Our previous trip to Cuba, some fifteen years ago, was a two-week stint of exploring the island with a hire car, following a fold-out map and limited resources in a Lonely Planet book. We snuck in the occasional scuba dive, dealt with car breakdowns and pretty much kept to the east of the island.
Come 2017 and a mere week-or-so to play with, we stuck with Havana and figured we’d squeeze in two other places. Varadero just east of the city and this – Viñales.
Escaping the city may not be on everyone’s agenda when spending time in or planning a trip to Cuba, but when all of the salsa dancing, drinking cocktails, tourist hoards and touts get a bit much, a perfect spot to escape is just three hours from the capital.
The UNESCO listed Valle de Viñales can be found on the western part of the island: a tranquil landscape rich in coffee, fruit and veg, livestock and, you guessed it, tobacco. It’s in this fertile land called Vuelta Abajo that the world’s best black tobacco is cultivated, and any puro (cigar) aficionado will tell you this is where the Habano is born.
The small town of Viñales doesn’t offer the same plethora of attractions as the capital, or any other major centre in the country. That’s actually the beauty of it. You come here to immerse yourself in a much simpler Cuba; to unwind, sit in a rocking chair on a porch in the balmy heat, smoke a cigar and watch the sunset.
If you’re feeling a little more energetic you could go horseback riding through the vividly green valleys, through farmland and plantations and gawk at the stunning mogotes that rise from the landscape.
These limestone hills are remnants of a previous landscape that was riddled with soft limestone caverns where, over time, they eroded, collapsed and filled with water. Eventually the water drained away, leaving behind what we see today.
Mural de la Prehistoria
Hiring a scooter or bike is another way to get out into the landscape, so ditch Google maps with its data requirements (no wifi in the valley!) and use good old maps.me. It’s more detailed, shows all the off-road trails and can be used offline.
And no, I don’t get paid to say that!
One of the attractions in Valle de Viñales is the rather hideous Mural de la Prehistoria. This 120m-long painting was designed by Leovigildo González Morillo back in the early 1960s. The child-like images of ammonites, sea life, dinosaurs and humans are meant to symbolise stages of evolution. For CUC$3 you can get up close and personal with the mural, or simply view it from a distance.
Plantain ‘bruschetta’ at Restaurante El Cuajaní
Something that got our attention prior to turning off the main road to see the mural, was white tablecloths flapping in the breeze at a farmhouse. Restaurant El Cuajaní can be found on a property purchased by a lovely couple that settled in Viñales.
The original farmhouse was demolished due to major termite damage and replicated under UNESCO’s strict control of heritage in the valley.
The owners grow many fruits on the property, plus coffee that’s grown and roasted onsite. The menu is based on what’s available, and when we dropped in for a bite it was all about pork loin with brandy or roquefort sauce, grilled salmon or a bruschetta of plantain, tomato and basil (2.5). Their icy homemade lemonade is the perfect antidote to the stifling humidity outside.
El Bily – Ceferino Fernandez, 12
Tres Jotas Tapas Bar – Salvador Cisneros, 45
Cubar – Salvador Cicneros
The town of Viñales has a very decent choice of restaurants and cafes; a mix of local and International to keep everyone happy. We were actually surprised at the choice given the size of the place, but I guess it is geared for tourism.
Head over to El Bily for a simple burger, sandwich, pizza or local dish, or cool down with a juice or cocktail. Across the road you’ll find the ETECSA office, the only place in town to buy your CUC$1.50, 1 hr card to access the internet. Sit outside the office to use their hotspot or in the central park. The hotspot even reaches the porch at El Bily if you want to use it there.
Afternoon drinks can commence at the busiest place in town – Tres Jotas Tapas Bar. Come here for tapas, a sandwich, pasta or salad, or simply lounge on the front terrace or inside the semi-aircon comfort. They have a fab drinks list with ample rum and whisky concoctions.
Shop-a-holics can snag a souvenir or some handicrafts at the tiny souvenir street market in the side street right by the bar. If more drinking is of interest, walk a few doors down the main drag and pull up a stool at one of 10 barrels at Cubar.
It’s a seriously hot spot to be drinking in the afternoon thanks to the sun smacking you in the face, but there are blinds to block some of that out. The usual range of drinks are up for grabs, plus tapas to keep the tummy content.
Tareco’s – Salvador Cicneros, 75
Our two nights in Viñales meant we had limited time to sample more food, and strangely I ordered rabbit both nights. The first was at Tareco’s, a cool little resto-bar with limited seating on the street-front, but plenty more upstairs on the roof.
This is the ultimate spot for drinks with a view, especially at sunset. Food-wise it’s a mix of crêpes, tacos, sandwiches and tortillas, plus many local plates of meats and seafood. The flavourless and aridly-dry costillas de cerdo (pork ribs; 6.5) may want to be avoided, and you also may want to reconsider ordering the conejo estofado (rabbit stew; 6.25). The above photo saves me elaborating.
To see and sample how rabbit should be cooked, grab or reserve a table at El Olivo. This Mediterranean hot-spot also does paella, pasta and lasagne, among many others, but it’s that conejo con finas herbs y chocolate amargo (8.35) that stole my heart. Tenderly slow-cooked with herbs and a little dark chocolate, the rabbit is all kinds of excellent. Go for the pollo asado con vino blanco, limón y ajos de montaña (6.75) too, a juicy hunk of chicken cooked in white wine, lemon and mountain garlic.
It’s no wonder this joint makes first place on the Viñales dining scene.
Restaurante El Olivo – Salvador Cicneros, 89
Our Casa Particular organised a colectivo which was CUC$20 per person and took three hours. Six of us were crammed in one of the vintage cars which was fun for the first half hour, but then turned into discomfort soon after.
Alternatively head to the bus station and get a Transtur bus that costs CUC$12 per person and is much more comfortable. Plus the bus has air-con.