Originally our plan had been to leave Havana for a few days and travel to another part of the island but being the holiday season there were no cars to rent and no tickets for the passenger buses available. Also realizing that Havana was pretty closed up on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day- as far as sites go- we decided on a day trip.
Our first stop was to a tobacco farm where our guide explained the growing and drying process of the plants. She also explained how the cigars on the farm didn't have the paper rings on them because they hadn't been authorized by the government but were the same tobacco leaf that was used in the big name brands. The farmers were selling these in their own homemade boxes at a very good price. It's also another way for them to get CUCs from the tourists. Next to this farm was a little rest stop with a cafe, piña colada stand and gift shop. The highway was empty except for the occasional American classic car or lone cow and it's the only highway in Cuba, built originally to span the entire length of the island it falls short about half way.
The drive out to the Valle de Viñales is gorgeous! Acres and acres of lush, green farms being plowed by ox turn into green hills and finally mountains. When we turned off the autopista the road was very narrow and unpaved in parts. I was a bit worried that the bus would perhaps go off the cliff as it followed the twisting road over a mountain range. The road was so winding that the driver had to pull over quite suddenly for one of the passengers who was a bit motion sick. Ugh.
Tour stop #2- La Mural de la Prehistoria. On the side of a large cliff is a huge painting depicting the theory of evolution. It's a bit trippy when you look at it- snails, dinosaurs, sea monsters, people. The site also has a little bar boasting the best piña coladas around. It was at the bar with our guide that we got to talk to her about life in Cuba, work, America, fleeing relatives and the future. She was very open and direct with her opinions- surprisingly so- and we learned a lot about her life and her family, both the one's in Cuba and the one's who had left for America.
A short drive from the mural we stopped again and our guide told us we would be walking in an old Indian cave that was discovered in 1920. I think we all thought of a shallow cave with a big opening but what we got was an amazing tunnel of stalactites and stalagmites (bonus points if you know which are which!) complete with an underground river (which they now run very touristy boats thru, pointing out cave markings). I just loved this cave though! There was even one part where you really had to shimmy thru an opening to the next "room". Spelunkers!
As I was wandering around I went into the Casa de la Cultura which is the oldest building in Viñales. I asked the woman who looked to be working there if it was ok to go upstairs, she told me to follow her. She led me up to the rickety second floor and pointed out a couple of huge murals on the walls. She also took me into the theater and explained that it held party meetings as well as theater productions. She was very excited to reveal a hidden view of the valley behind a particular curtain. A few CUCs changed hands as I left, thanking her.
One last stop to take in more amazing views and then we had a 3 hour drive back to Havana.
We each spent $55CUC for the trip which was a great price for everything we saw and did, including lunch. I'd recommend Viñales for a day trip if you are ever in Cuba. More pictures of the area are here.