Viñales is a beautiful and lush valley in Pinar del Río province of Cuba, with a population of around 10,000. It's about 26 kilometers north of the city of Pinar del Río, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This article also covers the town by the same name.
Viñales is said to be Fidel Castro's favorite place in Cuba. The mountains are beautiful, the farmers grow the best tobacco in the world, and tourists—who come every day by the busload—are allowed to mingle with the Cubans and spread money in a nice even sugar-coating.
Cuba was once covered by limestone ("karst"). Much of this limestone has eroded away, leaving mountains with steep sides and rounded, jungly tops. The mountains are called mogotes, which means "haystacks." Many mogotes have caves. Several caves are developed for tourists to visit.
The red farmland and unique microclimate produce the best cigars in the world. Some tobacco farms are set up for tourist tours.
Flora and fauna
Start at a tourist office or your hotel or casa particular. Point out something in the guidebook you'd like to see or do, and offer to pay someone to take you there. Or offer to pay for a Spanish lesson or a salsa lesson. Hire a local guide for a few hours and you'll make a friend, and he or she will introduce you to his or her family, and they'll invite you to do more stuff, and you won't be bored the rest of your visit.
But be aware of what's illegal to pay for. You can't pay someone to drive you somewhere, unless it's a licensed taxi. You can't pay for lodging, unless it's a licensed casa particulares (bed&breakfast).
Share Taxis Run daily from outside Havana's national bus station. 7-15 CUC can be haggled but maybe easier to pay 5 CUC to Pinar del Rio where you can catch another share taxi for 1CUC to Viñales. [2016-Jan]
A green minibus takes the tourists around the valley. For about 5 CUC you can ride all day, with stops at the tourist hotels, in the village, and at the caves and other sights.
The main street, Calle Salvador Cisneros, was named after Salvador Cisneros Betancourt, who was a leader in the war of independence (1868-1878) and later was President of Cuba from 1895 to 1897.
In the central plaza, the Casa de la Cultura puts on events every day (or night), including music, fashion shows, and children's events.
Also on the central plaza is an art gallery and the church. On Saturday mornings there's a farmer's market at the plaza.
Mural de la Prehistoria
Perhaps the worst tourist attraction in Cuba is the Mural de la Prehistoria. In 1961 Fidel Castro visited a beautiful valley a few kilometers west of Viñales. He commissioned that the cliff should be painted with snails, dinosaurs, and a family of cavepersons, in garish colors!
There's a restaurant, bar, and gift shop. To be fair, the guidebook says that the food in the restaurant is excellent and the live music is good. Also there's bull and horseback riding. So consider visiting the mural and doing something other than looking at the mural.
There's a bird-watching trail starting at the El Ranchón restaurant near the Cuevas del Indio.
Motorbike or Bicycle Rental
You can rent a motorbike (a scooter) for about 20 CUC per day and ride it either to Cayo Jutias or to Cayo Levisa. The road is magnificent and you may even enjoy it more than the beaches. You will need your passport and driving license in order to rent a scooter. There's no need for a motorbike license.
Bicycles are 1CUC per hour or 8-10CUC per day. People rent off the street but the best bikes are at Casa de don Tomas
Tobacco Farm Tours
A great place to use as a home base for caving and exploring the area is the National School of Speleology in El Moncada. The School is located at one of the main entrances to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas. For a low price, you can rent a room or bed, have meals, and guide service. The School is rustic, but for real explorers the location can't be beat. For more information contact Eduardo, the School manager, by phone at 681274.
Hiking and Horseback Riding
The national park building (near the Hotel Los Jazmines) has maps and exhibits showing fourteen excursions (see the photos below). The main hike everyone does circles behind the mogotes closest to the town. You can hire horses for this (offers were as low as 3CUC/hr). You may be able to hire a hiking guides at the Museo Municipal Adela Azcuy (Calle Salvador Cisneros #115).
Cueva del Cable (Cave of the Cable)
Maravillas de Viñales (Wonders of Viñales)
El Pinar y Su Encanto (The Pine and His Charm)
Entre Valles y Montañas (Between Valleys and Mountains)
Tradiciones Campesinas (Traditional Countryside)
Del Infierno al Paraíso (From Hell to Paradise)
Tradiciones de Viñales (Traditional Viñales)
Los Paisajes en al Valle (The Landscapes in the Valley)
En el Corazon del Valle (In the Heart of the Valley)
Del Mirador al Valle (The View of the Valley)
De la Mano del Guajiro (Of the Hand of the Peasant)
The restaurant at the Patio Centro Cultural Polo Montañez (on the central plaza) is good. There's a restaurant where the locals eat on the street heading north, towards the Cuevas del Indio. It's a typical Cuban restaurant, serving pizza and spaghetti, with remarkably slow service. There's a little store selling snacks and ice cream on the main street, across from the plaza.
Finding affordable food is a struggle. Visit one street south of main, parallel, to find peso pizza from someone's door, the best coffee shop (red building) across from a well-stocked 24h canteen.
Viñales has three tourist hotels: Hotel Las Jazmines, Hotel La Ermita, and Rancho Horizontes San Vicente. Each is rated three stars. Expect to pay about 50-70 CUC per night, plus meals. The hotels are each located a few kilometers outside of town, which is not conducive to nightlife (Rancho Horizontes San Vicente is within walking distance of El Palenque).
If you're hoping to socialize with Cubans, not elderly Canadians, stay in town at a casa particulares (licensed bed & breakfast). Every other house in Viñales is a casa particulares and homeowners are adding rooms as fast as they can scrounge up concrete blocks. Expect to pay 25 CUC per night (based on double occupancy), plus meals, which will be better than the hotel food.
It is possible to stay in a private house with his Cuban friend. The only requirement is that the Cuban passenger take your documentation to be recorded with his friend tourists.
Camiones Run from 8am to 5pm to Pinar del Rio for 2 pesos (nacionales!) from main plaza. Then catch share-taxi to Havana for 6CUC. If you're going onwards to destination on main Autopista, get the share taxi to drop you on the autopista outside Havana. You can easily hitch-hike (just hold out money) and avoid the rip-offs of Viazul and often the spoilt share-taxi drivers.
Cayo Levisa The boat dock is about 1 hours drive away from Vinales, from there its a half hour boat ride to the island. The island features stunning white sand beaches and there are some watersports available. There does not appear to be any coral reefs close to the island, so snorkling is not recommended.
Cayo Jutías is the closest beach to Viñales, 60 km on mountain roads. There are two roads—before you leave Viñales ask which road is better. In 2008 the road via Minas de Matahambre was good, and the road via the Baños de San Vicente was bad.