I grew up less than 250 miles from Havana. I could fly to Havana faster than I could fly to Atlanta, but, as an American, that was forbidden. Shrouded in secrecy and mystery, Cuba was somewhere I knew I had to go someday, to taste this forbidden fruit myself. I spent hours researching how to get to Cuba. I knew I could fly through a third country like Mexico or the Cayman Islands, countries that wouldn’t forbid me from getting on the plane to Havana, but this was expensive and risky-what would happen if I was caught? At one point I even thought about joining a church that did mission trips to Cuba so I could go legally, but mission trips were also expensive. For years, I dreamed of Cuba, but never went.
Then, in 2015, everything changed. President Obama eased the travel restrictions to Cuba, allowing Americans to travel to the country under one of 12 very broad categories. Airlines started offering regular service to the island. Prices were cheap, flights were frequent, and finally, FINALLY, I bought a ticket to Cuba.
Once we had our tickets, the next step was figuring out what to do. We didn’t have a long time, just 3 days, so we wanted to make sure we got a good taste of Cuba, especially since we didn’t know if we would have the chance to go back any time soon given the incoming president (as I was writing this article the Trump administration announced that independent travel to Cuba was now going to be heavily restricted again and Americans needed to go with US approved tour groups. The administration also removed the ‘People to People’ category for traveling to Cuba independently, which is the category we traveled under). Our main question was whether to stay in Havana the entire time or take a day trip to Vinales? Once we spoke with friends who had visited, the answer was clear: do the day trip to Vinales!
Vinales is a rural area in the northwest of Cuba, famous for its tobacco and karst mountains. I love karsts, so I knew I would love Vinales. Our AirBnb in Havana arranged a driver and local guide to take us to Vinales for the day. It was about $100 for both of us, including the car, the guide, and horse riding.
Day trips to Vinales are all pretty similar: you will go horseback riding and walk through the interior of a karst, tour a tobacco farm (basically an opportunity to smoke a Cuban cigar), lunch, and a visit to Cuevas del Indios. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s so fun and beautiful that you shouldn’t let the fear of going to a tourist trap deter you from visiting.
The drive from Havana to Vinales took about 3 hours. Some of it was dull, but as you get closer to Vinales the landscape changes, taking you up into mountains with palm tree fringed valleys. It was good that we had a driver, or else I’m not sure I would have made it to Vinales-we would have been stopping every minute to take more photos!
The horseback riding is the main draw in Vinales, and we chose to do our ride first since waiting until after lunch would mean much higher temperatures. I think I’ve ridden horses 5 times in my life, so I was a little nervous, but the horses are good tempered (mostly) and you will have an experienced vaquero with you to set your pace.
The first stop on the tour will be at a local rum and honey distillery. I didn’t take any pictures here, except for the picture above and about a dozen pictures of a turkey roaming around.
After a rum drink, it was back on the horses, heading towards the hollow karst. This was the most beautiful part of the ride, going from dry, orange sand to lush green tobacco fields ringed with karst mountains.
The path in the above photo ends at the karst in the middle of the picture. We dismounted our trusty steeds and climbed down into the belly of the mountain.
I was a bit intimidated here, looking at the entrance to the cave, but it wasn’t too tight and the spelunking expedition only took a few moments. The karst is small, so unless you have severe claustrophobia you should be fine going through the cave.
After exiting the cave, it was back on the horses, going back the way we came.
The final stop on the horse trek was at a little snack hut where you can buy dirt cheap mixed drinks and snacks. We spent quite some time here, as the drinks were perfect and we made friends with a kitten whose cat family lives in the rafters of the snack bar.
We watched the kitten put this dog in its place. The owners fed the cat some scraps, the dog tried to take it, and the cat scared it away. I was so close to putting this cutie in my bag to take home with me.
The horseback riding tour ends at a tobacco farm where supposedly you would learn how Cuban cigars are made, although it was more of a sales pitch to get you to buy them. Everyone got a free cigar, and then encouraged to buy more. There were 4 of us on this tobacco farm tour, and none of us wanted to smoke the cigars. My husband bought a dozen for his grandfather, and apparently the price is very good considering the quality of the tobacco.
Lunch was rather forgettable. I literally have no idea what the restaurant was called, but the view was nice and the food was fine. We were more excited about what would come after lunch-a boat ride into a river inside a cave!
One of the most popular attractions in Vinales is Cuevas del Indio. At Cuevas del Indio, you trek through a stalagmite filled cave until you reach the river, where you board a boat and cruise along the inside of the cave.
It sounded fun until we got to the back of the line. Our guide said we would be in line at least 90 minutes, probably more. Luckily, our driver is friends with one of the boat operators, so we got out of the line, went to the platform where the boat docks to let tourists off, then we were able to get on with a $5 gift to the boat driver.
It was an interesting experience, and there were definitely some cool stalagtites, but honestly, if you have to wait in line that long, it’s definitely not worth it. Either get there first thing in the morning, have a hook up, or skip it.
After Cuevas del Indio, we were taken to the Vinales Mural de la Prehistoria. The Prehistoric Mural is a big painting on the side of a mountain, basically a modern take on cave art.
The Prehistoric Mural costs money to get into, so we decided to look at it from the road. We spent more time admiring the amazing view. It was so quiet, the only thing you could hear was a warm breeze playing with the long grass and rustling the tree leaves. Combined with the late afternoon light, this part of Vinales felt like something out of a fairytale.
I hated having to leave, but the sun was quickly sinking behind the mountains and we still had a 3 hour drive to get back to Havana.
Taking a day trip from Havana to Vinales is definitely an all day event (we left Havana at 7 am and returned around 7 pm), but it’s well worth the long drive and waking up early. If you’re in Cuba and considering a day trip to Vinales, do yourself a favor and just do it! It was a magical place that will leave you wanting more.
Tips for a day trip to Vinales
- It is possible to get to Vinales using the bus system or car share, but hiring a driver will save you hours and hours since you will go straight to Vinales and will be taken where you want to go, when you want to go
- Wear sunscreen, long sleeves and pants, and a hat on your horseback ride through Vinales Valley. There is very little shade and the sun is strong.
- If you plan to buy Cuban cigars in Cuba, think about getting them in Vinales. The majority of cigars are made there anyway, and the prices are much cheaper than what you would find in Havana.
- Bring some smaller CUC (Cuban pesos) for tips. The average Cuban makes less than $30 a month, so a small tip will go a long way!