I know Vinales like the back of my hand. Those who have read my profile will know I was born and raised in Vinales; a small town amidst a glorious valley topping the list of must-see places in all of the island’s tourist guidebooks.
Rest assured: what I will tell you about Vinales is not what you can read in these travel guides or what a visitor spotted and came across on a short stopover. I will share my most cherished experiences, my life-long memories and all the knowledge I have gained throughout my wanderings through one of the most exceptional and breath-taking landscapes in the planet (yes, this is how proud I am of my birthplace and I apologize to the rest of the world if this sounds like exaggerated bragging).
Unique rocky mountain formations known as “mogotes” are what have made of Vinales a world-renowned destination. These peculiar elevations can rarely be found in any other place in the world; similar hills have only been described in China and the Malaysian Peninsula. “Mogotes” impress onlookers with their height, singular rocky appearance and abundant vegetation, which boasts exotic flora and fauna endemic to the island.
These “mogotes” are also home to the island’s largest cave system, and, in addition to the friendly and folksy character of “vinaleros”, all these characteristics and one-of-a-kind traits make this destination a must on your journey to Cuba if you are passionate about getting to know its countryside and its people. In case you decide to go, here are some tips about the places, attractions, routes and options you shouldn’t miss out on during an enjoyable trip to Vinales:
Getting to know an over 150-million-year-old fossil
Ever since I could remember, I had heard my dad, a hard-working and passionate forestry engineer, tell the story of this survivor. Dating from the Mesozoic period, the "Palma Corcho" (Cork Palm Tree) can only be found in the island’s western mountain range, in small, isolated settlements. Nonetheless, you can see two cork palms inside the town itself; one in the Central Square, beside the Polo Montanes Cultural Center and the other within the gardens of La Ermita Motel.
Imagine shapes in the mountains
Ever since I was a little girl, as I sat outside on my house’s porch next to my sister, I fantasized while gazing upon those unfathomable mountains. Imagining and discovering the shapes of animals, faces and even cartoon characters in the rocky embossment, was one of our favourite games. This was part of my childhood: feeling watched and protected by these majestic green guards.
Visiting the cold, mysterious caves and its subterraneous rivers
The “Cueva de la Vaca” (Cow’s Cave) is one of my favourites, as it crosses the interior of a “mogote” from end to end. As you creep inside the cave, you leave behind green landscapes and you are presented with a completely different view – it feels like a dark tunnel connecting both worlds. The enormous Santo Tomas Cave is also impressive. The second largest cave in Latin America, Santo Tomas, is so huge that a whole truck could fit and even roll inside.
There is one cave in particular you shouldn’t leave without visiting: Cueva del Indio (a.k.a Indian Cave). Though it is the most commercialized one, it is also the safest and easiest to move around with children. A little over 5 kilometres from Vinales town, you can reach it through the highway by car or bike. Artificial lights and paved pathways have been added to some areas of the cave in order to ensure more safety for explorers. As you walk through its 300 meters, you will surely be in awe of the quirky shapes the stalactite and stalagmite rocks have developed over time. At the end of your excursion through the cave, a reward awaits: a boat journey through San Vicente - its subterraneous river.
Exploring the town’s attractions and its everyday life
Most of the houses in the town of Vinales feature red tile roofs and are painted in bright colours with daring combinations: yellow and red, orange and blue, green and purple. Vinales’ colourful appearance and its people’s pleasant and unpretentious character create a joyful and peaceful ambiance. If you’re staying at a “casa particular” (local houses rented by owners, of which there are now around 900 in Vinales) you can truly experience the town’s welcoming atmosphere. If your kids come along with you, they will undoubtedly want to join the carefree local children who run all over the town’s neighbourhoods as they imagine and create fun games.
Horse-riding through the valley
Ask around town and you will easily find experienced tourist guides (there are over 50 in Vinales) willing to take you on this exciting excursion. I personally recommend my friend Miguel (cell number +535 4433843). In case your children can’t or don’t want to ride a horse by themselves, you can choose to make the trip in an oxen cart, with enough room for a few people. During this enchanting journey, you will stop at different farm workers’ houses and stalls. Make the most of these moments by savouring seasonal fruits, native homemade sweets and natural juices.
I always enjoy talking to farmers about their day-to-day chores and lifestyle, so if you know a little bit of Spanish don’t miss this opportunity to find out interesting facts about rural life in Cuba. This excursion wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of Vinales’ caves and its subterraneous freshwater wells. I must confess I’ve never been adventurous enough to jump in, but I have seen many Cuban and foreign tourists take a dip in the wells. However, this is an ill-advised practice for children, as the wells’ waters are usually opaque, quite cold and of irregular depth. You can also choose to go on this excursion by foot, but again, this is not a good option for little ones; it will get too tiring for them to march through uneven paths under the scorching sun.
Visiting the Prehistoric Mural
This is one of my 8-year-old son’s favourite trips. The Prehistoric Mural is an enormous cave painting that depicts animal and human evolution in the region. Many grown-ups dislike this immense fresco amidst nature, since the slope of a large “mogote” had to be stripped of its vegetation to make room for the painting. Nevertheless, children are enchanted as they gaze upon those 12 gigantic drawings, where you can observe everything from cavemen to dinosaurs. All paintings are so large that as you stand facing the slope, it’s impossible to cover even an inch of any of the painted species.
Hopping over to Cayo Jutia
Approximately 60 km away, Cayo Jutia is charming cay connected to the mainland by a causeway. Other options to swim while in Vinales are the swimming pools of hotels like “Los Jazmines”, “La Ermita” or “Rancho San Vicente”, all with child-friendly conditions and beautiful views of the valley; although, as nature lover, I prefer the first option.
The river only locals know about
Trying to escape from the summer heat, I took Martin (my son) to a place in Vinales he had never been to before: the river local townspeople like to swim in. This waterway is called “Doble Via” and is situated 10 kilometres from the town of Vinales, in the municipality of “La Palma”, which you can access through the highway. The “Doble Via” boasts crystalline, tepid waters and several wells that are interconnected through small waterfalls. A local family recently opened a “ranchon” (as locals describe an open-air restaurant in the countryside) close to the riverbanks, where visitors can taste freshly prepared Cuban dishes and refreshing drinks at very reasonable prices. It’s no use looking for a reference in the guidebooks; this spot is not yet advertised in brochures.
Vinales of my heart
Vinales gives you so many untouchable pleasures: an oxygen so pure you can almost smell it, the friendly spirit and kindness of its people and the poetry of the dew at dawn dispersing and unveiling the majesty of “mogotes” each morning before your eyes. If you embark on this adventure with your children, as I have, don’t be surprised by their broad smiles when they discover these divine elevations that lead to a true paradise. Treat yourself to this trip, especially with family. It’s a first-hand invitation.
Note: Microcycas calocoma image property of University of Washington - Botanic Garden.