Vinales: my private tour of the Cuban countryside

I didn't want to stick inside the walls of Havana, though that would have been enough. I was lucky enough to be invited on a private tour of Vinales by Cubasolidays  {not a typo on my part, i believe it's a translation error on theirs...} a company that organises local excursions from horseback riding to rum tasting to cave hikes. 

Pick up from Havana //

I was picked up from my {second} casa particular on O'Reilly street in the heart of Old Havana at 7 a.m. sharp by a man in a lime green Chevrolet from the 1960s. It's a little over 2 hours drive to Vinales from the heart of Havana. I won't lie, the conversation with my driver didn't extend past "Hola!"  So, maybe bring your iPod? Or learn Spanish? I enjoyed taking in the scenery in silence since it was early and I didn't want to try and force my driver into talking when his English was as limited as my Spanish. 

Tour the town + stop by view points of the valley //

Upon reaching the city limits, you'll be driven to your first stop of that day: Los Jazmines Hotel. There is a deck at the hotel with a beautiful view of the lush valley. It was truly breathtaking and photos do it no justice. 

Visit the Museo de la Prehistoria //

It started to sprinkle {off-season problems}, but the fog lifted and so off we went to the Museo de la Prehistoria to see the neon-coloured cave painting. Farmers from the community continue to keep up with the maintanence of the massive mural, which I find quite special. 

Take a boat ride through Cuban caves //

After going to see the mural, your driver and guide will escort you to two different caves. The first is the largest. Once you walk through it, you'll be taken out of it by boat as your guide tells you about the legendary shapes formed from rain and wind over time. The caves are beautiful, though hard to take photos of. Though you will be on a private tour, the boats running through the cave will fill up with other tourists visiting before they move. Beware of all the selfie sticks from people at the front of the boat! 

Lunch at a local restaurant //

How can I say this while being culturally sensitive? I've had better food. Basically anywhere else I've ever been, there has been better food. While on my tour, however, I received a delicious vegetable and rice dish. Also included with my meal were plates of black beans, steamed yuca, plantain chips, and coffee for dessert. Your meal is included as part of the price of your tour, so you get your monies worth if you're paying. Also, pickles seem to come on the side of everything in Cuba {which I hate, eww, yuck}.

Plantation hop on horseback //

After lunch, you are driven to the horse stables where you are matched with an incredibly well-trained horse. It is suggested that you wear pants and closed-toe shoes. Many tourists come to Vinales to ride horses for the first time and leave with bad inner thigh rashes due to the heat, humidity, and rubbing against the saddle blanket. I wore jeans and my converse {which were filthy with thick, red mud by the end of my tour}. 

Pictured above...the one and only, Felix. 

Pictured above...the one and only, Felix. 

The first stop is a tobacco plantation. Here, you learn all about the cigar making process, from planting to selling. Did you know it takes a year to make a Cuban cigar? Also, each farmer turns over 90% of their crop to the government, who then processes the tobacco in its own way. Whatever you buy straight from a family plantation is made with that specific family's "recipe." 

The next stop is a rum, honey, and coffee plantation owned by another family. Eduardo gave me a tour of the coffee processing first, as this interested me most. I learned that Cuban's use 1/3 the amount of water and double the portion of beans when making their coffee.

After trying some, I can attest to the fact that Cuban's like their coffee strong I then learned about how honey is used as an aphrodisiac for women and how mother-in-laws put it in their son's wife's coffee to make her more fertile. Whether it works or not, I'll never know personally, but there were an awful lot of adorable babies all over Vinales that I got to hold {babies have the best smelling hair, right?!}. 

Finally, I braved the rum. After trying a cigar, I figured what was the point at drawing a line? I told you all I was some kind of wild in Cuba. I tried a traditional cocktail of rum, pineapple juice, lemon juice, cane sugar, and orange juice. It wasn't that bad at all. That's when I got real brave and accepted a shot I was offered. Those two small drinks were more than enough {I still had to ride a horse all the way back!}. 

On the way back to meet my driver, Felix told me we should go off the horse trail since I wasn't a novice at riding {though, I totally am}. I agreed to brave the thick mud, a river crossing, and a bridge {I'm really not sure it was meant to hold the weight of a horse...}. It was a massive highlight for me. I felt so in my element. On/off rain, mountains, and coffee out of a thermos during quick stops. It was by every definition, a damn good day.

I am so grateful that Cubasolidays allowed me to venture out with them into the Cuban countryside. You can visit most of these sights on your own time, but if you are working with a condensed time frame, booking this tour is easy and worth the money. I highly recommend Cubasolidays. 

Special thanks to Cubasolidays for the amazing day. All opinions are, as always, my own!