Havana may have lots to offer visitors, but it is also a great base for day trips to other regions in Cuba. You can easily visit Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba and Viñales in one day, but it’s also possible, if you have enough time during your visit, to do overnight trips further afield visiting towns such as the old Spanish colonial settlement of Trinidad.
After the hustle and bustle of the Cuban capital I was keen to get out into the countryside, so we chose a day trip to the Valley of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site found in the heart of Cuba’s tobacco country.
Where is Viñales?
Viñales lies in the west of Cuba and is about a three-hour drive from Havana. Picked up from our hotel at 8am, we discovered that the journey itself was an adventure as we left the city and began our bumpy journey along the Cuban highways. As buildings were replaced with palm trees and fields cars became fewer, with horse-drawn wagons taking their place and our driver had to keep alert for cattle that would happily wonder into the road!
There was always something to take in, and the journey allowed us to see more of what life is really like for Cubans. For example, owning a car is a luxury and most people travel to and from work by hitching a ride, and so all along the highways we saw locals waiting hopefully for a car or bus to pull in and take them a little closer to their destination.
What to see and do in Viñales
Viñales is found in Pinar del RÃo, the most westerly province in Cuba and an agricultural hub. Fruit, vegetables and coffee are grown here, but the region is most well known for its tobacco production.
Many visitors, like myself and Justin, come here for a day trip, but Viñales is also becoming popular as an eco-holiday destination. Welcoming sunshine, fresh country air, lush green fields and wide, quiet roads call to those that like active, eco-friendly holidays and many spend days cycling around the area, horse riding, hiking and even rock climbing up the valley’s world famous limestone cliffs.
But Viñales hasn’t always been like this. It was actually only in the last few decades that the region caught tourism’s eye and visitor numbers have grown. Although it might not be such a sleepy farming town now, Viñales still has a very relaxed, welcoming feel, which I found very different from Havana – for example, I wasn’t hassled once by someone on the street. Sure, there may be roads packed with stalls aimed at getting tourists to spend some CUC, but it still has its slow country vibe and I loved just wandering the small town’s streets, taking in the tree-lined lanes with their colourfully painted wooden houses.
But for those that only have a few stolen hours in the area, there’s a lot to see and do in Viñales and we managed to fit quite a bit in before spending the last of our time there exploring the town and taking swathes of photos!
Where to find the best view of Viñales Valley
Our day in Viñales started at the Hotel Cubanacan in Los Jazmines, which has one of the best viewpoints of the valley. Getting snap happy with the camera, it’s a great place to really take in this amazing valley, surrounded by the limestone cliffs, endearingly known as the ‘haystacks’. It actually looked like a backdrop from Jurassic Park – I was just waiting for a diplodocus to come wandering past!
Cueva del Indio
Our guide was keen to make the most of our time in Viñales and so we headed to the Cueva del Indio pretty early in the day in order to miss the many tour buses that arrive late morning to queue for a seat on the boats.
This is a cave that you first explore by foot (be careful not to slip and be prepared to squeeze through gaps!) before getting in a boat for the rest of the tour. Cool and providing a sweet break from the sun, it’s a great opportunity to see the inside of the ancient rock formatations.
Insider tip: our guide also had another trick to avoid queues – sneak around to the exit and sweet talk one of the guides (if that fails a small ‘thank you fee’ can help!) to take you backwards through the tour, allowing you to have the boat to yourself!
Visit a tobacco plantation
Before stopping for lunch we also visited a tobacco plantation, which was one of my personal highlights of the day. That was because I loved meeting the farmer who looked like a quintessential Cuban cowboy with his Stetson and a constant cigar in his hand! A total wheeler dealer, mid-tour he would take calls on his phone or deal with customers who were bartering over the price of his homemade cigars, wrapped in dried plantain leaves to keep fresh.
It was here we got to see how the tobacco leaves are picked and dried and then my cowboy friend gave us a demonstration in the drying house of how they hand roll their cigars. It was also really interesting to hear that the farmers must give 90 per cent of their harvest to the government, and make their income from the 10 per cent they sell to locals and tourists in the form of eco-produced, chemical free cigars. It was another harsh reminder of how Cubans must currently live.
A (non) prehistoric mural
Before heading back to the city we pulled over at the side of the road by the Mural de la Prehistoria, an odd but impressive sight! Designed to look like it was painted by cavemen, complete with pictures of dinosaurs and sea monsters, this mural was painted in the early sixties and took four years to complete. Actually depicting the evolution of man, this colourful artwork is worth stopping off to check out, but I’d recommend a quick roadside pit stop for photos rather than paying an entrance fee to get close up.
Is Viñales worth visiting?
If you’re a lover of nature or would like to find out more about life for Cubans living outside Havana, then a trip to Viñales is well worth it. It was probably my favourite day during my time in Cuba and I do think it’s somewhere I would enjoy returning to and exploring further.
How long should you stay in Viñales?
As this was our first trip to Cuba, and we only had two weeks to both explore and relax, a day trip was a great introduction to the region and a lovely change of pace after almost a week of Havana craziness!
For most people taking their main holiday a day trip is the best option, but for those that love their active holidays, eco breaks or just want to take it (very) easy, then Viñales does provide enough entertainment for a longer stay, although don’t expect a huge amount of variety as there is only a small number of hotels, casa particulars, restaurants and bars on offer.