After 4 days in Havana, Dyl and I were quite excited to leave the hustle and bustle and escape to the country. We got a taxi collectivo (a shared taxi - about the same price as the bus in Cuba but it’s door to door direct) to the Valley of Viñales, about a 2 hour drive from Havana.
Our drive into Viñales was surrounded by rolling hills and greenery - a massive contrast to the city we left behind. Upon arriving into Viñales, I was immediately transported back 40 years in time. The Main Street was lined with little Cuban eateries, some bars and cute souvenir shops selling handmade wooden crafts and art work. It makes a nice change to actually see sounveneirs which are made in the country that are selling them, not the Chinese made ones we see in the rest of the world. I was surprised at how little cars there were on the streets, as the main mode of transport you see are horses towing rickety little wooden carts usually occupied by a Cuban farmer smoking his cigar.
We stayed in an adorable little blue house owned by our host Alberto in the quieter backstreets of this quaint little town. We went to bed on our first night appreciating the silence of being in the country. No cars, no traffic, no neighbors...until 5am when we were woken up by the crowing of about 50 roosters! Call me a city girl if you like, but I would take the noise of cars passing by over that any day!
We took our early morning wake up call as a sign to get up and be active. Our ‘run’ turned into an amazing hike through farm yards and tobacco fields. We had no money on us, but any farmers we came across insisted they show us their tobacco huts and drying tobacco leaves. I couldn’t get over the friendliness of these people and how willing they were to show strangers their prized tobacco farms. We were already regretting not allowing more time here on our trip, however we vowed we would not waste a minute and soak up as much of the tobacco filled farm air that we could.
I had pre-booked a horse riding tour through the valleys for our first afternoon. The description to meet our guide made me giggle:
”Come to the petrol station at 1pm. I will be the one wearing a Cuban hat.”
After meeting our guide we began walking down some dirt tracks for quite some time, I assumed to go and collect the horses. When I asked him if we were going to get our horses he replied “Oh no! I don’t like horses!”. Well that was that then! Our horse tour turned into a 5 hour walking tour instead! (We ended up walking about 18kms that day!) He led us down a maze of small dirt roads passing tobacco farms and tiny houses, stopping for a shot of rum every now and then which was passed over the fence as we walked by his friends houses. I lost count of how many cigars our guide smoked on our walking tour, but as Viñales is the largest producer of tobacco in Cuba it seems that cigars are just a part of everyday life.
We had a tour around a tobacco farm in the Valley de Silencio, and learned how they grow the crops, harvet the leaves and dry them for months in their tobacco huts. I could not believe that absolutely everything is done by hand - from sowing the seeds to cutting the leaves with machetes. Coming from countries where we are so reliant on machines, it is so eye opening to see life without our modern day technologies.
The highlight of our tour was when we learnt how to roll our own cigar, and got to puff away at our creation over a cup of their home grown coffee. Smoking really isn’t my thing, but you know...when in Rome and all that.
That evening we had dinner at an ecological restaurant called El Paraiso located on top of a hill with a stunning view of the sunset over the valley. They have a cocktail called ‘Anti-stress’ which is a concoxion made from all their own herbs they grow in their veggie garden...and rum of course! They actually leave the bottle of rum on your table so you can add it yourself! A Cuban idea I could become very accustomed to! All the food is ecological and grown on their land which was pretty cool; still very Cuban but we did get some veggies which was nice!
The next morning we decided our legs needed a bit of a break from walking, so we hired some bikes. We cycled through the country to the Mural de la Prehistoria - a cliff with some interesting (to say the least!) art work painted on it. The mural, filled with a giant snail, sea monsters, dinosaurs and humans, is supposed to symbolize the theory of evolution, and it took 18 people 4 years to complete! The entrance fee was $3 which I though was a bit steep considering you can see it from the road, however that included a drink so we sat in the sun with a beer, whilst trying to appreciate the art that was in front of us.
We cycled further into the countryside waving back at the friendly tobacco farmers as they went about their days work in the fields. An adorable house build in the shadows of an impressive mogote caught our eye, and on a closer look we realized it was actually a little restaurant. Of course my chef fiancé was extremely curious so we had to check it out! El Cuajani turned out to be a little gem! The food was so good that we booked to come back for dinner! A little pricier than the other restaurants around Viñales, but totally worth it! Their plantain bruschetta is a must try!!
That afternoon we hiked further into the valleys, curious to see where all the little paths would lead us. We walked through the Cueva de la Varca (the Cave of the Cow) which lead us through a mountain and out onto an impressive stretch of beautiful farm land. We just followed our nose along little dirt tracks for hours, soaking up the sights of the country and getting a glimpse of the way of life of the people here in Viñales. Any farmers we saw would just give us a friendly smile and wave, and didn’t seem too bothered at all that we were walking through their property.
The magic vibe of this place is like no other I have experienced, it is hard to put into words. The welcome we received from the local people, the beauty of the landscape and the charming character of the town was a refreshing escape from reality. The thing that striked me the most about Viñales was the simplicity. They don’t have machines or technology or many posessions, but they are surrounded by so much beauty and they are so proud of it they are willing to share it with any tourists that come to visit. When we asked our guide on our walking tour if he has ever wanted to travel to anywhere, he replied:
“Not at all! I was born here and have lived here all my life. It is the most beautiful place in the world. Why would I want to go anywhere else?’
It is undeniable to see that life is tough for them here. They still receive their weekly food rations from the government (as does the rest of Cuba), and they have to work extremely physically hard just to get by, but this doesn’t dampen their spirits; after all, they are from the most beautiful place in the world.