Vinales is a beautiful, lush, green valley located about 3 hours from Havana, Cuba. I was able to stop for a couple of days in route from Playa Larga to Havana. A day trip from Havana is also doable, if that is all the time you have. From Havana, you can take the Viazul bus or a shared taxi ($20 CUC/person) there. “Isn’t Vinales just a bunch of farmland?” you ask. I did visit a tobacco farm, but there is actually a lot to see and do in the absolutely gorgeous, Vinales, Cuba. I highly recommend working it into your trip. It was one of the highlights of mine.
Where to Stay
While in Vinales, I had the opportunity to stay at a casa particular belonging to Bernardo and Belkis that I booked through Airbnb. A casa particular is an accommodation run by a Cuban family. It can be a room in their home, an entire apartment, or a mini apartment that is separate but next to the main house. Legal casa particulars will have a government placard visible out front. I quickly found that casa particulars are the best option for lodging in Cuba. Not only are they extremely affordable (avg. $30 CUC/night for a room), I was able to get a real feel for Cuban life. The majority of the families I stayed with spoke some English and were able to help me plan activities, as well as help me arrange transportation to my next destination. I also got to work on my Spanish a little bit, which was great. Many casas can be found on Airbnb, but I found the best way to book and receive the best rate was to go directly through the family on an app called Cuba Junky.
Bernardo and Belkis’ casa is a one room, detached mini apartment next to the main house. It’s on a cute street, lined with brightly colored homes, and is a quick walk to the center of town. Their place was lovely and was my favorite of our accommodations while in Cuba. Bernardo and Belkis made my visit really special and made me feel so welcome. They were friendly, helpful and prepared a delicious breakfast that I was able to enjoy on their rooftop patio. It has an incredible view of the mountains and overlooks the farmland and animals below. You can book their place here, via Airbnb. I really can’t recommend their home enough. After breakfast, I walked to town and found a taxi that gave me a great day rate ($50 CUC). He turned out to be an excellent guide and showed me so many wonderful things in and around the town.
The Caves of Vinales
Our first stop was a visit to Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. These are some serious caves. In fact, they are the largest cave system in Cuba. Tours run throughout the day ($10 CUC) and take about two hours from start to finish. You’ll be provided with a helmet and headlamp. The hill approaching the cave entrance is somewhat steep and footwear with some traction is needed. I found a good pair of sneakers to be satisfactory. Once you’re at the top, you’ll be able to take in some amazing views before entering the caves. The inside is spectacular. Bats and frogs can be spotted, as well as glittering rock formations. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen before and was really impressive.
Next, I visited a much smaller cave, Cueva del Indio, which has a small river running through it. I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery as I was guided through on a motorized boat. This cave is a well known tourist attraction and the line to enter can become quite long. I would recommend going as early as possible. If you only have time for one or the other, I would definitely choose the St. Thomas caves.
I originally didn’t have much of an interest in visiting a tobacco farm, since cigars have never really appealed to me. The majority of Cuba’s tobacco is produced in Vinales, though, so I couldn’t leave without a visit to at least one. I was able to learn all about the cigar making process and it was actually a lot more interesting than I had anticipated.
The tobacco is generally grown for about three months or until it’s ready to be harvested, at which time it’s moved to a drying house for at least another three months. The government then takes 90% of the crop for use in official government cigars. These are the sealed cigars you will find in official cigar shops throughout the country. Never purchase cigars anywhere but official shops. Many people in Havana have perfected the street hustle, but don’t fall for it and keep walking (what they are offering you isn’t real). The farmer is then left with the other 10% to do as he pleases. Many of them use this 10% to produce their own cigars (minus the nicotine), which they sell on their farms. It really is an extensive process and the cigar rolling, itself, is an art. It is pretty remarkable how quick, yet perfect their rolling abilities are. So did I have one? When in Cuba.
Hotel Los Jazmines
Up next was Hotel Los Jazmines, a beautiful, bright pink colonial style hotel. The hotel has a sparkling pool and views to die for. If you are absolutely convinced casa particulars are not for you, I would suggest looking into a room here. It is a somewhat more expensive, but still budget friendly option. I stopped at the bar at the top of the hill to take in the view and the bartender made me the best Piña Colada I’ve ever had. You’ll also get to pour your own rum, however little or as much as you like. It was amazing and really refreshing on such a hot day.
Jardin Botanico de Caridad
Upon arriving back in town, we made one last stop at Jardin Botanico de Caridad. It is a garden that can be found a few blocks from the plaza, through an inconspicuous iron gate on the side of the road. In it you will find over 100 species of orchids, fruit trees, and medicinal plants, as well as doll heads and other oddities. Rumor has it that the dolls have to do with the practice of Santería. It has been around for almost 100 years and is a magical little place. It was cared for by both of the Caridad sisters for quite some time and one sister still lives on the property. She will give you a tour for a tip or you are welcome to a self guided tour. There are also some Spanish speaking parrots that are quite entertaining.
This concluded my non-official tour of Vinales and I returned to my casa particular for the night, before moving onward to Havana the following morning. It was a day packed with activities and I was exhausted, but I enjoyed every moment of it.