Havana is generally the first port of call for visitors to Cuba, and if you are pressed for time, it might be the only one. For those planning to explore the rest of the country, or just want a day trip from the capital, look no further than Viñales, which is just under two hours drive from Havana. This beautiful little Cuban town has much to offer visitors, it is not so much of a secret anymore, with an increasingly number of visitors looking for that unique Cuban experience. But what is it that makes this place so memorable? What are some great things to do in Viñales?
Viñales provides a laid-back atmosphere, with quaint houses lining the main road and many more houses which have sprung up to cater to the influx of tourists to this countryside town. While the main town is only a 3km strip of road, filled with hotels, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, venture further to discover more of Viñales. For CUC5, you can do a hop-on, hop-off tour bus which brings you to various sites around Viñales. The bus passes the main attractions such as Hotel Los Jazmines, the underground caves Cuevo del Indio, Palenque de los Cimarrones and the national park.
Jardin Botanico de Caridad
Viñales is rather small, so the centre is only 15 minutes walk from end to end. Jardin Botanico de Caridad is a five minutes walk from the central plaza. The jardin (garden) is beautifully kept and a great place to lose ones self. Viñales is already a quiet town so the jardin feels like a sanctuary within a sanctuary.
Mural de la Prehistoria
It translates to Prehistoric wall in English. The entrance fee to see the mural up close was CUC3 and the ticket entitles you to a free drink at a bar. However, the sight was nothing much to behind, people usually take a few minutes of the colourful painting and after that head to the bar.
Cueva del Indio
Home to one of the largest underground cave systems, the Cueva del Indio (Indian cave) is one of the most popular ones in Viñales which is also accessible by the tourist bus. I felt that it was not worth the CUC5 to get through the caves because the boat ride lasted only 10 minutes. However, the interior of the cave was quite spectacular, as the guide on the boat would explain the shape of the rock.
For something a little more involved, try the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, some 15 km outside of town. Rather than a leisurely walk, this is two solid hours underground, going through the largest cave system in Cuba.
Palenque de los Cimarrones
Paleque de los Cimarrones
It recreates one of the nomadic homes set up by the runaway slaves (cimarrones) that hided in the caves of the area. Created at the beginning of the 1990s, Palenque de los Cimarrones is a kind of living museum that, between legend and history, makes the passing of Afro-descendants through western Cuba.
Hiking in the national park
Since Viñales is home to the mountains, it is only natural to take a hike. There are several hiking trails around the area, which can easily be arranged with a guide. I did the “Sendero entre Valles y Montanas” hike which took about 5-6 hours. The path signage was clear, except that I had trouble finding the start of the trail from Rancho San Vincente. I asked several local people about the hike, but most of them seemed clueless about it as they don’t usually hike. After wandering around the ranch, I finally managed to find the entrance on my own. There is a CUC5 entry permit fee.
It started to rain when I reached the top of the viewpoint, so I stayed in the hut with this kind old man who made for me mini grasshoppers from leaves. He was really nimble with his fingers. At first I thought he wanted to sell me the product, so I kindly declined but he told me that it was a gift for me. The viewpoint of this hiking trail is pretty amazing even though the weather was gloomy. It would have been much nicer with the sun out shining brightly. Going down the mountain, this old man led me down a shorter way, he may seem old but I was trying hard to catch up with his pace! There was even one part where I had to take off my shoes in order to wade through ankle-deep water, the scenery along the way was indeed tranquil and picturesque!
For those who do not like walking, they can try to rent horses to explore the outskirts of Viñales, saving them time and energy. There are some shops along the main road of Viñales. Renting a horse cost CUC5-10 per hour, depending on your bargaining skills. Some of the handlers have a minimum number of hours to fulfil when renting, so do check with them first in order to avoid any misunderstanding. It is the best way to explore the rural life and visit some tobacco farms or coffee plantations along the way.
Last but not least, the nightlife in Viñales is not as bustling as in Havana, but some bars offer pretty good prices for cocktails and they also serve as a place for salsa. No visit to Viñales is complete without a visit to the Centro Cultural Polo Montanez. You’ll enjoy excellent cocktails (a mojito, of course), along with sensational live music and dancing. If you’re not too confident on the dancefloor, just watch the locals to see how they do it.
In the town of Viñales itself, you can arrange your stay with one of the Casa particular, which is affordable and there was no need for me to book in advance. I just showed up at the house I decide is nice or rely on local advice. The church in the main square which also serves as the wifi spot, is the main landmark of the town.
Occasionally, there would be flea markets to sell handicrafts to tourists so that the locals can earn some extra income. It was nice to explore the flea market even if there was nothing to purchase.
How to get there?
There is a Viazul bus running between Havana and Viñales, which cost CUC12. There are two daily departures, leaving Havana at 09:00 and 14:30, arriving at Viñales at 12:40 and 18:20 respectively. For those who find that the seats have been sold out, there is always another option which is the shared car. It is much faster and the driver will try to find other customers to fill up the car before it can depart. The shared car can cost between CUC 12 to 15 per person, and it is faster than the bus.