A recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the town of Vinales, and the valley in which it is set in Cuba's 'green' Pinar del Rio Province, is characterised by impressive round-topped hills, or mogotes. These date back to the Jurassic period and are covered with rich and varied vegetation; they are remnants of the plateau that was eroded by a network of underground rivers millions of years ago.
Vinales Valley © Judith Duk
The Vinales Valley is located about 112 miles (180km) west of Havana, making it a good daytrip destination or weekend getaway. The valley is beautiful, a patchwork of nature's bounty mixed with green fields of tobacco, coffee and other crops that grow out of the rich red earth; traditional agricultural techniques have remained unchanged here for centuries. Scattered palm trees and pine forests shelter a variety of melodious birds, and the area is also a magnet for speleologists and cave enthusiasts, being riddled with limestone caves and caverns.
The hilly landscape, quaint villages, oxen-ploughed fields, rustic barns and underground cave systems and rivers, provide a striking contrast to the faded colonial grandeur and white sandy beaches found on the rest of the island. The main valley village, Vinales, is a charming, very laid-back place that makes a good base for exploring the lovely surrounds.
Cueva del Indio © Dainis Matisons
Cueva del IndioLocated in the Viñales Valley, the Cueva del Indio is a magical place for kids to visit. In addition to the caves, the area provides some great family activities such as hiking and climbing, as well as some gorgeous rock pools for swimming in the stunningly bright green water. The caves are named for the local Indians who once inhabited them, the Guanajatabey Amerindians, who carved shelters into the limestone rock and hid in the caves from Spanish colonialists. Some of their bones were unearthed in the cave system and their art is still visible on the walls. The caves were rediscovered in 1920 and, with a gallery spanning 27 miles (45km), the Cueva del Indio cave system is very impressive. Travellers with kids in Cuba will find this a wonderful family activity; children will love the boat ride across the underground lake in the cave, and discovering the stalactites, stalagmites and petroglyphs on the walls of the cave. There is a museum and a cafeteria within the cave system. It doesn't take long to take the tour through the caves but it is quite a magical experience and worth a quick detour.
Santo Tomas caves © Judith Duk
Gran Caverna de Santo TomásCuba's largest cave system, with more than 29 miles (46km) of underground galleries spanning eight different levels, the Santo Tomás caves are situated about 10 miles (16km) west of Vinales. Very informative, 90-minute guided tours take visitors 138 feet (42m) above the valley floor into the sixth gallery, where fantastic limestone formations, glittering stalactites and stalagmites, underground lakes and vast caverns are revealed by the light of headlamps. You may be taken to level seven as well but unless you are an advanced caver you will most likely be limited to these two levels; the entrances to levels six and seven are semi-hidden on a forested slope overlooking the valley and they provide wonderful vantage points for views and photographs. The cave system includes a tiny museum and visitor centre but for the most part the caves have been kept in their natural state, avoiding the tourist traps of electrical lighting and souvenir stands. In accordance with this lack of commercialisation, the place is refreshingly devoid of large crowds and tour groups which allows for a more mysterious and authentic tour than is usually possible in famous cave systems.
Address: El Moncada, 11 miles (17km) west of Vinales village
Vinales Valley © Judith Duk
Vinales Botanical GardenAlmost all of the Vinales Valley attractions revolve around natural splendour and the Vinales Botanical Garden, the Jardin de las Hermanas Caridad y Carmen Miranda, is a special addition to this panoply of natural bounty. This small botanical garden ranks very highly among things to see and do in Vinales, partly because it is so refreshingly intimate and un-touristy. The garden was cultivated by a local family, who still live on the property, in order to preserve samples of indigenous tropical plants. It feels like a Cuban version of the Secret Garden; a riot of colour and controlled jungle which delights travellers of all ages. This is an ideal place to familiarise yourself with the flora of the region. Usually there is a family member available to show you around and teach you about all the different species of plants which makes for a lovely, personal experience. Roosters and chickens roam freely in the rambling garden and there are lots of lizards and birds. There are also some quirky decorations (dolls heads adorn some of the fence posts). You can simply stroll into this garden from the main road of the village, and it is a wonderful place to wander alone, but be aware that although entrance is free small donations are expected, particularly if one of the family members gives you a tour. If you are lucky enough to be invited be sure to have a peek inside the house as it is also very charming.