The rugged beauty of the Viñales Valley
The rugged beauty of the Viñales Valley. Corno van den Berg

The Viñales Valley one of the must-see places in Cuba. This area in western Cuba is part of the Pinar del Río province, and offers fantastic scenery. It’s not extremely large, around 132 km2. It is believed its formation was influenced not just by the surface of the earth, but also the climate here.

There are many caves underground here, totalling around 45 kilometres in length. This is also where the best cigars in the world come from, thought to be first produced by the indigenous Taíno people. This, together with the traditional lifestyle of its current residents, makes you feel like you’ve stepped right back in time.

You still see references to Fidel Castro everywhere
You still see references to Fidel Castro everywhere. Corno van den Berg

There are interesting rock formations here called mogotes, which have steep cliffs and rounded tops, created by erosion. They were formed in the Jura era (200 to 145 million years ago). The softer parts of the limestone surface were washed away by rain, and the harder parts remained.

There are also many caves that have collapsed, leaving its walls standing between the rubble. The land around the mogotes is particularly fertile, and tobacco grows very well here.

The name of the town of Viñales is misleading. It’s the Spanish word for ‘vineyards’: an immigrant from the Canary Islands settled here in the early seventeenth century and tried to grow wine, but failed miserably.

After that, they switched to tobacco, which was a success because the climate and soil are perfect here. And these days, it brings tourists here from far and wide who want to get a scent of the best cigars in the world. The government considers Viñales to be the perfect example of a colonial settlement, there are many colonial buildings surrounding a central square in the town.

The landscape is dotted with thatched huts, where the tobacco is hung to dry. Farmers use horses and carts to transport the tobacco. This is an area where you should just take your time, because it’s a place where there is a real feeling of calm. You can almost touch it. That’s why the locals love it so much.

A tobacco farmer between the drying tobacco leaves.
A tobacco farmer between the drying tobacco leaves. Corno van den Berg

Must-do tips:

Learn all about tobacco

When you visit Cuba between late October and February, can learn all about the famous Viñales tobacco. The fields will be full of the green-silver leaves. Several producers allow tourists to visit, and to buy cigars, of course! The scent in the characteristic tobacco barns where the leaves are dried is wonderful. And you will be taught all about how to roll, cut and of course smoke a cigar.

Take a boat tour through La Cueva del Indio

The name means ‘The Indian’s Cave’ and was only discovered in 1920. They’ve found several remains of the first inhabitants here. You can visit a large part of the cave on foot, and then hop on a boat to head out onto the San Vincente river. The cave is up to 90 metres high in some places. The coolest part is when you emerge from the rocks and are suddenly outside, and are surrounded by green. It’s not a very long visit, and it can get pretty busy, so it’s best to go early in the morning or in the late afternoon. The cave is 5 kilometres north of Viñales.

Witness the tobacco harvest

The annual harvest of tobacco brings much activity to the Viñales Valley. Much is still done by hand, which ensures the quality of workmanship remains very high. The best time to see the harvest is between late February and early March. Dozens of workers are out in the fields to pick the valued leaves and load them on to carts. Take a seat nearby and simply observe. Or, roll up your sleeves and help out! It’s much appreciated if you do. You’ll see how the leaves are hung up to dry after harvest. Inhale the distinctive scents and learn all about the ideal circumstances for farming tobacco.

Cueva de Santo Tomas, one of the many caves you can visit.
Cueva de Santo Tomas, one of the many caves you can visit. Corno van den Berg

Get lost in the Cuevas de Santo Tomas

Most tourists visit La Cueva del Indio, but the 45-kilometre Cuevas de Santo Tomas is the largest cave in all of Latin America, and it’s not as touristy. You’ll see beautiful stalagmites and stalactites here, and there are interesting fish and crustaceans in the water here. These are blind due to the lack of light in the cave, and remarkably white in colour. But the murky waters make it hard to see them, ask your guide where to spot them. Make sure you have plenty of time to visit the cave, give yourself at least half a day. You’ll probably enjoy it the most out of all of the caves in the Viñales Valley. In town, and at most hotels, you’ll be able to get information on how to get there, guides and other facts.

Go rock climbing up and in mogotes

You can only do this in a select few places in the valley. Still, climbers from all over the world come here to scale the steep cliff faces of the mogotes. If you’d like to give it a try, you can do so at El Palenque, it’s part of the Cueva de San Miquel (cave) and there are climbing routes set out to follow. You can climb both the interior and exterior of the mogote. You can hire an instructor/guide on the spot, or book one in advance at your hotel. It’s possible to try climbing for the very first time, or you can work on your skills. Whatever you choose, your view will be worth it!

A farmer in his fields in the Viñales Valley.
A farmer in his fields in the Viñales Valley. Corno van den Berg

Take a walk back in time

The best way to take in the scenery in the Viñales Valley is on foot. Many hotels have walking tracks that lead into the valley, after which you can use the paths of the locals. You can just head out on your own, or you can hire a guide at your hotel. You can combine your walk with a visit to one of the thousands of caves in the area, and will give you a real idea of the feel of the area. It’s a good idea to go early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon, the weather won’t be as hot and the light will be good for photos.

Cycle through the heart of Viñales

Another relaxed way to explore the Viñales Valley is by bicycle. Things are not too far apart and the roads are quite good and not very busy. They’re also reasonably flat, though you can go off-road if you wish to conquer a few hills. You can hire regular bikes and mountain bikes, and book a guide to take you along a teach you about the landscape. Make sure you head out before the heat of the day hits.

Spot the national bird of Cuba

The Viñales Valley is home to the Cuban trogon (priotelus temnurus), the national bird of Cuba. This colourful bird isn’t very shy and is happy to show itself. You can find them in the trees near the caves in the area. Its name in Cuban, tocororo, is derived from the noise it makes. Its colours are the base for the Cuban flag: white, red and blue. You can see them in many places, but if you should have any trouble, ask a local guide for help.

The very pleasant view at Hotel Los Jazmines in Vinales.
The very pleasant view at Hotel Los Jazmines in Vinales. Corno van den Berg

Explore the colonial town of Viñales

The colonial square in the centre of the town of Viñales is surrounded by colonial houses. There is also the 19th century church, the Casa de la Cultura. Viñales was founded in 1607 and feels a bit like a wild west town. When you walk around here you’ll get an impression of what Cuban life was like hundreds of years ago. Take a stroll lover the Calle Salvador Cisneros, it’s lined with pine trees, there are several statues of prominent locals and many beautiful houses. Life happens on the street here, so take a seat and enjoy.

Experience the impressive Dos Hermanas

Dos Hermanas are actually two mogotes, and these remarkable limestone natural monuments are the most photographed in the valley. Walk the track to Los Acuáticos, where you’ll see several springs with healing waters. At least according to legend. Another interesting thing is the Mural de la Prehistoria. This enormous 180-metre mural was commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961, and depicts the evolution of the socialist human. It uses the lines of the surrounding hills. There are several popular restaurants near the mural, where to local musicians like to come and play to make some money off the tourists.

Marvel at the cork palm

The mogotes are remarkable features in a remarkable landscape. And over time, specific flora has developed on these rocks, and many of them are entirely overgrown. The most interesting flora of them all is the cork palm, a living fossil that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. For palm trees, they are remarkably small and quite hard to find, but the locals can help you spot them.

Discover the unique disco cave

Just outside the town of Viñales is the Cueva de Viñales, and it’s something quite special. This cave turns into a dance hall at night time. Though you’ll notice there are many coloured lamps mounted on the ceiling of the cave here. A Cuban disco is not like an ordinary club: the beats are mixed with traditional Cuban music. You’ll quickly notice that dancing is in the locals’ blood. Just join them and enjoy the stalactites above! During the day there are tours

A house in Viñales
This is what your house looks like if you live in Viñales. Corno van den Berg

Best time:

The temperature is most pleasant between November and May, it’ll mostly be sunny and dry. But if you want to experience the tobacco harvest you should go between the end of February and the start of March.

Please note!

It gets quite busy in the Viñales Valley around harvest time. And Cubans have their holidays in July and August so hotels can be booked out.

This part of Cuba experiences hurricanes as well. Hurricane Season starts in June and ends in November. Most tornados occur around October.

More information: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/840