Updated on February 14th, 2020
“I felt very grateful. Lucky to be here & able to embrace these experiences. I had gratitude to all the tough times I had endured to reach one of these life-affirming moments.”
Los Acuáticos, Viñales, Cuba
For my October 50th birthday present to myself I have booked to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I enjoy hiking & always try to incorporate a trail into most trips. As part of my preparation, I have a number of hikes planned & it has made me reflect on some of the amazing opportunities I have had to see the world on foot through the years.
In February 2019 I attended a fantastic 7-day yoga retreat with Retreat Insider & Mhai Yoga in Cuba. Most of the retreat was based in Havana but we also had 2 days in Viñales which made the trip even more magical. The highlight was a hike to practice yoga overlooking the sunrise in the valley. This was the 2nd time I had been on this retreat, but it was somehow even more magical than the first. You can see my previous posts to read more but also please check out my Podcasts & Video Diaries to see & hear it for yourself!
What do you need to know?
Distance: Approx. 5.9 km
Time: 3 hours – including the hike, 45 minutes yoga & watching in awe of the view!
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
This was a short hike of only 45 minutes each way, up to the viewpoint in the darkness, yoga & then back after the sun had risen. There were 14 of us in the group which included Kathy our yoga instructor & 2 guides, one from Mhai Yoga & a local trail guide to help us negotiate the mud & puddles along the way.
An Early Start
We met at what felt like the middle of the night, 5.15 am. It was still pitch dark & we were all a bit bleary-eyed.
Apparently, this is one of the least popular activities in Viñales. Here, you go for horseback rides into the valley, hire a bike, hike along the trails but most people are reluctant to deal with this early start for the sunrise.
“All I can say is if you don’t then you’re seriously missing one of the most beautiful & profound travel experiences I have ever had.”
We met our guide for the walk outside our main casa, who provided us with torches & a bottle of water for the journey. We carried our yoga mats slung across our shoulders & piled into a couple of cars for the short, 10-minute (5km) drive to the start of the trail.
Walking in Silence
One of the principles of Mhai Yoga is to start the day with Mouna, a silent meditation. We practised this each morning if we chose to watch the sunrise in Havana. Alone but together, on the roof or at the beach. It was a gentle way to start each day, becoming present in yourself before engaging with others when we came together for morning yoga. In Viñales we demonstrated this by using the hike as our morning meditation.
As we started the walk it was all a bit surreal. Although my natural instinct is always to talk & crack a few gags along the way, there was something about it being so early, dark & mysterious which made the silence comforting. By not speaking it made me so much more mindful to the sounds around me.
“The roosters were ever present, heralding the morning from all angles as they serenaded our progress through the farmland. Then there were the goats, adding their voices as we started to climb.”
Our torches were adequate, but the lunar display was spectacular. We were lucky that our hike fell on a full moon & it loomed large & bright in the sky peppered with stars.
The first part of the trail was through farmland. It was fairly flat & the rain from previous days had created a few puddles. We negotiated these as our guide led the group snaking around the pathway to avoid the worst of the mud. In the next section, we started to climb as we hit the treeline. The terrain became rockier, and a bit loose underfoot which made it more challenging to avoid slipping.
A Welcome Break
The hike was quite a short one, so we only really needed one quick break to take off clothes & take on water while we caught our breath, still in silence. As it was dark there was little to distract us apart from when we stopped to let a man on horseback pass us on the trail. That’s Viñales for you, real Cuban cowboys! Then we spotted the lights of our destination, looking inviting in the clearing just ahead of us.
Los Acuáticos Viewpoint
Once we reached the viewpoint, our silence was slowly broken as we surveyed the vista behind us. The mountains were just coming into view as the pink glow of the sun appeared behind them, beginning its ascent.
“It was already well worth the early start & the sun was yet to really make an appearance!”
The Los Acuáticos viewpoint consists of a farmhouse on a grassy platform surrounded by the mountains of Viñales, or mogotes as they are called. The mogotes of Viñales are steep-sided hills made of limestone, surrounded by flat plains which are used mainly for agriculture. The hills have a very rounded form & to me resemble the islands in Thailand, but on land.
As the suns glow got brighter, the shapes in front of us became more defined & we could start to make out the spectacular mountains. This morning there was a mist in the valley which made the vista even more magical. We could now start to distinguish the palm trees as they pierced through the blanket of mist.
While the vista below continued to emerge & command our attention, we went to find our spot on the grass by the farmhouse. I unravelled my mat at the side, on an area which looked reasonably flat. We all settled facing Kathy, our instructor while overlooking the panorama before us. We prepared to stretch our bodies while mother nature treated us to her show.
Yoga with a View
When everyone was ready, we started our practice. As the day began to get lighter, our surroundings became more apparent. I slowly moved into cobra pose (lying on your front & lifting your chest off the ground with your hands, for non-yogis). I followed Kathy’s instructions to breathe deeply as my focus shifted to just in front of my mat.
“There was a big pile of poo (I suspected cows but I couldn’t be sure) staring back at me. It had still been quite dark when I laid out my mat so it could have been a lot worse!”
I got the giggles, inhaled deeply & savoured the hazards & beauty of outdoor yoga!
A Moment of Reflection
As the sun started to emerge, it bathed the valley in its orange glow. I felt very grateful, lucky to be here & be able to embrace these experiences. I had gratitude to all the tough times I had endured to reach one of these life-affirming moments. The silent hike, the sound of the roosters, the view of the mountains, the smell of the poo had all brought me to this moment of real mindfulness.
“I felt strength & freedom in my choices. To embrace all chances to do amazing things. To run with them enthusiastically & to relish each step I take in the sunshine.”
I felt immense gratitude for the love that has allowed me to be here, at this moment, with these people & I savoured every part of it.
Reflection was the order of the day, on how we have one life, for some, this is too short. The fact that we are here, on this beautiful earth, able to write, read, stretch, see the sun rise & set, walk, hike, love & laugh is a gift. At that moment I appreciated the gift more than ever before. Sometimes it takes times like this to wake up, inhale deeply (even if it smells of poo!) & smile because we can & it’s a privilege that is denied to many.
A Tearful End
We finished our practice slowly, peacefully, in awe of natures display. I had tears in my eyes as I reemerged into the day. We packed up our mats & savoured the moment for one last time. In the light, we could truly see the beauty of this place, the mountains all around & the pineapples growing neatly at the top of the trail.
We started to hike down, spotting the birds along the way. We were lucky enough to see a woodpecker, egret & the national emblem of Cuba – the Trogon. The trogon is blue, white & red, like the Cuban flag. It has speckled, iridescent feathers which perfectly reflect this beautiful, complicated & proud nation.
As we reached the flat ground, I noticed for the first time the redness of the earth. We passed fields & farms growing malanga (taro) & tobacco.
“We saw bulls pulling their farmer as he stood on the plough. The land here is tended using traditional methods which adds even more to the magic but also reinforces the hard work involved. We also passed a cart which was being pulled by bulls.”
My New Friend
As we neared the end of the hike, I made a friend. A dog started barking as my fellow yogis passed by & then spotted me. For the last 10 minutes of the walk, he was my faithful companion. Stopping when I stopped to listen & photograph the noisy birds, walking when I walked. It’s always good to have company!
I am planning to share some more of my favourite hikes around the world over the coming months. This will include some easy day hikes & some more challenging multi-day trails. All of these have left an impact on me, & this one, in particular, was profound which is why I chose to share it first. I hope you will choose to follow me as I explore more of my stories from the trails!
I use mainly my own photos for all my blog posts but occasionally call in the help of friends. In this case, we shared a lot of photos amongst the group. I would like to say a huge Thank You to Kathy, Crystal, Brenda, Jill, Rebecca, Brandi, Rachel, Laurelle, Genevieve, Jenna, John & our guide Lisandro who took our phones while we practised yoga & is responsible for many of these beautiful shots.
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To see more of my photos from Cuba & Viñales please visit my Gallery page!