With a few nights in Havana under our belts, we were more than ready to retreat to a more rural setting for the second part of our Cuba trip, and that setting was Vinales; a small, colourful town nestled in a lush green valley.
While it’s pretty, and certainly charming, you don’t come to Vinales to see the town – you come for access to the vicinity, which hosts a wealth of nature related activities and sights. It’s surrounded by tobacco fields, coffee plantations, caves, farms and a whole host of beautiful views, with spectacular beaches in easy reach.
We absolutely loved the four days we spent here – for the dogs, pigs and chickens wandering around seemingly unattended, for the place we stayed, and for views that gave us the constant feeling that a dinosaur might emerge from behind the nearest tree at any moment.
Where we stayed
The Casa Particular we chose for this section of the trip was in the village of Loz Jazmines, which is around 4km away from Vinales Town. The distance was walkable, but the cost for a taxi was a very reasonable 5CUC and, unusually for Cuba, no one tried their luck with us to get a higher price.
As Loz Jazmines is higher up then Vinales, you get really excellent views out over the valley in this areas and it’s also very peaceful, even with the crowing roosters and barking dogs – which started at about 5am every day we were there, so we woke early each day.
The house was a pretty turquoise colour with a pair of rockers on the porch, and our hosts had even built a hide in which they served breakfast every day; it stood on stilts amongst jungley foliage, with a bridge walkway that reached the house. Most excitingly of all, a dog (Chocolate) and a cat (Che) were the other residents besides the family we stayed with.
Our hosts were wonderful; they grew lots of what we ate themselves on their farm, fed us handsomely and were kind enough to help us arrange everything we wanted to do while in the area. Despite not having air conditioning, the early mornings and our proximity to a number of insects (read: they were in the room with us), this was one of our favourites of the trip.
What we did
Our time in Vinales was my favourite mix of adventure and relaxation; hours walking at a time, followed by reading on the porch with a fresh coconut, and full days out ending in long dinners watching the sun go down. Here are the things we filled our time with.
Tour of the Valley: This is the must-do really, the thing that people do when they only have one day in Vinales; tours can be done in a variety of ways (on foot, by bike, on horseback…and we even saw oxen-drawn carts) and it’s really great to have a local guide who can point out the local flora and fauna and tell you more about the region. Most stop by tobacco, coffee and sugarcane plantations and because the area is so beautiful anyway, they’ll all involve great views. Prices depend on the type of tour, size of group and length; we paid 25CUC each but had a whole morning and a guide for just the two of us.
Cayo Jutias: For 20CUC each we took a Collectivo (shared taxi) for the two hour drive to this beautiful beach (and back). Beach entry is free, and there’s a beach bar, kayak and glass bottom pedalo hire, and snorkel hire available. Not that there’s any need to do anything in particular – the beach is stunning, fringed with mangroves (or rather, the mangroves are fringed with beach), so we just swam, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed. There are trees all along the beach which act as a sort of divider between groups, so even when it gets busy it doesn’t feel it – plus unlike Cayo Levitas which is another popular beach choice in the area, there are no hotels here.
Cueva de Santo Tomas: Like the beaches, there are a couple of options for caves to visit in the area, and we chose this one over Cueva del Indio, another popular choice, due to the absence of artificial lights and walkways and lack of human intervention. Entry is 15CUC (the price changed from 10CUC not so long ago, so some guide books may be incorrect) including helmets, headtorches and a guide and they ask for your name, DOB and nationality or a copy of your passport to enter (presumably incase you die). It’s quite physical in places with some scrambling necessary but you don’t need to be an athlete – we had an absolute hero of an 85 year old lady in our group. I’ve seen a lot of caves on past trips but this one is genuinely impressive; it’s enormous, with beautiful formations in places, and houses bats and swallows.
Cueva de la Vaca: An easy walk from Vinales town that leads you through a farm, we visited this small cave on the day we arrived in Vinales, wanting to see something on our first day but with too little time for any of the ‘big’ activities. It’s unlit and has no walkways or hand rails, but is fine to explore yourself without a guide. The torch on your phone (or you know, an old fashioned actual torch) is handy if you want to walk all the way through to the other side. I had an excellent time scrambling about here and there are loads of bats, which is either adorable or scary depending on your bat preferences. Great for sunset, but make sure you’re heading back down when it’s still light.
Finca Raul Reyes: This is the farm that you walk through to get to Cueva de la Vaca, and it’s worth a stop if you’re in the area; its free to visit and not far from Vinales town centre. There’s a bar there (plus hammocks to enjoy your drink in) and they sell cigars, rum and coffee. They’re only too happy to demo cigar rolling for you/let you give it a go and are super chilled and chatty.
Mural de la Prehistorica: This is clearly not a prehistoric mural, it’s a painted rock face; while pretty cool, I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it if short on time. We weren’t, so we enjoyed the 4km walk from Vinales to get there – you could also cycle, or choose a tour that stops here. The 3CUC entrance fee includes a cocktail (pour your own rum) or soft drink.
Jardin Botanical de Vinales: We love a botanical garden, so when we had a spare hour we popped along to this one in Vinales Town. It’s smallish, but not needing long is a bonus when you’re somewhere with such a wealth of activities, and we enjoyed it. The guides speak great English – and French – and are both friendly and entertaining. Entrance is free but they ask for a donation of your choice at the end. Plus we saw a very lovely husky who lived there, so…
Miradors: While exploring the area around Vinales, you might see signs with the word ‘Mirador’ on – this means viewpoint and they are largely free. Loz Jazmines hotel has a great one, but you’ll find them in more secluded areas too.
Sit, relax, enjoy: Without a doubt, my top three Vinales memories would include our final evening, just before dinner. With the days activities done and dusted, we sat on the porch with a coconut and a book, surrounded by jungle, Che the cat padding about at our feet (and at one point, crunching loudly on some kind of monster insect), and the sound of circadas in the air. Can’t recommend enough making sure you have some time to just be in this wild oasis.
We mostly ate at our Casa Particular and if yours offers meals I’d definitely recommend doing that, but a couple of places we went and enjoyed when we fancied a change/were out already were:
Buena Vista: Our Casa owners recommended this place as it was just down the road, and it was a great suggestion for the spectacular views over Vinales valley alone. It’s essentially a barbecue place, where for 10CUC you get your dish along with an abundance of sides (rice and beans, vegetable soup, plantain chips, salad and fruit) all included. They also let you pour your own rum into your cocktail, so you know…
La Berenjena: I found a vegetarian restaurant, guys! A vegetarian restaurant that serves meat, anyway – their words, not mine. It was so lovely to see a variety of things I could eat and we chose the Super Berenjena (an aubergine dish) and the lasagne to share. Both were delicious and the service was super friendly too.
Useful information for visiting Vinales
For all of my Cuba travel diaries I’m including a few details that might not make it into the main body of the post but would probably be handy to know if you’re visiting:
Viazul: Viazul shares a small office with a taxi company and you can find this on the main street, opposite the central square. Buses depart from this point too, and around the time when they go the office and the area outside it descend into most-definitely-not-organised chaos, but this is Cuba.
Wifi: Vinales’ Etecsa office is situated opposite El Bily restaurant, on a street off the main one. The Wifi connection is good in the central square and pretty rubbish everywhere else.
Accommodation: A huge proportion of homes in Vinales town centre are Casa Particulares, so I imagine you could happily arrive here with nothing booked, walk a matter of minutes and find yourself a room.
Essentials: It’s not immediately obvious, but there’s a pharmacy in the centre of town on the same side of the road as the Viazul and lots of the restaurants. On this same side there’s also a supermarket, but probably not one as you know it – you can pretty much get water, rum, tomato sauce and pasta (although there are a few small packets of eye-wateringly priced crisps and biscuits behind the counter should you so desire).