Things to do in Viñales
With names like Valle de Silencio and Mogote la Esmerelda you may think that some fairy tale novelist came up with some of the places in Viñales. Although it is no fantasy land it is a trip to the past. Cuba for the most part is a blast from the past but under the hue of tobacco smoke Viñales is more so than the rest. The world famous Cuban cigars come almost exclusively from the Viñales area and yet life here is not much different to the way it was 100 or even 200years ago. On the things to do list there is a lot for everyone, even adventurists, despite the laid back feel and silencio in the valleys. No wonder it was Fidel’s favourite place in Cuba.
Time to Spend: To do the main activities, see the sights – 2 days. To really soak in the smell of tobacco – 4 days.
Viñales itself is rural Cuban life in a nutshell. Quite, low key, laid back. There are almost no two story buildings in the town although there are plenty of nice cafes and restaurants. The laid back atmosphere lends itself to taking it handy. As you are whiling away an evening in one of the road side cafes you can samples the rums and see which colour of 1950’s vehicles you prefer. Cuban cigars are known all over the world and tourist flock to Viñales to see where they are grown. It just so happens that tourists would come to Viñales anyway because of the magnificent landscape. That is two birds with one stone as they are in the same place.
Despite being one of the most visited destinations outside of the Havana/Varadero hub there are almost no hotels in Viñales. In the town all the accommodation is almost exclusively of the Casa variety (see info below) where local families convert their spare room and charge you to stay. There should be more accommodation like this in the world. As far as I could see, and I had to trek the town as accommodation was full as I hadn’t booked ahead, every single house in the town is renting a room for tourists. The one or two hotels there are, are on the outskirts.
So what is there to do in the Viñales? Well in the town itself not a whole ton other than relax and have a beer in 3J Tapas Bar. There is a botanic Garden on the east side of the town but other than that there are the usual tourist info shops such as Cubanacan and a Viazul Bus office.
The real gems of Viñales are outside the town.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Parque National Viñales
Getting around: Before the spiel below I should mention that hiking and cycling are very popular ways to see Viñales National Park. You can get a tour but I think that renting a bike is the best way to get value for money. The roads are very quiet and it means you can enjoy the countryside over several hours as well as saving a small bit of money on transport to several different locations. Also when you are cycling it is never too hot because of the breeze. To be warned that the roads are fairly flat but do involve slight rolling hills.
You probably got a goo at the famous mogotes on your drive into Viñales. The valley of Viñales is flat but these limestone outcrops are like the spikes sticking up off a ginormous underground dinosaur. They can rise to as much as 400mtrs from the valley floor so the word ‘mogote’ which means haystack is very appropriate. As the area is limestone it is ripe for tobacco planting but also for caves. The valley is littered with them. In fact Santo Tomas (below) is the one of the biggest caves in the Americas.
Personally I wasn’t too impressed on the visual impact of the landscape and these famous mogotes I had heard so much about. Although they are definitely one of the highlights of landscapes in Cuba they wouldn’t be for most countries. Having said that what was worth it were the tobacco growing tour, the caves and the atmosphere in the town. So what are the things to do in Parque National Viñales that make it worthwhile?
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – The Tabaco fields
This can be done by horseback riding or on foot and on your own or on a tour (see below for more). For the novelty we did it by horseback on a tour. It is definitely possible to do it yourself as the walks aren’t that long but to know where you are going is very difficult as the routes are just horse tracks and not roads. Because of this I would recommend a tour. Of course even if you rent a bike and cycle on the road for the day you pass hundreds of tobacco fields. We went to the Silent Valley but there are plenty of choices. All tours include a local farmer, who looks the part of a cigar smoking tobacco farmer, explaining how cigars are made ‘organico’. The explanation is very good and over 30minutes explains the process of how different parts of the leaves are used and actually makes one in front of you. All the while you get to smoke one. I’m not a smoker of anything but I smoked a bit of this (when in Rome….) and it was really much nicer than I expected. Much nicer than the few drags of cigarettes I experimented with. Only 10% of the leaves are for their own use. The other 90% is taken by the government and exported. You can buy cigars off the local farmer for a tenth of the price you would buy it in the US but without the Cohiba or La Gloria Cubana sticker. They want this of course because the money goes into their back pocket.
The Silent Valley tour also includes a trip around mogotoes but also into a mogote cave, a local café and a lake where you can take a dip to cool off.
Hotel los Jazmines (Balcon de Valle): This hotel is a few kilometres on the Pinar del Rio side of town and commands a great view of the entire valley below. Despite the attack of pink from the hotel the view is worth a trip up at dusk to watch the sun set on the valley. It is situated only 3km from Viñales but almost entirely uphill so it’s a bit of an effort under your own power or else a taxi is cheap. Just be careful for the return journey as the taxis try to get more out of you as you are stranded but people are always willing to share.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas
If in Viñales I would definitely recommend a trip to Santo Tomas cave. This enormous underground system is the largest cave in Cuba with 46km of caves and plenty of stalactites to see. You must get a tour and of course the tour only brings you to a portion of it but it is enough to get an idea of what the rest of the mogote holds. Santo Tomas is 18km west of Viñales on the Pons road beside the village of El Moncada. So named after one of Fidel Castro’s guerrilla friends. The tour lasts 90minutes and helmets and headlamps are provided. A tour can be organised from Viñales or you can just turn up and pay at the cave.
I made a day tour out of it by cycling there in the morning and then going to the mural and the canopy tours on the way home (below) as they are all on the same road.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Mural de la Prehistoria
4km west of Viñales is the Mural de la Prehistoria. Not worth it. If you are passing then fine but don’t bother going otherwise. It is a huge painting (120mtrs long) on a rock face that was done in the 60’s. You can see the mural from outside the gate and that is enough rather than paying the small entrance fee.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Zip Lining, Loma de Fortin Canopy
A bit of an adrenaline rush for this zip lining canopy tour west of Viñales. Only 5.5km out the Pons road this activity takes about 40min and involves some long zipping along the tree tops and great views. I must say that the crew there were very professional and slick and all the equipment was new. I hadn’t seen anything about it in the town but it was something different to the cycling and caving.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Cueva de San Miguel
5km North of Viñales on the main road is the San Miguel cave. A ten minute underground walk will bring you from the bar in the rock at the mouth of this large cave to the other side which cynically has a restaurant. Not a bad spot but the underground walk is only ten minutes.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Cueva del Indio
Just beyond Cueva de San Miguel is Cueva del Indio in which you can take a boat on the river through a cave which is a unique selling point. Good to cool off from the heat but very popular with tourist buses which can mean some waiting around.
Things to do in Viñales Cuba – Rock Climbing
Rock climbing in Viñales is by far the best climbing spot in Cuba. Rock climbing isn’t a recognised government activity and so official it is banned. But so is hiking! No climber has ever got barred and the rules are very lightly enforced if at all. Farmers want you to climb on their land because they can charge an entrance fee. If you have your own gear then you can climb at your leisure and there are plenty of books out there about the climbing routes in Viñales National Park.
Practicalities – About Viñales
When to visit Viñales: Probably best to avoid hurricane season which is June-Oct although mid-summer is popular. High season is Nov-Mar and July-Aug.
Location: Viñales is 3hrs (195km) south west of Havana via Pinar del Rio.
Accommodation: There are the usual haunts which I won’t go into but there are also Casa Particular.
- Casa Particular: A Casa is a Cuban equivalent of a B&B. Although this may be strange for the more conservative of you out there the experience is really good as you get very personal service as you are actually staying in somebody’s house. These are normally complete with very cheesy pictures of the children. Be warned. You cannot book online in the normal way but involves emailing instead. This is done usually through some intermediate agency with several houses on their website. I booked with www.casaincuba.com but www.cuba-junky.com or www.casaparticular.com will also do the trick. It is like going back to the early 90’s but it works. Once you are in your first accommodation the system really kicks in beautifully. Your landlady asks where you are going next, ‘Viñales you say. ‘Oh, I know somebody with a Casa in Viñales, would you like me to ring her’. You say yes and bingo bango you now have accommodation in Viñales. Again once in Viñales your new landlady will do the same for the next town. They get a little commission, you have no hassle. The cost per night is $20-$35 CUC depending on season and inside or outside Havana. Breakfast will then be $5 CUC on top which is usually very good. They will also cook dinner for you for $10-$12 CUC should you want it.
- Any activities such as horse riding in Viñales National Park or renting a bike can be done from your Casa.
- Collectivos: This is definitely the best way to get around Cuba. They are faster, collect you from your house, a drive in a legendary 50’s automobile and they are practically the same price as a bus trip. Collectivos are basically taxis that are shared between people going on popular routes so if there are only 2 of you it is going to be expensive but with 5 or 6 it is not. If you are staying in a Casa (see above) they will organise it for you by contacting the drivers who do it. They normally leave in the morning.
- I would recommend the Collectivos all day over buses. Effectively the same price as buses but with none of the hassle. And the leg room in a 1950’s Cadillac is usually much bigger than modern buses.
- Train: There is a train from Havana to Pinar del Rio every second day. Pinar del Rio is a hilly 30km from Viñales.
- Bus: There are regular buses (twice daily) from Havana to Viñales with Viazul (www.viazul.com) or Astro. The buses take 4hrs via Pinar del Rio. They cost $12 CUC. Remember that the Viazul bus station in Havana is on Avenida 26 on not in Old Havana. There is also a 12hr Viñales – Trinidad bus via Pinar del Rio and Cienfuegos.
- TIP: During high season the buses can book out which may leave you stranded for a day or two. If you are in a city in Cuba and your name goes on a waiting list for your bus (you queue up and write it down) there is no guarantee you have a seat when the bus arrives. When this happens it basically means that your city is on route between two cities (Santiago to Havana for example) and although you can book online for a starting seat you cannot for an intermediate city. The bus may come and you are next on the list but it is full so you just have to wait until the next one. This could be the following hour or 4 hours later. That also may be full. Etc etc until a seat is free.