Impressions of Viñales
This is really one of the most touristy places in Cuba. Every house in the village is either a B&B or a restaurant or a tourist agency of some sort. The place is awash with tourists, of which a more than average proportion of young people. Maybe it is because it recalled my younger days in Asia in the 1990s, but I actually liked the atmosphere. Not much of real Cuba here, but a really pleasant place to hang out for a couple of days and enjoy that real holiday feeling.
Where to eat
Or rather: “when to eat where”. There is an awful lot of restaurants in Viñales, and there need to be because there is an awful lot of tourists. Apart from the ones who are actually staying here, there is also a big market of day-trippers who are on an excursion from Havana.
This means that there are many more mouths to feed at lunchtime than in the evening. Restaurants prepare for this and at lunchtime you always get fresh food. However in the evening, depending on how many day-trippers there have been, you may get the same food reheated.
It happened to us, in one of the restaurants on main street opposite the church. The pork was hardly chewable and you needed a chisel to cut away at it. It was not a pleasant meal and, worse, the next day my wife was sick and could not leave the room.
Hence the advice: try the restaurants at noon, but eat in your casa in the evening, you know it is freshly cooked specially for you.
If you are here it most probably means you want to see the landscape with the mogotes. They are all around the place, but in order to see them up close you will likely need some help. There is not much in the guidebooks, there are no Ordnance Survey maps readily available, so where do you go?
We chose the option of the least resistance (we are a lazy lot) and went with the walk proposed by our hosts, 20€ per person. It was not uninteresting, but it steered well clear of the mogotes and was fairly crowded with other people like us, be it walking or on horseback.
The standard itinerary starts at a tobacco plantation where someone tells you all about how to grow tobacco and how to make cigars out of it, and if you want to you get to taste one (and of course you can buy them). I have tried smoking a pipe when I was young, but found it as disgusting as cigarettes. But believe me, cigars are quite different, far less agressive to the mouth, you could get some pleasure out of them.
Then you walk through fields, tobacco and otherwise, with the mogotes taunting you in the distance. There is a “cave” for which you can pay 2€ extra; it is not really a cave, just a crack in the rocks, through which you can walk from one end to the other. There is a small lake with a beach where you can swim if you are so inclined. And before going back to the starting point there is a place where they grow coffee and where you can get a drink.
All in all a pleasant walk through the fields, but disappointing if you want to see the mogotes. I would suggest trying Cubatur or another agency (beware: long lines to get in!!) or go to the national park visitor centre. I do not guarantee anything, but it may be your only chance.
Not an obvious connection to make, but even if Viñales is completely inland, the coast is never far away in Cuba. The nearest beaches of interest are in Cayo Levisa and Cayo Jutias. The first one is fairly complicated to get to: you need transport to Palma Rubia, be there in time for the crossing to the Cayo, hope there is space on the boat, enjoy the day and be back in good time so as not to miss the boat back.
So we, once again, opted for the easiest one. Anyway, our hosts proposed to book us straight away in a shared taxi for 20€ per person. Cayo Jutias is only 60km away, but it takes 1½ to 2 hours to get there because of the state of the road. The taxi drops you off straight at the beach and you agree on a time to return.
The beach is very beautiful, with mangrove, palm trees, extremely fine and white sand, turquoise sea, all you’d dream for a holiday in the Carribean. But you are not alone. Forget the stories of friends who were here ten years ago, forget the descriptions of out-of-date guidebooks, this is the beach where half of Viñales heads to (while the other half is walking through the tobacco fields). It is still pleasant, not overcrowded, but the army of taxis waiting to return to Viñales in the afternoon is really impressive.
A word about food, too. There is a big state-owned beach restaurant and a couple of smaller beach hut places. We ate at one of the smaller places, quite nice and fresh fish. But in the evening I was so violently sick that I fainted at the table in the restaurant. It is always a bit difficult to point a finger at the exact cause but we suppose it was the piña colada which must have contained some contaminated water (ice cubes?). Better to stick to the beer I would say.
How to leave
Viazul have a helpful office on the main street. It consists of one guy with a portable PC and a printer. What is really great here is that it is in the centre of the village and queues are reasonable.
So we took the opportunity to book most of our tickets for the rest of the trip: the man can book any Viazul ticket anywhere in Cuba and he is fairly efficient at it.
The one ticket we did not find, was the one we needed immediately: to get from Viñales to Cienfuegos. We came on Tuesday and the bus for Friday only had 1 seat left. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
In the same office you have a desk of Cubataxi and they arrange shared taxis for the most popular destinations, of which Cienfuegos and Trinidad. The prices are displayed on the wall. For Cienfuegos it was 35€ per person, which compares not too badly with the 32€ for the bus. Just don’t believe them when they promise a modern car with air conditioning!
Apart from that promise, all was OK. The taxi picked us up at our casa at 8am (note that the bus requires you to get up pretty early), we picked up the other passengers and drove to Havana, where a very smooth connection was made. Yes, we swapped taxis with a driver from Cienfuegos who was waiting for us (near the Viazul bus station), and our own taxi returned to Viñales.