Robaina's plantation

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Vinales (Pinar del Rio) Sept.2016

                I love coming to this place and so do many others. The streets are filled with tourists in high season and it still gets visitors any other time of the year. One of my favourite activities is to take an early morning walk and watch the town in it's start of the day's activities....people going to work (on all means of transportation), the children going to school, the farmers tilling their fields and everything else the people of this wonderful town do in the early hours of the day, it's also when you'll find fewer (if any) tourists in the streets.
               The town of Vinales is located in the Western part of Cuba in the Province of Pinar del Rio about 26 kilometers from Pinar del Rio, the capital city. It sits perched above the Vinales Valley with a view of the Sierra de Organos mountain range which is a sub range of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico Mountain Range. The valley, with it's karst landscape within the mountain range, is scattered with bumps called Mogotes (meaning haystacks), limestone outcrops (Cuba was once covered with limestone), which can be as high as 300 meters. The town of Vinales itself  is built up along one main street and retains it's original colonial architecture and layout. It's mostly made up of one-storey, colourfully painted, wooden houses with porches. The main street, that runs the length of the town, is Calle Salvador Cisneros. Salvador Cisneros Betancourt was a leader in the War of Independence (1868-1878) and was President of Cuba (1895-1897). The area has seen several military operations during the War of Independence and the Cuban Revolution.
                Before the Europeans settled here, this area was home to the remaining Taino population which later increased in size with runaway slaves. Even before that, the many caves in the area had been inhabited for hundreds of years before anyone arrived here.  It was eventually colonised in the early 1800's by Tobacco Growers from the Canary Islands. The town itself was established in 1878 with a church, school and hospital.
                This part of the country is, as it has always been, an agricultural area. The soil in this area is rich in minerals and you can see fruits (coffee) or vegetables of some kind, at one time or another during the year, jutting out of the ground. Something most of us don't usually think of when talking about Pinar del Rio's natural resources is Fishing. It too, adds to the economy of the area. However, the microclimate contained in this area makes it ideal for the production of tobacco which is the main crop. Its population of about 8,000 are mainly engaged in this activity. There are even Tobacco Farms set up to entertain tourists with tours and demonstrations.
                 The Constitution of Cuba has Protected the Vinales Valley since February 1976 and it was declared a National Monument in October 1978. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since November 1999. During this period, and especially over the last decade, Vinales has been developed as a Tourist Destination. It has much more than Tobacco to offer it's visitors. Listing a few of the activities; hiking, rock climbing, bird watching, horseback riding, cave exploring and fishing. The closest beach to the town of Vinales is Playa Jutias. It's about a 60 kilometer drive through picturesque mountain roads cruising through several towns or communities. At one point you have an amazing panoramic view of the valley leading to the ocean. You also have Cayo Levisa a little further away. It's a key just off Cuba's coast which is only accessible by ferry. The dock is about an hour away from town. The little island has one all-inclusive hotel with spectacular white sand beaches offering all the usual water activities. There are several Caves that are prominently advertised that have been set up for tourists; Cueva del Indio, Cueva de Jose Miguel and Cueva de Santo Tomas, all of which are close to town. The most popular is the Cueva del Indio with the San Vicente river running through it. For about 5cuc you can take a boat ride though the cave. There's also a gift shop and restaurant on the grounds. The most difficult to transverse and largest (45 kilometers, 2nd largest in Latin America) of the caves is the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas. However, before even getting to the entrance of the cave you must climb almost straight up the Mogote it goes through. I'm neither young or old but I'm definitely not in the greatest of shape and I can tell you it was work getting there. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone with heart problems and they won't warn you of that when they take your money. Each tour needs a Guide and you'll be given helmets with headlamps. Proper footwear is recommended (no sandals) but like I said, it's Cuba, they'll take the money and then it's your problem. The most awful attraction (in mine and many Cuban's opinion) is the Mural de La Prehistoria, that isn't prehistoric at all. Fidel Castro had commissioned  the side of this cliff to be painted with the images in these gaudy colours. It took 18 people, 4 years to finish this 120 meter long mural. I have never been there but drove by it on my way to somewhere else. There's a $3cuc admission that's waved if you partake in the 15cuc lunch. Horseback riding is usually available at $5cuc per hour and there's also a gift shop. I've also read that live music is played here sometimes.
                  Vinales has three hotels; Hotel Las Jazmines, Hotel La Ermita (both with incredible views of the valley) and Rancho Horizontes San Vincente (recently built a newer section). All are located just a few kilometers outside the town center. They claim to be 3 star (debateable) and between 50-70cuc per night. I myself have never stayed in one of the hotels (they're always full), I prefer to rent a room in a Casa Particular and be more personal with the Cubans for only about 25cuc per night. For a few extra pesos you can eat your meals at the casas as well. It will surely be better and cheaper than the hotel food. Besides, good luck in getting a hotel room. There aren't enough hotel rooms for all the people that want to visit, so if it wasn't for the Casa Particulares most people that come to town wouldn't have a place to stay. The Casa Particular rooms by far outnumber the hotel rooms available. Once you come to Vinales you will see for yourself as it seems that the whole town is renting rooms to tourists.
                 In the Town, like every town in Cuba, you have a central plaza. Here you will find a lot of activity at almost any time of the day or night. The church is here, the Casa de La Cultura (regularly puts on shows day or night), an Art Gallery and several Bars and Restaurants across the street on either side. On Saturday mornings a Farmer's Market appears on the Plaza. For the Cigar Smokers, there's even a Cigar Shop across the street. Besides the Casa de La Cultura, there are a couple of other nightspots in town. The 'Patio del Decimista' (live salsa) is on the main street not far from the Plaza and 'El Palenque de Los Cimarrones' that's nearby in the Cuevas de Vinales, it's a disco built into a cave. On Saturday nights the disco puts on a Cabaret Espectaculo that's followed by dancing, the place is full of locals.
                Getting to Vinales isn't difficult, the Viazul Bus runs twice a day to and from Havana and costs about $12cuc one way. It's more than a 2 hour ride, it stops in Pinar del Rio before heading to Vinales. If you don't have a room booked, don't worry, you'll be swarmed at the Bus Stop when you reach your destination (right across from the town square) with all kinds of offers for room rentals. Pick one that suits you and hope for the best, it's perfectly safe and your hostess will give you better service than that of the hotel's. Another way to get to Vinales is to go just outside the Bus Stop where drivers are offering rides to several destinations for about $5cuc per person one way. Once he has enough passengers he's ready to go. It's safe as far as if the car looks safe to you. This form of transportation (taxi service) is perfectly normal, nobody is going to hijack the car or take you somewhere you haven't already agreed on. Sit back and enjoy the ride, maybe meet a Cuban or two. He will get there quicker and they can't overload the car so you won't be squished into the vehicle. You can do this on the return to Havana as well. I've also rented a car and driver for about $100cuc in a large, reliable and air-conditioned 56 Bel Air for a day trip. Any way to get there is safe, it just depends on the time you have, that's what it's always boiled down to for me. It's worth the drive just to get the picture standing over the Vinales Valley but I suggest you plan to stay at least 2 full days or more. The Caves, Beaches and Nature Trails alone will keep you occupied for longer. In my opinion, Vinales is a must see.

Ride a Buffalo at the Cueva del Indio

Church in the Town Square

Local Masonic Temple

Early morning activity

Entrance to the Cueva de Santo Tomas

Walking away from the main street....more Casa Particulares

Art Gallery in the Town Square

Typical Casa Particulares

Early Morning

Driving through the Vinales Valley

View from porch of our Casa Particular (most if not all houses across the street rent rooms)

Typical Casa Particular

Ride a Buffalo at the look out point next to the Hotel Los Jazmines

Look out point next to the Hotel Los Jazmines

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