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Cuba is a country full of contradictions; starting with the glittering resorts in Varadero to the no-frills backpacker haven of Baracoa. You have limited free speech and loads of restrictions but free healthcare and education. Tourists can choose between city hopping, scuba diving and mountains - and all that on an island that is wildly considered tiny and a bit obscure. Personally, Cuba is my kind of place and the 6 weeks that I spend there have been amazing. Cuba is a country that polarizes; for me things seemed to be either great or a bit rubbish but I struggled not having a strong opinion on people, places or food.
Vinales was one of the places that I instantly fell in love with. After the big city hassle that Havana is Vinales is a perfect get-away in driving distance. Touristy enough to ease you slowly into the rural Cuban experience but remote enough to give your lungs a well-deserved break from exhaust fumes.
In this review I try to guide you through my experiences in Vinales, hoping that one day you might get a chance to enjoy it as well. And just to spice it up a little bit I will try to guide you through it in ten songs. So welcome to my personal Vinales Playlist.
1.The city's just a jail for me, full of high rise prison walls (Meat Loaf - Keep driving)
Havana is a stunning city but it is loud, hectic and the air quality is about as bad as the one in the men´s changing room after a football match. The city sprawls endlessly towards the horizon without giving any hints of what lies behind. Only 200km away we found our perfect city break - the Vinales Valley. Some people might say that all it is is a touristy town surrounded by mountains but nothing spectacular. But believe me, after 4 days in Havana any tiny bit of green would have made us happy. My newly found Australian friend Ellen and me took the early morning Viazul bus, leaving at 9pm from the Viazul station just outside of Havana city centre. The best way to get there is by taxi - expect to pay anything between 5 to 7 CUC (roughly 5 Pounds at the time of writing). Finding people to share a ride with will be your best option to save money as there is only sparse public transport and walking would take about two hours.
This is really not worth it as when I tried it I ended up getting lost and having to pay for a taxi anyway.
The bus to Vinales tends to get very busy in high season so it might be a good idea to book ahead. There is one in the morning at 9am and one at 3pm costing 12 CUC. As advertised the drive can take anything between 2 ½ hours and 4 hours. In my experience they never take less than 4 hours but it is a lovely drive that I enjoyed thoroughly. Vinales lies on the North coast of Cuba to the west of Havana, with Pinal del Rio it is the last easily accessible tourist spot in the western part of Cuba. Only Maria la Gorda is further west but going there is only worth it if you are into Scuba diving and have your own transport. Anyway, back to our bus journey; Viazul busses are top-notch modern long distance busses with toilets o board and air con. There are two stops during the drive; the first one was after about two hours at the park of La Terazzas where we had a twenty minute rest. There is an overpriced bar serving drinks, clean toilet facilities and a stunning view over the lake and the outcrops of the mountain ranges. The road then leads through green forest into the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio. There is literally nothing to do and see here and the stop is quite short. The occasional tourists are picked up at the station after realizing just how boring Pinar is and that they should really be in the 40km further north Vinales. The rest of the drive is stunning. Ellen and I were literally glued to the window trying to absorb as much of the view as possible. The narrow mountain road leads down into a green valley that looks like something from Jurassic Park (minus the awesome dinosaurs of course). Once we saw the green valley and the randomly dotted around karst mountains we were both in love!
The road is modern and leads straight from Havana to Vinales. Many people chose to come with a rented car but you might struggle finding suitable parking once you arrived. If you choose to go by taxi do not pay more than 50CUC for a one way trip. My friend got it down to 40CUC but that will depend on how good your haggling is. There are usually enough other travelers hanging around the Viazul station willing to share a taxi. The drive should not take much longer than two hours and you will have the added bonus that you can stop at the various look-out points dotted along the main road.
2.I want to lay you down on a bed of roses - For tonight I sleep on a bed of nails (Bon Jovi - Bed of roses)
Vinales is the Las Vegas of Cuba when it comes to casa particulares. Almost every house offers one or two bedroom that can be privately rented for a price of anything from 15 CUC to 30 CUC. We booked our room in Havana as our host there recommended us to stay with his friends. I found that this is incredibly common in Cuba, just mention to your host your future itinerary and they will happily set you up with other casas in these places. We were incredibly lucky and thoroughly enjoyed the place we stayed at. Jorge picked us up at the bus station with a sign with our names on - talk about being made feeling like a VIP.
Villa Sara y Jorge is off the main road in a quite side street. They offer one room with two double beds and en-suite bathroom for 20CUC a night. Both of them speak English very well and are kind and welcoming hosts happy. They sat down with us for long chats and made us feel very at ease and almost like at home.
The second time I stayed in Vinales we pre-booked a room in Maria la Gorda; as we needed two rooms we stayed at a different casa. Maria & Louisa were very gracious hosts and there was always a lively bunch of relatives and friends around. The two rooms they offered had two double beds each and en-suite bathrooms for 20CUC for double use and 15CUC for single occupancy. A delightful breakfast was included in the price. Both families made me feel welcome and almost more like a long lost friend than a paying customer. Staying in casa particulares was what made my Cuba holiday so special.
If casas are not your thing you can choose to stay at the two hotels overlooking the valley but you will be quite far away from the actual town and obviously the prices are much steeper as well.
3.Now I wanna tell you that my pappas pizza are quite the best in town (Lory Bonnie Bianco - Pizza Pizza)
Yes my fellow traveler, rest assured that there are indeed cheese pizzas available here. They might be a couple of CUP more expensive than in Havana and not as tasty but they are available if your budget it getting stretched by all the great things to do in Vinales. Eateries catering to all tastes can be found along the main road running through the town. There are various restaurants offering the standard Cuban meals of rice, beans, salads and your choice of meat starting from 5CUC for dinner which often includes a drink as well. We never used any of these places but most did look lovely from the outside and some were advertising live music as well. What got us through the long hours between breakfast and dinner were the cheap as chips cheese pizzas offered along the road. These 15cm goodies are greasy, cheap and full of salt - but a right present from heaven when you are starving and not willing to pay more than 50 pence.
The one restaurant we tried is fairly new in town and owned by a German - Cuban family. The hosts were very gracious and entertaining. The made us feel welcome even after we asked if we could share a pizza between us to save some money. Diana and I quickly chose the vegetarian pizza for 75CUP (local currency, equals 3CUC and 2.20 Pounds). We were given some bruschetta type bread as a free starter which was delicious and some fried plantain to nibble on. However, nothing compared to the pizza we got. It was absolutely huge and jam-packed with all kinds of vegetables. The base was thin and crispy and even after living in Italy for a year and being a pizza snob I still have to admit that this was the best pizza I had in a long while. The restaurant is located on the main road; if you are coming from the main square walk downhill for 300m and it is the blue restaurant to your left.
Even though the many restaurant options look tempting we decided to have dinner in the casa particulares we stayed in. And boy, this was certainly the right choice. Our first host, Sara, was an amazing cook that prepared us a meal worthy of serving gods and plenty enough to feed an entire family. All three of us were amazed by the sheer amount of food she prepared for us and instantly gave up on the idea of losing weight while being in Cuba. We had a stunning but very filling spicy black bean soup followed by rice and black beans, white rice, fresh salad, bread and the most gorgeous chicken dish I have ever tasted. Cuban cooking might be simple but if it is made right it turns the most humble ingredients into a stunning dish. None of us managed to touch the fresh fruits served for pudding and we retired full but happy to the porch for some Cuba Libres.
Miriam & Louisa were equally good cooks and treated us to two unforgettable evening meals. Although the basics were the same the flavours were completely different as each chef in Cuba adds their little individual touch to the standard dishes. Louisa's fish dish with maize parcels was my culinary highlight of this trip. Since coming back home I have tried to re-create it but never even come close to its delicious flavor. Both casa charged 6CUC for dinner which is more than reasonable given the amount of food offered and the quality of the dishes served.
4.I've never been afraid of the highest heights (Example - Changed the way you kiss me)
Mountains are what people come for and the unusual karst mountains are well worth a look. Imagine Halong Bay in Vietnam with rice paddies and fields instead of the ocean. The huge boulders are dotted along the valley giving the whole area a slightly mysterious look and in places where they go over into the mountain range surrounding the valley they offer fantastic outdoor sport activities. Although there are no proper hiking trails and rock climbing is still in its baby shoes there are a few walking trails out of the valley leading to viewpoints with stunning vistas. The most popular one is the one leading to the only two hotels in Vinales. The way follows a main road and can be done by anyone capable of walking for longer than a TV advertisement break. It does get steep at some point but the 2km walk flies past as you are rewarded with great views and friendly locals thinking that you are a bit crazy to walk up the hill instead of getting a taxi. Once you reach the top you are allowed to walk into the hotel and enjoy the viewpoint at the pool. It is a lovely walk and apparently you get great sunrises there but I´m not sure about walking along the road without streetlights. Cuban driving can be adventurous at the best of times and switching on the lights does not seem to be compulsory.
For most of the other hikes you will need a guide leading the way or at least a very decent grasp of Spanish. There are no maps available but any casa owner will know someone that can show you around for a few CUC. The walk to the Muriel de la Prehistoria is quite nice and hiking to the Cueva de los Indos should be do-able as well. With all other tourist spots you are better off renting a car or getting a taxi.
5.I'm not a princess - this ain't a fairytale (Taylor Swift - White Horse)
AKA Horse Riding
Travelling with Australians is great - they are a bunch of super nice, extrovert people all into heaps of different outdoor activities. My two friends Ellen and Diana were no exception as they were experienced horse women. I have never been on a horse nor felt any need to do so but as it turned out Cuba was a country of many firsts for me. Our casa hosts suggested a horse riding excursion and not wanting to hold the other back I gingerly agreed. 6CUC per hour per horse seemed reasonable and we were looking forward to get to see more of this beautiful area. So off we went on our first morning here looking for the stables - which are hidden in the middle of some fields right at the edge of town. Once we arrived there were some issues about the price as they wanted to charge us more. We agreed on a flat rate of 20CUC for the three our trip and everyone was happy. With the Australians on their horses in seconds all eyes turned to me. My little horsie turned out to be tiny, old and looking rather donkey like but she was the perfect choice for a beginner. Our guys followed us on foot holding onto the rains of my horsie for the first half hour until I stopped shaking. He was absolutely lovely and very knowledgeable about the area, pointing out various plants and stone formations. Obviously he was also great taking care of the horses and the followed his command without hesitating. Now I really don't know anything about horses but both Ellen and Diana said that the horses were well behaved and in very good condition. One could see that they are well fed and bight and alert.
The trek itself was great, slowly leading up a mountain towards a lake hidden away why the stone formations. There we had a little rest before riding back into town. The three hours passed like nothing and we enjoyed it very much. The horses were great and I was incredibly happy by how calm my horsie was. I could see her choosing the safest way to step and never did anything stupid like suddenly running away with me screaming and falling to my certain death (slight exaggeration here). Ask your casa owner and they will gladly help you to arrange a horse riding excursion. The people we were with were lovely and definitely cared well for the animals. They were also very understanding about our different abilities which I was very grateful for.
6.I'm going deeper underground - But I got to go deeper, got to go much deeper (Jamiroquai - Deeper Underground)
My second time in Vinales was jam-packed of sporty outdoorsiness which was great fun but also incredibly exhausting. Well, more exhausting at least than spending all day at the beach, drinking rum & coke and going for the occasional Scuba dive. With my new friends Vera and Claus we took off on a day of caving, something Vinales is famous for throughout Cuba. The first one we went to was the Cueva de los Indios; a tourist magnet 7km from the town centre. Taxis and mini busses go there all day long delivering tourists and day trippers. The cave itself is a show-cave, meaning concrete paths, electrical lighting and a speedboat tour on an underground river. It was fun and the 5 minute boat ride was actually really nice but it had nothing to do with proper caving. We were the only group in hiking gear whereas most of the Cuban women were wearing high heels. For 5CUC it was a comfortable way to spend the morning but nothing I feel the need to do again.
Cueva Santo Tomas was a different thing and please, please, please do not wear high heels or even ballerinas when getting there. Although the area you can visit is not dangerous we are still talking a 90min walk through sharp rocks in the dark with a slippery floor and no handrails. The 17km drive leads you into the middle of nowhere and we nearly missed the turn to the cave. Signs are spars in this area which surprised me a bit given that we are talking about the second largest cave in Central America. Would Cueva Santo Tomas be in North America or Europe it would be a huge tourist magnet. With it being in Cuba we were the only ones there and had our guide to ourselves. Parking is available and free and if you are brave enough there is also a very dodgy looking bar. Our guide spoke perfect English and asked for 10CUC per person for the tour. Sounds a bit steep but well worth it in the end. The tour started with an 18 meter climb to the entrance of the 6th level of the cave. As long as you wear proper shoes you will be fine, just avoid looking down. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb up but were even more grateful of the natural air con inside the cave. Here it was time to put on our helmets we were given, switch on the head torches and start exploring. Our guide led the way through some narrow passages into great halls full of glittering stalagmites and stalactites. The walking was not hard but the floor slippery and the rocks have very sharp edges. If you are particularly tall you might not enjoy this part of the tour too much. My personal low-light was the climb via a dodgy looking (but perfectly sturdy and save) ladder into the next level of the cave. Here we entered another great dark hall containing a natural pond and various creepy looking cave spiders. Our guide told us heaps of interesting stories and could answer all our questions about the geology of the cave. I´m not sure if I believe it but he said that once he spend an entire week climbing around in the lower levels of the cave that are not open to public access.
There are some smaller caves dotted around the various mountains and your casa owner will almost always know someone that can guide you the way for a few CUCs. The bigger caves can be reached by taxi or organized tour. A tour to Santo Tomas takes 3 hours and leaves at the tourist office every morning. The 21CUC include transport and entrance to the cave. There is no public transport available.
7.I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair (Sandi Thom - I Wish I was a punk rocker)
AKA The Muriel de la Prehistoria
We all know that artists can be a bit crazy but as it turns out that Cuban artists can be both crazy and slightly delusional at the same. At least this is the only way I can explain the Muriel de la Prehistoria - a gaudy Technicolor painting covering an entire rock face of a karst mountain. Some twenty years ago a couple of artists tried their luck in depicting evolution - and succeeding in creating something that looks like a mix of cave paintings and a child's drawing with water colours. I´m not going into the details of how it looks as you should really keep that element of surprise. Just be aware that there will be dinosaurs (See, I knew there were some of them hiding here).
The easiest way to get there is follow the road leading out of town the way the bus came in for 3km, and then a sign will direct you towards the Muriel following a smaller road through the mountains. 4km did not sound that bad but Vera and me chose to do it after Scuba diving at 9am and a 4 hour drive to Vinales - by the time we reached the Muriel we were starving like a pack of wolves and really did not appreciate the questionable artistic talent on offer. There is a 1CUC entrance charge if you want to get close and overpriced bars and a restaurant are at your service. Don't miss it, although it sounds a bit boring it is a Cuba must see and even if it is just to say that you finally found dinosaurs in Vinales.
8.We're going out out out no sleeping sleeping tonight (Lavive - No Time For Sleeping)
AKA The Nightlife
Vinales is a place offering heaps of sporting activities and we really exhausted these options. Combine this with the huge meals prepared at the casa and you might understand why dancing salsa was not on our evening entertainment program. For me it is a place to sit on the porch of your casa and enjoy some good old rum and coke with your friends. It´s not like there was a lot on nightlife on offer anyway. The only place to go dancing is the Casa de la Musica on the main square which looked ok but drinks were a bit overpriced. There is life music almost every night and heaps of guys will be just too happy to show you how to dance salsa - at least according to my friend who braved a couple of nights out there.
Your only other option is the bar on the other side of the square. Just follow all the gringos and the smell of Crystal and you will find it. Beer is cheap and cold and the outside tables are great for people watching. At night it tends to get a bit loud as it is the designated meeting point for tour groups but with it being the only places in town to get drunk you won´t have much choice. Drinks are reasonably priced and they also do sandwiches during the day. With it being located next to the bus stop the bar is a great place to meet other travelers to share a taxi with and to find new friends of course. I met a Dutch girl there after my Australian friends had left and we joined up to share a room with in our next destination saving us heaps of money.
9.Dawn is breakin', it's early morn'in - The taxi's waitin', he's blowin' his horn (John Denver - Leaving on a jet plane)
AKA Getting Out
Both times that I stayed in Vinales had been amazing and leaving was hard. Especially given that the bus stop is right opposite the most popular bar in town and it is far too easy to have a beer or two and randomly decide to stay longer. But in the end there is only so much nature that I can do until it draws me to a beach or at least a city with a bit more nightlife. From the many options Vinales offers in turns of get-away I went further west to Maria la Gorda. This tiny beach resort in the middle of nowhere is supposed to be one of the best dive sites the Caribbean has to offer. Its remoteness made it even more attractive but in the end it turned out to not live up to its hype. Getting there is fairly straight forward, simply follow the only road leading west until you reach the ocean and there you go. The 200km drive should not take more than 3 to 4 hours but the road gets a bit dodgy the further west you get so you are better off driving slowly. Public transport is non-existent so your only real option is to hire a car in Vinales or share a taxi/mini bus. The one-way drive will set you back around 50 CUC and it is advisable to organize the trip back in advance. If you book a taxi from when you are already in Maria la Gorda it will be much more expensive getting back to civilization.
Viazul connects Vinales via Havana with most of the popular tourist destinations in Cuba. The furthest east you can go directly is Trinidad for 37CUC. Not bad considering that it is a 10 hour drive. Busses to Havana leave twice daily (1pm and 7pm) for 12CUC. I would strongly recommend taking the 1pm bus; choosing the latter option means that you will arrive in Havana quite light and might struggle finding a casa if you have not pre-booked accommodation. Other bus destinations include Varadero and Cienfuegos but with the heaps of taxi drivers hangout in the main square a group can get almost everywhere in Cuba for a very reasonable price.
10.Here comes the rain again - falling from the stars (When September Ends - Green Day)
AKA Things I did not like
This section is going to be rather short as I really don´t need a lot of space to list what I did not like about Vinales. All of the following are minor niggles and nothing that would deter me from return. My main complain as a solo backpack is the lack of hostels. Casa particulares are great but it is almost impossible to meet people and staying in a room on your own is not only boring but also expensive. Luckily I met other travelers before going to Vinales so we could share but I would have been on my own otherwise. If you are alone you can try to get a room by yourself for 15 CUC instead of 20 CUC but it will still be miserably lonely.
Arriving was a bit daunting with literally hundreds (ok, maybe 50) casa hosts storming the bus trying to get you to stay with them. It really wasn't the nicest welcome and I was happy that I had pre-booked accommodation both times. I guess it is a great place to negotiate a good room rate though but always consider the high taxes people need to pay when renting out rooms so don't haggle too much.
My biggest issue was the amount of mosquitos trying to eat you alive as soon as the sun started to set. When we arrived in mid-July it was raining heavily for days - trust me to choose to go to the Caribbean in the middle of the wettest summer in the past decade. We had to constantly apply DEET but the little buggers even bit us through our clothes. I would highly recommend mixing in some DEET in your body lotion to cover everything and apply normal mosquito repellent on arms and legs. My casa hosts said that it normally it´s not so bad but the location in the middle of fields close to a river makes Vinales the perfect breeding ground for mozzies. Another way to get around it is following Ellen's example and travel with a mosquito magnet - aka me! They absolutely love me and would rather bite through three layers of clothes than try the half-naked person next to me.
And that is it already - Vinales is a great place in stunning surroundings that attracts loads of tourists every year but still manages to keep its charm. I can highly recommend it to any Cuba traveler. Even if you are rushed for time you can chose to come here for one night from Havana. It is the perfect city break and allows you to see the workings of rural Cuba in convenient distance to the capital. Locals have been lovely throughout and everyone working in the tourist industry speaks English. All facilities like banking, internet and car rental are available and easily accessible. Actually I preferred going to the bank here as there were no queues, in Havana I had to wait for 30 minutes outside before I was even allowed in the bank.
The only reason why I did not stay longer was the lack of beaches. Cuba was a Scuba diving holiday for me and going 3 days without getting my feet wet was simply too long. But if I ever return to Cuba I will make sure to come back to Vinales again.