Vinales is a beautiful, lush, green valley located about 3 hours outside of Havana. I was able to stop for a couple of days in route from Playa Larga to Havana but a day trip from Havana is totally doable as well. You can catch the Viazul bus or take a shared taxi ($20 CUC/person). “Isn’t Vinales just a bunch of farmland?” you ask. I did visit a tobacco farm, but besides being absolutely gorgeous, there is actually a lot to see and do in Vinales. I highly recommend working it into your trip. It was one of the highlights of mine.
While there 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 way to go 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 and the majority of the families I stayed with spoke a little 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 really poor Spanish a little bit. Many casas can be found on Airbnb now, 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 their main house on a cute street of different brightly colored homes. 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 farm land and animals below. 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.
Our first stop was a visit to Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. These are some serious caves (pictured above). In fact, they are the largest cave system in Cuba. Tours run throughout the day ($10 CUC) and take about 2 hours from start to finish. You’ll be provided with a helmet and headlamp, but make sure to bring good shoes. It wasn’t too strenuous but the hill going up to the cave entrance is somewhat steep and footwear with some traction is needed. Once you’re at the top, you’ll be able to take in some amazing views before entering the caves. The inside of the caves is spectacular. Bats and frogs can be spotted, as well as glittering rock formations. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen before and really quite impressive. Afterward, I made a visit to a much smaller cave, Cueva del Indio. Here, I was given the chance to relax a bit and just enjoy the scenery as I was guided through the cave on a motorized boat along a small river. This spot does tend to get a lot more touristy, so I would recommend going as early as possible. A line will form and can get to be quit long. 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 and cigars have never really appealed to me, but the majority of Cuba’s tobacco is produced in Vinales, 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, and then 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 county. 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 and sell them on their farms. It really is quite the process from start to finish and the cigar rolling itself is an art. It is pretty remarkable how quickly, yet perfectly their rolling abilities are. So did I have one? When in Cuba.
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’re convinced casa particulars are not your thing, I would suggest looking into a room here, a somewhat more expensive but 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 get to pour your own rum, however little or as much as you would like. It was amazing and so refreshing on such a hot day.
Once back in town we made one last stop at Jardin Botanico de Caridad, a garden that can be found a few blocks from the plaza through an inconspicuous iron gate along the side of the road. In it you will find over 100 species of orchids, fruit trees, medicinal plants, 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 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. The garden concluded my non-official tour of Vinales and I returned to my casa 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.