Viñales is a beautiful protected valley with limestone mountains, tobacco- and coffee farms, caves and lots of possibilities to explore by horse or bicycle. To be honest we had not researched a lot before going, but having had enough of going to the beach, it was time to try a different version of Cuba. We ended up staying for 6 nights – due to a combination of logistics, laziness, and enough activities to keep us entertained.
This is what we did during our visit to Viñales.
Horseback riding for the whole family though some found it more painful than others
Line had wanted to go riding in Viñales since we booked the trip to Cuba, as we had read that it was a fantastic experience and the best way to see Viñales. She was supposed to do it alone, as Jesper has only been on a horse once before and did not like it (on a skinny horse in Turkey many years ago). But suddenly, after speaking to the cowboy type guide that the Casa recommended, he changed his mind, and we decided to all go for the 5-hour ride in the valley! We got three horses, one for Jesper, one for Noah, and one for Line and Vitus. The guide, Tony, has assured us that the horses were all very calm and that we would only go slowly (it is also not permitted to go fast in the valley). Noah got the most calm of his horses, a brown horse called Mojito.
After riding along a trail for half an hour or so, we arrived at a tobacco plantation, where we were learned about the tobacco plants, saw how they dry the leaves and how they make cigars. Though we never ever smoke, we tried one of cigars, since we were in Cuba – but we did not like it. Jesper even felt a bit sick for a couple of hours afterwards:-) . Since we don’t smoke and we still had a month of travelling, we did not buy any cigars.
Then we got back in the saddles and went for half an hour to a coffee plantation, where we heard about how they grow and process their coffee. The coffee is Arabica and is grown in the mountains above 900 feet. The valley is protected, so it is organically grown. After harvesting the coffee beans they leave them out to dry before they roast them for 20-25 minutes and then grind them by hand, since they are not allowed to use motorized equipment in the valley. It was possible to buy some coffee (in a old plastic bottle), but since we do not drink coffee either and can’t carry it, we did not buy any.
The place seemed a bit too set up for the tourists, too, with an overpriced menu consisting of drinks and one kind of sandwich. We bought two sandwiches there, but they were not good. We fed some of the Ham to an emaciated dog there, which we felt very sorry for. There was also a very sweet cat that was tied up in a barn because he always wanted to speak to the tourists?? An Italian woman from our group persuaded them to let him free, and he instantly came on to our laps to be petted, a really sweet and lovely cat.
After the coffee place we rode to a cave and went inside with a guide. This was a really good experience and a welcome break from the saddle for Jesper, who was suffering because his bum hurt:-). Everyone else in the family was doing great and Noah was so good at riding, even though it was his first time riding a horse on his own. Vitus wasn’t complaining either which was unexpected:-).
The cave was interesting and we even saw a crocodile’s teeth in the limestone cliffs (old coral).
After the cave our group split in two, as the two Italian couples, we were riding with, wanted to go back to town to go bicycling. We carried on with Tony the guide to a lake where we could go for a swim. This was a welcome activity as it had become very hot and we all enjoyed it.
After our dip in the lake we rode back to town and were all happy with the lovely day we had riding in the valley (apart from Jesper who was still suffering from a very, very sore behind, and now insists that horse riding should be renamed to “excruciating pain at every step” – seems he is just not cut out to be a cowboy).
Bicycle riding and visiting Indio Cave
On our second day we rented bicycles and planned to ride the 17 km (34 km return) to Saint Thomas cave. First setback was that they did not have any bikes for Noah but both Noah and Vitus were able to sit on the back of ours on a towel and away we went. Arguably 34 km is quite a lot but we were told the road was flat and having all day it did not seem impossible. We reached the first hill after about 2 km and when the hills continued we ended up turning around after 8 km and heading back – simply too much with two children on the back (and we did not feel like “pulling a Haleakala”. Though we hate giving up we took at as a sign that we are learning from past experiences.. 😉
-and no, safety is not like in Denmark, but that is part of the experience.
After lunch we headed out again to go to the Indio Cave instead – only 5 km away so should be more doable. This time we made it to the cave and celebrated with an ice-cream before going in. The Indio cave is quite nice but maybe a bit too “groomed” and accessible (concrete walkway all the way). It is 5 cuc (5 USD) per adult to enter and after waiting in line for about 45 min. inside the cave the tour ends with a 10 min. boat ride.
A nice afternoon experience if you are in the neighbourhood.
We were totally busted when we got back after riding a total of 26 km with two boys on the back. Horse riding one day and bicycling the next is a tough combo when you are not used to either activity.
Visiting Saint Tomas Cave
After our failed attempt to reach Saint Tomas cave by bike we took a taxi there the next day. The last 9 km. we did not make the day before were equally hilly so our decision to head back was perfect. The taxi was 10 cuc each way from Viñales and the entry fee 10 CUC per adult.
We were teamed up with a young couple from Denmark for the cave tour. The first and only Danes we met in Cuba.
The tour starts with a steep climb/hike up to the cave entrance – about 70 vertical meters. Usually this is not a problem but having spent the last two days horse riding and bicycling and carrying a 3 year old 80 percent of the way it felt like 10 times the distance.
This one looks like a duck:-)
Entering the cave was quite amazing. Not quite rivaling the cave we visited in Mexico but a great second and we got some wonderful views of bats, stalactites and stalagmites.
The helmets are not so much for falling objects, but to avoid banging your head on the rocks. Unfortunately Vitus’ helmet was much to big, so we had to take it off, since it constantly fell down over his face.
In some places it was a bit challenging for Vitus but nothing too dangerous and we all made it out in good shape with only a few bruises.
Statue outside the cave – somebody likes to show off their revolutionary mindset;-)
Long walks in the valley
Originally we planned to spend one of our last two days in Viñales walking and the other going to the beach. 1 hour of winding roads to the beach and having done lots of swimming and snorkeling in the last 5,5 months we changed our minds and stayed in Viñales.
Both days we walked for about 3-4 hours in the wonderful valley. On the first day we met an 11 year old girl. She was really friendly and we managed to communicate a bit. She started showing us a around on her own initiative and for the first ½ hour it was really enjoyable – she played with the boys, warned us of loose dogs and bulls and where to go for the best views.
Then she started asking for things and money we could give her, and then more things, more money until it turned into a non-stop begging exercise for the last 15 minutes. As always in Cuba, friendliness and hustling are very close to each other. We gave her a couple of CuC’s, a die-cast car for her little brother nevertheless, but since she showed no signs of stopping, we then told her that we would like to walk alone the rest of the way. Being poor her behaviour is very understandable, but you have to stop when it is no longer an enjoyable experience.
Still, the valley is so enormously beautiful and we really enjoyed walking around on our own.
This is how the farmers still work in Cuba.
We had planned to go into town for dinner but when we walked by a local house with a beautiful view, a sign stating “fresh farm food” and the owner being a young and pregnant woman who was really nice and actually spoke some English we changed our minds and ate there instead. The food was typically Cuban: rice, meat, beans and fruit. Not as good as we have had in other places and a bit on the expensive side but the view and the local atmosphere more than made up for what it lacked in taste 🙂
On our second walk (the next day) we made it to the lake again and went for a much-needed swim to cool off. Scams are never far between in Cuba and on this walk we were stopped when passing a small stall at a coffee plantation. We were told that we had to wait for 10 minutes since a bull had just broken loose and needed to be captured before we could continue. Having seen 3 bulls grassing only 100 meters away from that place the day before it did not seem unlikely, so we sat down. 2 minutes after we were asked if we would like to see the coffee making process, but having done that already we politely said no, then we were asked about the sugar-cane process, then if we wanted to buy juices, then coffee, sugar cane drink etc. etc… In the end they gave up and suddenly the farmer appeared from a different direction and the guy that stopped us said that the farmer would guide us safely past the bulls. We played along, he followed us for about 30 meters, then he lost interest and told us that it was safe to continue, but we should look out 🙂
We continued to the lake and had a nice swim before heading home to our casa for dinner and one last game of “Go fish” with Noah before leaving Viñales.
And the grown ups later played cards too, and had a few fantastic Mojitos made by our hosts at Casa Benito.
We really enjoyed our time in Viñales but unless you are travelling for 6,5 month and need to take it easy once in a while, 2-3 days is enough to discover what the area has to offer. The family at our Casa Particular did everything they could to make us feel at home and we had a great time at Casa Benito.
Despite the homey feel, Viñales is not the place to experience “local Cuba” as lots of tourists come here to enjoy this beautiful valley. It is not possible, as in Guanabo for example, to find street stalls selling food for locals at cheap prices. It’s all real restaurants with white tablecloths, and we usually go for plastic chairs:-). We went out for lunch and dinner a couple of times to have some “less Cuban” food (spaghetti and stuff) but most of the time we had dinner at our casa. The dinner at the casa was delicious consisting of either chicken, pork or fish with bean soup, rice, salad, sometimes potatoes, and fruit salad for dessert. We had breakfast every day at the casa, and this was really good too. A huge meal consisting of bread, butter, cheese, yoghurt, fruit, omelets or other kinds of eggs, sausages, two kinds of cake, and lots of fruit.