I dare you to look at a panoramic photo of the Valle de Viñales and not want to hop on a plane to see it for yourself. The UNESCO World Heritage listed valley is extraordinarily beautiful, retaining a sense of timelessness that defies its status as one of the most visited destinations in Cuba. It’s the sort of place where you plan to spend a couple of days and stay for a week.
The village of Viñales is a magnet for independent travellers seeking peace, quiet and the outdoors. This might seem contradictory, but tourism is low-key and it’s a laid-back place with an endless supply of rocking chairs and mojitos. The village still retains many colonial-era one storey houses, most of which are painted in bright colours and have been converted into casas particulares.
Part of the Sierra de los Organos, the valley is dotted with mogotes – the sugarloaf-shaped limestone outcrops covered in greenery that give it its distinctive appearance. It’s an iconic landscape best known for producing Cuba’s (and therefore the World’s) finest cigar tobacco. In the winter the valley floor is covered with fields full of the large green leaves of nicotiana tabacum.
The real delight of the Valle de Viñales, and a key selling point for Cuban tobacco, is that farming methods remain very traditional. No pesticides here, and you’re far more likely to see bullock carts and horse-drawn transport than tractors. Fields are still ploughed using oxen. The wooden huts with palm leaf roofs where the tobacco leaves go to dry, would have been as familiar a sight in the 19th Century as they are today.
Viñales holds a special place in the national psyche, a place Cuban’s talk about wistfully while encouraging you to visit. After a few days in the valley it’s easy to see why. Tradition is everywhere, but the farming community here is also a vibrant cultural mix of indigenous people, Spanish colonialists and African slaves, brought here to work the tobacco fields. It even has its own musical style.
There’s a tourist circuit in the valley, and even a hop-on-hop-off bus taking you to various sights. These seemed a bit underwhelming so we decided to do our own thing. We did visit one of the largest cave systems in the Americas though. Other than that, we went on walks through this picturesque valley, plodding along observing traditional life while moving at a traditional snail’s pace.
A striking feature of Viñales is that the village has numerous independent bars, cafes and restaurants. We ate mostly in our fabulous casa particular, but the options for eating and drinking in the village are in contrast to much of the rest of Cuba. Ordering valedictory piña coladas on a bar terrace, our drinks came accompanied by a bottle of rum. Just add to taste, we were told.
Now that’s laid back tourism.
Where we stayed in Viñales:
Villa Yaset and Yanet
Pasaje Rafael Trejo 2 No. 5-A
Viñales, Pinar del Rio.
Tel. (53) 048 63 5379 / Movil. 0153642661