Viñales (Cuba): in the middle of the valley
Note: the photos will be added and the layout done when we return to France
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
How to get there
We try to take an old American car to go to the bus terminal, but the prices are too high (20 CUC). So we take a normal cab for 8 CUC (the real fare is between 5 and 7 CUC). As expected, the guy doesn’t have change for 10 CUC, JB has presence of mind to ask him to give us change in moneda nacional, otherwise we would have had to leave him 2 CUC tip, just like that, when we already pay the very expensive fare.
There are 3 ways to get to Viñales from Havana:
(1) by taking the Viazul bus, the government bus. The trip takes 3 hours and costs 6 CUC/person
(2) by taking a private bus from the Transtur company. Personally, I don’t know where to buy the tickets of this company
(3) by sharing a cab: 20 CUC/person (by negotiating I think you can lower)
With our pre-purchased tickets, we must show up and check in one hour before departure, otherwise our tickets may be resold to someone else. A gentleman receives and checks in the luggage, it looks like we are travelling by plane. There is even a space that is too “duty free” at the bus terminal, it’s funny.
The Viazul bus is really comfortable, air-conditioned, with reclining seats and frequent pee breaks. With this overwhelming heat and the maximum speed at 60km/h, I can’t see myself sharing a cab with 3 other people, in tightly packed mode. There are 3 other trips for which we didn’t buy Viazul tickets but I think we’ll do our best to get them.
Day 1 :
We arrive at Vinales at 6pm.
Vinales corresponds exactly to the image we had of the city: small houses, some with terraces, with rocking chairs on the veranda.
Numerous beaters and casa owners are waiting in front of the bus. Some to propose a casa, others to welcome customers who have booked. Given the fierce competition (there are 300 casas just for this small town), it is better that their customers do not get the wrong casa and go to someone else’s house.
Moreover, while walking towards our casa, many owners stop us on the way to propose their free room.
Yuliet warmly welcomes us with a good fresh juice. It’s a change from the cold reception we had in Havana. She speaks super good English (good surprise) and presents us several options of excursions for our stay. The advantage of booking the excursions directly from her casa is to have a pick-up truck while paying the same price.
Unfortunately, we are put in a house next door and can’t talk to the owners at our leisure.
We dine at the 3J bar, the best in town according to Yuliet. This bar also proposes tapas to fall, there is even a Wifi ETECSA available.
Day 2 :
At 8 am we get a huge breakfast for 5 CUC/person, consisting of fruit salad, omelette, bread, cheese, sausage, tea/coffee and fresh pineapple juice. It’s a pity that the price of breakfast is increasing everywhere. It used to be 3 CUC. It bothers me a little to pay so much for a breakfast when a dish at the restaurant also costs 5 CUC.
You’re going to tell me that I’m quibbling over nothing but 2 CUC here, 2 CUC there… it makes the grade go up. Did you know that we are already at a trend of 75€ to 95€ /day in Cuba just for accommodation & food. Visits and transportation not included?
Today we booked a horseback ride to the Valley of Silence.
At 9 am, a cab comes to pick us up in front of our casa to drop us off at the tobacco drying center. One of the guides there introduces us to the plantations, the shed where the tobacco leaves are dried, how a cigar is made and offers us a cigar to taste. It is the famous Monte Cristo No. 4 that Che smoked. And Che liked to smoke his cigar with a little honey.
I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, let alone a cigar… but it doesn’t look as bad as a cigarette. I’ll go for it! The end of the cigar is soaked in honey, but that doesn’t take away the disgusting taste of the tobacco. Do you know how a cigar is made? Dried tobacco leaves rolled together. For me, smoking a cigar is equivalent to inhaling the smoke of the dry leaves that you burn at the side of the road or at the bottom of your garden.
I’m very disappointed, I was expecting something fabulous. A myth collapses! I really don’t understand how anyone can like that.
Well, let’s go back to the cigar factory. The guide explains us that the farms must give 90% of the dried leaves to the government, at a derisory price. The government then makes its cigars branded Monte Cristo etc. and sells them in beautiful boxes.
The remaining 10% belong to the farm and they too can make and sell cigars, but unbranded. The packaging is cheaper too: the cigars are protected in a palm leaf (and not in a box). They can’t sell them in stores, but only at the farm, for 4 CUC/cigar. However, these cigars are considered as handicrafts and not concerned by the limits imposed by the customs, i.e. 50 cigars max/person.
It is true that the price is attractive. Personally, I am wary, having seen a poster at the Havana airport indicating that only cigars with certification can travel with us. I don’t want customs to throw my 40€ cigars in the trash (as they did with my 60$ manuka honey pot on Easter Island, for biosecurity reasons).
Note: it’s only my personal opinion, if the guy is right, it’s considered as crafts and you won’t have any problem at the airport.
We are then welcomed by another guide who introduces us to the two horses that will accompany us this morning. The aspect of the horses makes me a little bit sick at heart. If they are well fed, they aren’t brushed or pampered at all as they should be. During our horse ride at the Mont Saint Michel, we had to brush the horses before riding them, we had to talk to them, to caress them etc. But hey, in a country where human rights aren’t always respected, how can we expect animals to be treated well? They are mainly considered as a means of transport or working tools to attract tourists. In short, slaves.
I read on a blog that horseback riding was one of the best experiences in this blogger’s life. Wow! What a disappointment! We were brought from a farm (with possible purchase of coffee/rum/honey) to another viewpoint with a bar, then to another bar with a view, then to a cellar with 2 CUC at the entrance… it’s a real tourist attraction.
The view is beautiful only at the end of the ride where we spend 1 hour non-stop with our horses, looking at the mountains in the distance and the fields on the way. We can see farmers harvesting tobacco leaves by hand. The leaves are mostly eaten by worms. 30% of the plantations of cassava, corn etc. will also go to the government.
My horse absolutely wants to stay in the lead. As soon as JB’s horse tries to pass him, he does everything to keep the 1st place. Because the horse in front is the one that isn’t whipped by the guide who closes the march.
After 4 hours of walk and break, we have pain everywhere. It is only by observing the other tourists that we realize that the straps were not well adjusted for our legs. The guide asks us 45 CUC (it is 5 CUC/h per person but he added a tip). We hand him a 50 bill. He has no change. And then a few seconds later, we realize that the ticket of 50 that we have is a ticket of moneda nacional (it is worth 25 times less than the CUC). Oops! Finally, we agree so that it recovers money via the owner of our casa.
Note: make sure that you have “convertible” bills (CUC) and always have change with you, otherwise you will have to leave huge tips to everyone
This walk was a blow to our morale. On the one hand, we understand that Cubans need tourists to survive. On the other hand, we feel so much like a walking ATM, although we have already paid a lot, that it saddens us a little.
Dead of hunger and thirst, we have lunch at El Olivo, the restaurant recommended by our casa. Their famous duck with orange is mentioned in the Lonely Planet. And for good reason! It is delicious !!!! For only 8 CUC.
A drink that I like a lot here is Lemonada Frappé, it’s lemon juice with homemade lemon sorbet. 2 CUC! I can’t do without it! JB is testing for the n-!th time the Cuban mojito at 3 CUC. He is officially disappointed by this mojito which “isn’t like at home”, without crushed ice, without lemon pieces.
Day 3 :
We have breakfast early this morning in a restaurant rather reserved for the locals (where the dishes cost between 2 and 3 CUC). The cooking is simple but edible. We then take a cab at 4CUC to the hotel Las Jazmines.
It is a hotel that seems to be frozen in the 60s, with a beautiful swimming pool and a breathtaking view of the surroundings. Many tourist buses stop there for the view.
To use the swimming pool, just pay 3 CUC/person and here we are sunbathing under the Caribbean sun, sipping a very fresh limonada, with a breathtaking view, in front of a pastel pink hotel frozen in time. There is even the wifi ETECSA but we are more and more able to disconnect, especially when we are in such a frame.
JB absolutely wants to finish his cigar from the day before here. I take the opportunity to make a one hour massage at 25 CUC. It is the doctor of the hotel who will massage me. I think he guessed right that I had been mistreated by the horseback riding excursion the day before, so that after the massage, all my bones are back in place and I no longer have any aches and pains.
The return cab costs 5 CUC (while the outward journey costs 4 CUC), but since it is an old American car, we accept the price, finding that the seats are super comfortable and that there is a certain charm in taking this type of car in Cuba.
We are in a new casa this last night, because the first casa isn’t available. Before leaving, JB offers 2 pens to the cleaning lady. We are relieved to see that she likes the gift. Even though we had read that this gift was appreciated, from our viewpoint it is so strange. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone so happy to receive pens. In Havana, we saw that the pens sold for 0.7 CUC per unit (vs. a monthly salary of 30 CUC). This only confirms what we thought: Cubans lack everything, despite the appearance of beautiful casas that have all the comforts of a 3-star hotel.
The new casa is better than the previous one, because we have a magnificent view of the fields and mountains. The terrace upstairs, always in the shade thanks to a mango tree (too bad the mangoes are still too small), is perfect for a relaxing afternoon on a rocking chair.
We choose to dine at the casa. Evening menu: lobster (one per person, what a luxury!), soup, rice, salad, drink and fruits for 12 CUC/person. Menus with lobster are often proposed in the casa. Before, the average price was 8 CUC (with lobster) but now, I have the impression that all the casas have increased their price. But hey, for the quantity and quality of the dinner, it’s really worth the price.
Part 2: Practical Tips
Address of our casa
Roger y Yuliet
His mother’s house right next door is apparently easier to find.
DATOS DE CASA MARGARITA.
Esta ubicada en la entrada de la ciudad, pintada de color azul, situada en la izquierda, cerca de la escuela secundaria. Dirección, calle Rafael Trejo.numero 150.Viñales.
CASA :+ 53 48 796042.
MÓVIL: +53 53373994.
-> To be confirmed 2 days before
- Cab Habana Vieja -> Terminal Viazul : 5 to 7 CUC (always have change)
- Restaurant near the Viazul terminal: 3 CUC the pizza
- Bus Viazul Havana -> VInales: 12USD/person
- Accommodation: 25 CUC/night. I recommend you the casa particular of Daniel y Estela.
- Breakfast : 5 CUC/person
- Food: between 18 CUC and 25 CUC / meal for two, including cocktails. In general, the 10% tip is added automatically. I recommend 3J and El Olivo (it’s always crowded so get there early so you don’t have to wait in line)
- Dinner at the casa (with one lobster each): 12 CUC/person
- Water: 1 CUC a small bottle, 1.5 CUC a 1.5L bottle, to be bought at La Cubanita
- Horseback riding: between 4 and 5 hours with visits to different farms. 5 CUC/h/person. Entrance to the cellar (without interest): 2 CUC/person. Possibility to buy unbranded cigars for 4 CUC/cigar (equivalent to Monte Cristo n°4).
- We booked our Viazul bus tickets online, 1.5 months before our trip to Cuba. At that time, it was indicated 7 free seats. In reality, it is quite possible to come the same day and wait for the seats to become available at the last minute. In our bus, there were even 3 free places whereas we are in full Easter vacations (well ok we take the bus during the week too).
- I saw on a blog that you shouldn’t believe what is indicated on the Viazul website: not all the tickets are necessarily sold online, so if you come to the terminal a day in advance, or even the same day, you can perhaps buy your tickets.
- And if no Viazul place is available, many drivers and cabs are waiting patiently in front of the terminal to offer you to share a cab for 20 CUC/person (price without negotiation).
- Large bottles of water are a bit difficult to find at Vinales. But some are available in La Cubanita for 1,5 CUC (or in your casa for 2 CUC)
- 2 places where you can connect to ETECSA Wifi (with an ETECSA scratch card): in front of the church; and at the 3J bar
- If you don’t have an ETECSA Internet card, there is an ETECSA office not far from the church
- 2 places to change currencies: at the bank or at the CADECA office. If there is a long queue at the bank, go to CADECA, there will be no one there. And vice versa. The exchange rates are the same.
- Given the number of casas available in this city, I think you can go without reservation. But don’t choose your casa directly in front of the Viazul bus, walk a bit and knock on the door of the casa (or the owners will come out of their casa to offer you a room), because the people in front of the bus might be a bit of a nuisance and you can pay 5 CUC more per night by going through them.
- Move away from the main road, there is always a lot of noise and traffic
- You buy the cigars wherever you want. But I won’t buy cigars that aren’t certified by the state, otherwise they may not leave Cuban soil.
- For horseback riding, wear long pants and closed shoes, it’s better. If you have a towel to protect your buttocks and act as a shock absorber, it’s even better.