The Decline of Viñales, Cuba

By Pedro Pablo Morejon

HAVANA TIMES – Viñales is a municipality in the central-northern part of Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province. It has been a tourist destination for decades, receiving a big boost when the ‘90s rolled around. It was then that national economy was floundering after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in Europe. The decision was made to open the island’s doors to the international tourism industry.

The Viñales Valley is one of Cuba’s natural treasures, an idyllic place which the world is familiar with. It is here that Dora Alonso’s ashes rest, the renowned Cuban author who was born in Matanzas, but loved this place so much that her last will was that her body be cremated and her ashes be scattered in the valley.

It also has extremely beautiful natural sites such as the Prehistoric Mural, Indian Caves and Palenque de los Cimarrones.  You can find hotels there including Los Jazmines, La Ermita, Rancho San Vicente and Dos Hermanas.

In the same town, private rentals flourished when self-employment licenses were approved, and they operated like hostels, mainly targeting foreign tourists.

The decline had already begun in 2019

Well, the number of foreign visitors to the region has been waning, ever since mid-2019. I remember traveling to Viñales for work and I saw very few tourists on the street. On my way back, I went into Los Jazmines Hotel which was literally empty, which surprised me because you wouldn’t expect this even in the low season. 

However, the worst came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Things have got so bad that even when the country has opened its doors to foreign tourism again, the region continues to be dead. We know that foreigners are being welcomed to enjoy the northern cays.

How has this impacted the lives of people linked to this business? Quite badly, as you would expect.

A friend and neighbor of mine told me about a man who he was friends with, who had three rooms to rent and a swimming pool. He would welcome tourists from Canada, France, Spain and other European countries.

He was in El Rumayor (Pinar del Rio’s famous cabaret) and you had to see the man tell a foreigner on the phone, in his mispronounced English, that he couldn’t rent to them, because all of his rooms were occupied by a group of Canadians.

“Another day, we ran into him at the bar in Vueltabajo hotel, and he bought a 40 CUC bottle that nobody buys and told us, “Don’t drink that crap anymore, come and drink proper rum, I’m paying.”

“And it just so happens, Pedrito, that I ran into him a couple of days ago and he told me that it was like he was crossing “Niagara Falls on a bike” (which is what we Cubans say when we’re going through a tough time), that he’s almost broke and is beginning to go crazy.”

Employment changes

This neighbor used to be an English teacher, and he made a living by acting as a guide for foreigners, taking them to private rental homes, whose owners would pay him his commission. He told me that if this situation carries on, he will have to go back to working as a teacher.

Another friend living in Pinar del Rio city used to work as a waitress at a restaurant in Viñales. She would work two long work days, until late at night, and then have two days off. When she had to work, she would rent a place to stay and she would make over 2000 CUP (80 USD) per month, as well as some tips, which was a lot more than what she used to make teaching at the university. She’s unemployed right now.

There’s no doubt that Viñales used to be a source of income for many people, who have now seen their opportunities frustrated by the pandemic and the economic crisis. They hope for better times: the resurrection of Viñales!

The rest of us mortals have no idea what this is. We have always been in a tough spot. 

Read more from Pedro Pablo Morejon here on Havana Times.