Updated on February 14th, 2020
At that moment it was truly magical & I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the beauty nature had displayed in front of me. I felt in awe of the moment & full of gratitude for the chance to be here & have this experience. Tears started to stream down my face as I felt in one moment Peace, Growth, Honoured, Powerful, Strong, Beautiful & above all, Grateful.”
After a week spent on a yoga retreat in Havana, booked through Retreat Insider at Mhai Yoga (See my posts 7 Days of Self Discovery – Part 1 & Part 2), I opted for an add-on 2 day trip to Viñales. This gave me an opportunity to extend my yoga practice & see more of this beautiful country. I had visited Viñales on my previous trip to Cuba (See A First Timer’s Guide to Cuba), was in awe of the landscape & keen to spend more time there. If you would like to see for yourself & get a flavour of the experiences, please see my Video Diaries.
What do you need to know?
Viñales is about a 3-hour bus journey from Havana & as there were 5 of us & our chaperone, Alpi from the retreat, we were transported in a private minibus. Our first stop was a viewpoint just outside the town, which gave us a gorgeous introduction. For those unfamiliar, Viñales Valley is a landscape of small mountains or karsts which to me look like the islands of Thailand, but on land.
The accommodation was organised for us to stay in Casa Particulares, just off the main street. This gave us the opportunity to stay with a family, in a private room in their home. My hosts Maribel & Adalberto were lovely & offered breakfast on the roof terrace & very strong mojitos on request! I was very happy with my room. I didn’t have high expectations having spent 2 months living in casas previously, until I saw where my friends were staying which was modern, pristine & much bigger than mine. I realised all was not created equal. This would be my only gripe about my whole time here.
No sooner had we settled into our accommodation, then we all met up for lunch & were in for our first treat. Our transport was a horse-driven taxi which took us out of the town & to a farm where we were honoured to be guests at a private restaurant. The food was all home cooked, traditional & totally delicious as we sat on the covered patio overlooking the fabulous Viñales mountains. A very special experience!
After lunch, we then had our next activity, a horseback tour of the area. One by one we were allocated horses, mine was Ranchero, very frisky at first until he settled down with me (or was that me with him?).
“As we started on our trek, Ranchero & my friend Kathy’s horse were in stiff competition for the 2nd place in our pack, both very stubborn & keen to not give up ground. Kathy & I spent a lot of time half apologising & half giggling as they jostled for positions.”
Finally, they settled & Ranchero had to admit defeat, our place in the pack had been determined, we were 3rd & we stayed there for the rest of the trip.
The funniest moment of the journey, as we entered the Valley of Silence was when we all stopped. Alpi’s horse was clearly the leader & needed a pee. Then Kathy’s horse started & as I looked around everyone we realised all the horses had come to a standstill for a “pee stop”. I guess one triggers the others off & when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go! This was the only time during the whole trip that the horses had a pee, all together in perfect harmony!
The destination of our journey was a coffee plantation where we were given a short demonstration on how they make the coffee before settling down to a drink – Coco Loco (rum, honey, lime & coconut water served directly from the coconut). It was delicious & very welcome!
We eventually got back on the horses & returned to the farm where we were greeted by José with a display & presentation on how they make their organic, handmade cigars. Before anything, we were given one to try – dipped in honey, lit by José, & very pleasant. I have never smoked a cigarette, but I do enjoy the occasional cigar!
José described the process to us, where they remove the nicotine (held in the veins of the tobacco leaf) & take 4 months to dry the leaves. They then flavour this with honey, vanilla & rum. The cigars are hand rolled & he was selling them to us for 3 CUC each (UK£2.30 or US$3 at the time of writing). As this is Cuba, the farmers have to give 90% of their produce (the tobacco) to the government & the remaining 10% they roll into cigars which they can sell themselves. This same algorithm is used by the coffee makers & farmers across Cuba.
After a lovely afternoon of eating, horse-riding & smoking cigars we piled back into the horse & cart taxi & headed home.
“The final activity of the day was a sunset yoga session on the roof on of one of the Casas, overlooking the mountains as the sun sank behind them. It was precious & I realised how lucky I am to be able to do this.”
We had a reasonably early night as we were up at 5am the next morning to meet for a sunrise walk & yoga session. It was still dark as we piled into the cars in our hiking shoes, with yoga mats slung over our shoulders, and when we started our 40-minute hike up to the viewpoint. As the light was breaking through we set up our mats on the best flat ground we could find & Kathy started our class.
We moved & breathed into poses & I have to admit, I felt blessed.
“We stopped halfway through to just sit & enjoy the moment as the sun created streams of light which appeared from behind the mountains. I once read a book where the author described the shards of light created by the sun as ‘Fingers of God’ & I have always loved this description.”
At that moment it was truly magical & I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the beauty nature had displayed in front of me. I felt in awe of the moment & full of gratitude for the chance to be here & have this experience. Tears started to stream down my face as I felt in one moment Peace, Growth, Honoured, Powerful, Strong, Beautiful & above all, Grateful. Grateful for the chance I have to be here, doing this. Grateful for the opportunity to travel & most importantly grateful to my amazing husband Terry who gave me the opportunity to create this life. You can learn more in About Me.
We finished our practice & took our time to further admire the view before we gradually made our way back down the mountain to the waiting cars.
Our final activity of the trip was yet another delicious, slap up lunch with yet another amazing view at a local restaurant/farm. That evening, I bade a very sad & fond farewell to my lovely friend Kathy (Retreat Insider) & the other girls from the retreat. It had been an amazing experience & an emotional journey we had all shared.
“My first visit to Cuba had been a magical experience for me. It was the first time in 20 years I had travelled solo again & gave me a vision of how life could be in the future. I felt opened up, alive and ready to live again after having lost my husband almost 2 years before. I felt freer, & comfortable in my own skin. I was finally coming to terms with the loss of Terry & life on my own. It marked a pivotal moment for me & has changed the way I view myself & my life as a result.”
This time I left feeling reinvigorated in mind, body & spirit, with a positive attitude & a focus on myself. I had realised how strong I am but also that strength comes from vulnerability & it is sometimes good to allow that in too. I was energised & ready for the next chapter…which, in this case, was a 33-hour journey back to the US Virgin Islands & then on to Antigua. Watch this space to learn what the next adventure entailed!
To see for yourself & get a flavour of the retreat experience, please see my Video Diary.
What else do you need to know?
On my previous trip, I also went for a full day horseback tour which was organised by my Casa (they prefer if you do it through them rather than a travel agent in town as they get more benefit). The full day included a few more stops to take in other viewpoints & a chance to explore some small caves along the way. We also had some time with a tobacco farmer & cigar producer before the start of the tour (& opportunity to buy the cigars directly again).
In addition, I borrowed a bike for a day & cycled out of town in each direction. I paid a visit to the Prehistoric Mural which is well signposted (although for me the journey & views along the way were much better than the destination!). Other people, I met also cycled up to Balcon del Valle restaurant which they said had an amazing view. I started the journey but was suffering from 2 days in a row in the saddle so gave up long before I got there! I hired the bike again from my Casa.
I am planning to return to Cuba in February which is the next week organised at Mhai Yoga with Retreat Insider. Next time the addition of Viñales will be offered to everyone, & I look forward to reliving some of these experiences then.
What do you think?
Where else would you recommend visiting in Cuba?
What else have you done in Viñales which you would advise others to try?
Where else have you had a similar emotional experience while travelling?
My Gallery – To see more of my photos from Vinales please visit my Gallery page!