After our tour of Cienfuegos and Trinidad (see Cuba-Conga! Part 3: Cienfuegos & Trinidad), the next morning we were up early and ready for our road-trip to Viñales (“Ben-YA’ll-aze) with Bel and Gustavo.
We had first learned about Viñales reading a Cruising World article on Sailing Cuba last year. Since then Viñales moved to the top of our list of things to see in Cuba. When we began planning this trip with six different people wanting to see six different things, there was a point that we thought Viñales might be cut from the itinerary, as it was not in close proximity to anything else we were doing.
Thankfully the rest of our travel-mates agreed to give up visiting Ché’s resting place in Santa Clara and the Hemingway museum outside of Havana, for the side-trip to Viñales. And we were all very glad we did! Kirk just now commented, “It seemed like we were in Viñales for a whole week, it couldn’t have just been 24 hours?!” As we said, we pack a LOT into our vacays, and had GREAT fun!
Valle Viñales is about a three-hour drive west of Havana. The scenery along the highway was similar to that driving to and from Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Empty four-lane interstate highways passing by lots of rural fields, small towns, occasional horse carts, and propaganda billboards. However as you can see, that’s where the similarities ended. Our first stop was a breathtaking overlook of Viñales Valley, where we feasted our eyes on the green valley below, full of magotes (limestone outcroppings.) This beautiful valley is the tobacco and coffee capital of Cuba. Can you see now why we wanted to visit this magical area?
Before European settlement, the rural Valle Viñales was home to a remnant population of native Taínos, as well as many runaway slaves. You can imagine it would have been easy for them to hide in all of the dense jungle and limestone caverns here. This area was first colonized at the beginning of the 1800s by tobacco growers from the Canary Islands, while the town of Viñales was established in 1878.
Viñales Valley was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its: vernacular architecture, local crafts and music; the traditional agricultural techniques still in use today in the cultivation of tobacco, coffee, avocados, mangos, and other crops; and also for the natural beauty of the karst landscape (limestone outcrops or “mogotes”, and underground rivers and caves) which make the valley a popular hiking and rock climbing destination. The town itself has mostly one-story wooden houses with front porches, surrounded by farms. Lots of horse carts are used for transportation too. And although it’s very rural, and they ride horseback from farm to farm, they are not allowed to ride their horses into town.
Next stop: a traditional Cuban lunch! From the overlook view, we walked down the road a half-mile or so to Restaurante Vera, recommended by Bel. This palapa roofed restaurant had the feel of a Tiki-bar. Looking off the back deck of the restaurant we saw chickens and a baby pig nosing around the yard, hopefully not our lunch!?
We each ordered our own entries which were accompanied by many family-style side dishes to be passed around. They also had fresh mango juice, with or without rum. The funny thing in Cuba is that you can order a mojito or margarita, or any other drink, with or without rum – same price. Really!!
After lunch, Bel scurried us back into the taxi-van so we could get to the Indian Caves before they closed. We weren’t even sure what the Indian Caves were? Except that we’d heard it was a “must-do” in Viñales… We were imagining an archeological site with pot shards or something… but Bel said it involved a boat ride? And she could go on it!? As as it turned out it was a magote with an underground river, and cavern that went all the way through from one side to the other.
We entered into the cavern and down some steps and along a paved path that wound through stalagmites and dripping wet stalactites, duck! And on down we went crouching in a spot or two, until we reached the river… and a dock and a 12-passenger Boston Whaler-like boat with outboard, inside a cave? Crazy!
We all piled in and the skipper/guide proceeded to show us different faces and forms in the stalactites as we passed through the cave. “This one’s the crucifix, that one’s a bottle of champagne…” Well, we could sort of make out some of them…LOL! We asked why it was called the “Indian Caves”, and apparently there was some evidence that native populations had hidden in these caves during the Spanish Conquest. Then the boat turned, and suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel… and we were headed out of the cave on the other side of the magote. An interesting boat ride for sure… but almost more interesting was what greeted us at the exit of the cave…
From the Indian Caves, we went on to visit the nearby “Mural de la Prehistorica.” Again, we didn’t know anything about this prehistoric mural beforehand but it was on Bel’s tour and is also one of her daughter’s favorite things to see in Viñales. Based on the name, we envisioned cave paintings or petroglyphs?
Instead, this modern multi-colored spectacular mural stretches for 40+ yards across a limestone outcropping at the foot of the Magote Pita. Though we thought it was pretty kitschy and touristy, it is the work of local artist Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, who used the mural to tell the region’s history. Created in 1961, after the Cuban Revolution, it took a team of 18 painters four years to complete. There are still ropes in place and it’s re-painted on a regular basis. Painters rappel while painting their way down the rock face.
After a super-fun, long day we were ready to head to our Casa Particular and check-in. Bel has extended relatives in Viñales, who happened to have several rooms to rent. We were in the middle of farm country, with roosters in the yard, and horses and oxen across the street. One of the top things on our Viñales to-do list was to ride horseback to the tobacco farms. And Bel organized an AMAZING horseback riding tour for us the next morning.
Up early with the roosters, we took a walk around the neighborhood while breakfast was being made. Oxen teams were heading out to the tobacco fields or already plowing, and these vaquero (cowboys) were saddling up a bunch of horses. Horseback riding is a big tourist attraction in Valle Viñales and many of the tours started from the neighborhood we were staying in. Back at the ranch, breakfast was served, and Bel encouraged us to eat quickly as the horses and vaqueros were waiting for us. Only then did we realize the horses we’d just seen being saddled up were for our tour!
Bel said she was going to stay behind “because we’d have more fun without her.” WHAT?! Never! Turns out she’d never ridden a horse before, and was a little nervous… but we all told her if she didn’t go, we weren’t going either! And anyway we had Kelly along (who owns four mules back in WA) so she was in great hands! In the end, Yaniel (“Yawn-Yell”), our vaquero took the reins of Bel’s horse and led it along behind him, so all was good, and Bel had a great time experiencing something new!
All saddled up and ready to go with Kelly in the lead, we headed out single-file along the trail for a 30-minute ride on the iron-rich red earth trail. Kirk’s mule “Marguerite” and Heidi’s horse “Caramel” were both really feisty and nipping at each other and the other horses, trying to race ahead. This made for an interesting ride, but thankfully none of the horses acted up too badly. Although it was a big tourist thing to ride horseback in this area, we never saw another group on our 30-minute trail ride to the Finca Brisas del Valle, a cooperative farm. And we had the whole farm to ourselves for the three hours that we visited.
Finca Brisas del Valle
Finca Brisas del Valle is a cooperative farm owned by about six families who all work the land by hand and in traditional ways. They have no mechanized equipment and use no toxic chemicals at all. Agnes, our finca guide, is from one of the families who run the farm and speaks impeccable English. The cooperative was given this land by the Cuban government after the Revolution, and besides tobacco, they also grow coffee, sugarcane, mangos, guava, avocados, and collect honey from local hives.
In exchange for the land, the Cuban government gets almost all of the crops they grow. The government takes 90% of the tobacco and 80% of everything else. Every year the government sends someone to the farm to look over all the crops and take the best of the best. Kirk asked if the farm has a representative to ensure that the government didn’t take more than their share… they laughed and said: “It’s the government, they take whatever they want.” What is leftover they either use themselves or can sell locally in markets. Each family also got their own small plot (about 500′ x 200′) where they can grow their own crops for personal use.
The first crop we saw and learned about at the farm was the tobacco growing and cigar making. Though none of us are smokers (and we are pretty anti-tobacco!), it was still fascinating to learn about Cuba’s largest export, the Cuban tobacco industry, and the different leaves used for different parts of a cigar. The leaves that are unwanted/unused for cigar making, get ground up and used to make cigarettes by the government.
Step 1. Plowing and Sowing the Seeds ~ Our farm-girl, Kelly, asked if she could plow a row of the tobacco field. They were astonished as they’d never been asked this before! But they gladly let her try. Afterward, Kelly said it was really hard work, and she’s used to doing farm work! This is the first step in growing tobacco. The rows are plowed three times before they sow the seeds. The tobacco seeds are TINY, about one-quarter the size of a chia seed! They also grow cassava (a root crop that they eat) and make a natural pesticide from its leaves, to keep bugs off the tobacco. They don’t use any chemicals at all on this farm.
Step 2. Harvesting the Leaves ~ The leaves are back-breakingly picked by hand and draped over the picker’s arms, then slid off their arm as a unit onto wooden rails.
Step 3. Pulling the Harvest to the Drying Shed ~ The oxen pull the wooden rails full of tobacco leaves back to the tobacco drying sheds. The leave seen here still growing were not chosen to make cigars, and will later be turned into cigarettes, used in herbal remedies, or plowed back into the ground for compost.
Step 4. The Drying Shed ~ The wooden rails are hung up in the tobacco drying sheds. Here they will dry for about a month. In the back, you can see the fresh green leaves, and above the leaves are more cured. As the leaves dry, the rails are moved further up into the rafters, and the fresh green leaves are placed on the lower levels. The barns have palapa (palm frond) roofs and walls with openings on each side to let a little sun and breeze blow through and help with the drying process. As a full-fledged farm with crops and animals, their chickens roost in the rafters of the tobacco sheds, and at night they bring the baby goats into pens in the shed.
Women in the Cigar Industry ~ It’s interesting to note (especially after all the backlash against women in the US these days!) that after the leaves are dried, only women (with their more delicate skin and fingers) are allowed to handle the dried leaves. Men’s rough hands and skin will break the leaves leaving them unusable for making cigars!
Step 5. Fermenting the Leaves ~ After the leaves are dried, they are fermented. Each farm makes its own fermentation concoction. Here at Finca Valle del Brisas, it consists of water, guava, mango, honey, and rum boiled down to a sticky black paste, a natural “shoe-black” (simile only, that was their English translation!) This paste is painted onto the leaves, which are then gathered into bundles and wrapped up in palm fronds. They then sit and ferment for one to three months. Fermentation removes the bitter, green taste of the tobacco before the tobacco leaves are ready to be made into cigars. The fermentation process makes the leaves soft and pliable and gives them their signature fragrance and taste. Cigars from each farm will taste different due to their own blend of “shoe-black.” Not sure at all how the government manufactured cigars are made if it’s the same process, but this is how it’s done on Finca Brisas del Valle.
Step. 6 Rolling the Cigars ~ When the leaves are deemed to be well fermented, then they are hand-rolled into cigars. Palillo (“Pa-lee-yo”) showed us that each leaf from the plant has a specific use in the cigar, from the inner leaves to the middle wrapper, and then the outer wrapper. They also use their own harvested honey as the “glue” to seal the outer leaf wrapper. Kirk and Val were the only ones brave enough to try!
Bee Hives & Honey
Next we learned about the honey they collect on the farm. Finca Valle del Brisas has only natural beehives, either in trees or in the ground (ground bees), no man-made boxed hives here. They are very careful with their harvest. The ground bee hives get harvested every four years, and the tree hives twice a year. They harvest at different times of year so there is always honey available. Sometimes they take part of a hive and move it to another tree, or to another hole in the ground, to start a new hive there. The bees only fly 200-yards in any direction, so by the placement of the natural hives, they ensure their honey is pesticide-free.
They carefully mark each hive and when it was last harvested, so they can ensure no overharvesting as well as saving some honey for the bees themselves. They sell the tree hive honey, which we bought, and it’s honestly some of the most delicious honey we’ve ever tasted! However, they keep all of the ground hive honey for themselves, as it’s more medicinal. Honey is antibacterial by nature, and they use the ground bee honey to make many natural remedies mixing with garlic, ginger, and other herbs for their own medicinal uses. It was very refreshing to learn about their natural remedies, and see how environmentally conscious and sustainably aware these farmers are.
Cuban Coffee, Sugarcane, Avocados, Mangos, Guavas, and Guayabitas
They grow a small number of shade-grown coffee trees, and dry and ferment and roast the coffee beans themselves. We weren’t quite clear if they had to give 80% of their coffee to the government too, or grew those trees on their own small plots of land to keep for their own use? They also grow avocados, mangos, guavas, sugarcane, and guayabitas (a miniature guava) as well, and typically the government takes 80% of these crops. However, the government takes 100% of the sugarcane and guayabitas for rum.
The government uses this farm’s sugarcane and guayabitas to make Guayabitas del Piñar, a specialty rum of the region. Once it’s distilled, the farm gets “20%” of the bottled, distilled rum in return. Of course, no one is keeping track of that 20% but the government… Interestingly, we all bought a bottle of this delicious guava-flavored rum, but by the time we got back to Havana that night, a couple of bottles had leaked. When we compared bottles, no two bottles were the same in size or shape?? And when we opened the shrink-wrapped bottle tops, they all had different sorts of ill-fitting plastic corks in them. Hum… clearly the government keeps 80% of the good bottles/tops to sell, and the 20% the farm gets back are the “seconds.” So we rebottled all our rum into empty plastic water bottles, taped them closed with first-aid tape, and they all made the trip back home just fine.
After our three hour tour of Finca Valle del Brisas, we said our thanks and goodbyes to Agnes and Palillo. It had been a fascinating morning but it was time to saddle up and head back to the Casa, and then back to Havana. Thankfully Yaniel was able to carry our rum, honey, and cigars in a saddlebag back for us, as none of us had a good way to carry anything on horseback (or mule!)
Back at the ranch, we met up with Rob and Gustavo who had stayed behind, loaded up the taxi-van with our luggage, rum, honey, and cigars, and headed back to Havana. We were all sad to say goodbye to Viñales, and it had easily become the highlight of our whole trip. It was a different world there in the stunningly beautiful rural valley, a trip back in time, and oh-so enjoyable!
It’s Been FUN… and Complicated!
We were leaving a day before the rest of the gang. So that night back in Havana we packed everything up and get ready to head out in the morning. Bel arranged to pick us up with a taxi and see us off to the airport. We were going home with much lighter bags as we’d all brought items to leave behind for Bel’s own use or for her to share with others in need. Items included: clothing, ballpoint pens, toothbrushes, floss, and a first-aid kit (we’d brought along a whole first-aid kit and left it with her.) It turns out that soap, shampoo, and especially toothpaste are very hard to come by in Cuba, and we wished we’d loaded up our suitcases with these easily obtainable items in the US.
As a surprise for Kirk, Bel arrived in a Classic 1953 turquoise Chevy! She also asked the driver to make a brief stop at her house on the way to the airport, so we could meet her mother. A caution from the “Cuba Conga” book we read prior to our trip, as well as one of the very first things Bel said to us when we initially met her the week before: “NEVER go inside a Cuban’s house, for any reason. You could somehow get swindled.” So we laughed as we entered her apartment, joking about “Was she going to swindle us?” It was delightful to meet her mother Rosa and to see their well organized, modern-decor, IKEA-like apartment (how she managed that in Cuba where there’s not much to be had was truly amazing!)
So sad to say our goodbyes to everyone. This had really been a trip of a lifetime for us. We can’t thank Teresa and Rob enough for inviting us along. And it was wonderful to make new friends Val, Kelly, and Bel, who absolutely MADE the difference in our entire Cuban adventure.
Cuban History and the US Embargo
The US has embargoed products to/from Cuba since 1961. In our viewpoint having visited Cuba, this has mostly had the effect of hurting the Cuban people. We experienced first-hand the food shortages, and the lack of food for the average Cuban. As of today, Bel is waiting for hours just to buy a few pieces of chicken. President Obama had started to loosen up sanctions and things were looking up for the Cubans. Unfortunately, the current US administration has reversed everything that Obama did, and has even threatened to cut off aid to other countries who trade with Cuba.
Considering that Cuba imports two-thirds of all its food, this is unconscionable to us. However, we also wonder why the Cuban government doesn’t do more to utilize the vast acreage across the country that is not currently being farmed, to grow food for its people, and become more self-sufficient. They could also be manufacturing more items themselves (as could the US for that matter!) and not relying so heavily upon imports. It’s complicated!
If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating history of Cuba, check out Cuba: A History. This brief 100 page book is packed with info from Columbus to today, including many things we guarantee you did NOT learn in your US/World History class.
If you are looking to visit Cuba, please see more travel info below. We can’t recommend it highly enough… And yes, American’s can still visit, in spite of #45 trying to stop you. Bel will welcome you with open arms! Please bring her toothpaste.
BIG THANKS to Teresa, Val, and Kelly for sharing some of their pix for our blog posts too!
Don’t miss the rest of our adventures in Cuba:
Viva Cuba! Part 1: It’s Complicated (Havana) and
Sailing Cuba Part 2: A Normal Amount of Fun? (Sailing the Cuban Canarreos Archipelago)
Cuba-Conga! Part 3: Cienfuegos & Trinidad
So You Want To Visit Cuba? Great!
Most Americans visit Cuba on a cruise ship or through an organized tour. If you’re planning your own trip, these tips may help you with your Cuban travel plans. The US government currently (as of 5/2019) has 11 categories under which you can travel. We traveled under the “Support for the Cuban People” category. This post Goats on the Road Ultimate Guide to Cuban Travel is packed with useful info.
Health & Travel Insurance
The Cuban government requires you to have medical insurance that covers you in Cuba, which US health insurance does not. In case you have a medical issue while you’re there the Cuban government doesn’t want to pay for your medical care! There are US travel insurance companies that will cover Americans flying from the US, but not Americans flying from Mexico (or other countries), go figure! So one big challenge was finding travel health insurance that would cover Americans in Cuba flying from Mexico. We finally found the Patriot Travel Plan through International Medical Group (IMG.)
Getting a Cuban Tourist Card (“Visa”)
You must also have a Cuban Tourist Card “Visa” ($30 US per person.) Again if you’re flying on any airlines from the US your Tourist Card will be included in your airline ticket cost and your airline company will provide it to you. (Note: as of shortly after this writing, US airlines are currently NOT flying to Cuba, so Americans must fly through Mexico or Canada.) But for us Americans flying from Mexico it’s complicated. After much searching, we found a US company where you can order your Cuban Tourist Card ONLINE and they’ll mail it to a US address. We had ours mailed to US friends who brought our Cuban visas to Mexico when they visited us in February.
Which Currency to Take to Cuba?
And you’ll need to decide what type of currency to take and how much to bring? US dollars are not allowed, and US bank-issued credit cards/debit cards do not work in Cuba. Once you’re in Cuba there is NO way to get any more money than what you bring with you. Repeat, NO WAY. So we had to plan very carefully. Our research told us that Euros were the best way to go. Several people in our group had an interesting time getting Euros in the US (left in a Fedex package on the front porch!?) In Mexico we also had an interesting time getting euros! It seems that the best place to get euros here is in a tiny bank inside and electronics store that only has the number of euros that European tourists cash in each day. So it was a multi-day process of stopping by that bank each day to get a few more euros until we had enough. Plan AHEAD to visit Cuba.
Cuban Travel Resources
Here are resources for our wonderful guide Bel who would love to meet you, the Casa Particulars where we stayed, and a few Paladars (Restaurants) we enjoyed. Please message us for more info, we’re happy to share and encourage everyone to experience this beautiful Caribbean country.
Belkis (“Bel”) Bermúdez Aroche
Cell: +53 52 661 142
Cell: +53 526 44 109
Horseback Riding in Viñales
Cell: +53 53 373 930
Casa “Rent Mary”
Calle I #409, 14 entre 19 y 21
Bajos, Vedado, Havana
Tel: +53 783 28 651
Cell: +53 584 15 869
Grill Punta Gorda