This is Part 6 of a multi-part series on Cuba. The Viñales Valley feels more like it belongs on another planet. The natural land formations found here can only be found a handful of places in the entire world. A few hours drive from Havana, the Viñales Valley makes for a perfect day trip to see the other side of Cuban life.
“Cuba may not be 5 star, but the experience certainly is first class,” my husband comments to me three days into our tour of the country. We have just finished a delicious lunch at a small outdoor restaurant, La Carreta, in the Viñales Valley. Our lunch, served family style, consists of a lamb dish similar to short ribs; a vegetable plate with sliced cucumber, green beans, and avocado; yellow rice with chicken; white rice with black beans; baked tarot root and yucca; fresh fruit; and two different kind of pudding. It is both fresh and plentiful!
It is the kind of restaurant that we’d never have visited on our own. The ‘restaurant’ is on an elevated wooden deck with a palm-frond thatched roof. It consists of a few wooden tables clad in checkered tablecloths with little wooden two-wheeled carts, the restaurant’s namesake, decorating each table. As we dine, a mother hen and her chicks amble pass the table, unperturbed by our presence, and the chef comes out to see how we liked our meal. The kitchen staff, like most at the home-sprung restaurants in Cuba, consists of the family who lives in the adjoining house. This is so typical that after a day or two it feels like the norm.
Our tour guide, Tony, has picked another winner. We would never have found the place, let alone ventured to try it alone. From day one, we learn to trust his judgement on where to eat and leave the meal planning to him. Lunches are included in our tour, and every day so far has been a culinary adventure.
I’ve hired a local company, Wijin Cuba, for a 7 day private tour of the country, and they have not disappointed. Since meeting us at the airport, they have taken care of everything. Tony, our assigned guide for the 7 days, clicks with us almost immediately. This helps to make the time traveling between places fly by. He regales us with stories about daily life in Cuba and how their government works. It seems a planet away from the United States, rather than only an hour by air.
Today we are on a full-day excursion to the Viñales Valley. During our 2.5 hour drive from Havana in the morning, we pass ox carts, horse and carriages, army trucks full of farmers, classic cars, not-so-classic looking cars, and public busses crammed to the rafters. The highways of Cuba are a hodgepodge of nineteenth century meets twenty-first century and everything in between.
Upon arrival, we stop off at a scenic overlook of the valley. We are ahead of the tourist crush with the caravan of day-trip buses from the city well behind us, so we can relax a little. The Viñales Valley is a karstic land formation. The valley is surrounded by mountains and dotted with mogotes rising out of the flat land up to 1,000 feet in the air. Mogotes are rounded, tower-like limestone rock formations often covered by vegetation. They are quite impressive and can only be found in a handful of places in the world. The valley looks like it belongs in a scene out of Jurassic Park. It actually feels a bit like southern Thailand to me, reinforcing the world-away feeling we have been experiencing since leaving the United States behind.
Next, we head to the town of Viñales, a place that has over 600 rooms for rent and more tourists than Cuban inhabitants on any given day. The town is small but well kept. Tony points out the main streets, the small outdoor market, and the two different types of roof tiles that dominate the town. “The flat ones are French,” he tells me, “and the curved ones are Spanish; they’re curved like that because they used to be made on slaves’ legs.” A little reminder of how much of Cuba was once dependent upon slave labor for all aspects of daily life.
Tony lets us loose to explore the town for a bit, and we wander up the one main artery and down the other, stopping to browse through the local handicraft market along the way. I’m still amazed at the amount of people who use horses to get around Cuba. They are parked all over town, along with bicycles and mopeds.
After, we head outside of town to our delicious lunch at La Carreta, and then Tony takes us to a tobacco farm. Surrounded on all sides by the towering mogotes, The Finca de Referencia, run by Mr. Ivan, is the most scenic farm I have ever encountered. Mr. Ivan is a fourth generation tobacco farmer. In his tobacco drying hut, he walks us through the planting, growing, and drying process and then demonstrates how to roll a cigar. He explains everything in Spanish while Tony seamlessly translates. (The process is complex–I’ll save that for another article–but learning about it all is quite interesting.) We even get to try one of his homemade cigars.
Next, it’s onto the Mural de la Prehistoria, a nearly 400 ft wide painting on the side of one of the valley’s mogotes. Cuban painter Leovigildo Gonzalez began the mural in 1961; working with the assistance of local farmers, the mural took 4 years to complete. The wall represents the evolution of life in Cuba. The left side starts with the lowest form, snails, and works across to the highest, humans. It’s definitely a bit kitschy, but it’s all part of the experience.
Throughout the day, Tony keeps up a running dialogue, answering our questions on Cuba, its people, and the country’s history. He has a good sense of humor, gives us a tell-it-like-it-is perspective on his homeland, and goes out of his way to provide first class service. My wish seems to be his command. Today, I have my heart set on horseback riding through the valley. When the regular place for tourists is closed, Tony will not rest until he finds me a local farmer who does valley tours on his horses.
After some bargaining, the farmer has 3 horses saddled up, and my husband and I are off on a ride through the picturesque valley. Tony declines to join us, confessing to having a fear of horses. He coordinates with the farmer to meet us at a point at the end so that we can see more of the valley on a one-way route rather than doubling back. The farmer tells me that the horse is “semi-automatic,” and he isn’t kidding. I literally don’t need to steer her the entire ride. There’s nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery.
During the ride, I get a chance to practice my Spanish with our guide who speaks virtually no English. I love it! He is patient and speaks slowly so that I can keep up. He tells me a bit about his life and that he has five children. They only got electricity about a year ago, but his two year old can already use an iPhone. His children, he jokingly complains, would rather be inside watching television than outside playing. Not so different from home! He points out the various plants growing along our ride and the name of some of the land formations for me. I translate what I can for my husband who is interested in the surrounding landscape, as well. These one-on-one local encounters are the experiences I live for on a trip.
Riding through the fields with cows and tiny clapboard houses dotting the landscape, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve stepped back in time. Near the end of our ride, the skies begin to get ominously black. I hear the farmer’s cell phone ring, and I’m pulled back to the 21st century. He responds, “30 seconds” in Spanish, and approximately 30 seconds later, we emerge at the meeting point. Tony is there patiently waiting with a concerned eye on the sky. He’s worried about the weather and wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck in the impending storm. Sure enough, only a minute or two after we climb into the back of the awaiting jeep, the skies open up.
Like all of the rain storms we encounter in Cuba, it comes on in a deluge and quickly subsides. By the time we are half way back to Havana, the sun is back out. I cannot believe how many experiences we have managed to pack into one day, and it’s not even over yet. The possibilities are looking bright.
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins