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Next stop: Cuba's Vinales Valley
Located in the far western province of Pinar del Rio, Viñales is comprised of a beautiful and otherworldly karst landscape of enormous outcrops of limestone, called mogotes, which are surrounded by green fields. The contrast between the red, even orange, soil and the super verdant foliage is dramatic and very picturesque. A media-primed visitor might wonder why this landscape hasn't featured in any Hollywood films, at least before remembering about that pesky embargo.
Pinar del Rio is tobacco country, and in fact much of the agricultural production here is devoted to tobacco. Other crops include sugar cane, corn and various tubers. Farms in the valley sell their products to wandering tourists. There are fruits and vegetables on offer, as well as cane juice and cords of cigars. If you're lucky you'll be able to visit a tobacco farm during your hike and witness the various stages of tobacco production.
It is possible to tour the fields, mogotes, and caves independently, though most tourists plump for a local guide. Ours was extremely reasonable, at just CUC$3 ($3) per person per hour. Guides can be organized through casas particulares or hotels. Most walks are not particularly challenging, though shoes with a good grip are more or less obligatory.
For greater adventure, check out Viñales' burgeoning climbing scene via Cuba Climbing. More adventurous travelers might also be interested in taking a day trip to the Santo Tomás cave system some distance beyond the town of Vinales. Santo Tomás is Cuba's largest cave system.
Check out the simple, two-room Villa El Mojito, a casa particular run by an affable couple named Tita and Juanito. Tita serves up outstanding home-cooked dinners, and Juanito, formerly a bartender, goes by the nickname "El Mojito." He mixes delicious mojitos with muddled yerba buena grown in the casa's back garden. A twin bedroom at Villa El Mojito goes for CUC$20 ($21). Breakfast is CUC$3 ($3) per person; dinner begins at CUC$8 ($8). The freshwater shrimp and pork are dinner standouts.