Yusleidy “Yuya” Valdes Machin, a former social worker who opened a private B&B in the center of town two years ago, says the changes in Viñales have helped her community. “There are many more work options now,” she told Cuba Trade. She and her mother, a former seamstress who lives in the house next door, combined their homes into one guest house; her mother serves as chef. She offers a private room with air conditioning and a good shower for 25 CUC; an enormous home-cooked breakfast costs an extra 4 CUC. Within minutes of our arrival, Yuya arranged both a guided walking tour of the valley and transportation back to Havana.
Valle del Silencio
Exploring Viñales can be as adventurous or easygoing as you like. On the more relaxed end, a guided walking tour through the Valle del Silencio (also known as the “Coffee, Cave, and Rum” tour) costs between 15 and 20 CUC, and will take you on a leisurely four-hour trip through sprawling tobacco fields and green-canopied mogotes. The sun is strong here, but several shady stops along the way offer chances to have a drink, talk to farmers, and sample their cigars, coffee and rum.
Just beyond the entrance, José Aliesky, a young tobacco farmer, shows Cuba Trade around his family’s fields and drying house, giving us a private lesson on cultivation—from first planting to final cigar.
Once the leaves are harvested, Aliesky strings them up to dry for four months in one of the distinctive “tobacco houses” that dot the western landscape; later, he rehydrates them in a cocktail of honey and aguardiente, and packages them in wide palm leaves to cure for another three months.
“When the leaves are moist and flavorful, they are ready to smoke,” explains Aliesky, demonstrating how he peels away the central vein—which is high in nicotine—from the pliable leaf. “My cigars don’t cause addiction,” he says with an air of gravity. Unlike the government-produced cigars, his family does not add any chemicals to the leaves.
Once Aliesky has rolled the cigar, he offers it for us to smoke, adding a dollop of honey on the tip as per local custom. The thin, flavorful honey comes with its own legend: according to locals, it is produced by a tiny species of black bee that burrows underground, its combs hidden deep between tree roots. Only one family knows how to extract the honey without destroying the comb, says the guide.
While the private service industry is thriving in Viñales, tobacco is still a government monopoly. Independent growers must sell 90 percent of their crops to the government, keeping 10 percent for their own use. According to Aliesky, farmers are still prohibited from branding homemade products, though visitors have ample opportunity to buy hand-rolled cigars directly from the growers. Aliesky sells his family’s cigars for 2 CUC a piece.
Beating the Heat
The Viñales valley heats up quickly in the morning, and it’s best to start out early (and bring a good sunhat) in order to make the most of each stop along the tour. Walking through the fields, our guide points out crops of beans and yucca, and open pasture for grazing. Here, there’s almost no sign of the three-year drought that has plagued Cuba; horses and cows look fat and contented.
The path dips down to follow a small shady stream, then re-emerges at the entrance to a cave. Tourists cluster around the entrance, paying 2 CUC to escape the sun and explore the inside of the mogote.
At their base, the vertical faces of the limestone mogotes look impossible to scale. Yet the valley has over 250 climbing routes, according to Cubaclimbing.com. A glance at rock-climbing website MountainProject.com’s message boards shows a steady flow of serious U.S. climbers to Viñales, many of whom make a point of leaving gear behind to support the local climbing community.
Our next stop is a thatched cabaña near a small lake, where visitors can swim and enjoy drinks in the shade. Several European women on a National Geographic tour are enjoying their walk without skimping on rum cocktails. Nearby, several tourists emerge on horseback from a small restaurant overlooking the Valle del Silencio.
Our final stop includes a lesson on arabica coffee cultivation and processing techniques (though coffee is grown higher up in the mountains), as well as the history behind Guayabita del Pinar rum. Here, you can buy small bottles of arabica beans, coffee grounds, and bottles of rum.
By the time we emerge from the park, the sun is at its peak, and the five-minute walk back to Yuya’s house feels Homeric. Other travelers wheel past on rented bicycles that can be found next to the Centro Cultural, or provided by B&B hosts. We arrive hot and dusty, and are grateful for the air-conditioned room and clean shower.