Welcome to Viñales, the prehistoric land that time forgot. This stunningly preserved national park is easily one of the most incredible places I've ever visited. It's a town with a split personality: here, you can enjoy a moment of peace while contemplating a tranquil sunrise from the pinnacle of a mogote, or witness a lively impromptu horse race, competitors boisterously kicking up the dust in the valleys below. I think Viñales is just as quintessentially Cuban as the uproarious streets of Havana or the colourful city of Trinidad, and a must visit for that reason. I hope you enjoy my guide to this beautiful place!
HOW TO GET THERE
If you're coming from Havana, you can either take a shared car or do what we did and hop on the bus. Travelling by Viazul cost us 15 CUC (about £12) and took 3-4 hours to reach Viñales. Bear in mind that you'll almost definitely have to book your bus in advance and it's worth going straight to the tourist office when you get to Havana to check the departure times and locations, which vary wildly - we caught the bus from the Hotel Plaza at 8 AM after booking a couple of days in advance. The bus itself is spacious and air-conditioned, and stops off at what must be the coolest service station I've ever been to, where you can refresh yourself with a fresh mango or guava juice (or a mojito or cuba libre, if you fancy it) and watch little fat piglets running around like crazy in the nearby fields. After this break, you'll pile back into the bus and press your nose against the windows when you see the characteristic mogotes (hills) rising from the outrageously lush green landscape in the distance.
The little town attached to the park is easily walkable, and the park itself is a hiker's dream. But if you're looking to speed things up, cycling is a good option. All three of us spent our undergrad days at Cambridge so we've got a bit of a natural affinity for cycling everywhere. Anyway. We hired bicycles from our casa (can't remember exactly how much they cost - perhaps 10-15 CUC). They came in very useful for a spin around town, and for getting to lunch up an incredibly steep hill riddled with hairpin bends (see the 'Curvas Peligrosas' sign above...yeah. We saw that after our cycle, and apparently, brush with death). If you're not a bike person, perhaps horses might be more your thing. More on that later...
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in a casa particular by the name of Casa Marlene (Calle Rafael Trejo 102), a little pink house off one of the main streets. Marlene and her family made us feel very at home, ushering us through their house into a little air-conditioned annex at the back with its own ensuite, and setting us up with a horseriding guide and bicycles. She even washed our socks for us one morning after a particularly muddy hike. What a woman! She also made us some very sweet fruit-based breakfasts.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
If you've read my Havana post, you'll know that by my reckoning, the food in Cuba is not universally brilliant. This was sadly the case in Viñales, too - we had some very strange meals, with one place offering 'pasta' - a generous description for the congealed, wildly overcooked, tasteless carbohydrate tubes that was served - and salads, which were horribly overpriced and made up of tinned meat, watery cucumbers and tomatoes, inexplicably topped with grated cheese. I think we got suckered in because we were incredibly hungry and most of the other recommended dinner places were either too full to accommodate us or dubiously expensive.
That said, we did have some good experiences too. On getting off the bus from Havana, we had our first lunch at a nameless little whitewashed restaurant populated solely by locals eyeing us doubtfully, where we were brought a menu scribbled by hand and had some good meat. I would also recommend the following:
La Casa Verde (near Hotel Los Jazmines 50, Viñales 22400) is a great spot for a paladar-based lunch. It's a bit out of the way - we ended up cycling to it as it's at the top of a hill, but you can easily hail a cab from the town to get there. This has to win some sort of award for the most scenic place I ate in in Cuba - there's nothing like cowering under a gazebo with your black beans and rice as lightning crackles on the horizon of the valley below and sheets of rain sweep towards you. The food was quite salty here, but plentiful (they don't seem to get many guests) and the drinks incredibly refreshing after a sweaty cycle from the town.
For drinks and tapas, hit up 3J Bar de Tapas (Calle Salvador Cisneros 45), where you can get more iced daiquiris (bright green, if you like), with patatas bravas and mini empanadas on the side. My tipple of choice? Well. I like piña coladas (and getting caught in the rain, at La Casa Verde, apparently...) And at 3J you have free reign over the rum content of your PC. Quite literally - I was handed a bottle of Havana Club to go crazy with. This proved to be dangerous.
WHAT TO DO
Go horseriding! Although I'm not a great rider, I love horses, so this was actually one of the activities I was most looking forward to when we were planning our trip. And it did not disappoint. Our casa hostess fixed us up with a local guy called Frank. Wandering through the 'real' parts of Viñales to get to his house was really interesting. We saw where the locals actually live, the paths are mainly still muddy and little kids swing themselves up on to horses, which you'll find placidly grazing in playgrounds. Anyway. Frank is a great person: he took us on a trail around the beautiful valleys and mogotes of Viñales that lasted a good four or five hours. Also, he gave us all Cuban names (hola, me llamo Tania). We started the tour by trotting from his village to a tobacco plantation.
Viñales is apparently renowned for its tobacco, and on the plantation we had a personal tutorial in how to roll Cuban cigars using honey. None of us were really interested in the cigars themselves (although we all bravely tried them, when in Cuba after all...) - we were really after a drink after all that riding in the blisteringly hot sun. We slaked our thirst with incredibly strong mojitos (and the horses slaked theirs with big troughs of water and fruit). Refreshed, we had the above photo taken of us which I'm sure I'll treasure when I'm old and grey - love these girls so much - and coincidentally, at the same time I received the one and only text that managed to get through to my phone over the duration of the trip, a message from my B.
Me every morning.
Our next stop was the cave at the base of the verdant mogote in the background behind Roxy. Here we let our horses take a break and a graze, and descended fearfully into the cave, where we strolled around and tried not to disturb the bats.
'Say, guys...ever seen The Descent?'
We stopped off at a coffee plantation for a super-fast tutorial on how coffee is harvested and produced. I tried my best to listen for coffee addict B but got distracted by multiple pups, both of whom I wanted to take home with me.
And then the sun began to go down, and I realised why Viñales is so incredibly popular with tourists. It's simply one of the most beautiful places in the world. Riding on a gentle horse in complete silence through a grassy meadow, with the sunset a blazing conflagration overhead will forever be engraved into my memory as one of the most peaceful, spiritual things I've ever done. I achieved a sort of nirvana at this point, and couldn't stop smiling as we rode back to town by the pink light of the candyfloss clouds.
As the sun sets, it must come up again, and seeing the sunrise is a must in Viñales.
We enlisted the help of Villa los Reyes to take us to a sweet spot for sunrise-viewing. With the help of a guide and powerful torches, we picked our way through the fields past sleepy horses and scrambled up a steep hill in the pre-dawn darkness until we reached a plateau. A couple living in a tiny hut (along with a feline friend, below) lent us tarps and chairs, which we laid on the dewy grass to watch the sunrise. They also sold us glasses of mango juice for breakfast, freshly squeezed from the green mangoes pendulous and burgeoning in the trees over our heads. We had to drink them at top speed without putting them down, or risk tiny ants crawling all over the glass and our hands, trying to cash in on the sweetness.
Gradually, the sky and air lightened and warmed, dawn mists rising from the valley floor. It was so Jurassic Park, I half expected a brachiosaurus to swing into view.
Another truly life-changing experience, a million miles away from my usual early morning routine crammed in among ashen-faced commuters on the Tube to law school.
Walking back down as the sun climbed higher in the sky was pretty amazing. I couldn't believe we'd traipsed up the hill, steep and impenetrable as it was. And it was already incredibly warm at only 7 AM.
I found a crop of mimosa pudica, a shy plant which furls its leaves away secretively when you stroke them.
Turkeys feeling lucky it's not Christmas.
A few more glorious birds.
And that's it for Viñales! I've so loved writing this post - I have such good memories of this place. For anyone planning a trip to Cuba: if you do nothing else, make sure you factor in enough time to see the sunrise (and, if you have time, a horse riding trip). We almost decided to spend more time in Havana and Trinidad, thinking we'd do Viñales as a day trip, but I am so glad that we stayed longer. Viñales is definitely one of the most incredible places I've ever visited, and I really hope that the Cubans continue to preserve the nature reserve so that future generations can come and visit the land before time.
In the next post we'll be jumping on the bus to beautiful, beachy Trinidad, in the centre of the island.
Or you can hightail it back to Havana!