Viñales Valley is in the picturesque tobacco-growing region of western Cuba - Pinar del Río province. I took a day trip there from Habana at the weekend - these trips are only supposed to be for Cuban people and the price is a small fraction of the price of the same trip during the week, which is advertised to tourists!
Our guide for the day, Nelson, was a friendly, funny guy who was open about his opinions on Cuba. He joked about the definition of communism - 'Give me your watch and I'll tell you what time it is' and 'Tell me what you need most in the world and I'll tell you how to live without it'. He noted the difference in attitudes between people in Santiago and those in Habana - how the communist ethos was enforced by the general public in Santiago and anyone seen to be living decadently or criticising the system would be censured, meanwhile in Habana, he suggested that someone could drive around in a Ferrari if they wanted to and nothing would be said - in Habana there are people that live in big houses, wear fancy clothes, eat in fancy restaurants - it was acceptable there, which makes a bit of a mockery of the system.
Nelson said he would love to travel outside of Cuba but thought it was unlikely to become possible anytime soon, "I was born in Habana, I lived all my life in Habana and, the way things are, I will probably die in Habana". He also told me how he would love to see change in Cuba, a better country for his daughter; he lamented the fact that so many highly-educated people were working in tourism because they can make more money than in other professions (Nelson himself was an Economics graduate).
We entered the Viñales National Park area and our first stop was at a lookout point with a spectacular view over Viñales Valley. Then we drove past fields and limestone peaks to a very strange attraction - Mural de la Prehistoria - where huge pictures depicting evolution have been painted on the side of a mountain. It's quite a weird sight - crude, childish images in garish colours among all this natural beauty. Apparently it took 15 people five years to create it and, due to the climate in this area and the size of the work, it needs to be constantly repainted. Nelson told us how a visitor had once commented, "You don't have enough paint to fix up the houses in Habana but here you are painting the mountains!".
While we were there we were approached by a local farmer on his prize white cow which he cared for greatly. He charged visitors to have their picture taken with it or on it; I normally don't give money to people doing things like that and I was a bit nervous of the cow at first but I later gave in!
We stopped nearby for lunch, during which I chatted to a girl from London and two guys from Japan who were also on the day trip - the girl was spending a few months studying Spanish in Cuba and the Japanese guys were on a round-the-world trip.
We visited a small tobacco house where they had tobacco leaves drying, an explanation of the process to turning leaves into cigars and examples of different types of cigars.
We then explored the Cueva del Indio cave on foot and by boat and saw some interesting shapes in the stalactites and stalagmites (and got soaked by the water dripping from the roof of the cave!).
We tried freshly pressed sugar cane juice - it wasn't as sweet as I had expected, it didn't taste of much at all actually.
Finally we wandered around the small, sleepy Viñales village. Despite Viñales being one of the tourist highlights of Cuba, many of the buildings in the village are very dilapidated - the church was in a very bad state and the hairdressers had its front window smashed in.
There was torrential rain during our bus-ride back to Habana, it was a little bit frightening! I had a lovely, relaxing day - the peace and quiet of the countryside provided a blissful break from the chaos of Habana.