When someone says Cuba, you most likely conjure up iconic images of its capital Havana – its bustling streets, lively music, happy faces and those old school vintage cars roaming the streets. This without doubt is the heart of Cuba, its lively body and soul. Idyllic Caribbean beach scenes might also come to mind – white sand, turquoise waters and rum cocktails. And you wouldn’t be wrong. The large majority of visitors to Cuba split their time solely between Havana and the Varadero beach region, a nice little combination of city and beach with the added ease of getting between the two in just a couple of hours. However, there’s just so much more to the island if you have the time to really explore.
After an incredible few days in Havana (more on that to come in a later post), we headed a few hours west to the beautiful Viñales, four to be precise. Now this is by no means off the beaten track, but perhaps due to its position in the opposite direction to the general tourist trail, a fair amount of tourists and travellers skip it. We spent just two nights and one full day here in the beautiful scenic valleys and for me, aside from Havana, it was the highlight of my trip.
I had read about Viñales in the guidebooks and online and I knew to expect countryside, but it was so much better. I don’t know whether this was just because we had arrived there straight from loud and bustling Havana but the peace of the place just envelops you and life suddenly slows down, with the steady pace and routine of the farmers working in the fields and the green mountain backdrop, It was almost magical!
Our time there was spent trekking through the valleys in the scorching Caribbean sun, with a designated stop at our guide’s farmer friend’s hut (of course) to have our first puff of a Cuban cigar and a sip of a rum cocktail, both as locally made as you can get! And this was all before 10am.
After soaking in the incredible setting (and rum) for a bit longer and catching our breath before the next leg of the trek, slightly fuzzy headed, we set off to find our next stop, some famous caves. Our guide for the day (one of our Casa host’s friend’s brother’s cousin, naturally) was very young, but so informative and more than willing to tell us all about life in the Cuban countryside. It was interesting that so many of the locals had never even been outside of the town, not even as far as Havana, a journey of just 4 hours by road. It’s these situations and encounters which make you realise how lucky you are to have the opportunities to be able to travel in a way that other people will just never have the means to do and can only dream of.
Anyway, as the heat of the morning sun slowly reached its midday climax, hot, sweaty and with feet and legs covered in the red soil of the valleys, we were glad to reach what we thought would be the ‘cool’ of the caves. As it turned out, it was almost 100 degrees hotter and muggier inside, which was only amplified by the fact that in order not to die, full concentration was needed in order to not slip on the wet rocks, in the pitch black, in flip flops! On the rare occasion that I felt safe enough to actually stop and look around, I was surrounded by rock pools below and swarms of bats above. Needless to say I did not have to be told twice to turn around and make our way back to the entrance of the cave!
It was an absolutely beautiful walk back to town. Despite having run out of water and being burnt to a crisp by the unrelenting sun, the views were not lost on me. But just when we needed it most, our guide led us to a bar. Now I’ve been to many a good bar in my life, but the setting of this one was without doubt one of the most incredible I’ve experienced. We sat there catching our breath, cold drink in hand, a Cuban duo playing gentle guitar and maracas in the background, with farmers working the field in the distance, others roaming past on their horse and carts and having to pinch ourselves. It felt like we were in a movie scene!
Back in the village, we spent the rest of our last afternoon there gorging on a selection of tapas at this really great find of a restaurant along the main strip of the town. Later, we sat in the late afternoon sun on the rooftop terrace of our cute little Casa and wrote our postcards home which we had bought back in Havana a few days before. Two months later and still absolutely no sign of them ever arriving in England. Guess that’s all just part of the lovable Cuban charm…