Horseback Riding in Viñales, Cuba
Cuba. A month has passed since my trip to this great Caribbean island, and I'm still reflecting on all the things it taught me—mostly things about myself, if I'm honest. Cuba forced me to make decisions that I'd been waffling about. I whined about those decisions during the course of the entire trip, second-guessed them, then reaffirmed some essential truths I found in my life.
Yes, I'll write about these soon. I just don't want to spoil the great, soul-searching experience Cuba gave me in this post.
Looking back, Cuba was probably the first trip I've gone on that has nudged me out of my comfort zone. It took me through the crazy streets of Havana, dodging aggressive jineteros (hustlers) and sipping water from coconuts. It dropped me in the middle of beautiful, silent valleys, where I tumbled down hills on the back of a horse who wanted to be anywhere but where we were. It taught me to be okay with ultimate failure when I learned that I wasn't as badass or tough as the image I try to emulate online.
It encouraged me to be present with myself. Personal with others.
Also, it schooled me on the ways of horseback riding. Sort of. So there's something.
Over the course of the last four weeks, I've struggled to describe Cuba in a few, succinct words. It's a hard task. People ask me how it was, what I thought of Cuban life, and I just ... freeze up. How does one accurately convey all the things I feel for Cuba?
Specifically, how do I explain what I feel for Viñales? I could use cliches: it's beautiful and fun, full of lively people, bright, colorful houses, and adventure. But while I'd be right, that doesn't cover the emotions. Or the journey.
Still, I'll give it a shot. Let's start with the horses. Because who doesn't love horses?
• Horseback Riding in Viñales •
Picture this: a warm day, standing at a tobacco farm just hours after arriving to Viñales, the taste of honey and smoke in your mouth. Animals coo in the distance—a pig squeals as cats circle your ankles.
With me so far?
Diana (from MVMT Blog), her friend Maggie, and I were already in love with Viñales by this point. It seemed a little infatuated, considering we'd only seen a small fraction of it... But how could we resist the sun-soaked valleys, the rolling mogotes, the hint of mango perfume in the air?
We sat at a table with a young farmer, probably in his late twenties, as he showed us how to roll and press cigars. Between puffs of mild tobacco, he told us of the farm, that it had been kept in the family for generations and only produces 3,000 hand-rolled cigars a year. Which isn't many, he said, compared to the cigar factories in Havana.
But they were happy, and so were we.
After purchasing some cigars to take home, we thanked the family for their time and turned to leave, only to stop when a group rode past on horseback.
Hold the phone. There were horses?!
We eagerly inquired after said horses. Less than ten minutes later, three short, strong horses were led down from a small bamboo grove and fitted with saddles. The price was $40 USD for four hours of riding with a guide, which we felt was more than reasonable. We would see coffee plantations, incredible views of breathtaking valleys, and sip on beer at a small cafe in the middle of nowhere. Our host (who were were staying with in Viñales) would pick us up when we got back.
Our decision was a spontaneous one. We made it in less than a minute of conversation, where it wasn't actually a conversation but a mutual look between the three of us followed by a resounding YES, PLEASE. BRING US THE HORSES.
I, personally, was enthusiastic, throwing my money wildly into the air in hopes that I'd magically teleport onto a horse and go galloping off into a happy ever after.
(Well, not quite, but you get what I mean.)
I'd never ridden a horse before. I wasn't scared—it was something I'd wanted to do forever, and the fact that I could finally try it pleased me beyond words. Every childhood fantasy I'd ever had was coming to life in a single moment. I was Indiana Jones, Nancy Drew, Hiram Bingham, and Annie Oakley, all in one.
This was a bucket list item, a personal dream. And I'll remember the experience forever.
Once the horses were ready, one of the farmers beckoned me over, and I swung up into the saddle like I'd seen people do on TV. It went well; I was a born-and-bred pro. ;) Diana and Maggie were introduced to their trusty steeds next, and then we were all given a quick overview of how to hold the reins and ... off we went!
The journey we took from this point on is better told in photos. Viñales is too freaking (substitute with stronger words at your convenience) beautiful, and I'd be remiss not to share it with you.
P.S. If you've never taken photos on a horse before, I can safely say that it's a struggle. But I managed anyway. Just for you! You're welcome.
We started by taking a winding, red trail through sprouting vegetable fields and groves of mango trees. I can't quite explain what it was like to be surrounded by lush green forests and open skies, but I can say with utter certainty that it's something everyone should experience.
After thirty minutes of riding, with nothing but the sound of occasional mooing, the clop of hooves, and our teenaged guide's phone playing tinny Spanish music, we arrived at a coffee plantation for a five minute tour of their picking and roasting process.
I don't think we learned much, but it was a nice experience to see the coffee plants and how they sort the beans for roasting. Our takeaway? Cuban coffee plants apparently don't produce much coffee (color me surprised, but then, I was comparing it to its Jamaican counterpart). Because of this, they make a stronger coffee with half the water to stretch the crop out.
And strong it is, like French espresso.
We were then directed underneath a picnic shelter, where we sampled some local honey and golden rum made with guava fruit. Damn, they were both delicious. I didn't buy any, but I'm definitely kicking myself now for making such a silly decision.
Once we hit the trail again, we rode deeper into the heart of Viñales wilderness. Sometimes we'd break into a gallop, and I'd clutch my horse for dear life as I awkwardly flailed down a long, bumpy hill. Other times we waded through pools of stagnant water, squealing as it splashed up our legs.
But most of the time? We were just in awe of the nature around us. Guava trees, orange trees, bamboo, sugar cane, wild pigs, ox and cows, towering trees, thick vines... I felt like an explorer. A real one, ready to unearth an incredible discovery.
Our last stop before we retracing our steps to the tobacco farm was a small, hilltop cafe that served lunch and booze. We took a seat near the railing and stared out at the valleys and mogotes beyond us as we waited for our Cuban sandwiches and cold beers.
Other than the whole riding-a-horse experience, this remains one of my favorite moments. It gave us time to reflect on our trip to Cuba, on our current adventure, and on the beauty and quiet of the Cuban countryside. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Also, there were chickens. Literally. Wild chickens everywhere.
• TIPS FROM MRS. NERD •
If you want to go on a horseback riding excursion in Viñales, here are a few tips I recommend following to prepare for the adventure of a lifetime:
- Stay with a local family in Viñales. We found ours on Airbnb, and when we got there, they recommended people they knew for our excursions. We didn't have to do any research beforehand, which was nice!
- We paid $40 USD for the experience, which ended up being about 4 hours. This included our visit to the coffee plantation and the cafe, but the drinks and food were extra.
- If you're not comfortable with the horse you're given, don't be afraid to speak up and ask for a different one. The horses are definitely mild, but comfort is a must. You and your ride will be BFFs for the next 4 hours.
- Bring a light rain poncho. We started our adventure in the sun and got drizzled on. None of us minded, really—so it's up to you.
- Keep a good grip on your phone or camera. It's not a smooth ride, but pictures are half the fun!
Have further questions about our experience? Feel free to reach out!