Slow down your pace and wear your best smile, you are in Viñales. Well, at least we were, just after driving from Trinidad, thinking we couldn’t have any better. How wrong we were!
Viñales itself is quite a simple and humble village, like its inhabitants. It mostly consists of one storey colourful wooden houses. Many of the secondary roads are unpaved, but the main one has a few shops, cafes and a couple of travel agencies that organise excursions in the surrounding valley.
On our arrival we booked a tour for the following day and then we went for some salsa in the evening. There is not a big choice of places for entertainment, basically there is a club with salsa music and a disco called ‘El Palenque’, which was previously a cave. Since the latter one was only open in the weekends we were left with the first option, which turned out to be good fun anyway.
They had a show early in the evening which started with a Cuban lady signing a Whitney Houston number. Darren pointed out that she didn’t exactly know the words, but it wasn’t as bad as the ‘Ken Lee‘ example from Bulgarian Idol. Then the floor was opened to the professional dancers who danced a number of routines that included Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba.
After the pros (and semi-pros) it was the turn of the tourist audience which piled onto the dance floor with a mixture of enthusiasm and misguided confidence, with the exception of the Cuban locals in the joint who acted as impromptu teachers.
Horse riding in the valleys
The nature though was the real protagonist. Our excursion started early the following morning and consisted of a 5-hour tour of the valley riding a horse. This seemed the best way to see as much of the valley as possible and it was fairly cheap at $5/hour. After being given a small flexible stick for ‘horse motivation’ by the guide we set off.
Some areas of the valley are characterised by small farm holdings that produce crops such as corn and tobacco with traditional farming methods.The view of the verdant crops, the clay path and the mountains as a backdrop seemed coming from a painting, only continuously changing.
As part of the tour we stopped at a tobacco farm and went in the hut for a cigar rolling lesson. The old farmer first offered us some coconut water and then sat with us and started explaining (in Spanish, picking me as his translator) how to roll the dried tobacco leaves. We all had a go at the cigars and for a moment we could all play Al Capone except we had a fresh lovely coconut in the other hand. The women were all way better gangsters than the men (see Darren’s photo below).We could buy some hand-made cigars from there, for about $10 per 20. If you didn’t buy anything you had to pay for the coconut water: fair enough.
As the ride continued through the valley, we stopped at some caves with natural pools. It was pitch black in there and we had to be very careful where we were stepping. Take a torch with you and a swimming suit if you are brave with cold water.
The ride back took us past small farmlets with multitudes of chickens and the occasional pig and cow. Darren’s horse had a sniff of home and had decided to gallop ahead with Darren clinging on fearing his life.
El Paraiso restaurant
For the evening we went to what I’d describe as a magical place, an organic farm called ‘El Paraiso’ where for about $18 each we could have a taste of all the traditional Cuban food that came straight from the same farm, plus an extremely delicious smoothie. As was usual for the places we stayed, there was far too much food.
The owners cultivated everything in their big garden of which they gave us a tour before dinner. The sunset was spectacular from the veranda and with a band playing for us it was the perfect ending of our adventure in Viñales.
Darren called for ‘un solo de percussion’ and the band obliged, setting up a groove over which the bongo player relentlessly improvised. A whole pig was brought out to be carved up and we settled down to watch the sun set behind the beautiful hills.