The lush tobacco growing region of Viñales, a 2½ hour drive west of Havana in the north-central Pinar del Rio Province is chilled, slow and full of rustic charm. It draws visitors in like the promise of a go-slow detox treatment after the mother of all Cuban nights out.
Your shoulders drop from the moment you clap eyes on the wonderful limestone monolith scenery, surrounded by plantation-style houses and the mojito-slow pace of life.
The landscape is dramatic, with grandstanding mountain views and dark fertile fields. Moving at the pace of an old western film, life takes on a gentleness that is matched by the friendly local welcome and convivial front-of-house porch chat. The scene is dominated by rocking chairs, bright colours and an all-hours open-door sense of community.
When I stayed there with my family over the New Year period, the pace hardly quickened. Locals gently celebrated from house to house, carrying homemade cuisine and favoured thirst-quenchers with a swell of excitement peaking in the centre of the three street town, to let off a few fireworks and babble over the local communist party speeches at midnight.
The drama of Viñales Valley unfolds the moment you walk, cycle or drive out into the surrounding countryside. Understandably listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, the region is surrounded by mountains with 300m cliffs overlooking the neighbouring tobacco fields and farming homesteads. Adding to the charm are the traditional farming methods, which appear to have altered little over the years, with tobacco drying shacks and racks dotting the countryside as farmers shuttle to and fro on horseback, elderly tractors and in the obligatory classic Cuban cars.
The more you explore the more you find yourself swept up in the allure of this dramatic and handsome pocket of Caribbean island. Whether disappearing along an unmarked road to some secluded farm community, or climbing mountain high above the palm dominated croplands, the feeling of escape and remoteness is never far away.
It is not difficult to appreciate why the region has been popular with Cuban artists. Over the years they have reflected the unique Viñales culture created by its indigenous people, Spanish colonialists, African slaves and plantation history. With time visitors can also revel in the strong flavour of local music and performing arts and crafts.
The sensation of wandering through a living museum is never far away either. So with all things Cuba reputedly about to change, I urge you to seize the moment and visit one of the island’s most exciting and rewarding old-style destinations.
Whether in need of a detox or not.