Most people who visit Cuba want to hit up Havana to take a ride in a vintage Chevy or Soviet-era Lada, soak up hundreds of years of Cuban history and check out some of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering holes. But there are many delights waiting for you outside the city — including caves, crocodile farms and cigars. So hire a car or jump on a tour and venture out into the Cuban countryside.
About two-and-a-half hours west of Havana, you’ll find the stunning Viñales Valley. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its mogotes — big rounded limestone hills that appear out of nowhere on the flat landscape (a poet likened to sleeping elephants) — rich rural culture and traditional ways of growing tobacco.
Local tobacco farmer cooperatives are required to sell 90 per cent of their crop to the Cuban government, but they can do what they like with the remaining 10 per cent, including showing visitors how to roll a cigar and then sell bundles of the hand-rolled product for a few CUCs (1 CUC equals $1 U.S.).
Take a boat ride through the La Cueva del Indio: the cave of the Indian. As you walk to the mouth of the caves, performers dressed in native garb encourage audience participation and give an introduction to the Indigenous peoples who lived in these caves. You can also try a refreshing taste of sugar cane squeezed through a press.
See the Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria painted on a giant cliff. Commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961, the mural covers the story of evolution from snails through to humans. It was designed by Leovigildo González, a former director of Mapping at the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a big fan of Mexican painter Diego Rivera (also known as Frida Kahlo’s husband). It took four years and 18 people to complete.
If you head toward the Bay of Pigs, a tiny inlet on the southern coast of Cuba known for a failed US invasion in 1961, you’ll find a number of lesser known places to explore. Just as you turn south off the main highway, drop in at Finca Fiesta Campesina, a sort of farm/zoo that has pretty gardens and plenty of critters wandering around. Try a great Pina colada served with honey or some fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice, with or without a shot of rum, or as it’s known in Cuba, “Vitamin R.”
A little further south, check out the crocodile farm, Criadero de Cocodrilos, that has rescued a couple of the species from near-extinction. Learn about breeding crocodiles, help feed the beasts and get your picture taken holding one of the smaller ones. You’ll also find plenty of souvenir stands.
Take a speedboat ride across Laguna del Tesoro — or Treasure Lake — so named for the legend of Taíno Indians dumping gold in the water as they fled the Spanish. The boat will take you to a resort on tiny islands that includes a a sculpture garden of life-sized figures of Taíno villagers. If you go all the way south the Bay of Pigs, you can learn more about the 1961 event at the Museo de Playa Girón and enjoy a few gorgeous beaches.
As originally published by Toronto Star.