Cuba'S unspoilt rural paradise
About three hours west of Havana, in the state of Pinar del Rio, Vinales nestles in a valley surrounded by a series of oriental looking karst hill formations known as ‘Mogotes’. The countryside here is perhaps the most picturesque of Cuba’s scenery and is fast becoming a nature and adventure tourism centre. Hiking, rock climbing, caving, bird watching, horse riding, zip lining and bicycling are among the activities to be found here.
Vinales is also a launching pad to visit the world famous tobacco plantations. Though tobacco is grown in the Vinales valley, the best leaves come from the demarcation known as Vuelta Abajo. The village of San Luis is home to the legendary Alejandro Robaina Finca (administered since his death by his grandson, Hiroshi) that specializes in growing leaves for the ‘Capas’, the wrappers for fine cigars such as the Cohiba brand developed by Fidel Castro. The Cuban government even named a new brand of cigars under Robaina’s name. The other well-known tobacco planter is Hector Luis who has a plantation near the village of San Juan y Martinez. Both places can be visited and are considered Meccas in the world of cigar aficionados.
On a visit to Vinales this August, we were shocked to see how full it was with both Europeans and Americans. All the three hotels (Los Jasmines, La Ermita and Ranchon de San Vicente) were choc o bloc full. We ended up staying the first night in a casa particular (private Cuban guest house) eight kilometres from the town. Finally, we moved to the town and stayed in a very friendly home called Casa la Toty, near the Botanical Gardens. Cuba has thousands of these Cuban guest houses which are licensed by the state. Since US visitors have been allowed to visit Cuba, hotels have shot up in price and yet are still full, sometimes overbooked in high season.
Despite the spurt in tourism, Vinales remains largely unspoilt and small scale. A plethora of trendy restaurants and bars have opened in the high street including El Olivo, La Cuenca and a new Italian trattoria. Dishes such as Lamb cooked in a rich red wine sauce and Duck a l’Orange with mango sauce are now on menus that two years ago offered the standard Creole fare of pork, beans and rice.
I had never been caving before I met a couple of local guides who took us to a cave, one and a half kms trek from a back road. Complete with helmets, head lights and a gas powered light, we penetrated a tiny cavern. The next 15 minutes was pretty hair rising as we scrambled between two vertical rocks with few toe holds and a foreboding drop below. Then we had to crawl through a tiny hole at ground level. They told us afterwards that we had achieved the medium level for cavers which meant that we could go on to more difficult caves. I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult than this tiny hole which the guides told us had never been visited by a tourist before! I don’t think I will rush to tell my clients to visit this cavern. Perhaps the Santo Tomas caves are the best place to visit in the area with 28 miles of connected tunnels, being the largest explored cave in Cuba.