice infusions – most government factories use a chemical mixture. The other tradition was to add a touch of honey round the tip of the cigar before smoking.
After winding our way through wooded paths, shallow streams and around crop fields, we arrived at a coffee cooperative where we were shown the process of drying, grinding and roasting the beans that are harvested from the plantations in the mountains. Swimming in a nearby lake was the final stop before heading back into the village.
Back in Viñales, we wandered through the streets just looking around. Like in Havana, there were zero adverts or billboards. Instead, reminders of Cuba’s socialist society decorated the streets with Che Guevara murals on houses, and hand painted patriotic signs and slogans. The street stall round the corner from our casa was another sign of how removed we were from a consumer culture. At first glance it looked like a collection of things laid out for sorting before recycling; plastic funnels, tupperware, brush heads, bits of piping. In fact, these things were hard to come by, so profitable to sell second hand. This reminded us of the luggage belt when we landed in Cuba where, between the backpacks and suitcases, car tyres were thumping onto the conveyor belt as it’s often just not possible to buy them in Cuba.
After our day horse riding around Valle de Silencio, we wanted to see some more of the richly coloured countryside surrounding Viñales, so on our last day we headed out on foot to explore some of the other trails (that were handily marked on maps.me). We decided on a 14km round trip that looped from the village out to Hotel La Ermita and on to Hotel Los Jazmines, each perched up on hilltops with fantastic views out across the fields, plantations and village in the valley below.
Aside from the restored colonial church and small art gallery in the village’s main square, our other sightseeing stop was Viñales’ botanic garden. Rather than a manicured formal garden, this was set up by two sisters in the back garden of their home. Now run by one of the sisters’ daughter, this “back garden” was an impressive collection of all things flora and two things fauna: a piglet skittering around in some bushes, an an ominous looking vulture staring down at us from a perch in the treetops. The animals being easy enough to identify, the garden’s guide took care of the rest. He started with just us, but quickly became a multilingual pied piper as a handful of other people joined as we walked round, and he effortlessly switched between the English, Spanish and German names for each plant. We saw chocolate trees, papyrus for making paper, the fruits used to make maracas, pineapples, guavas and mame – a bright orange, fruity cousin of the avocado. Mame had been part of our breakfast at our casa, and at the end of the walk around the garden we were also given a plate of homegrown pineapple and guava to try.
As Cuba has dual currencies (Convertible Pesos equivalent to the US Dollar and Moneda Nacional worth a 25th of 1 dollar), and is clearly on the cusp of a big increase in tourism, we’d wondered whether there would be more of a divide between tourist/expat lifestyle and the local lifestyle, in the same way that we’d seen in Cambodia where the economy seemed so split. Happily there were a couple of things that showed that wasn’t always the case. Aside from spending time with Cubanos through casas particulares, the main place where tourists and locals mix is on the dance floor. Music was a huge feature of our time in Cuba – drifting through almost every street, day and night – but nowhere was it more fun than coming from the live bands in open air bars and clubs.
When we stepped into the Polo Montanez open air bar on the main square, we took a seat round the outside, and we were torn. On the one hand dancing to the live salsa band looked like so much fun, but on the other we couldn’t help but feel surrounded by salsa pros, with four left feet between us. After a while we saw plenty of tourists being swept off their feet by the locals, so, a couple of 2CUC mojitos later, and we were on the dance floor too (hidden near the middle) having a great time and probably throwing all sorts of hilarious shapes. We went home happily exhausted, but also with the definite realisation that we would need a salsa lesson in Trinidad before the next time…