Oxen, horses, cigars & a magical sunrise in stunning landscape: Viñales, Cuba

I am jumping with excitement as my partner and friends try to fit our backpacks in the trunk of a classic bright red old-timer. Even though my partner and I have been in Cuba for four days and have had an amazing time already, it feels like the adventure is really about to start now that our friends have arrived. Ready to hit the road!

You’d think. But not before driving through the old streets of town to pick up the two other travellers joining us in the collectivo and waiting for ages for their backpacks to be installed properly on the roof.

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As we leave Havana and head West, the city makes way for countryside and a battered tarmac road. Clearly, the American old-timers are still an integral part of Cuba’s daily scenery and not just a tourist attraction for drives along Havana’s Malecon boulevard. Less shiny though, and all with some holes and bumps here and there, but it still seems to me as a better way of transport than the carriages pulled by oxen on the side of the highway.

Our taxi driver moves from the right lane to the left, manoeuvring between potholes. On the other side of the road a truck with eight man standing on its trailer passes by.

Just after leaving the highway to continue the road to Cuba’s lush green paradise, we drive up a farmer’s terrain. “We will stop here for half an hour.” Confused, we get out of the car and set foot on the red soil. The owner of the land is introduced to us by the driver and it becomes clear that this is more than just a sanitary stop. The owner explains he has just started making his own tobacco and that he can offer us a cup of his own brewed coffee. We have more interest in the oxen and plough working on his farmland and in continuing the drive though, and luckily the farmer waves us off without a hassle and with a friendly smile.

We continue the drive on a winding road from where we see Cuban mountains for the first time. Granite peaks tower from dense green fields and ploughed red acres. We have arrived in the territory of hard-working Cuban farmers, and the highlight of many Cuba trips: Viñales.

Not exactly off the beaten track, the small town most probably hosts more tourists than citizens in high season. Luckily, we are travelling in low season and find ourselves a wonderful casa particular with rocking chairs on the veranda and rocking chairs on the rooftop terrace in just ten minutes. Seated on the latter with a fresh lemonade in our hands, we decide to go for a horse riding trip in the lush valley.

A friendly adolescent man walks us up to the shed from where we would take off. Three cowboy-like man lay lazily leaning against the shed, smoking cigars. They are accompanied by just two horses, which is interesting when you intend to go riding with a group of four plus guide. After ten minutes the feeling that we have landed on a movie set grows even stronger when a hatted man and his horse come galloping in from the dirt road we had walked down on our way here. Horse number three has arrived.

Cuban style, it takes twenty more minutes for the other horses to arrive and have them all saddled up, but now we are finally good to go.

A note in advance: none of us actually know how to ride a horse.

As we head to the mountains we pass a small cluster of houses where small children laugh at our horse riding skills. While we try to figure out the best way to sit on the horse and hold the reins (our guide is not very talkative and barely knows a word English) we ride to the valley through lush vegetation. Bright sunlight is alternated by the cool shade of trees as we follow a muddy equestrian path. Our guide gestures that it is time to halt when we arrive at an open field. As we get off our horses, we are warmly greeted by a local farmer who eagerly starts to explain how he grows tobacco on his farm land and how he rolls his own cigars. The man has a cheeky sparkle in his eyes, and the kind of lines in his face that make all us want to take a portrait photo of him. But there is more to see, and smell, in the shack. It is an interesting combination of a shed with a table and folding chairs to show tourists like us the process of sorting, cutting and rolling cigars of sublime quality, and behind those seats the stable of two well-fed snoring pigs. It is the perfect atmosphere to try our first Cuban cigar on Cuban soil, with a secret kept surprisingly well from every cigar shop we had ever been to or at least had never been shared with us – a dip in honey. It tastes so good, we buy a nice first stash of what will probably become a stock filled to its limits by the time we fly back home.

In the saddle with a bit more confidence now, we continue the ride through the valley. It is wedged between granite giants that are covered with vegetation. Not only tobacco plants, but sweet Cuban potato plants and coffee trees as well. The latter is what our next educative but commercial stop is about. Before we visit the coffee shack though we are invited to one of the most stunning terraces I have ever sat down on. The heightened wooden platform faces out to the long stretch of the valley. We pick a table in the comfy shade and are immediately faced with a difficult question: “Would you like a mojito or ….”. I choose a not too strong mojito but as I take the first sip after toasting to the good life with my friends, I realize ‘not too strong’ leaves plenty of room for interpretation. After two sips I decide it is better to just enjoy the view and stay sober to make sure I will not fall off my horse.

A young local man teaches us about the different types of coffee beans that grow in the area, and shows us the roasting process. We leave with two half litre PET bottles, one with coffee beans to take back home and one filled with local honey to dip our cigars in. This trip to explore the nature of Viñales has turned into quite a shopping spree.

A short ride to our last stop on the track almost ruins our feeling of being the luckiest bastards in the world today when we encounter a young horse tied up loosely in an open field. As soon as it sees us approaching it decides to run away. My horse is able to jump over the rope with three legs but as the foal has continued to run his circle the rope has now tightened around the fourth leg of my horse. My friends and partner are watching the situation with fear as the guide is now at my side trying to calm down the horses. Unable to do so he hits my horse so that it jumps in fright and releases his leg from the rope. – Did I mention I have no horse riding skills?

I was relieved to arrive in one piece at the natural swimming pool, a stunning little lake flanked with brightly coloured wild flowers and mountains blocking our view of the rest of the valley. It is a secluded place that we only have to share with two other travellers, although also here locals have embraced the tourist industry and offer lemonade and mojitos on the wooden platform.

About to walk back to the place where we had left our horses, a local farmer gestures that we should wait. During the short walk to the pool, we had made some small talk with him as he was roasting his beans over a wooden fire. He had now brought them here so we could taste truly fresh coffee.

With a strong shot of caffeine we hop on our horses for the last part of our trip. The journey back to our casa is a tough ride with both my friends’ and my trousers torn apart as the horses walk too close to barbed wire to avoid stepping in the deep mud path. Only minutes after, avoiding the mud is no longer an option and the horses have to wade through a mud river and our shoes slowly start to soak as they hit the water surface with each step. Darkness begins to fall as we leave the valley behind and we make it back just before the skies turn black.

We climb the stairs to the roof terrace of our case with aching legs – did I mention we have no clue how to sit on a horse properly? – and hang our smelly clothes out to dry, hoping that we can at least wear our shoes again tomorrow morning.

We get up in the wee hours of the morning to find our shoes still wet and the horse carriage we had been promised to be just a taxi by car. Another Hollywood worthy old-timer though, so nothing to complain about on that part really.

The wet shoes are less pleasant though, but as we follow our guide uphill over an unmarked muddy path with just our headlights on, we realise that if they would have been dry at the start they would have been just as soaked as they are now. It is quite a challenge not to slip in the mud or from the pipeline we have to walk over to cross a water stream. An incredibly small effort though compared to the reward that was waiting for us. The skies slowly turn a pale blue, and although four chairs provide us with first row seats we are too excited about the view to sit down. We politely drink some lemonade and coffee although the only drink we crave for after the ascent is water, and then explore all angles of the yard to take in the views and get our cameras ready for what would be one of the most magical sunrises I have ever witnessed. Dawn hangs low over the palm tree covered valley providing a mystic ambiance to the landscape. The sun slowly creeps up behind the mountain and enlightens the trees covering the top of the hill, their silhouettes sharply visible against the skies. The first rays of sunlight appear into our view, the circle of the sun not yet fully visible as it is still hidden behind the top of the mountain. We hold our breath as it gets in sight. This is pure magic!

We could sit here for hours, but continue our hike after about an hour to an even higher viewpoint and cave with natural swimming pool. Only one of us is brave enough to dip in the cold waters – and no, it is no me – and all four of our faces turn to the sky, following the granite peaks that are the walls of the cave.

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The descent back to the village is an incredibly comfortable walk, the farmlands now lush green in day light and buzzing with the activity of farmers weeding and oxen ploughing the fields. Back in the casa a delicious breakfast awaits us. While we lavish on omelette and fresh fruit, our casa owner and a friend of his lift a pig from their trunk. “Te coma aquí esta noche?”

With the entire day still ahead of us, we decide to explore the surroundings a bit more by ourselves and walk up the village to rent a scooter. Once more practise was different from theory though as fuel was depleted in the entire village which – obviously – made scooter rental impossible.

We spent our day relaxing in the rocking chairs and finish it off with a truly stunning local dish at the patio of our casa. The perfect end to the perfect beginning of our Cuba trip.

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