Horse Trekking in Viñales – Cuba
Next stop on our Cuban adventure was the stunning Viñales!
We took the tourist bus Viazul from Havana to Viñales which took about 4 hours and cost $12 per adult and $6 per child. It is advised to book in advance as they get booked up and its easy to do online before you get there. The bus terminal toilet was probably the worst we experienced on the trip…once again there is a fee to pay, but this time no tissue was offered, there were no toilet seats and no doors on the cubicles, oh and no water to wash hands after! One thing to remember when travelling in Cuba, always take your own tissue and hand sanitiser!! To read about our Havana trip, click here!
The journey was enjoyable on a comfortable, air conditioned coach. The kids watched movies on their tablets and I took the opportunity to have a snooze, which unfortunately meant missing a lot of the beautiful scenery. We stopped about half way for a toilet stop before continuing through the windy mountain roads into Valle de Viñales.
What a sight, it was absolutely stunning. The area is a national park dotted with hump shaped hills called Mogotes. The whole area is a dedicated organic region meaning no chemicals are used on the land and all the farming is done by hand or animal. The region is famous for its tobacco plantations and provides the majority of tobacco for the legendary Cuban Cigars sold throughout the world.
The town of Viñales is tiny, and we were met by hoards of locals waving laminated pieces of paper with details of their Casa Particular for rent. We had already booked ahead which was a relief, as it was quite overwhelming! Our host, Raidel met us and drove us the very short distance to our home for the next 4 nights. Off the main street all the roads are unpaved and you instantly feel like you are somewhere special. There is colourful life everywhere, and a great sense of community. I would think that about 90% of the properties were for rent as Casa Particulars (our equivalent to a B&B) Most of them are single story dwellings, all very similar in style in beautiful bright colours. A fair few people were building up another story to extend their home and their business which was nice to see.
Our hosts Yerina and Raidel, lived in the back part of the house, leaving 2 bedrooms and living area to guests. There were 2, soon to be 3 generations living together in the same casa, and an obvious close family connection between them all, with other family members living just around the corner and popping in throughout our stay. There certainly was a strong community spirit which was a joy to see., and I yearn for something similar where we live.
We were greeted with fresh fruit juice on our arrival and lots of fresh fruit and other goodies for breakfast each day. Dinner can be added as an option and we chose to eat there most nights. We were warned that the food in the town was not too good to eat, probably so they could bolster their income slightly by us eating with them, but who can blame them, money is very tight in Cuba and the food was always great and plentiful!
Our hosts happily arranged tours for us and our first full day in Viñales was spent on a horse riding trek through the plantations. We weren’t sure how long to book for, the kids only ever having ridden a pony for 5 minutes before, but we were talked through our options and decided on a 4 hour trek, stopping at various locations along the way. We were picked up by horse and cart and taken to the yard about a mile down the road where we met our horses, Coco Loco, Palmichi and Mojito! Pebble rode with me, and Osito had his own horse which was led by our guide Octavia. The whole experience was perfect and definitely the highlight of our trip. The ride was split into easy to manage sections, stopping off somewhere of interest every 15-20 minutes. First stop was a coffee plantation where we were shown how the coffee is grown, harvested, dried and ground. We then had a short talk about the local honey and spirit, Guayabita del Pinar and got to sample them both before setting off again, a little tipsy this time! Next stop was in the Valle el Silencio next to a lake where we could have had a swim, had we brought our things. Octavia picked fresh oranges for the kids and we headed off again this time to a tobacco plantation.
The kids found the talk at the tobacco plantation a little dull, but as you can see below, Biz was enjoying himself! It was actually fascinating to hear about the local process of producing the cigars. The crop is hand planted each year, then hand picked and dried in the sun or in open sided barns.
Most of the nicotine is in the central vein of the leaf, which they remove and each cigar is hand rolled. The local practice is to dip the mouth end in honey or rum before lighting and throughout the smoking of the cigar. We also learnt that the plantations only get to keep 10% of their crop each year to sell on as their own, the rest of it goes to the big factories, who retain more of the nicotine, add chemicals and preservatives in the production process and machine roll them. If you want a true authentic Cuban cigar, you need to go direct to the plantations. I didn’t smoke one myself, but understand it was a much cleaner tasting experience than commercially produced cigars, and the smell was incredible!
On we went, riding through a shallow river to a cave beneath a mogote, giving us some much needed rest from the heat. Our guide showed us the entrance and we took a photo then he said it wasn’t part of the tour, but he could take us though the cave to the other side if we liked. We were a little sceptical 🤨 but the kids were up for it and we trusted his judgement, so followed him through a cave system so narrow I had to remove my hat! We reached the other side in one piece and found our way back to our horses before heading up a mogote to a restaurant for some lunch.
We broke into a trot up the hill which excited the children and were grateful of a break from the saddle at the top. The restaurant was basic but the food was delicious and we were entertained by a stunning view of the area and random animals roaming freely around us! This chicken was my favourite!
On the ride back, I was chatting to our guide and asked if he’d always lived in Viñales, it turned out that he had just moved to the area for work. His family live in central Cuba, over 5 hours away and while he lived there he worked as a basketball coach. The problem is, he only earned CUC 25 a month! That’s equivalent to $25 USD. In Viñales he could earn CUC 5 per tour he guided and if lucky he could do 2 in a day. He had no choice but to move away from his family and only gets to see them for a few days every 4 months! So sad that in order to earn a livable wage, he needs to live so far from his family.
We all had a fantastic day out, and returned hot, dusty and tired. Unfortunately we hadn’t arranged transport back to our casa, and also couldn’t remember the address…oops! Luckily Biz has a great sense of direction and we walked the mile or so back home without any problems!
I would urge anyone’s visiting Cuba to make the trip to Viñales as it is definitely worth it. The scenery is stunning and the people are just lovely 😊
Check back soon for the next part of our adventure.