Cuba’s Viñales Valley: Cycling, Cigars, & Salsa

We have long been believers in the idea that the seat of a bicycle is the best seat in the house when it comes to exploring a new destination. The ground level observations are much more accessible than a car, train or bus, yet we can cover much more real estate than on foot.

This meant that two-wheeled transportation was a perfect choice for traversing the Viñales Valley in western Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province. This lush region consists of rich farmland dotted with abrupt buttes known as mogotes. These karsts were left behind when the limestone that surrounded them dissolved and eroded away.

We began our ride near the base of one of these unusual mounts at Restaurante El Cuajaní, which opened a few years ago on a tobacco farm.

The valley has ideal soil and weather for growing the famous Cuban crop, and the very best cigars are said to originate from its unique landscape.

What a backdrop for a day on our cycles! All we needed was a little sustenance to get us ready.

That worked our perfectly, because while we explored the tobacco fields and barn, chef Jose was preparing fish roasted in a brick oven with veggies and mashed malanga, which is very similar to taro and is the go to starch of the island.

The down home stick to your ribs meal was just what we needed to tackle the hills and dales that awaited us.

Being our first day, we only set out for a shake-down ride of around fifteen miles to make sure everything was A-OK with the bikes. The route took us through some gorgeous scenery and inspired us for the next day when we would return for an all-day affair.

Afterwards, we checked in to our room at Hotel Los Jasmine and discovered what has to be one of the all-time great balcony views.

The entire valley was spread out before us. We soaked it in for quite a while, but wanted to check out the shop to see if any of the local tobacco we rode by made it in there.

We don’t claim to be experts, in fact we can count the stogies we’ve smoked in our lives on one hand, but we did feel the need to at least give one a try.

After buying half a dozen of the real ones for David’s dad (they are legal to bring back into the US now, for personal use only) we asked for the mildest version and bought a small box of the Guantanamera minis. Mild is the perfect description, like nothing we have ever had.

It also insured that the song of the same name would remain firmly implanted in our brains for the next few days.

That’s okay, because even though we related it to mariachi bands in Mexican restaurants, the tune originated from, and is wildly popular in Cuba.

Cigars secured, our agenda turned back to one of our favorite topics, food. Dinner would be at the nearby organic farm Finca Agroecológica Paraíso, and we would get a tour before feeding.

We got to see the methods up close that have been perfected over centuries, incorporating some of the stair step landscaping from the Inca, as well as tried and true non-chemical pest controls from around the world.

Every bite was as farm to table as it could possibly be, since the table was actually at the farm. One of the many great things about a bike tour is the guilt-free eating. After our day riding everyone was ready to seriously chow down.

The next morning found us back among the mogotes for a longer ride. Making our way through a couple of small towns, we climbed over the Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountains in the Viñales National Park toward Cuba’s northern coast.

The old adage what goes up, must come down proved to be perfect for the day. Some steep climbs were rewarded with freewheeling glides down the other side. The final goal was a gorgeous stretch along the seaside leading to the tiny island Cayo Jutías.

At the end of the causeway over to the island we came to a lighthouse. The Faro de Cayo Jutías is the only surviving tower of four built by the United States between 1898 and 1903, and is still operational.

After a quick stop to talk with some fishermen casing nets in the shallows beneath the light, we rode the final few miles to the Playa deCayo Jutías.

This beach is widely considered one of Cuba’s finest, and most beautiful.

While we bobbed in the surf, we were certainly not going to argue with that assessment.

A few of us chose to spend a bit of extra time at the beach in lieu of riding back to the hotel, and got the added bonus of  an unexpected spin in a 1957 De Soto Diplomat.

It seems the legends about classic old American cars still going strong in Cuba are true.

Before dinner we worked up even more of an appetite with some salsa lessons.

Let’s establish this fact up front, David can’t dance.

He says he looks like a circus bear balancing on a ball… and he’s right. So it took a little extra time just to get him through the most basic steps.

But as with his attempts at the Tango in Argentina, he actually had a couple of brief, very brief, moments that almost looked as if he was getting it. Then toes would be stomped and his tenuous balance on the ball would break.

Luckily, no one got hurt.

David & Veronica,

A big thank you to Backroads for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

Check this out for more ideas on things to do in Cuba.

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5 thoughts on “Cuba’s Viñales Valley: Cycling, Cigars, & Salsa”

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