Vinales Cuba, a few hours west of Havana, is a former agricultural center cum tourist town – with buses arriving throughout the day to drop tourists looking for an “authentic” Cuban countryside experience.
Vinales Cuba – the Tourist Town
The main industry in Vinales, aside from agriculture, is tourism, which was apparent when pulling into town and being dropped at the “bus station” – a stop across from the main square where dozens of women with signs and pictures offered rooms for rent. Tour guides also hung around the main square offering walks, driving tours, taxis, and horseback riding in Cuba. It really seemed to be the only thing going on in town.
The town was also surrounded by some fairly touristy sights, including a cave in which you can walk and then take a Pirates of the Caribbean style boat ride, a giant painted mural on the side of a cliff, a farm in which you can see tobacco grown and cigars rolled, and taste locally grown coffee.
The influence that tourism has taken on the town was crystal clear. There were plenty of tourist driven restaurants, which were a little more expensive than Havana and of varying quality. The only “local” eats available were some pizza stands, or places selling cheap ham sandwiches. At night, a churro stand on the main street always had a long line – with churros selling for both a local price and a tourist price.
There was only one main road in town, so it was hard to get lost. The one story houses were painted bright shades of pastel colors and gave the town an adorable and homey feel – what you would imagine a small, tropical Cuban town to look like, complete with rocking chairs on the front porch. But, almost all the houses were turned into Casa Particulars, or home stays, to serve all of the visitors making their way through the area – there are only 3 hotels on the outskirts of town. It was a tourist mecca, with loads of travelers making the requisite pilgrimage to Vinales.
Vinales Cuba -the Farm Country
Once we got past all of this, we were able to secure one fairly cool experience. A two hour walking tour of the valley took us through farm land, up a hill, through a cave, and out the other side. An adventure considering our guide did not provide flashlights.
When we emerged, and took in the view of the valley, it was simply stunning. The sharp contrast of the green of the crops with the dark red of the soil was a stunning sight. The famous limestone “pin-cushion hills” loomed in the distance making the entire scene a bit surreal.
And then, there were the farmers. Our walking tour guide was a specialist in the Vinales area – and spoke mostly about the life of the farmers and the history of the town. He also offered some opinions of his own.
The guide introduced us to two brothers, aged 78 and 82, whose plots were near each other in the valley. They continue the farming traditions of the past, certainly not out of an interest in nostalgia, but because there were no other alternatives. They each worked an ox drawn plow to work the land. They were head-to-toe Cuban – in drab, army green, uniforms, smoking a cigar. And, like farmers all over the world, they worried about who would carry on farming after them – their children now work in tourism in Vinales, or have gone to Havana for work.
Our guide was fairly honest about things. He told us it was a good time to be in Cuba. After the Castros die, things are going to be very different, but he was not sure in what way. Considering other interactions with locals where people were concerned about the secret police, this was refreshing. To actually hear someone even mention Castro’s name.
It was a delightful walk through the valley, and a unique look at Cuban society. Then, we returned to the touristville that was Vinales Cuba.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.