If you need a change of scenery from the lively, crowded streets of Havana, look no further than the rural countryside of Viñales Valley. Located 120 miles west of Havana, this verdant valley sits within the Sierra de los Organos mountains. The valley is dotted with hundreds of steep limestone cliffs known as karsts. Locally named magotes, these karsts rise and tower over the valley, some reaching 1,000 feet. In addition to its lush topography, the valley is recognized as a Unesco World heritage site for its cultural significance. Farmers in Viñales practice traditional methods of growing tobacco that have remained unchanged for several centuries. With only one day to explore, our group booked a jam packed tour to experience the rich culture and pristine scenery in the rural jungles of Cuba.
We booked a private interactive tour for our group of six through Discover Vinales. A chartered cab picked us up from our AirBnB in Havana early in the morning and drove us two and a half hours to reach our first stop, the Los Jazmines lookout. We had been transported to rural paradise! Taking in the panoramic views of the valley, our knowledgeable tour guide greeted us and provided an overview of our eight hour tour! (twelve total including transportation). We were all skeptical and wondered how we would be able to complete the ambitious list of excursions listed on our itinerary. With no time to spare, hopped back in our tour van and set off to our first destination.
Tour program cost: 70 CUC or $70 USD per person
Transportation: 220 CUC or $220 USD ($37 per person) for an air conditioned van to take us between Havana Viñales
Cueva del Indio
We jumped right into the day by visiting Cueva del Indio, or Indian Cave. Named after the indigenous group who used to call this shelter, the cave is now a popular tourist attraction. It is one of the 300+ cave structures and underground rivers in the valley. We took a short boat ride through the two and a half mile cave, looking for nocturnal wildlife and examining the unique rock formations. As we approached the end of the cave, we were greeted again with the verdant scenery. This was a great introduction to the diverse terrain of the Viñales.
Mural de la Prehistoria
We headed next to Dos Hermanas Valley to view the massive Prehistoric Mural. Standing 400 feet tall and stretching 500 feet across a cliff wall, the composition is one of the largest open air paintings in the world. Created by artist Leovigildo González Morillo, the painting took 18 people and almost 5 years to complete. The drawing depicts evolutionary history, spanning from the first ancient organisms and the dawn of the dinosaurs, to prehistoric humankind. There are a few restaurants nearby, and we each enjoyed a Piña Colada to prepare us for our next adrenaline-filled activity.
Next on the list was ziplining over the jungle landscape with the Canopy Tour El Fortin company. We strapped in and prepared to climb up the trees to reach the four zipline routes, totaling 3300 feet. One by one we zipped over the magote peaks, tropical trees, and abundant tobacco farms. We grew more and more confident as we approached the last line, wishing that it didn’t have to end!
Horseback riding through Valle de Silencio
Just as we caught our breath from ziplining, we arrived at our next adventure: horseback riding! We were a mix of seasoned and first time riders, and so we were a bit nervous to ride out in a large group. Our guides ensured us that everything would go without a hitch and paired us each with a whimsically named horse. Some of our favorites being, “mojito” and “libre” dubbed after the famous cuban cocktails.
For the next hour, we became a posse of cowboys riding through the rich red soil of the countryside. We got a genuine taste of the rural lifestyle, passing by farmers cultivating fields of green tobacco and waving to families in the village. Our horses followed each other one by one, stopping occasionally to graze on the grass and give each other a friendly sniff. We galloped back towards home, as the limestone cliffs drifted into the distant scenery. It was finally time to head back to our host’s house where we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal.
Our last stop on this action packed tour capped off the day with fresh rolled cigars. The fertile land and tropical climate situates Viñales as the core of tobacco in Western Cuba. We were in for a treat because our host’s father taught us how he prepares tobacco and processes the leaves into cigars, all on their family farm. Keeping to tradition, the tobacco is plowed by oxen or handpicked, no machinery is used to sustain the quality.
As the farmer explained each step of the process, our friend Zach translated for the group. We learned about the different types of tobacco and wraps. While we may not have understood everything (our Spanish isn’t the best!), our senses filled the void, by touching, smelling, and tasting tobacco each step of the way. We inhaled the final product and satisfyingly checked-off trying a real cuban cigar from our bucket lists.
Unfortunately, the Cuban government seizes 90% of the local grown tobacco, leaving each family with only 10% to sell. We bought a large bundle to support their farm and show appreciation for all we had learned (and smoke, of course).
What a day! We all had a good laugh about just how much we stuffed in one day. This tour was by far the best way to squeeze in all of the sights of Viñales Valley in eight hours. We wished we could have stayed much longer to really immerse ourselves in the culture, and we recommend booking at least one night in the town if you can. But if you’re in a pinch for time, you can fit it all in we did!