Valle de Viñales
Embellished by soaring pine trees and bulbous limestone cliffs that teeter like top-heavy haystacks above placid tobacco plantations, Parque Nacional Viñales is one of Cuba's most magnificent natural settings. Wedged spectacularly into the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range, this 11km-by-5km valley was recognized as a national monument in 1979, with Unesco World Heritage status following in 1999 for its dramatic steep-sided limestone outcrops (known as mogotes), coupled with the vernacular architecture of its traditional farms and villages.
Viñales offers opportunities for fine hiking, rock climbing and horseback trekking. On the accommodations front, it boasts first-class hotels and some of the best casas particulares (rooms in private homes) in Cuba. Despite drawing in day-trippers by the busload, the area's well-protected and spread-out natural attractions have somehow managed to escape the frenzied tourist circus of other less well-managed places, while the atmosphere in and around the town remains refreshingly hassle-free.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Valle de Viñales.
A kilometer beyond the turnoff to Dos Hermanas and the Mural de la Prehistoria, a dirt road twists up to the mountain community of Los Aquáticos, founded in 1943 by followers of visionary Antoñica Izquierdo, who discovered the healing power of water when the campesinos (farmers) of this area had no access to conventional medicine. They colonized the mountain slopes and two families still live there. It's accessible only by horse or on foot. Most of Viñales' casas particulares (private homestays) can organize tours.
Welcome to Cuba’s largest cave system and the second largest on the American continent. There are over 46km of galleries on eight levels, with a 1km section accessible to visitors. There’s no artificial lighting, but headlamps are provided for the 90-minute guided tour. Highlights include bats, stalagmites and stalactites, underground pools, interesting rock formations and a replica of an ancient indigenous mural.
A 120m-long painting, 4km west of Viñales village on the side of Mogote Pita. Leovigildo González Morillo, a follower of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, designed it in 1961 (the idea was hatched by Celia Sánchez, Alicia Alonso and Antonio Núñez Jiménez). On a cliff at the foot of the 617m-high Sierra de Viñales, the highest portion of the Sierra de los Órganos, this massive mural took 18 people four years to complete.
Immersed in the foothills of Viñales' mogotes (limestone monoliths) lies a bucolic manifestation of all that is best about this region given unique form by local sculptor Noel Díaz Galart. The disparate ‘complex’ named Raíces (roots) over which Galart presides contains several miradores (lookouts), a rustic restaurant suspended above a lake, and numerous serpentine paths dotted with the sculptor’s wooden carvings, many of them exhibiting supernatural elements. It’s a great place to unwind, stroll and admire the view.
Just opposite the Servi-Cupet gas station as Cisneros swings north out of town, you'll spot an outlandish, vine-choked gate beckoning you in. This is the entrance to a sprawling garden, work on which began in 1918. Cascades of orchids bloom alongside plastic doll heads, thickets of orange lilies grow in soft groves and turkeys run amok. Knock on the door of the Little Red Riding Hood cottage and a guide will emerge to show you around.
Go directly to the source. Viñales' celebrated farm-to-table restaurant, Olivo, gets most of its ingredients from this farm in nearby Valle del Silencio. Run by the same family as the restaurant, the farm uses goats to make cheese, has a lake stocked with fresh fish (including tilapia), and copious fields and gardens swaying with well-nurtured crops. You’re welcome to turn up for tours.
In a pretty nook 5.5km north of Viñales village, this cave is very popular with tourists. An ancient indigenous dwelling, the cave was rediscovered in 1920. After a short 200m walk, you're transferred to a motor boat to ply the final 400m along an underground river. The cave is electrically lit and the experience underwhelming. Exit through the gift shop. Good for kids.
Finca Raúl Reyes, 1km north of the town center, is a tobacco plantation where you can enjoy fruit, coffee, puros (cigars) and a dose of throat-warming rum. From here, you can also hike up to Cueva de la Vaca, a cave that carves a tunnel through the mogotes (limestone monoliths); there are unforgettable valley vistas from the cave mouth.
Los Malagones, from the community of El Moncada, was the first rural militia in Cuba. It comprised 12 men who rooted out a counterrevolutionary band from the nearby mountains in 1959. A mausoleum and memorial fountain inaugurated in 1999 contains niches dedicated to the 12 militiamen (all but one are now dead).