We emerged from the traffic of Havana onto the quiet roads of rural Cuba, driving past bright green rice paddies and tobacco fields, little wooden houses, and horses and cows grazing in the fields. Our fellow road companions were the occasional rusting 50s Buick or a horse and cart, and the the roads were empty of shops and advertising save for large billboards bearing motivational Communist slogans. It was pretty, peaceful, but the scenery really turned to spectacular four hours later as we neared Viñales and got our first glimpse of the bulbous limestone rock formations called mogotes rising from the verdant landscape. Even the rain and grey skies couldn’t dampen the impact of the view.
One of our favourite things about Cuba is the extensive network of casas particulares or home stays, which made travelling around the country so easy. Our Havana host had called ahead and booked us a room with friends of theirs in Viñales, so when we got off the bus our new host Marco was waiting for us with our names on a handwritten sign and a warm smile. He led us in the drizzle along Viñales’s main street and we turned off down an unpaved lane to reach their little blue house, pink rocking chairs waiting invitingly on the porch.
The one storey home is surrounded by lush green vegetation—banana plants, avocado and mamey trees, and exuberant flowers. Behind the house is nothing but farmland and we’d often hear horses trotting past our window. It felt utterly tranquil although we’d discover the next morning that the roosters make more noise than the cars of Havana.
Marco’s wife Isabel greeted us just as warmly as she showed us our room and invited us to make ourselves at home in the living room or on more of the rocking chairs on the garden terrace. She brought us glasses of thick pink guava juice and proudly encouraged us to try the sweet, juicy, locally grown pineapple.
Our experiences in Cuba wouldn’t have been the same without the families we stayed with and it was no different with Marco and Isabel. They were always smiling, quick to laugh, and willing to help us with anything, eager to make us feel at home. We felt like we were staying with our grandparents, especially when they dished us up huge breakfasts and dinners, more than we could possibly eat.
The rain kept us inside most of our first afternoon but we were perfectly content rocking away on the terrace, hearing nothing but chirping birds and the creak of our chairs, easing into the slow pace of Viñales life.
We did brave the downpour for a quick wander around town. The main street is lined with terracotta tiled, brightly painted, single storey buildings, the little traffic consisting of classic American Fords, Plymouths and Chevys mixed with horse carts and bicycles. One guy rode his horse bareback dressed in a tshirt, shorts and bare feet, despite the chilly rain. Street food choices included sugary churros, frozen pina coladas, deep-fried plantain chips, and Cuban peso pizza cooked in makeshift oil drum ovens.
The town hub is the small central plaza with a simple church and an open air music venue where we later enjoyed a night of live music, impressed that the locals didn’t let the rain stop them showing off their salsa moves.
We were pleased that despite far fewer vehicles than in Havana there was still plenty of classic car eye candy in Viñales.
Viñales sees plenty of tourists but has kept a very laid-back atmosphere and you won’t be approached by the hustlers you find in Havana. Isabel and Marco were proud of the friendliness of their town and assured us that anytime we needed to escape the rain we could shelter on the porch of any house in town and would be welcomed.
The main reason people come to Viñales is to explore the valley on foot, bike or horseback. Unfortunately our four days in town were blighted by torrential rain, plummeting temperatures (well, it was cold for the tropics at least), and a stomach upset. We kept occupied by taking salsa lessons, rocking in those chairs, and walking around town whenever the rain let up.
One walk took us through the tobacco fields towards the mogotes in heavy red mud. The local kids walked barefoot ankle deep in the sticky stuff and we realised they were probably the smart ones when we returned to the casa with our shoes caked in mud. In one of her extraordinary acts of grandmotherly hospitality Isabel tried to clean our shoes for us and when we refused she hovered around giving tips and correcting our technique. Seriously, why would you stay in a hotel in Cuba?
On a longer walk out of town we passed cute little colourful houses surrounded by flowers, all immaculate and with the requisite rocking chairs on the porch. It didn’t take long to leave the “bustle” of town behind and find ourselves in rural Cuba.
We walked up towards Hotel Los Jazmines and along the way a tobacco farmer invited us to have a look around his small farm. He explained how he uses ecological fermentation practices with no chemicals or nicotine to make his cigars. He showed us his drying room, a little thatched hut packed with crumbly brown tobacco leaves, and rolled us a cigar to try. When in Cuba…
Of course, this is Cuba and even in gentle Viñales a sales pitch was inevitable and having no need for a $15 bundle of cigars things got a little awkward, but we managed to get away with giving him a few dollars for his time and the cigar.
Hotel Los Jazmines lived up to its reputation of having the best view in Viñales and we spent ages gazing down at the lush green scene—craggy mogotes looming over the red earth farmland and tobacco fields.
Despite the rain and the fact we didn’t get to do any of the things we planned—long hikes, horse riding, a motorbike trip to the beach—we loved Viñales and the insight into rural Cuban life. The pace is wonderfully slow, the people are friendly, and the scenery amongst the best in Cuba.
Viñales Information: Viñales is four hours from Havana. We took the comfortable, air-conditioned Viazul bus for 12 CUC (about $12) at 9am (there is also a bus at 12pm). It’s worth going to the Viazul bus station in Havana a few days in advance to buy your ticket as when we were there in March they were selling out two days in advance.
Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our guide to the 50 Best Gifts for Travelers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.