The west of Cuba is blessed with an exotic landscape of limestone mogotes, caves and mountains, forested nature reserves and tobacco plantations. This is where you will find the world’s best dark tobacco, which is hand-processed into the finest cigars. Viñales, a delightful small town in a dramatic valley in the Sierra de los Organos, attracts thousands of visitors who come to see its distinctive landscape, with isolated steep-sided limestone hills, known locally as mogotes rising dramatically from fertile flat-floored valleys. Its position beside the mogotes provides spectacular views and good walking opportunities. Its beauty has been internationally recognized and the Viñales Valley has been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Landscape.
The rocks around Viñales are pure limestones formed in the Jurassic period around 160 million years ago. Unlike most other rocks, limestone can be dissolved by rainwater. Rivers and streams often flow underground through extensive cave systems; most of the 10,000 recorded caves in Cuba are in the western province and one cave system in the Valle Santo Tomás consists of a total of 25 km of underground passages. Where a valley is formed in tropical limestone, often by downwards faulting of the rock, it may be filled with fertile red soil. Rotting vegetation increases the acidity of the groundwater on the valley floor. This ‘aggressive’ water eats into the valley sides, undercutting the rocks and producing steep cliff-like features.
The limestone hills have a distinctive vegetation type, with palms (including the curious cork palm), deciduous trees, succulents, lianas and epiphytes. More than 20 species are endemic, found only in the Viñales area. The isolation of the mogotes has also produced distinctive animal species, with some types of snail found only on a single mogote.
Six kilometres north of Viñales is the Cueva del Indio, a very beautiful cave which you enter on foot, then take a boat. The Valle de Santo Tomás (with 25-km cave system) contains the Gran Caverna Santo Tomás 17 km southwest from Viñales in a community called El Moncada. Near El Moncada is the 3-km ecological path, Maravillas de Viñales.