When Kyla and I landed in Havana a month ago, the first place we headed was Viñales, about 2 hours west of the capital. We stayed for 5 days! After the craziness of Christmas (and life in general), we wanted our first stop to feel relaxing, rather than packing up and moving every couple of days. The Viñales valley turned out to be the perfect place to stay put. It’s not on the coast, but it’s not too far from a stunning beach, and the town and surroundings offer gorgeous landscapes and tons of activities (plus tons of ways to fill your belly and sample local rum)!
Here are 10 reasons to hang up your hammock and stay a while in Viñales!
1. Caballos! (Horseback Riding)
Trotting over red earth trails, through tobacco farms, past limestone hills, taking a refreshing dip in a lake, trying a few puffs of an actual Cuban cigar dipped in the sweetest locally-made honey… it’s pretty much a given why horse-riding tours are so popular in the valley. We actually weren’t sure that we’d do this at first; neither of us was all that into the horse thing. But I AM SO GLAD WE DID! I mean, my horse was a *little* too into galloping when I told him not to, and a *LOT* too into chewing on wooden posts when I let him know we needed to get going. Kyla’s was bitey, which obviously caused a little ruckus among our equine buddies, but the guides just yelled “caballoooo!” whenever things got out of hand, so we knew they had things under control.
Minus the times my horse got excited and gallop-y, I think I was smiling the entire time; the landscape was stunning, and we covered so much more ground than we could have while hiking (or than I would have liked to hike in that heat).
We booked through our casa, but this was basically our tour.
Rum cocktail in hand + sunset + mogotes (those stand alone hills you’ll see in all of my pictures) = something I want to do all the time. The Mogote Cafe and the lookout at Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso are great places to catch the sunset.
3. There’s a gorgeous beach up the road – Cayo Jutias
Ok… so “up the road” is a biiit of an exaggeration, but it’s only about 1.5 hours from Viñales. Mostly on a bumpy dirt road, with lots of veering to avoid goats, dogs, horses, turkeys, humans, etc. But the beach is worth it:
It’s a long beach with paths to explore if you feel like a walk. It was the perfect spot to set up our 2 hammocks, play in the water, and let our guards down a bit and get couple-y!
There are a couple of restaurants near the area where collectivos or taxis drop you off, but otherwise, there’s no accommodation on this beach, so it’s relatively quiet. A collectivo taxi from Viñales cost us 15 CUC each.
4. The food!
I didn’t know much about Cuban food before travelling there; I’d heard lots of negative reviews, so I was determined to enjoy it. Did I eat food that wasn’t great? Yup, just like I do here sometimes. But so much of it was delicious, and the most flavourful, biggest, and best value meals I had were in Viñales.
The top 2 dining experiences were at Finca El Paraiso (see below), and Paladar la Cabana, where you order a meat dish, and then they bring you huge portions of EVERYTHING else – yuca fries, soup, tropical fruit, veggies, black beans, and 3 kinds of rice. Bonus points for great drinks – piña colada in a coconut, anyone?
Viñales may be a small town, but it has tons of restaurant options for any budget. A personal pizza might cost 1.60 CUC (common across the country), while a meal and a drink at a more expensive place may set you back upwards of 10 CUC (with options in the middle).
Breakfasts at casa particulares (not just in Viñales) tend to cost about 5 CUC and are HUGE and filling, usually consisting of tons of fruit, juice, coffee and tea, toast, cheese, ham, pastries, jam and honey. One of my favourite dishes was ropa vieja – shredded beef, although it translates to “old clothes”! Definitely more delicious than my laundry!
5. It’s the perfect size
Although a lot of Viñales’ draw is in the surrounding national park, the town itself is wonderful. Life operates at a slow pace, the houses are colourful and most double as a casa particular (homestay), horse-drawn carts pass classic cars on the quiet streets, and there are dogs, cats, and chickens everywhere! It’s small enough to be able to walk anywhere in the centre, and it gets lively at night, when every restaurant on the main street seems to offer live music.
6. Small town… big traditions
We were lucky enough to be here over New Year’s Eve, which is a big deal in Cuba! Since we’d arrived in Viñales, we’d noticed these dressed up dummies propped up in chairs outside of houses around town. Turns out these guys – Año viejo dolls – represent the negative parts of the previous year… and they get burned at midnight!
We decided we absolutely had to see the doll burning, so at 11:54 on December 31st, we were salsa dancing in the busy main square. At 11:55, we were off, running around town to find fires! Turns out, it wasn’t hard; we saw flames and smoke on every block! At each one, families, friends, and visitors were gathered around, wishing each other “felicidades!” and yelling at the growing pile of ashes. One guy was dressed in a Santa costume, handing out candy. Another popped a bottle of champagne and passed us a glass! We laughed and joined in, yelling things at the fire, overwhelmed by how welcoming neighbours were as we rung in the new year with them.
The food here is amazing; you get a bit of everything, and almost all of it is grown or raised on the farm. But the real treat for me was the property:
We didn’t make a dinner reservation, which I definitely don’t recommend, although it worked out in our favour. When we arrived, we learned that the next round of food wouldn’t be available for an hour… which was the perfect amount of time to tour the farm! Our guide, Rafael, explained how the plants in the organic garden worked together. He led us through a forest, up to a small cabin which looked out over the Valle del Silencio. We sipped the farm’s special “anti-stress” cocktails (piña coladas with 5 local medicinal ingredients) as we watched the sun go down again over the valley.
8. Los Jazmines Hotel Pool
We’d heard that this pool was a great place for both a refreshing swim AND the one of the best views of the valley. It was true! At the hotel, you can pay either 3 CUC for a swim or 8 CUC, which includes 7 CUC of food and drinks at the poolside restaurant. Of course we went for option two, which was enough to cover a small meal and a drink!
Other than lounging and eating, I spent lots of time at the pool looking out over the valley. Cuban black hawks soaring overhead, farmers leading oxen down red paths through tobacco fields below, patches of lush, green palm trees… if this sounds flowery and romantic, I’m not sorry because that’s actually what the view is like!
9. There’s a club… in a cave
One of many stops on New Year’s Eve, we grabbed a couple beers at Palenque de los Cimarrones and people-watched at one of the tables under the stalagtites. A little perro ran around, maybe hoping for a sip of rum? The place was packed, but there were only a handful of people on the tiny dance floor, and we joined in for a bit. I think this would have been more fun with a big group, but the appeal for me was mostly about the novelty of dancing in a cave! We didn’t spend much time here though because we had to get back to town before the doll-burning!
I’ll let my cooler-than-me girlfriend take this one later on; she was able to borrow equipment and find people to go outdoor climbing with in a town known for it’s prime climbing spots!