The stunning countryside surrounding Viñales, in Cuba’s western province Pinar del Río, makes for a wonderful and relaxing few days. When Havana takes it out of you – and it probably will – the area provides idyllic peace and quiet. Covering about 150 sq km, the Parque Nacional was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, and for good reason. This is the world of coffee, tobacco and sugar plantations. Hard at work all year, this is where the guajiros drive the nation’s economy behind the scenes.
Prehistoric Cuba was a great limestone plateau that rose out of the sea, and this was gradually eroded by water to leave sheer, mountain-like formations called mogotes (haystacks). These awe-inspiring features give the countryside an unparalleled beauty.
No better way to experience this than on horseback. After days of trampling around Havana’s dusty streets, it was a wonderful relief to get off my feet, even as a very inexperienced rider. The horses, bred everywhere here for transport, are well-behaved and visibly much better fed than those lugging tourists around the capital.
A guided tour across the aptly named Valle del Silencio offers a brilliant morning before the punctual afternoon downpour. Excursions trot leisurely into the valley via a rustic tobacco farm. It’s not currently the season (the seeds are planted in October and harvested in March-April) but it was interesting to see the way the leaves are dried and the cigars are made.
After a quick tour of the finca and a complementary cigar dosed in local honey, the tour continues through fields of rice and maize, banana plantations and a small coffee centre. We passed by trees laden with oranges, avocados, limes and almonds, and colourful orchids adorned the path.
The trip wasn’t really improved by all the stops, which were little more than tourist gimmicks selling overpriced produce. An optional walking tour through the caves (although they were impressive) was probably not worth the additional cost – I have a pretty bump on my forehead from the unforgiving rock face as a big group of us squeezed through narrow crevices with no torch, ni nada. Careless tourists or careless guides, either way this was an unnecessary add-on to an otherwise spectacular morning.
The town of Viñales consists of a few streets packed with restaurants, tour agencies and a million brightly painted casas particulares – almost every resident family rents out a spare room. What was once no doubt a sleepy agricultural village is now a tourist hotspot, but this hasn’t entirely rid it of its charm. The less-frequented Café Mogote, a block north of the main plaza, is worth checking out for its delicious cocktails and beautiful views of the valley (it also has a teeny tiny kitten!!).
Live jazz plays in the centre from early evening, and the salsa kicks off not long after dark.