[dropcap type=”1″]O[/dropcap]ne of the most interesting rural landscapes in Cuba, the Viñales Valley is in the western province of Pinar del Rio, a 2-hour drive from Havana. The view of the peculiar Mogotes, dome-like limestone hills that rise from the flat plains below covered with tobacco plantations and lush vegetation, provide an atmosphere of timeless serenity. The landscape we see today was formed over millions of years of erosion. Rainfall carved the soft limestone formations into rounded hills, creating numerous caves, and depositing the rich sediments below.
Humans inhabited the Viñales Valley for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. Archaeological finds document the use of the many caves in the area as shelter by the native Cubans the Spanish conquistadors called “Indians”. After the colonization of the region, Spanish settlers planted food crops and raised cattle. The haciendas used African slaves working under very harsh conditions. Runaway slaves (cimarrones) from the many plantations in the area usually took refuge in the caves dotting the valley, in some cases creating small settlements known as palenques.
In the 19th. century, tobacco became a very profitable crop in Cuba. Farmers in the area soon noticed the Viñales Valley’s ideal conditions for tobacco: a perfect combination of soil composition, temperatures, and rainfall patterns. Today the province of Pinar del Rio still produces the best quality tobacco leaves for the world famous Cuban cigars.
The village of Viñales was founded in 1875, to accommodate people who came to the area to work in the harvesting and processing of tobacco leaves. The name viñales means vineyards in Spanish, although vines do not grow in the area. The name was given by the colonists who purchased the lots of land in the 17th. century, apparently after the village they came from: San Francisco de Viñales, in Spain.
Today the Viñales Valley is a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, because the traditional methods of agriculture, its architecture, and local culture have remained unchanged for centuries. The area remained isolated for many years, but the fertile lands allowed for self-sufficiency. The locals built their homes using the materials available in the valley, and the village retains the original layout, with a strong colonial flavor. A road connects the town with the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, a 30-min drive to the south, and the harbor of Puerto Esperanza to the north.
For a great view of the valley, go to the viewing terrace of Los Jazmines Hotel. On the road from Pinar del Rio, take a short detour to Los Jazmines, a hotel built at the edge of a hill facing the valley; you can enjoy a drink by the swimming pool taking the spectacular view, or go to the terrace built next to the hotel. There are souvenir stands, a bar, and a perfect panoramic view. When you get to the village, the road becomes main street Salvador Cisneros, with old colonial houses and typical architecture of the region. An interesting wooden house is the Casa de Don Tomas Restaurant, one of the few two-story buildings in town, from the 1800’s. The restaurant serves Cuban food, and the cocktail Trapiche based on rum and sugar cane juice. On the number 112 there is the Patio del Decimista, a courtyard bar with cocktails and live music: a very lively venue at night, featuring traditional Cuban music. Right across the street there is the municipal Museum Adela Azcuy, dedicated to a local woman who fought in the Cuban independence wars, rising to the rank of Captain. The museum displays artifacts and photographs documenting the history of the area. A little further down the road on main street, a little square features the small Church of the Sacred Heart, and the oldest and one of the largest buildings in the village: the Centro Cultural Polo Montañez, with live music and dancing nightly, and the place where most locals and tourist hangout. (Admission: 1.00 CUC). They serve drinks on the terrace during the day.
Passing the gas station the road bends to the north, on the left you will see the gate to the Botanical Garden. The family house of the Miranda sisters, they started in 1918 planting orchids, lilies, and different varieties of local flowers, and today it is a sprawling lush garden, lovely tended by the welcoming homeowners.
Leaving the village, you can explore the valley and its attractions: a very popular one is Cueva del Indio, a natural cave surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. The cave goes through a mogote, one of the rounded hills in the valley. Visitors can take an easy walk in the cave admiring the formations created by rain water dripping through the porous limestone rock of the hill for millions of years. The last section of the cave is flooded by an underground river, and a small boat takes visitors to the exit on the other side of the mogote. (Admission: 5.00 CUC). For the best experience, visit the cave early in the morning or in the afternoon, to avoid the large tour groups. There are souvenir stands and a restaurant serving Cuban typical food by the hill.
If you want to know more about tobacco farming, south of the village of Viñales is the Casa del Veguero. The tobacco farms are known as vegas, and the veguero “El Niño” opened his operation for visitors: see a plantation, a secadero shed where the leaves are naturally dried and cured for months, and you can buy loose cigars and souvenirs, or enjoy Cuban food in their restaurant.