Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, stunningly diverse in both its geography and lifestyles. To have a more complete picture of the country, you have to travel outside of Havana. One of the best places to go, because of its proximity and beauty, is Viñales. Less than a three-hour drive outside the city, Viñales is a gorgeous farming community that envelopes you with its lush greenery, unexpected mountainscapes, and warm Cuban hospitality. Keep reading for the perfect two-day Viñales itinerary.
There are two convenient options for getting to Viñales from Havana. One is with the bus company called Viazul. They run daily bus trips to and from Viñales for $12 one-way. We originally planned to use Viazul for our trip; however, the routes were suspended due to the recent cyclone that had passed through the western part of the island.
Plan B turned out to be a more convenient alternative but at double the price ($25/person one-way) We took a taxi colectivo which picked us up at our Airbnb and dropped us off at our accommodation in Viñales. A taxi colectivo means that you are sharing the car with at least one other person, with four passengers maximum in the car. You have to reserve a day in advance. Most likely the host of your room share or Airbnb can do this for you. If you’d like to reserve on your own, you can email me and I’ll share with you the contact information of our taxi driver. 🙂
Our taxi picked us up at 8:30 am and we rode to Viñales with two interesting Italian girls. I thought there might be some cute stops along the way, but there was none of that. Just a few random pan con lechón stands and smatterings of horse carriages and roadside breakdowns. If you need to use the bathroom, your driver will pull over on the side of the road and you can find yourself a nice bush. I chose to hold it.
Arriving in Viñales
Pulling into Viñales was like traveling back in time. Even though it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere, there were people and animals everywhere. Ox-pulled carriages crowded the dilapidated country roads. Dogs happily trotted down the center lanes, nimbly dodging the passing cars without a care in the world. Dads were taking their daughters to school on horseback. Moms were outside hanging the laundry on the clotheslines. Beat-up classic cars swerved around potholes, leaving a trail of exhaust and dust clouds in their wake. All of this was taking place against the backdrop of verdant mountains, towering jungle-like palms, and rolling farmscapes. It was fascinating.
The driver dropped the Italian girls off in town at their room-share, but we continued on, rumbling past the tiny city center and deeper into the countryside. Our driver was not in the best of moods, and it certainly did not help that our Airbnb was on the outskirts of town, past a flooded road, and up a bumpy grass driveway. But eventually, we arrived at Villa Las Palmitas and were greeted by our lovely host, Alexander.
Alexander’s place sits on an idyllic hillside oasis, surrounded by mountains, palm trees, and chatty farm animals. We loved that the doors and windows to the villa were flung open. It invited a feeling of purity and clean energy that we happily embraced, along with a particularly friendly chicken who kept wandering inside.
After the property tour, Alexander set us up with our excursion for the day, a farm tour complete with tobacco rolling, horseback riding, and homemade country cocktails. No more than twenty minutes after arriving our taxi driver was there to pick us up.
Viñales Taxi Driver
The Viñales taxi experience was like something out of a movie. Our driver, Eddy, came lurching up the hill in his classic almendrón car and pulled up outside the villa. Not sure if it was just that they had the same name, but he reminded me so much of Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation. He just had that vibe about him. He apparently knew everyone in town, constantly yelling and waving out the window to people. Later when we asked him what we owed him, he responded, “Eh, whatever ya got.”
Price: Farm Tour & Horseback Riding – $5/hour per person
Eddy dropped us off on the side of the road and we were promptly met by a farmer from Finca Pipo Perez. We quickly realized we’d made a grave mistake by wearing white shoes to a farm tour. It had been raining all day and the pathway to the farm was full of mud (fango). Things got interesting as we had to shuffle across a 2×4 over a river of muddy water and scramble up a steep hill, but we made it.
Jerry was waiting for us on top. He looked like he could have been Bryan’s brother. I kid you not, I think they’re legit third cousins. Anyway, Jerry works there on the farm and he explained to us the tobacco growing and harvesting process in detail, demonstrating how to roll the leaves and giving us a cigar to try. He had us dip the end of the cigar in honey. Apparently, Che Guevara swore by this — he was asthmatic and claimed honey helped soothe his throat. Cada loco con su tema. I do think it makes for a nice flavor though.
While sitting there with Jerry, we also talked about their coffee bean harvest. Unfortunately, a cyclone had just passed through Viñales and had taken a great deal of their tobacco and coffee bean plants. But, we enjoyed the explanation and ended up buying a few cigars and a container of coffee beans. (I just prepared the coffee beans at home, and can confirm: el café está riquísimo). A woman also prepared for us their specialty farm cocktail with rum, honey, and coconut water.
Showtime. A guy named Flaco came to set up with our horses. Mine was named Coco Loco, apparently, after the signature coconut cocktail at the bar we would be stopping at later. I remember thinking: 1. This is definitely my kind of horse. And 2. A bar in the middle of the boondocks? Is this Wisconsin?
The first part of the journey was a bit rough. The path was full of “fango” — bright orange mud about a foot deep. The horses didn’t want to go in there any more than I did, and were frantically trying to climb up the sides of the path. My horse and I narrowly escaped a barbed wire entrapment while Bryan’s horse tried to jump over the fango, causing Bryan to almost fall off. Think ‘bucking bronco.’ Five minutes in and we were covered in fango, our shoes dyed an unfortunate orange. Flaco was stoic and professional, but I knew he had to be laughing at us on the inside.
An hour later we arrived at the bar and I let out a sigh of relief. I was alive and ready to order the highly anticipated Coco Loco. There at the bar, there were some practice horse races going on. Boys as young as eleven were riding bareback, their horses pounding wildly down the makeshift race track. The bartender prepared us our Coco Locos, (rum, coconut water, honey, and lemon), served inside the whole coconut with a straw. While we were drinking them, a farm dog named Grut came over to keep us company. When we finished the cocktail, they sliced up the coconut for eating. We devoured it. We were so hungry. We also gave quite a few pieces to Grut — he was apparently as hungry as we were.
On the way back to Finca Pipo Perez, we stopped at a farm house paladar for a late lunch with Flaco. There were baby pigs and chickens everywhere. We sat at the back of the house facing the fields and placed our order. They brought us huge homestyle dishes of rice and beans, yuca, and cucumber. Bryan ordered ropa vieja and I had to go with a vegetarian option — fried egg. I was thrilled to be eating anything. Feeling satisfied and with renewed spirits, we got back on our mighty steeds and returned to the Finca.
Eddy collected us at the Finca and took us to pick up some dinner in town. (Two cheese sandwiches with chips). Outside Viñales center, there was no electricity. Alexander had a generator which granted us electricity for a few hours out of the day, but otherwise, the countryside was pitch black. We showered in icy cold water and promptly passed out. I don’t know how many hours later I awoke to complete darkness. I felt like it had swallowed me up. I blinked wildly, trying to make out the shape of anything at all—nada. The feeling was one of claustrophobia. I flung my arm to the side various times, reassuring myself that Bryan was next to me. He was. Thank God. I thought, I am not cut out for this country life.
RECOMMENDED READ: THE TRAVELER’S GUIDEBOOK TO HAVANA, CUBA (2023)
I was never so happy to see the light of morning as waking up after that first night in Viñales. I threw open the windows and doors, giddy with relief. I even gladly welcomed back Juana, the persistent hen who seemed to think she had been upgraded to an indoor pet status.
The day prior we reserved breakfast with Alexander for $5 per person. He served the meal on the back terrace, bathed in morning light and a gentle breeze. In Grand Cayman $5 at breakfast time gets me two croissants if I’m lucky. In Viñales it got us a thermos of coffee, freshly cut pineapple, eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, a breakfast pastry, and enough bananas to feed a soccer team.
Out on the Town
We called our old friend Eddy for a lift into the village center. We were on a mission to buy a Cuban SIM card from the Etesca office. They weren’t open yet, so naturally, we killed the time at a nearby bar with a couple mojitos.
Viñales, despite being a country town, has a commendable offering of bars and restaurants on the main road, all with open-air terraced seating facing the street. We posted up at Bar Razones, y razones no nos faltaban 😉 Mojitos were 200 pesos and the activity from the street kept us more than entertained — ox-drawn carriages, idle military men, truckloads of intertown travelers, and a relentless parade of street dogs.
After securing our SIM card, we went to a pizza stand and each ordered neapolitans and one jugo de guayaba. This is a quintessential Cuban “culinary” experience that cannot be passed up. The Neapolitan pizzas are 90 pesos, less than 1 US dollar, and taste like a cross between grilled cheese and Domino’s breadsticks. Muy cubano.
We also visited a street market where we forfeited any sense of locality that had been earned at the pizza stand. We fell straight into the tourist trap, but left armed with a key chain, earrings, and Cuban figurines. If there’s one thing Bryan and I know how to do, it’s shop.
After shopping, we had a drink and appetizer at Bar Los Robertos. I ordered a banana-flavored daiquiri which was a horrible, horrible choice. Bryan ordered a mojito and we shared mariquitas. Thinking ahead to our evening sans electricity, a kitchen, and groceries, we ordered a pizza and some pasta to go. We would figure out how to heat them up later.
Eddy, proving to be a very reliable taxista indeed, picked us up from Bar Los Robertos and took us back to our humble abode.
Remember how I said we had enough bananas to feed a soccer team? Well, I found out how we were going to ration them. Every time we rumbled up the driveway to the villa, a litter of four puppies would run out of a bush in reaction to the noise. At that point in the Cuba trip, I had already caressed a startling amount of stray animals, so there was nothing stopping me from loving on these bush puppies. We hand fed them banana chunks, which they seemed to love. Clearly, bananas are not dog food, but it’s the best we could do. The poor things didn’t even have their eyes open all the way and Mom was no where in sight. 🙁
I had to tear myself from the puppies, even though I was ready to pack them in my suitcase… Back at the villa, we enjoyed our cigars from Finca Pipo Perez, read our books, and fed the neighbor donkey some grass. There were no distractions, minus Juana, our pet chicken, and the oinks of a pig whose owner was late for supper time. It was a setting that allowed us to be completely in the present. We felt gratitude for our trip to Viñales and the people we had met along the way.
The Darkness Returns
Night felt swift and heavy on the Villa, but luckily, Alexander came around 7:30 to turn on the generator, so we could have electricity for a couple hours before bed. He was also generous enough to heat up our pasta and pizza from the restaurant earlier. (There was a kitchen next door to our villa). We skipped the shower, still scarred from the icy water from the night prior. Once we’d eaten, we turned in for an early bedtime. There are plenty of bars in town that lend themselves to a nightlife crowd, but we were several miles out of the way. We couldn’t bother cousin Eddy to pick us up and we didn’t want to end up stranded at midnight.
I slept much better the second night, leaving a window open to let in a tiny bit of illumination from the moon and stars. I at least didn’t feel like I was inside a coffin anymore. The next morning, we arose early. Alexander was coming to prepare us breakfast again before our taxi driver picked us up. We enjoyed another incredible spread, complete with coffee, eggs, sandwiches, and fruit. I saved all of the ham in a crumpled napkin for the bush puppies.
We packed our bags, said goodbye to Alexander, and hopped in the taxi. On the way to the main road, we asked the driver to pull over so I could give the bush puppies their ham. Big improvement from the banana dinner the night before. We picked up a Norwegian couple on the way out of town, rolling past the ox-pulled carriages and guajiros of Viñales, the mountains disappearing in the rearview mirror.
I was so thankful we had visited, and satisfied with the amount of time we had spent. It granted us a distinct perspective of Cuba and the diverse lifestyles within such a large country. The pace of living is much slower, which comes with its own kind of beauty and unique values. We loved getting to know Flaco and the people at Finca Pipo Perez. We also loved our stay with Alexander at the Villa, and being so close to nature.
I recommend Viñales to anyone who is visiting Cuba and has a day or two to spare. You will leaving with a renewed sense of peace, and maybe even a puppy.
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