Living la vida Viñales | Explore

Donna Yawching tours this beautiful Cuban region, taking in its infectious music and meeting some of its ever-resilient people along the way

  • The landscape and mogotes of the Viñales Valley, Cuba. Photo by Lukas Bischoff Photograph/
  • A cowboy saddles up his horses on a cobblestone street lined with colourful houses. Photo by Wendy Johnson/Alamy Stock Photo
  • A secadora or traditional tobacco drying shed. Photo by Helen Sessions/Alamy Stock Photo

The three-hour bus ride from Havana to Viñales is nothing special: scrubby countryside, a bit of agriculture. But then, in the final 10 minutes, things change: you see the mogotes. How to describe a mogote? Not quite a mountain, definitely more than a hill: a steep-sided lump that rears up out of nowhere, like a big green elephant. Or a herd of them. It’s more than picturesque — it’s stunning.

The Viñales scenery is some of the loveliest in a country that is not lacking in visual drama. The Sierra Maestre mountains in the east and the Escambray in the centre are both worthy of notice, as is El Yunque near Baracoa.

But there’s something about Viñales that captures the heart — these bun-shaped outcroppings, more formally known as karst formations, created by subterranean rivers eroding a limestone plateau over millions of years.

Between the mogotes, the rich alluvial soil produces the best tobacco in Cuba (or, allegedly, the world) — source of those famous Cohibas. Viñales tobacco is still grown in the traditional way, using teams of oxen instead of tractors (this has earned the region a UNESCO World Heritage designation as a cultural landscape enhanced by the vernacular architecture of its farms and villages).

“Tractors compress the soil,” Angel Cruz Pelaez explains. “Los bueyes [the oxen] preserve it.”

Angel, 53, is a veguero (tobacco-farmer), as were his father and grandfather before him — ever since Fidel Castro undertook a drastic land-redistribution programme that carved up giant plantations and bestowed small holdings to the peasant farmers who had worked them.

The government — having provided the farmers with seed, petrol, and work clothing — purchases 90% of the crop at a fixed price and sends it off be sorted, graded, and rolled into cigars. Visitors are welcome to visit one of the local factories, where the process is still very manual.

The town of Viñales has become popular with tourists, for a number of reasons. Nestled in the valley between the mogotes, it is small and very pretty. Boasting a vast total of two streets (linked by a few short cross streets), it was established in 1878.

And visually, not much has changed. The main square is flanked by a picturesque little church, a museum, and the town’s only hotel. In a concession to modernity, it is the main Wi-Fi hotspot.

Most of the brightly-painted houses have also retained their colonial flavour: single storey buildings with tiled roofs, pillars and breezy porches. Many have been converted into either a casa particular (a B&B), or a paladar (a privately-owned restaurant).

On Saturday nights, Main Street is blocked to traffic and becomes a mini-fiesta with food vendors, blaring DJ music, and dancing in the street. These Noches Viñaleras are beloved by locals and tourists alike.

For those (like myself) who prefer their music live, the Patio del Decimista bar is the place to go. That’s where you’ll hear traditional Cuban music most nights of the week.

MariaAntonia Basulto has a casa particular on the non-main (and therefore quieter) street. She has run her casa since 2011, starting out with one rental unit. She now has three, fronting on a pleasant backyard patio. She loves “the beauty, the tranquillity” of the little town, and says her guests — who come from all over the world — do too.

“It’s very relaxing,” she points out, “but there are also a lot of things to do.” She lists a few of the region’s attractions: various caves (the most accessible is the Cueva del Indio, but the real jaw-dropper is Santo Tomás, a 29-mile cave system that is one of the largest in Latin America); rock climbing (those mogotes again, which also feature subterranean rivers and pools); horseback tours through the tobacco fields; hot sulphur springs; the Mural de la Prehistoria (a gigantic, garish mural painted — in 1959 — on the face of a mogote), and even a lovely beach, Cayo Jutía, about an hour’s drive away.

And for a romantic sundowner, the views from two hillside hotels, Los Jasmines and La Ermita, would be hard to beat, particularly if one hand is clasping a cold mojito.

Still, all is not perfect in paradise. Tourism is a risky business, and two years of Covid restrictions followed by a devastating hurricane in September 2022 have left their mark. When I visited the town in January, it was clear that recovery was still a long way off.

Most of the hurricane damage had been repaired, but visitor numbers were drastically down, and many of the casas and restaurants were very sparsely occupied.

The Viñales scenery is some of the loveliest in a country that is not lacking in visual drama

“High season this year has been like low season — very few guests,” MariaAntonia tells me. In the past, she would be (reluctantly) turning travellers away.

Still, optimism is a very Cuban trait, and she anticipates better times ahead.

For Angel, it’s a little harder to be upbeat. The hurricane spun away with his 60,000 tobacco plants, but that was not the worst of it. His secadora, the large shed where he dried his leaves, also went with the wind. Without it, there is no point in sowing a new crop; he now plants things like rice and sweet potatoes to keep the wolf from the door.

This is a hard comedown for a tobacco farmer — it’s a proudly-learned skill. But building a new secadora is horrendously expensive — not something he can even contemplate.

Needless to say, insurance is not a big part of a Cuban campesino’s reality; and the government has not, to date, offered compensation. It’s hard to imagine a positive outcome. (And easy to imagine a shortage of Cuban cigars in the near future. Stock up now!)

Still, Cubans are nothing if not resilient. They’ve had a lot of practice over the years. They’ve been through countless crises, and can still smile. It is something I cannot help but admire. And there’s always the music, which is pure magic.

Getting there: The most economical way to get to Viñales is by the Viazul bus, at Havana’s bus terminal near the Plaza de la Revolución. A service designed for tourists, Viazul only accepts international credit cards as payment. Theoretically, no currency of any kind (including local) is accepted. It is (also theoretically) possible to book online, but don’t count on it. Patience is a requirement… Another option is to book a taxi, or share a taxi (a colectivo); but this is significantly more expensive. Your host can probably help you arrange this.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.