Author Archives: Andrew

Crossing the border from Armenia to Georgia – Alaverdi to Tbilisi

The most common way to cross between Armenia and Georgia is the overnight train between the capitals, but as we wanted to visit the northern UNESCO monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat we put them at the end of our Armenian adventure so that it’d be a short hop to the border. Here’s our account of the straightforward crossing using public transport, the only drama being the manufactured kind at the hand of taxi drivers keen for business at the end of the off-season.

~09:00 Alaverdi ↝ Bagratashen (500 Dram, 1hr)

Alaverdi, Armenia

The main road through Alaverdi – marshrutkas depart for the border from where the yellow bus is parked

We’d been told by our guesthouse that the marshrutka from Alaverdi to Bagratashen (the Georgian border) would leave at 08:50 so we got there about 10 minutes early, which just added another 10 minutes to the wait as it didn’t arrive until 09:15. One local taxi driver insisted that there wasn’t a marshrutka to the border that day, and another said that if it didn’t arrive by 9am then it wasn’t coming at all so we should obviously just hire his taxi instead. We politely declined and said we weren’t in a hurry!

Marshrutka to the border, Alaverdi, Armenia

The marshrutka arrived already pretty full with locals. They made space for our bags under the bench seats and I ended up on that small wooden stool next to the sliding door – at least I had a seat!

~10:15 Border crossing (15min)

No Man's Land, between Armenia and Georgia

The footpath follows the road over a bridge, and from there the Georgian border building awaits

The marshrutka dropped us about 100 metres from the border and the driver pointed us in the right direction though it was pretty obvious. After dredging up “hello” in Turkish to speak to some very friendly Turkish lorry drivers waiting to cross we walked through the almost empty Armenian Border Control building, had our passports stamped without a question or delay and continued through the building and outside.

It’s a 5 minute walk across a bridge spanning the Debed river to the Georgian Border Control building. Just inside the entrance is a bank counter – it’s a very good idea to change any remaining dram or withdraw some Georgian (GEL) money here as we didn’t see an ATM the other side of passport control.

All of our bags were X-Ray scanned before reaching passport control. No queues or questions for us here either and we walked out the other side into the small car park looking for our onward marshrutka – a Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter-style van.

~10:45 Sadakhlo ↝ Tbilisi (5 Lari, 1¼hr)

Fortunately for us the marshrutka driver had parked right next to the exit and was standing in front of his van having a smoke so we asked “Tbilisi?”, he nodded and waved us on board.

A taxi driver saw us getting on and had a bit of a go at him in Georgian – we presume because we’re tourists and should therefore have taken a taxi. His taxi. Our marshrutka driver didn’t seem at all bothered by his plight. We waited in the marshrutka for about 10 minutes to see if anyone else arrived before we set off.

Samgori Metro Station, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Tbilisi metro is 0.50 Lari to go anywhere, charged onto a contactless travelcard which is also handy for buses and the cable car, and costs a refundable 2 Lari which can be purchased from the counter inside any metro station

The final destination in Tbilisi is the western bus station which is also conveniently close to the Samgori metro station making it trivial to get anywhere in the city. Including a trip on the metro, the total cost from Alaverdi to Tbilisi was the equivalent of £2.70 each.

Southern Armenia – Goris and around

The southern-most destination of our Armenian road trip was the once prosperous industrial town of Goris, still quite bustling but very much past its heyday. The long main streets with their two-storey houses with large wooden balconies stretching out over the pavement contrast with the functional concrete Soviet-era municipal buildings and residential apartment blocks. Everything has a partially abandoned shabbiness to it that’s quite endearing.

Goris, Armenia

Goris’ central town square is quite grand. It’d be nice in the summer with all the fountains working

The main highway from Yerevan skirts the top of the town on its way to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Iran further south (two more places to visit that we’ve added to our ever-expanding list!), but our reason for stopping in Goris was the nearby sights of Tatev Monastery and the cave settlement of Khndzoresk.

Tatev Monastery

Tatev Monastery, Armenia

Another monastery? We weren’t kidding when we said we thought every other site might be a monastery or church!

The journey to Tatev is a little more exciting than most as it involves a cable car. Somewhat ostentatiously called ‘The Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway’, it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest non-stop double-track cable car – which makes it sound a lot more impressive that it actually is! However, all is forgiven for the views over the small village of Halidzor, the remains of a warning bell tower and the spectacular view of the monastery itself, perched on the edge of the plateau.

Church of St Paul and St Peter, Tatev, Armenia

The church of St Paul and St Peter looks impressive and commands an enviable view down the valley

Although there was a small church on the site from the 4th century, Tatev grew into a thriving academic monastery after the main Surp Poghos-Petros (St Paul and St Peter) church was built in the 9th century to house important relics, and at its peak was home to some 1,000 clergy and students.

Former monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

I enjoyed exploring the old monk cells more than Julie did!

When we visited in March 2017 the restoration works were well underway and we read that the intention is to restore Tatev to a working monastic university which will include an interactive museum. I hope it’ll still be possible to visit some of the monk’s cells in the outer walls that look down the valley as we enjoyed exploring the rabbit-warren of interconnected rooms.

View from the monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

The view from the monk cells down the valley. Apparently there’s a tunnel carved into the hillside to the valley below!

The other highlight of Tatev for us was the huge communal oil press sited just outside the monastery so the nearby villagers could use it without disturbing the monks. At first glance we thought the giant screw end did the pressing but a video showed us that we had it the wrong way round – the sacks of seeds sit under the other end of the long wooden beams, and the screw end is used to control the compression.

Oil pressing house, Tatev, Armenia

Oil presses were common in monasteries all around Armenia, but Tatev’s has been reconstructed to show how they worked

Having taken the cable car to Tatev we decided to hike the 9 miles (15km) back which meant we could visit Tatevi Mets Anapat (Tatev Hermitage) and the Devil’s Bridge both located in the valley below. After a spot of lunch on the outskirts of Tatev village, we were adopted by our requisite tour guide dog whom we named Grigor and set off on the well trodden trail down the hillside.

Andrew and Grigor, Tatev, Armenia

Have pooch, will hike. It’s worth mentioning that the offline maps.me app was very helpful hiking down from Tatev Monastery as there are a few forks in the track and very few markers

Tatevi Mets Anapat

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

The Tatev Hermitage viewed from the cable car

Concerned that we were running a little short of time to make it back to the car park before it closed at 6pm, we gave ourselves 20 minutes to poke around the ruined hermitage of Tatev and that was plenty of time, though I still couldn’t find the tunnel that apparently links it with the monastery we’d hiked from!

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

Inside the Tatev Hermitage, complete with a hermit! We offered him a biscuit but he politely declined

Devil’s Bridge

Devil's Bridge, Tatev, Armenia

The Devil’s Bridge, also known as Satan’s Bridge, is a naturally created, 50m wide bridge spanning the river at the bottom of the valley

Filling up our water bottles from the natural spring at the Devil’s Bridge gave us two surprises: firstly, the tepid sulphuric taste was a bit of a shock to our hiker’s thirst and we were re-united with Grigor! He’d gone walkabout as we’d left him outside while we were in the hermitage and he was delighted as only dogs can be when they see you again!

Grigor reunited! Tatev, Armenia

Reunited! Grigor finds us at Devil’s Bridge

By now it was getting on for 4pm and we were both getting a little anxious about making it back in time to retrieve the hire car. We had 2 hours to hike 6 miles (9km) up the switchback valley road which was doable, but it would be close! After about 3 quarters of an hour we spotted some cars going our way and we were able to flag one of them down. As we set off with the 2 reserved Armenians in the front of their luxurious 4×4 we realised how far 6 miles is and were very thankful they had stopped for us!

Old Khndzoresk cave settlement

Khndzoresk, Armenia

The old cave settlement of Khndzoresk, all of those black dots are dwellings or storehouses

Old Khndzoresk is a large abandoned village of cave dwellings cut into the steep valley walls. The information board at the entrance said that at its peak in the early 20th century it comprised 9 districts, 1800 homes, 7 schools, shops, and workshops. We reckoned that meant the population would have been over 7,000!

Khndzoresk suspension bridge, Khndzoresk, Armenia

The caves are reached by a 160 metre suspension bridge that was hand-made by the locals to encourage tourism. They’re very proud that no heavy machinery was used!

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

A lot of the caves were simple one-room dug outs, but some had corridors and doorways to larger rooms deeper into the rock we assumed would have been for storage

Church, Khndzoresk, Armenia

There are a few churches dotted throughout the settlement and they’re a more typical building construction which makes for a nice contrast against the caves

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

While the higher caves were used for storage and reached by rope ladders, the lower caves were often extended with porches that doubled as yards or gardens for the caves directly above them

Us in Khndzoresk, Armenia

We took a little picnic with us and really enjoyed spending the day exploring the caves.

UNESCO Churches and Monasteries of Armenia

In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and today 3 sites covering 5 places of worship are recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. While planning our trip we felt like almost every other thing we read was church this or monastery that – we were worried that we might quickly tire of them, that they’d all start blurring into each other and we would fail to appreciate their differences and significance.

I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case!

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery in early spring

So the story goes, Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a cave with a natural spring. Geghard is a common and easy day trip from the capital Yerevan, and as well as being an impressive sight in a spectacular location, it’s important because Gregory is credited with the country’s Christianisation.

Geghard Monastery collage

Clockwise from top-left: Julie photographing the chandelier in the main chapel; Zhamatun, the second of the cave chapels, viewed from a hole in the floor of the Upper Jhamatun; Julie tasting the spring water – very clean in taste (no sulphur or mineral aftertaste) but very cold!; Carved relief of a ram’s head, two lions and an eagle clutching a lamb which is believed to be the coat of arms of the family that had the cave monastery extended in the 13th century

At the beginning of March we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but out of the sunshine exploring the chapels and caves was pretty cold. Completely worth it though, as the carvings throughout the monastery are so detailed, particularly the most recent ones. We especially liked the boldness of the older carvings in the caves and the finer work in the corridor to the upper gavit.

The Temple of Garni

The Temple of Garni, Armenia

The Temple of Garni, the only remaining structure of pre-Christian Armenia

A visit to The Temple of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery as it’s pretty much on the way. Our day trip also included a stop at the modern Charents’ Arch but unfortunately the morning’s haze hadn’t quite cleared enough for us to see it framing Mt Ararat.

The Temple of Garni isn’t on the UNESCO Heritage list, but it is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD so it’s nearly 2,000 years old! We loved the detail of the stone carvings around the roofline, and the very big steps at the front to get to the altar inside.

Temple of Garni collage

Clockwise from top left: The remains of the mosaic floor in the Roman bath house; Detail of the temple roofline carvings; the remains of the St Sion Church with a view down the Garni valley

The remains of St Sion Church sit adjacent to the temple but we could only just see them peeking out from the snow, however we were able to see through the door of a building nearby which houses the mosaic flooring remains of a Roman bath house – nowhere near as well preserved or extensive as those at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – but fascinating to see such a breadth of history in one place.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins, Armenia

The ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathderal and the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin are the second UNESCO site that we visited in Armenia on another day trip from Yerevan. According to the small museum on site, Zvartnots Cathedral was briefly the centre of Christianity in Armenia, and its unique design was inspirational for the restoration of the much larger dome of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The remnants of Zvartnots Cathedral, clockwise from top-left: a pair of carved eagle capitals; a model of what Zvartnots may have looked like; and the many pieces of it which lay around in the surrounding fields like a massive jigsaw puzzle

According to the information pages on the excellent Armenia Heritage website, the surrounding buildings were a palace used by the Catholicos of All Armenia (i.e. the head of the Armenian Church) and included a throne room, a Roman bath house and a large winery. Palatial indeed! We really enjoyed exploring the ruins and trying to imagine how impressive the cathedral and its surrounding buildings would have been.

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral. There’s always something being repaired when we visit the sights of a country!

Echmiadzin (officially Vagharshapat) is the 4th largest city in Armenia having once been the capital, but the reason for our visit was the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin – the centre of Christianity in the country – and specifically the Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world.

The colourfully carved entranceway and the frescoes of the main cathedral’s dome

Inside it felt open and airy despite its relatively small size, and easily accommodated the many worshippers and handful of tourists. We liked the restrained frescoes and the 3 rooms of the treasury museum behind the main altar that includes among its relics the right-hand of St John the Baptist and the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ.

Clockwise from top-left: Reliquary of St John the Baptist; The Holy Lance and its reliquary; Julie in the first room of the Cathedral Museum

As well as the cathedral, the Mother See, like the Vatican, comprises a number of other buildings including a seminary, and there are some very modern additions like the Gate of St Gregory and my favourite, the circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Church of the Holy Archangels, Armenia

As well as the cathedral and its treasury museum, we liked the new Gate of St Gregory and the funky tall circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

Sanahin Monastery, tucked away on the fringes of the village

Near the end of our fortnight in Armenia we stayed in the small northern mining town of Alaverdi, an excellent base from which to visit Armenia’s final UNESCO site – the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin.

While it is possible to visit both in a day, or even half a day by taxi, we split them up so we’d have plenty of time to explore. Sanahin is the closer of the two to Alaverdi, though they’re both a short but very steep 1st gear marshrutka ride from the bottom of the Debed Canyon to their respective villages and they’re very different.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Details of Sanahin Monastery: the carved pillars and walls of the main gavit which we saw at all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia; One of the carved gravestones depicting the profession of the deceased, we think he was a musician

Sanahin looks compact, squeezed into a forest clearing between the edge of the village and the foot of the hills but it feels big, especially in the main covered entranceway or gavit, the floor covered in the gravestones of royalty and those once important in society, often depicting the interred’s profession. However, our favourites were the huge square bell tower with red brick crosses incorporated into its walls, and the fine examples of two khachkars (literally “cross-stones”) standing to attention that flank the main entrance.

Sanahin Bell Tower, Armenia

Detail of the wonderful carved red-brick inlay of the bell tower at the Sanahin Monastery

Mikoyan Musuem, Sanahin, Armenia

Just down the hill from Sanahin Monastery is the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. One worked for 60 years in the Soviet Politburo and the other designed the USSR’s first jet fighter, the MiG

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery with its commanding view over the village and the canyon

In contrast to Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery sits on a lofty perch overlooking the village and the canyon. When we arrived we thought it was closed as all of the gates were shut, but after wandering around the perimeter of the old walls a local farmer gestured through so we crept in and started exploring.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Clockwise from top left: detail of the carving of the monastery’s founder’s sons Smbat (who later became a king) and Gurgen holding a model of the church; the Amenaprkitch (All Savior) Khachkar of 1273 is the only one we saw in Armenia with a painting on it; and the view of the valley canyon with Sanahin just visible on the left ridge

As we worked our way around a youngish guy with a big bunch of keys started opening up the buildings and encouraging us to enter. A Polish couple arrived and he seemed more comfortable talking to them in Russian – we followed them all to the bell tower but unfortunately there was only time for the other couple to climb the tower as the caretaker had to lock up. Still, we’re glad we got to see inside the locked churches!

Hamazasp Gavit, Haghpat, Armenia

The cavernous Hamazasp Gavit is the largest gavit in Armenia at 330m2

As well as the separate bell tower (very different to the one at Sanahin), we liked the vastness of the ancillary buildings – one, the Hamazasp Gavit used as a monks assembly room is the largest gavit in Armenia, and we especially liked the depiction of the two brothers holding a model of the church.

Akhtala Church

Akhtala Church, Armenia

Akhtala hill-top church. Stunning location and not much to look at from the outside, but inside..

After our visit to Haghpat we decided not to wait 1½ hours for the next marshrutka and opted to set off on foot hoping to hitchhike a little further away from Alaverdi to the small village of Akhtala. A transit van, an old Vauxhall Cavalier with a cheery pair of Georgians (one of whom looked like George Clooney!) and a lovely couple in old Lada making a bread delivery later and we were there, the non-UNESCO St. Astvatsatsin church in the Akhtala complex.

We stood at the gates for a minute or so taking in the views (and taking photos, obviously!) when an old gentleman rattling some keys walked past us and gestured to the church. Feeling a bit like we were being frog-marched, we followed and were led inside – Wow.

The colourful main nave frescos of Akhtala, Armenia

It’s an assault of vivid colour! Beautiful, detailed frescoes line the walls though some are in desperate need of a little restoration..

We spent as long as we dared gazing in awe at the colourful, detailed murals while the caretaker quietly stood out of the way occasionally checking his mobile phone. We could easily have spent an hour inside walking around and slowly checking out each of the walls. It looks like repairs have started on the roof so we made a donation and asked if it was OK to look around the grounds.

Akhtala, Armenia

This prompted a short tour.. our caretaker was keen to point out the grave of the last monk to live here who died at the age of 100 in 1972, the old monastery cells in the walls, some kilns near the entrance and a modern sculpture that he was quite keen for us to step through which superstitiously helps your relationship but we both thought framed the monastery quite nicely..

Akhtala, Armenia

Modern sculpture at Akhtala – if only I could recall the Armenian for “Excuse me, sorry, would you mind taking a step backwards please?”

Feeling confident in our hitchhiking abilities, we set off from Akhtala towards the main road and after about 40 minutes and a few attempts we eventually managed to wave down a telecoms engineering van heading our way that had 4 guys in it and 2 spare seats. One of the young guys, Mikahl, graduated with a degree in English and we had a long and interesting conversation with him and his work mates. He also tagged us on Facebook as “English autostoppers” :o)

Mikahl - English Autostoppers

Mikahl tags us on Facebook on our way back to Alaverdi! Thanks again for the lift and the conversation :o)

The thing we’ll remember most that distinguishes Armenian churches and monasteries from any other places of worship we’ve seen so far are the carvings on the outside walls. They are covered in crosses of different sizes and styles, almost like graffiti, and we think they look really good!

Scams and annoyances of Cuba

We recommend visiting Cuba, but we feel it’s necessary to add a little caution to our enthusiasm for it as so many times our experiences were tainted by opportunistic ne’er-do-wells that, were it not for a sense of compassion, would have closed our hearts to other serendipitous encounters.

Beware the Buena Vista Social Club

Full Cuban band performing on stage in the Casa de la Trova in Camagüey

The main event at the Casa de la Trova (or House of Music) in Camagüey

We were approached a handful of times by very friendly older men with good English purporting to be musicians – and they’ll tell you their instrument too – so common is this introduction that we nearly collected the full band in Havana!

The first one we met walked us into the nearest bar with the suggestion that as he was playing tonight he’d get us in free – I’ll interject here and say that we were being open, friendly and curious, not especially after free entry, we’d been to many a Casa de la Trova already – as we sat down he ordered a round of drinks and at that point we saw the scam and declined the drink. The scam being that we’d be picking up the tab, likely at inflated prices. After we’d said ‘no gracias‘ to the drinks, the friendliness ended and he got up to leave.

Che for a CUC

Cuban 3 Nacional Peso banknote featuring Ernesto Che Guevara

The Cuban 3 Nacional Peso banknote, worth about £0.09 GBP and a great souvenir

We’d read about this one before we arrived and were only offered it 3 or 4 times during the 6 weeks we were there, but it’s worth including. The scam essentially is the sale of a 3 National Peso note for 1 Convertible Peso, or 8 times its face value. They do make nice souvenirs, but banks and money exchanges (CADECAs) will change CUCs for National Pesos and you can ask for 3 Peso notes as part of the denominations. Speaking of CADECAs..

Don’t trust the official CADECA

Specifically the one just north of Plaza de San Francisco de Asís in Havana’s Old Town. We changed £600 GBP for CUC, and the majority of the notes we received were in 20 CUCs. The lady on the desk entered the amount and pointed out on the computer screen that we’d get 28 20CUC notes, counted out the 28, and the rest of the smaller notes, then printed the receipt and handed over the money. Except the receipt said 30 20CUC notes. She’d re-entered the proper amount into the computer after counting out the money.

Take your time – Cubans are used to waiting! Use your phone or their calculator to check the exchange rate (which is printed in the window outside and at the counter) so you know roughly how much you’ll get and always check the count of notes against the receipt at the desk before you step away – it has the breakdown of each denomination on it.

A fellow tourist told us a similar story.. they’d been asked if they wanted some of the change in coins and agreed, then the lady at the desk handed over all of the notes and the receipt and waited to see if they remembered they’d asked for the coins. He said he counted the money 3 times at the desk before the lady offered up a handful of coins.

25 times the price. Because you’re a tourist

Andrew having his hair cut in Trinidad

I only argued with him about the price because he had a signboard with the prices listed!


In our discussions between ourselves about Cuba, we’ve laid a lot of the blame for the country’s ills at the dual currency system. There are 25 National Pesos for 1 Convertible Peso, and in our experience we found it is separating the population into those who work in tourism and those who don’t. It is all too common as a tourist to be charged the same price in CUC as a Cuban National will pay in National Pesos – that’s an astounding 2400% price hike – and while we don’t mind paying a little more for some things (entrance to museums for example), there’s no arguable difference in the service we’d receive in a colectivo or a haircut that warrants the backsheesh-like expectation.

The result, according to one taxi driver we spoke to, was the Cubans realise there’s more money in tourism so the educated are leaving their jobs in hospitals and universities to drive taxis or work in bars and cafes, which made him worry about a deterioration in the quality of healthcare and education.

Bags and handling are included

We travelled around Cuba in the state-run Viazul and Cubanacan coach services, they’re very good and the ticket price includes you and your luggage. However, once you have your ticket there are a few opportunistic baggage handlers who will try to extract a fee for carrying your luggage to the bus or withholding the luggage tag until you pay. The worst one was in Trinidad where a big guy in a separate office had a little dish and demanded 1CUC per bag. I felt intimidated but stood my ground and refused to pay it.

In Santa Clara an older gentleman withheld the luggage tags until we paid, but as we’d already put our bags on the trolley we just said no and walked away. 5 minutes before the bus arrived he walked over and gave us the tags anyway!

Handouts and bad beggars

By far the most common annoyance was people just asking for money or gifts. Most of the time they were content when we politely refused but occasionally some would say something impolite back which left us with a bad feeling for Cuba. We understand these people are relatively poor, we empathise as best as we possibly can about the extremely hard times that they’ve lived through, but by visiting their country we are helping – they don’t know that we choose to stay in the spare rooms of local people, and deliberately search out street food not only for the variety but because it puts money directly into the hands of the people.

We have a saying in the north of England that we tried to remind ourselves of after these encounters: shy bairns (get nowt) – which means if you don’t ask you don’t get.

I think I read in the Lonely Planet that just when you think you understand how Cuba works, it’ll turn around and surprise you again. We’d just sat down in a back-street locals bar at the end of an exhausting day of sight-seeing and fending off scams in Santa Clara feeling a bit sorry for ourselves, when a very jovial deaf man with a group of friends started up a conversation with us. Over 4 beers José told us about his life and it remains one of our fondest memories of Cuba.

Drinks in Santa Clara with José

The handful of bad experiences make the good ones all the sweeter

Viñales, Cuba

When we were planning our trip to Cuba, we’d decided to skip the green valleys of Cuba’s primary tobacco growing region as we’re non-smokers, we’d see two other national parks in the east and we’d read other travellers’ reports that the weather is unpredictable.

However, once we arrived in Cuba, everyone we met, and I do mean everyone, said that we simply had to fit it in because it’s so beautiful.

We did, and they were right!

Finding ourselves firmly on the typical tourist trail, we were able to try Cubanacan who are the other state-run coach company, which transfers from a lot of the swanky central hotels in Havana and is a lot more convenient (and cheaper) than getting a taxi to the Viazul bus station. The coach trip was pleasant and uneventful, until the final descent into the Valle de Viñales and we caught our first glimpse of the unique mogote strewn landscape..

View of the Viñales countryside from the bus

Our first glimpse of the unique Viñales landscape, lush fields strewn with limestone karsts called ‘mogotes’

From what we could make out, the little town of Viñales exists almost entirely for the service of tourists. The main street is lined with cafes and restaurants, a handful of shops, a bank, and a money exchange, while the rest of the town is comprised of casa particulars – we varied our route through the town’s back streets and it seemed like every house had a room for rent!

View of the church and town square in Viñales

The pretty little church in Viñales

Once we’d settled ourselves into our casa and had a spot of lunch, we picked a direction and went exploring. The main street isn’t very long and we soon found ourselves down a dirt track between the deep red fields dotted with tobacco drying sheds.

A typical trail through the countryside of Viñales - deep red earth and pointed roofs of tobacco leaf drying sheds

We could see from the hoof prints that we’d found one of the popular horse trails. These steep-roofed huts are tobacco drying sheds, the leaves are hung inside like kippers!

Horseback riding is a very popular activity in Viñales, and while we can see the appeal of letting the horse do the work so you can appreciate the scenery, we favoured the cycling option and arranged to hire a couple of bikes through our casa.

Julie and I with mountain bikes in Viñales

Just about to set off with a vague plan in our heads. Delightfully, my rental mountain bike was a ‘Flying Pigeon’!

No sooner had we set off than I attempted to change gears and the chain snapped! While a friendly gentleman helped me look for the missing link in the road, Julie made her way back to our casa to get in touch with the lad who’d rented us the bikes, who just happened to ride past, came over and simply swapped the disabled ‘Flying Pigeon’ for a double suspension ‘Mongoose’. I thanked them both, met up with Julie and we set off again..

Viñales national park entrance, a road heads off into the distance between two large limestone karsts

Just north of the town is the striking official entrance to the Parque Nacional Viñales

Not having intended to visit Viñales, we hadn’t done a lot of research about the area and the bike rental was simply that – here’s a bike, see you later! – no maps, hints, or suggestions! We used a combination of the Lonely Planet and the offline maps of Cuba on my phone to plan out a rough loop that took us past the Cueva del Indio, through a town called the Republica del Chile and the recommended Valle el Silencio.

Viñales countryside

The lush valleys of Viñales – as well as tobacco, the Cubans grow coffee, sugarcane, oranges, bananas, pineapples and avocados here

Julie cycling in the Valle de Viñales

Cycling was a fantastic way to explore this amazing countryside

Viñales is a lovely place to cycle. It’s pretty flat, the scenery is varied and interesting, there are plenty of trails and when we were on the roads there wasn’t much traffic. Outside of the town there are a few places to stop for refreshments and lunch dotted here and there, though the further we travelled they were fewer and farther between. The second half of our route took us out into the wilds and it had gone 3pm by the time we found somewhere for lunch. We’d consumed all of our snacks and 4 bottles of water cycling through the heat of the day, and we hadn’t realised how ready for a break we were!

A glass of sugarcane juice in the Valle el Silencio

A well earned glass of sugarcane juice at our rest-stop in the Valle el Silencio

The eco-farm we found in the Valle el Silencio is very much on the independent tour guide itinerary as it’s well set up for small groups of tourists. We shared a main meal between us which was plenty, and included in the price was a tour of the adjacent organic farm which we were a little reluctant to do at first as we feared it’d be a hard sell. Our bottoms weren’t quite ready to get back onto the bikes so we relented to the tour and it turned out to be really interesting.

Collage of produce growing at tiny organic farm. Green coffee beans, a beehive and cocoa pods

Just some of the organic produce this tiny farm grows. Clockwise from the top: coffee; a beehive for pollination of their fruit trees and honey, of course; a cocoa tree

Our young guide explained that what they grow and harvest here is primarily used in the restaurant and to feed the family. They grow a little bit of everything, I lost count of the different types of fruit but something we hadn’t seen in our travels thus far was cocoa growing on the tree.

The tour also included one of the farmers demonstrating how cigars are made in the countryside and as we’d seen them made by hand in the Partagas factory in Havana, it was fun to spot the differences in their technique and unlike in Partagas he was happy for us to take pictures..

Cigar rolling demonstration

Before the final wrapper leaf is applied, the cigar would be tightly rolled in a scrap of paper for 2 days, a step that he skipped for the purposes of demonstration. And of course they’re for sale, any quantity you like for 3CUCs (£2.10) each

Apart from a short and deeply rutted part of track immediately after our late lunch stop, the remaining trail was easy going and we slowly descended through the Valle el Silencio back to Viñales. We tracked our ride on Strava and logged just over 20 miles!

For our final full day in Viñales we hiked in the other direction from our bicycle ride, notionally in the direction of a large, outdoor painting on the side of a mogote that depicts evolution and is totally panned in TripAdvisor reviews. How bad could it be? Could it be so bad that it’s actually good?

Mural de la Prehistoria, Viñales

Fortunately there’s no entrance fee to stand in wonder at this almost undecipherable eyesore as it’s unmissable from the road

Moving somewhat swiftly on, the farm tracks circled round the defaced mogote and made for a fairly long but gentle walk through peaceful farmland. No noisy polluting engines, just the rustle of the gentle breeze through the fields.

Viñales countryside

Caballo, dinero, por favor

The track eventually met up with the main but not too busy road back into Viñales, and before we knew it we were back. Thank you to those that convinced us to change our plans – we’re really pleased we went – it was a peaceful, un-hassly, nature filled and relaxing change after our time in Havana.