The lush Viñales Valley in western Cuba exudes natural beauty with its steep-sided limestone mountains, caves and rich, reddish soil where tobacco for Cuba's famous cigars is grown.
Only about a 2 ½-hour drive from Havana, Viñales is an easy day trip if you're visiting Cuba, a chance to take in the scenery and visit a tobacco farm.
Lots of tours and transportation are available, but the owner of the casa particular where we were staying arranged a private driver for the four of us. That's how we found ourselves speeding down a potholed highway toward Viñales in a hulking, green 1950 Chevrolet, with no air conditioning and the windows down, wind whipping through the spacious sedan.
Outside the city, transportation is noticeably different. A lot of Old World-style, two-wheeled carts pulled by horses with drivers perched sideways on one edge shared the highway with us. People on bicycles and horseback traveled along the shoulder of the road as cars and trucks zoomed by.
Along the way, there was little to see and very few places for a rest stop or a bite to eat. Some enterprising locals stood along the road selling water and, in one instance, roast chickens hanging across a stick.
Low mountains started coming into view as we neared Viñales. We turned onto a narrow road for the last half-hour, driving past modest houses and shanties. Here we saw the only billboard of the entire trip — one criticizing the U.S. embargo.
Our first stop was at a hilltop plaza for a stunning panoramic view of the Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The plaza, clearly constructed with tourists in mind, had a covered overlook, an open-air cafe, restrooms and a few T-shirt and trinket shops. A band made up mostly of pretty young women wearing matching striped dresses played lively music and peddled CDs, and a man offered rides on a long-horned bull. But the stop was worthwhile just for looking over the beautiful green valley at the unique limestone outcroppings called mogotes.
Next we drove to a family-run tobacco farm. We stepped inside a small, rustic barn where tobacco leaves hung from the rafters to dry and listened to a family member describe the process of harvesting and drying the leaves. The leaves are cured in an all-natural process using only lemon juice and spices, no chemicals, a man explained.
We moved on to a small pavilion overlooking the tobacco fields where another family member demonstrated rolling a cigar and offered the finished products for sampling. He told us that the Cuban government takes 90 percent of the tobacco that families grow, leaving them with just 10 percent of what they have produced to use or sell on their own.
From there, our driver took us to the nearby Cave of the Indian, a limestone cave that early inhabitants carved out of the hills for shelter. A well-lit footpath leads us through the first part of the beautiful and colorful cave, and then visitors board a small boat for a brief ride through another part of the cave and continue outside to exit the boat.
The setup outside the cave is very touristy, with a teepee and two men dressed as natives putting on a show for arriving visitors, and local art and souvenirs for sale.
The town of Viñales is a splash of color in this rural, agricultural setting. Driving through, we passed brightly hued, one-story homes with covered porches that line both sides of the street and house cafes, shops and casa particulars. A small market with tables and racks was set up along a side street, where vendors sold souvenirs, trinkets and crafts.
There's more to see and do in the area, including visiting a botanical garden and riding horseback through the valley. Trips can be customized, or tours can be selected, according to visitors' interests. Prices vary, but our full-day trip cost a little over $150 for four.
A beautiful sunset punctuated our return trip to Havana. We arrived at our casa particular about 6:30 p.m., 10 hours after we left, agreeing that the big Chevy wasn't nearly as comfortable as it looked.