Many assume that Havana is Cuba’s hottest destination but be sure to make time to visit this little town about two hours west called Viñales.
Call me biased, and I haven’t *yet* travelled every corner of Cuba, but it’s a real gem of a destination.
In Viñales you’ll find a slower pace of life, a raw and more authentic culture, world famous and traditional agriculture, exhilarating outdoor activities, breathtaking views and fresh farm-to-table food.
If I haven’t already sold you, read on.
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1. You'll have loads of amazing outdoors activities on your doorstep
The most popular activity to do in Viñales. Absolutely no experience necessary. You’ll ride through the breathtaking UNESCO national park Viñales, through the tobacco plantations, visit some tobacco farms, and even some hidden caves if you’re lucky.
Depending on who you do it with, it can be a ‘touristy’ affair or a more ‘intimate, authentic’ one. I recommend the latter to get up close and personal with the farmers – click here to go horse riding with my husband and visit their family’s tobacco farm.
There are so many cycling trails. If you’re hard core and want to go in the actual valleys, it’s an adventure! It can be done, but don’t bother going when it’s rainy season. The mud is unbearable.
Be aware that the bikes aren’t top quality. If you’re a keen cyclist I’d recommend to bring you own (and even donate it when you leave!).
Viñales is incredible for hiking. Best to go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the midday heat.
You can do this on your own or you can hire a local guide.
I personally would hire a guide for the first time, to get your bearings and learn more about the national park (and support the locals, of course). And then the next time go exploring, get lost, have your own adventure.
Take water, a camera, and some money. You’ll stumble across farms where you can purchase food and fresh coconuts to fuel your journey.
A very up and coming adventure in Viñales, and I’d recommend going with none other than our friend Adrian.
The ‘mogotes’ are a totally unique limestone formation, and Viñales’ untouched beauty could mean it’s the most beautiful climb you’ll do.
Really, really worth it and Adrian is a gem and a great teacher.
Caves: you either love them or hate them.
There are a mix of caves in and around Viñales: some are open to visitors and are considered ‘tourist attractions’; others are hidden deep within the valleys and aren’t officially ‘open’ to tourism, but can be found with a sense of adventure and a guide who knows the ropes.
Some of the hidden caves you can find by climbing up the mountainside (not for the fainthearted, but worth the effort!); some you can swim in natural lagoons within. Bring a head torch and a sense of adventure.
If you’re a lover of caves, you need to come to Viñales.
2. Switch off entirely and enjoy the slow pace of life
Viñales is the perfect place to really switch off and have a detox from any stresses back home. It’s a small, slow and friendly town and you’ll leave with a real sense of fulfillment.
Viñales has much less traffic than Havana. That comes with less pollution, less noise, less lights and more incredible starry nights. You’ll need to catch the sunset and sunrise from the valleys, and make sure you tune in to the chirping birds (and cockerels!) and clickety-clack of horses meandering the colourful streets.
It’s calm and it’s simple. The food is organic and fresh; the people are friendly and calm. The mojitos are strong and the tobacco is world class. You simply can’t skip out on a visit here, especially if you’re looking to recharge your batteries.
3. Visit world famous tobacco farms
Cuban cigars are some of the best in the world, if not the best. As described in a wonderful article by the New York Times, “Cuban smokes have remained mostly the rare indulgence” and are the “object of seduction”. If that doesn’t whet your appetite for visiting Viñales, I don’t know what does.
Pinar del Rio, the province in which Viñales is located, grows some the best tobacco in Cuba, and produces some of the highest quality cigars in the world. The farms here also grow other note-worthy crops, such as coffee and cacao trees, coconuts, pineapples, corn, seasonal vegetables, and even have bees to make their very own honey.
Even if you aren’t an avid cigar smoker, or indeed have no interest in the world of tobacco, the experience alone is worth the visit. To visit a local farm in the countryside of Cuba, have a tour of the land and crops, learn about how the plants are grown and harvested, watch a farmer demonstrate how to roll a cigar, and indulge in traditional home cooked food and a swig of locally made rum… it’s a once in a lifetime experience. And if nothing else, the views are spectacular.
The experience in Viñales is as much about Cuban culture, tradition and history as it is about just tobacco.
I don’t recommend booking a trip to the tobacco farms via your accommodation host. They take a large commission and leave the actual guides with a very small amount of money.
Book through AirBnB and your money is more likely to go directly into the hands of the guide (if you want to come with us, you can book our family’s AirBnB Experience for a group trip; or if want a private trip tailored to you, book with The Viñales Experience).
4. Stay in a UNESCO World Heritage Sight
Viñales has a unique landscape surrounded by the ‘mogotes’. I’ve been around here for a few years and honestly, the breathtaking scenery never gets old. It’s one of the most unique and beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life – and I’ve travelled a lot. Many people liken it to a film set of Jurassic Park and I couldn’t agree more. So, it’s no surprise that the valleys have been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. It’s heavily protected by the government and for good reason.
With that in mind, you’re going to want to spend more than a day here.
Where to stay
I personally would recommend booking a ‘casa particular’ a little outside of the town. The town, as beautiful as it is with its colourful houses and quaint charm, is cramped.
When tourism started booming in Cuba in the early 2010’s (and even more so in the Obama era from 2014), many locals fortunate enough to have property in the town decided to get their licenses to rent out rooms to tourists. Whilst great for their economy and livelihoods, it meant that well over 1000 casa particulares appeared almost over night, competition became fierce, and the town centre became focused on tourism.
If you book a casa a little bit out of the town centre, not only can you wake up to an incredible view and more tranquility, but you’ll experience a more authentic stay.
I live on the outskirts of town and I’ve never had such good night sleeps like I do when I’m there. And then I have breakfast looking out onto panoramic views of the valleys. Being totally immersed in nature gives you time to switch off entirely, and honestly – it’s such a welcome break after being in Hectic Havana.
5. Get to know a more authentic side of Cuba rather than just the hustle of Havana
I’ve touched on this already, but it is worth making a point about.
Havana is an incredible city, don’t get me wrong. It’s full to the brim with history, hotels, trendy restaurants, bars, theatre, shows, and tourists.
But after a few days there, most people are ready to slow the pace down and discover a more serene, easily-authentic side to the island (basically, less hustle).
Ask any Cuban and they will tell you that it’s outside of the cites – in the farms, countryside and small towns – that you’ll really find the heart of Cuba. If that’s what you’re after (and why wouldn’t it be?), then you’ll want to book your trip to Viñales immediately.
6. Find (arguably) the best food in Cuba
It’s only natural that in a town laden with farm land and breathtaking views, many restaurants and bars have popped up to showcase a mixture of the natural beauty and extraordinary taste of the island.
You can forget the age-old myth that “Cuba has bad food”. Sure, if you stay in a government-run hotel and don’t leave your resort, you’d be right. But the minute you step outside of your hotel, there are incredible options for food all around you. If you know where to go…
Viñales is home to some incredible farm-to-table eateries. I’m writing a blog showcasing my personal favourites so check back soon and have your notepad ready!
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