A true Cuban adventure involves more than exploring Havana. It is a great city and you definitely need to check it out, but I recommend adding a few days of exploring the countryside. A two-hour drive from Havana is the province of Pinar del Rio and its main city Vinales. Pinar del Rio is home to the best tobacco farms in Cuba, a massive dinosaur mural and naturally occurring caves that you can take a boat through. You will also get to see another side of Cuba and the Cuban people. I also hear you can’t get a bad meal in Vinales. When you eat like a local you’ll always win is my motto and one that proves true in Pinar del Rio. Pack up the car it is time for a Cuban road trip. Are you up for the adventure?
For this road trip, you have a couple of options available to you. Rent a car and drive out yourself or do what I did and book a tour to Pinar del Rio through Cuba Tour which had a desk in the lobby of my hotel, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. I’ve had Betsy and Amado with me for four days so far and I feel like they are part of my Cuban family and it helps to have an interpreter as I don’t speak much Spanish.
The drive to Pinar del Rio from Havana is just over two hours. A pit stop at the Tourist Centre for water, bathrooms and a WiFi check in help to break the drive up.
Our first official stop is at the Hotel Los Jazmines which overlooks the Vinales Valley. WOW! The photo above is the panorama view from the lookout parking lot. Here it is in a little more detail. The landscape is dotted with farms and limestone mountains that are riddled with Caves. More about those caves later.
Back on the road, our next stop is to meet one of the local Tobacco farmers and where I will learn how to roll a Cuban Cigar. We step inside the Tobacco drying hut where all the fresh harvested Tobacco leaves are hung to dry. It is not the season for Tobacco right now but they have a display rack of dried leaves showing what it would look like after harvesting.
This is where having a guide comes in handy. Here is a video I took, unedited of this farmer rolling a Cuban Cigar from start to finish. Of course, his reward is to light up and enjoy a good smoke.
Afterwards, I couldn’t resist picking up a few cigars for friends back home. DYK that Cuban tobacco farmers sell 90% of their crop to the government factories and keep 10% for their own personal use and to sell. The only difference this cigar has to one purchased at a factory is that it was much cheaper and it is missing the official seal. Be prepared to enjoy a shot of rum with the farmer after you’ve visited. This is me and Benito enjoying a laugh with our rum. I bet you don’t get that at a cigar factory.
We are back on the road and our next stop is the Mural de la Prehistoria. Imagine after a few rums you said to your buddies lets paint a giant mural on the side of that mountain. Well in 1961 that’s what happened. Did they decide this over rum? I’m not sure but it makes sense to me.
The above shot is to give you a sense of scale. The mural is painted on the side of Sierra de Viñales which is 617 metres high. It is big. Up close you can see all the details including a snail, dinosaur and pre historic man.
After a couple of photos here we headed to the bar on site for a Pina Colada. Actually, it was one of the best I’ve ever had. My friends agreed with me.
Back on the road, we are off to Cueva del Indio to take a boat ride through one of the limestone caves that dot the Vinales Valley. It is a busy place, after paying our admittance fee we skip the sugar cane juice samples line and head straight to the caves.
Down we go. The way is quite safe and is surprisingly paved and well lit.
At the end of the trail is a set of steps that lead into the river that flows through the cave. Onto the boat we go and our tour begins. It is a short ride but pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.
At the end, we emerge from a crack in the mountain to lush greenery and a waterfall. Don’t worry they stop before you go over.
With all this adventure I am starving. It is time to head to Palenque de los Cimarrones for lunch. I am very excited because I’ve heard great things about the traditional Cuban food they prepare and serve.
Here we dine al fresco and the cooking is done in sight of our table. Cooking on fire that includes a smoker for Pork & Chicken.
Our meal is served family style and consists of a Salad of purple Cabbage and Cucumbers, Rice & Beans, Chicken and Pork. Why are the simple things always the best? The BBQ Pork and Chicken have so much flavour they could win a competition.
And for dessert, Green Papaya soaked in simple syrup and locally made Cheese. Simple, yet delicious!
I’m sad because our day is nearing its end, but not until we make a quick pit stop in Vinales for a walk through the local open air market and an espresso at the local coffee shop. Have I said how much I love Cuban Espresso? OMG, it is the best!!!!
If an overnight in Vinales appeals to you look for the signs above the doors on the local houses. If you see this sign it means the owners rent out rooms, like Airbnb. the icons tell you what amenities are available. This may just be the authentic Cuban experience, living with a family.
It is time to head back to Havana. Thankfully Amado is doing the driving because I’m going to nap the two-hour drive back. Tomorrow I head East for a completely different Cuban adventure. I’m heading to the resort town of Varadero and going to try the All Inclusive lifestyle. Until then…