Mountains are what people come for and the unusual karst mountains are well worth a look. Imagine Halong Bay in Vietnam with rice paddies and fields instead of the ocean. The huge boulders are dotted along the valley giving the whole area a slightly mysterious look and in places where they go over into the mountain range surrounding the valley they offer fantastic outdoor sport activities. Although there are no proper hiking trails and rock climbing is still in its baby shoes there are a few walking trails out of the valley leading to viewpoints with stunning vistas. The most popular one is the one leading to the only two hotels in Vinales.
The way follows a main road and can be done by anyone capable of walking for longer than a TV advertisement break. It does get steep at some point but the 2km walk flies past as you are rewarded with great views and friendly locals thinking that you are a bit crazy to walk up the hill instead of getting a taxi. Once you reach the top you are allowed to walk into the hotel and enjoy the viewpoint at the pool. It is a lovely walk and apparently you get great sunrises there but I´m not sure about walking along the road without streetlights. Cuban driving can be adventurous at the best of times and switching on the lights does not seem to be compulsory.
Travelling with Australians is great – they are a bunch of super nice, extrovert people all into heaps of different outdoor activities. My two friends Ellen and Diana were no exception as they were experienced horse women. I have never been on a horse nor felt any need to do so but as it turned out Cuba was a country of many firsts for me. Our casa hosts suggested a horse riding excursion and not wanting to hold the other back I gingerly agreed. 6CUC per hour per horse seemed reasonable and we were looking forward to get to see more of this beautiful area. So off we went on our first morning here looking for the stables – which are hidden in the middle of some fields right at the edge of town. Once we arrived there were some issues about the price as they wanted to charge us more. We agreed on a flat rate of 20CUC for the three our trip and everyone was happy. With the Australians on their horses in seconds all eyes turned to me. My little horsie turned out to be tiny, old and looking rather donkey like but she was the perfect choice for a beginner. Our guys followed us on foot holding onto the rains of my horsie for the first half hour until I stopped shaking. He was absolutely lovely and very knowledgeable about the area, pointing out various plants and stone formations. Obviously he was also great taking care of the horses and the followed his command without hesitating. Now I really don’t know anything about horses but both Ellen and Diana said that the horses were well behaved and in very good condition. One could see that they are well fed and bight and alert.
The trek itself was great, slowly leading up a mountain towards a lake hidden away why the stone formations. There we had a little rest before riding back into town. The three hours passed like nothing and we enjoyed it very much. The horses were great and I was incredibly happy by how calm my horsie was. I could see her choosing the safest way to step and never did anything stupid like suddenly running away with me screaming and falling to my certain death (slight exaggeration here). Ask your casa owner and they will gladly help you to arrange a horse riding excursion. The people we were with were lovely and definitely cared well for the animals. They were also very understanding about our different abilities which I was very grateful for.
My second time in Vinales was jam-packed of sporty outdoorsiness which was great fun but also incredibly exhausting. Well, more exhausting at least than spending all day at the beach, drinking rum & coke and going for the occasional Scuba dive. With my new friends Vera and Claus we took off on a day of caving, something Vinales is famous for throughout Cuba. The first one we went to was the Cueva de los Indios; a tourist magnet 7km from the town centre. Taxis and mini busses go there all day long delivering tourists and day trippers. The cave itself is a show-cave, meaning concrete paths, electrical lighting and a speedboat tour on an underground river. It was fun and the 5 minute boat ride was actually really nice but it had nothing to do with proper caving. We were the only group in hiking gear whereas most of the Cuban women were wearing high heels. For 5CUC it was a comfortable way to spend the morning but nothing I feel the need to do again.
Cueva Santo Tomas was a different thing and please, please, please do not wear high heels or even ballerinas when getting there. Although the area you can visit is not dangerous we are still talking a 90min walk through sharp rocks in the dark with a slippery floor and no handrails. The 17km drive leads you into the middle of nowhere and we nearly missed the turn to the cave. Signs are spars in this area which surprised me a bit given that we are talking about the second largest cave in Central America. Would Cueva Santo Tomas be in North America or Europe it would be a huge tourist magnet. With it being in Cuba we were the only ones there and had our guide to ourselves. Parking is available and free and if you are brave enough there is also a very dodgy looking bar. Our guide spoke perfect English and asked for 10CUC per person for the tour. Sounds a bit steep but well worth it in the end. The tour started with an 18 meter climb to the entrance of the 6th level of the cave. As long as you wear proper shoes you will be fine, just avoid looking down. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb up but were even more grateful of the natural air con inside the cave. Here it was time to put on our helmets we were given, switch on the head torches and start exploring. Our guide led the way through some narrow passages into great halls full of glittering stalagmites and stalactites. The walking was not hard but the floor slippery and the rocks have very sharp edges. If you are particularly tall you might not enjoy this part of the tour too much. My personal low-light was the climb via a dodgy looking (but perfectly sturdy and save) ladder into the next level of the cave. Here we entered another great dark hall containing a natural pond and various creepy looking cave spiders. Our guide told us heaps of interesting stories and could answer all our questions about the geology of the cave. I´m not sure if I believe it but he said that once he spend an entire week climbing around in the lower levels of the cave that are not open to public access.
The Muriel de la Prehistoria
We all know that artists can be a bit crazy but as it turns out that Cuban artists can be both crazy and slightly delusional at the same. At least this is the only way I can explain the Muriel de la Prehistoria – a gaudy Technicolor painting covering an entire rock face of a karst mountain. Some twenty years ago a couple of artists tried their luck in depicting evolution – and succeeding in creating something that looks like a mix of cave paintings and a child’s drawing with water colours. I´m not going into the details of how it looks as you should really keep that element of surprise.
The easiest way to get there is follow the road leading out of town the way the bus came in for 3km, and then a sign will direct you towards the Muriel following a smaller road through the mountains. 4km did not sound that bad but Vera and me chose to do it after Scuba diving at 9am and a 4 hour drive to Vinales – by the time we reached the Muriel we were starving like a pack of wolves and really did not appreciate the questionable artistic talent on offer. There is a 1CUC entrance charge if you want to get close and overpriced bars and a restaurant are at your service. Don’t miss it, although it sounds a bit boring it is a Cuba must see and even if it is just to say that you finally found dinosaurs in Vinales.