Is Vinales in Cuba?

By Peregrino Perez

Typical mogote mounds in Viñales, in western Cuba. Photo: Foto: Unseen Cuba / Marius Jovaisa

HAVANA TIMES — A few days ago, I was lucky enough to visit this idyllic place called Viñales, located in the western part of the island and surrounded by spectacular landscapes. Its mogotes, caves, tobacco plantations and the simplicity of its people have made it one of the places that international tourists visit the most in Cuba.

For Cubans like myself, children of the Special Period crisis, visiting it is a fantasy, so this experience left a deep mark on me which I would like to share with HT readers.

While traveling on my way there, I was captivated by the green landscape and the almost complete absence of the marabu weed (this plant that is invading Cuban fields more and more every day, in the same way decadence is taking over our cities).

The town is really quite small with a few streets that you can wander in a short amount of time but it’s a very pleasant stroll. When you get there, you feel a sense of progress, something that the suffering Cuban people have longed for for so long.

Nearly all the houses in Vinales have been converted into rentals for the international tourism market. And I mean this in the most literal sense: even apartments in buildings that aren’t very attractive, that were built in the realism/socialist style, are rented out to foreign visitors. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in Cuba. In Vinales, I didn’t see much in a bad state, destroyed and without paint; on the contrary, the houses have been well maintained, painted bright and tropical colors which compliment the place’s scenery really well.

Houses have been renovated but the architecture has been respected, credit goes to the heritage authorities. What were once wooden roofs have now been replaced by concrete; they are pitched roofs (quite a challenge with such basic techniques, at a very underdeveloped level). Then they covered with locally made roofing tiles. The aesthetics of the place has barely been changed, they have been kept throughout time, managing to withhold the building chaos that characterizes the rest of the country.

The main street is very busy as bars and cafes have been established in entrance halls, which give it a very special atmosphere as if it was a busy and modern, city life. Its architecture contributes to this feeling. As most of the buildings are houses, they have wide hallways, but this is also a credit to the local government’s intelligent management.

In Cienfuegos, where I was born and live, the City’s Custodian would never have allowed these kinds of establishments to open up, and the result is that we have a place without any nightlife and is extremely boring.

In a nutshell, the affect Viñales has on you is like you aren’t in Cuba. You come across people from all over the world, people sigh out of happiness rather than resignation, building projects are advancing really quickly. The service you receive is extremely good when compared to other places in Cuba, the prices here are also extraordinary, rather they “give you a fever” when the bill is brought to you.

A monthly income isn’t enough to pay for a meal for two people. However, to think that high prices are the problem would be to look at this from the wrong angle: the precarious wages situation which some people accurately call only a “stipend” are what make these services out of any ordinary Cuban’s reach.

There are also state-run restaurants, which are certainly less expensive but just as unaffordable. But the huge difference lies in the quality of the service here, in the menu, decoration and originality of the furniture and buildings.

This subject has been talked about to death. The complex bureaucratic structure is incapable of offering a quality service while providing attractive wages which would bring out the best in the ingenious Cuban.

How much more proof do decision-makers need to understand that these small businesses need to be private in order to be functional?

The only bitter taste I encountered there was the attitude of the new wealthy Cubans. Arrogant, speculative, with horrible taste in music and clothes, lots of bling bling… They parade about in their modern cars, it’s a shame that this prosperity hasn’t had more altruistic and philanthropic ends, which was common among the elite in the past. This new Cuban is a winner and he wants to shout it out to the whole world, their jewels have to be the fattest, the shiniest which would even blind the Sun.

Viñales is an oasis within Cuba’s distressing landscape, if only this example is repeated elsewhere, but it doesn’t look like this will be happening anytime soon.

Not every region within the country is lucky enough to have such a vast influx of international tourists, which ensures a niche in the market which is able to make these kinds of businesses flourish. Much less with authorities that have very little understanding of market laws and take the right measures so that prosperity can stop being a fantasy. Well, like the old Cuban countryside proverb goes: “the person who stays out of the way helps quite a bit.”

8 thoughts on “Is Vinales in Cuba?

  • This article and its comments illustrate the ambivalence and mixed feelings I think many people have when visiting Cuba. In an oversimplified sense, Vinales is the two worlds of Cuba–the old world that we are all drawn to, and the new world we all can’t help thinking Cuba ‘should’ move into. We want the throwback for our photos and for our true experiences, but we also appreciate modern conveniences and a familiar host of amenities.

    On one hand, people want to visit Vinales for its rustic agriculture–oxen, home-made ox-carts, small artisanal farming in what is seen as an authentic and genuine way–methods preserved and still happening, rather than a trend in a hyper-modern society that people are returning to, as in the U.S.

    On the other hand, we as tourists (and apparently Cubans feel this way too) find the relative prosperity in downtown Vinales, and its neighborhood streets, refreshing and promising as a model of how Cuba can move forward. If you head out a mile or two from Vinales, you definitely still see the familiar poverty that makes us tourists feel conflicted about that pastoral quality, or the arrested economic development. Tourism and its influence has a pretty well defined range in Vinales.

    It’s easy to say hey, why not do this everywhere in Cuba? Of course there is a bit of a perfect storm in Vinales–the scenery and natural landscape, the size of the main town, the provenance of the world’s finest tobacco, and the undeniable popularity of the place with tourists. The Cuban government can’t seem to resist capitalizing on this good fortune. It seems like a profitable experiment and has a great vibe overall, but is it replicable? As a tourist in Cuba, it is hard to know how any given business interacts with the economy and the government, even though I am aware that everyone has an opinion on those things. How much of the revenue from the feel-good situation in Vinales is staying in the hands of the people, as it would in a healthy transitioning economy? Hard to say…people there give varying answers, but yes, the place feels prosperous in a new way that is not commonly seen in Cuba.

    As for the comment that Vinales is overrun with tourists, and therefore, somehow unauthentic…we asked our hosts and several other people if they are exhausted by the influx of tourists, or resent it. They all seemed to say basically the same thing–it is improving the lives of the people and they like it for the most part. That was our sense anyway. Personally I thought the mix of locals and tourists was a healthy aspect of Vinales. Sure if you do the 2 or 3 things tourists are supposed to do, yes, you’ll see that side of Vinales. But people are clearly open to conversation, chatting, and generally have an open door, open mind, open heart quality that one can tap into readily if one tries.

    The question of authenticity reminds me of a musician I read about years ago who was asked how he felt about some fans’ comments that playing larger halls meant the band was ‘selling out’ or less authentic. He said he felt a lot more authentic playing for a big crowd of people than playing in a half-empty bar room with no one really listening. In Vinales, at least for now, it seems that the people there are welcoming the wave of tourism and money it’s bringing. It’s up to the Cuban people and the Cuban gov’t to retain character and quality of place and so far they seem to be doing that nicely. From what I can tell.

  • On our fourth extended trip to Cuba last month, we visited vinales for the first time. As independent Spanish speaking travelers, staying in casas and seeking to learn about and understand Life in Cuba, we found Vinales to be disappointingly monetized and tourist saturated. We understand the economic opportunity the tourist industry brings to the region, and perhaps we didn’t have the best luck in choosing a casa or a guide, but we would probably not choose to return. For what it is worth.

  • Great article and it’s truly an example how free enterprise can succeed! Thanks much for this positive and inspiring clip.

  • I love Vinales and I agree, Cuba would be better if the rest of the country copied Vinales. That stated, the folks in Vinales have work ethic and honesty that is not seen so much in the rest of Cuba. My FAVORITE ladies and their mom own a BNB there. Unlike most touriss…I sat on a rocking chair with the ladies on their rooftop and enjoyed the sunset and tranquility. That is what Vinales is all about.

  • Vinales is also prosperous because the government never nationalized the property of the tobacco farmers, although the industry does suffer from low government imposed prices.

  • Viñales is a small example of what Cuba could be like if the Castros would simply let market forces play a greater role in the economy.

  • On our next visit to Cuba we plan to spend some time in Vinales. I look forward to staying with a family hopefully on a farm. I love stopping and talking with people off the tourist
    path. I do not speak Spanish, yet somehow manage to communicate.

  • The overall wealth of the town of Vinales has positively impressed me for many years. This positive economic situation is a result of tourist money being brought into town and spent over and over as locals receiving it spent it with other locals who in turn respend it. Simple economics.

    The Cuban government sees this economic benefit in Vinales but appears unwilling to promote non resort or eco-tourism in other places, instead being hell bent on building new resorts and even discouraging this type of tourism in other places. A marvelous opportunity to showcase the social and cultural upside of Cuban structure and culture to the rest of the world is is wasted by historical fears of outside influence.

    Sadly most tourists totally miss the beauty of the Vinales people and culture. They only look at the valleys, the mogotes, ride a horse or hike through the tobacco fields then say “been there, seen that” and quickly move on. They never slow down spend time to appreciate the local people and culture.

    I once stopped to chat with an old man sitting on his porch because there was a sign on his house that read “senor beisbol”. He brought out his memorabilia. He showed me a small stack of baseball cards. Each had his photo and stats on them. He had a box of baseballs used in national championship games, each autographed by all the players. His signature was on every one of them.

    I always stop and visit with an interesting pig farmer and his wife. He is 97 years old and said I was the first foreigner he had ever met.

    The best baseball game I have attended in Cuba was in Vinales. Not a major league team but I ended up watching the game while sitting in the Vinales team dugout.

    There are just so many positive experiences in Vinales for those who slow down.

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