In the past couple years, former President Barack Obama and the U.S. government have eased travel restrictions that have kept most Americans from visiting Cuba for more than 40 years. For me, that meant booking a trip as soon as I could—before the country, which currently seems like it’s almost stuck in time, inevitably becomes more modernized.
My trip was short, only four days, so I kept mostly to Havana, but wanted to see at least a part of the country outside its capital city—which led me to the valley of Viñales, an UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 114 miles from Havana. My husband and I booked a private day tour through Havana Tour Company, which included a trip to and from Viñales and one of its tobacco farms, along with a stop at a lookout point, a boat ride through a cave, a picturesque lunch, and a view of a cliffside mural. We met our guide, Danny, and driver (who Danny affectionately nicknamed Baldy) at 8:30am on a sunny Havana morning and got on our way.
On this day trip—as is the case with many travel adventures—the car ride there was as much a part of the experience as the rest of it. We settled into the car; a modern model, from China—though Cuba is known for its vintage wheels dating back to the 1950s, we were grateful to be in a comfortable, air-conditioned, and probably much safer car for the two or so hour drive. As we drove away from Havana, we saw the increase in vegetation and open spaces: more green than gray, more plants than buildings.
We drove for miles without seeing much manmade, save from the occasional unfinished bridge—a sign of economic struggles following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of Russian-Cuban relations. We’d occasionally pass some hitchhikers, casually signaling for rides from the small amount of cars on the road, but other than that, it was all quiet on the Cuban front.
We kept our eyes on the windows as we approached Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province (of which Viñales is a part), and Danny shared stories of its history and culture. The region, particularly the valley of Viñales, is characterized by its limestone hills, or mogotes, and mineral- and nutrient-rich red soil, ideal for tobacco farming. But, while tobacco is certainly the region’s most famous agricultural product, farmers in Pinar del Río also grow and produce things like coffee, rum, cheese, sugarcane, onions, and fruits.
Though the Cuban government produces food for the people on a large scale, these rural farmers (guajiros), are allowed to sell what they make locally, and we saw it in action: People manning carts full of garlic, fresh fruits, and sometimes even small, roast chickens, on the sides of the road. “They’ve always been a happy people,” Danny told us of those living in Pinar del Río, while we looked on. “People from the countryside are more humble than people from the city.” As we made our way through Viñales in the car, we got a glimpse at the sleepy, small town, and its colorful, small homes and businesses.
After a brief stop at a lookout point near Viñales’ Hotel Los Jazmines, to get a look at the Sierra de los Organos mountain range, we moved on to our first official stop, the Cueva del Indio, a cave and ancient indigenous dwelling that was rediscovered in 1920, through which we’d take a boat ride on an underground river. The line for the cave was long - a newer phenomenon, Danny said, and a sign of growing tourism in Cuba. We did have to wait about 30 minutes, though it wasn't unpleasant. The weather was warm, the sun was shining, and there was beauty in every direction we looked. Danny stood in line while we did a quick walk around the property and took some pictures of the lush greenery. The line continued for about 200 meters once inside the cave, where we took in the narrow, natural surroundings with a few dim lights to lead the way. We eventually boarded a simple, wooden motorboat to travel the remaining 250 meters on water. The natural limestone formations were beautiful, and as we floated through the cave, the driver shined his flashlight on the most unique ones before we emerged back into the light of day on the other side, among the lush vegetation.
We made our way across the street for lunch at a picturesque paladar, or family-run restaurant, Paladar La Pimienta. We enjoyed mojitos and pina coladas, and fueled up with local fare: plantain chips, rice and beans, ropa vieja, and grilled chicken. While we ate, we chatted with Danny and Baldy, watched the chickens wander the grounds, and embraced the stunning scenery: It felt as if this bright yellow, thatched-roof restaurant, with us in it, was dropped in the middle of spectacular landscape painting.
We continued on to the nearby Mural de la Prehistoria, a massive, 120-meter wide colorful painting on a cliffside, before heading to our final stop, the tobacco farm.
Nestled among Viñales’ mogotes, it felt peaceful and homey, with little more than sprawling rows of tobacco plants, clothes drying on a line, a modest house, and a thatched-roof barn where the tobacco leaves hang to dry. We walked into the barn, and while Danny was telling us about the tobacco-making process (and the fact that 90% of the farm’s product goes to the Cuban government to sell, and the farmers get the rest for domestic use), the farmer wandered in to begin his cigar-rolling demonstration. He sat down, placed a wood plank on his lap, took a bunch of dried leaves from a bag, and got to work flattening, tearing, layering, and rolling them. After a few minutes, he handed us a completed cigar, lit it, and we passed it around to the few other visitors who had made their way into the barn.
Afterward, we popped into the house to sample some local rum and coffee and buy a few cigars, before hopping back in the car for the journey back to Havana. It was a long day, but an adventure that was well worth the time, energy, and money. To witness Cuban culture outside of Havana, learn more about the country’s (and the region’s) history, and get up close and personal with one of Cuba’s most prominent industries was an unforgettable and unmissable experience.