Originally published in the Vancouver Province July 28, 2013

Cool morning mist wisps the valley as our horses wind along red clay roads through flowering tobacco fields. The heat is rising slowly, but it still outpaces my loping white horse, who is more interested in grazing than keeping pace through the majestic Valle de Viñales.

“Vamanos, Palomo!” Jose Luis, a sturdy rancher in a chambray shirt and black cowboy hat, calls again to the sluggish steed. It does little to inspire speed. But then, there’s no reason to rush in the Cuban countryside. A visit here is as relaxing as week on the beach, and offers a more authentic experience.

After an hour roaming in the shadow of the mogotes — high rounded limestone karst hills that surround the valley — Jose Luis coaxes Palomo up to a shack on a hill where a farmer welcomes dusty visitors with cold naranja juice. The horses snort softly, resting under the shade of orange trees, their reins threaded through branches. Outside, the farmer slashes sugarcane with a machete, then grinds the juice with just-picked bitter oranges for a frothy treat. We sip them on his porch, tipped back on hand-hewn chairs, and watch him roll cigars from cured tobacco leaves on his knee — a rural take on the traditional Cuban habaneros. We enjoy a smoke and take in the valley: emerald tobacco fields dotted with oxen, red-earth trails and views for miles. Finally, Palomo and I are in tune: I don’t want to leave, let alone move.

Cuba vacations conjure images of white sand beaches, and the majority of the island’s three million visitors each year do head to Varadero’s resorts, with Havana, the crumbling colonial capital, a close second. But there is a whole other side to the island to be found in the lush interior. In rural communities like Viñales, in the western province of Pinar del Rio, cool valley breezes replace trade winds, and quaint tobacco farms stand in for ornate villas, bringing visitors into close contact with the real, rural Cuba.

The Viñales Valley was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and has since seen an uptick in tourism, but the town, home to 30,000 Cubans, retains its sleepy character.

Its natural beauty and proximity to national parks makes it an excel- lent base for outdoor enthusiasts who come to cycle, hike, birdwatch, climb, go spelunking, or ride through countryside on horseback.

Birders come to spot Cuban Grassquits and Greater Antillean Grackles. Gardeners enjoy the half-wild Casa de Caridad gardens, or, further afield, Soroa’s el Jardin Botánico Orquideario, an estate that boasts hundreds of species or orchids, some that smell like chocolate.

Cavers can explore for hours inside 45 kilometres of underground galleries in the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas or in any number of smaller caves.

Climbers have access to some of the best rock climbing in the Caribbean, and can choose from over 60 routes, many on the stunning Mogote del Valle. Tours of tobacco plantations and secaderos (traditional drying houses) are offered at La Casa del Veguero, just outside town. Swimmers can join locals for a picnic and a dip at the Los Resbalosos waterfall and swimming hole.

A day at the beach is just a day trip away from Viñales: There is a seven-kilometre stretch of white sand on the island of Cayo Jutias and scuba-diving along the reefs off Cayo Levisa. Further afield, visitors can arrange afternoons of exploring the towns of Pinar del Rio or San Diego Los Banos en route to the rich biodiversity of the westernmost tip of Pinar del Rio Province.

There, a 400 square-kilometre UNESCO biosphere reserve, the Parque Nacional de Guanahacabibes, is home to a stunning array of wildlife including 172 species of birds, plus 140 archeological sites. In just a few hours with our guide Abel Sosa Prieto, we spotted the world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, giant mangrove crabs, leathery iguanas, feral pigs and crocodiles.

Not far from Guanahacabibes, Maria la Gorda hosts a quiet scu- ba diving resort, the perfect place to recharge oceanside by snorkelling or sunbathing under swaying palms.

To the east of Viñales, visitors can also make jaunts into the capital to wander through the old quarter of La Habana Vieja, or to visit the eco-community Las Terraza and its former coffee plantation.

But the serene beauty of Viñales remains the highlight of the region. After we return from our ride and Palomo is watered and happily still again, we choose a somewhat more modern form of transportation to continue exploring. We rent a circa-1950 cherry red Chevy that tops out at 50 miles per hour for a cruise through the countryside. At the Cueva del Indio cave we escape the heat with a tour of the damp stone galleries and float down an underground river search- ing for shapes in the stalactites.

Nature is not the only highlight here. Cuba is famed for its music and dance, and Viñales offers a chance to experience culture like a local. Residents offer Spanish lan- guage and salsa lessons, but immersion is free. Sunday afternoons, locals gather for an hours-long no-charge variety show at the Centro Cultural Polo Martinez, an outdoor venue by the town’s central plaza, a hub for the community.

We kick back with Havana Club Cuba Libres and watch Cuban youth perform pulsing reggaeton — Latin-inflected hip hop — and dance troupes twirl in unison to Cuban salsa and rumba, while toddlers shimmy to the beat on the sidelines.

Dinner follows at our casa particular, Casa Maira y Pipi, one of the many family-run lodgings in the region, which usually offer superior service to state-run tourist facilities.Owner Maira Hernandez prepares a meal of traditional Cuban rice and beans, Moros y Christians, as well as pollo ajillo, a chicken stew, with fried manioc, boiled yucca, cucumber and tomato salad, and a dulce de leche flan.

We end the night back at the Centro Cultural, which transforms into a salsa club after dark, and, only slightly saddle-sore, dance through the night to the rhythm of Cuba’s heartland.

G Adventures offers weeklong trips through Western Cuba, including the Valle de Viñales, through their Cuba Libre tour.

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