The Viñales Valley and Its Emerging Entrepreneurs

By Zoe Reda and Massy Vainshtein

 Flat-topped mountains, honeycombed with caves, surround the lush, green Viñales Valley, in western Cuba south of Havana. Known for its natural beauty, Viñales has become a hub for both tourists and entrepreneurs.

The valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become famous for its tobacco farms, its agricultural production—including farm-to-table restaurants—and its private casas particulares.

Olguita Amaro has operated her casa particular, one of many in Viñales, since December 2013 (Photo by Zoe Reda).

That was not always the case. As recently as 15 years ago, “little to no economic prosperity” took place in Viñales, said Ricardo Alvarez Perez, a historian of the area for the last 15 years and a municipal-government employee.

Before the 1959 revolution, most of Cuba’s farm land belonged to wealthy landowners and American investors. An estimated 8 percent of landowners controlled more than 70 percent of Cuba’s land, with U.S. owners controlling 25 percent, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After the revolution, the state seized most of the farm land and retained ownership of about 70 percent. In subsequent land reforms, thousands of farmers were given acreage, once held by large private landowners, to cultivate.

But by the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was thrust into what became known as the Special Period; losing its major trading partner meant losing its greatest source of foreign assistance, including fertilizers, pesticides and oil. Many Cubans starved as agricultural production plunged.

Organic farming emerged by necessity, as a result of both shortages of basic farm equipment and supplies and agricultural stagnation—forcing Cubans to innovate in order to sustain their agricultural sector. They began developing agro-ecological and small-scale production methods, including biofertilisers, to produce organic food.

The Ecologico Farm and its restaurant draw tourists interested in the sustainable agriculture of the Viñales Valley (Photo by Katrina Ruggiero).

Now, Viñales attracts tourists year round, the most popular months being July and August. Viñales has also become a model for both entrepreneurial and environmentally sustainable tourism. “Tourists in Viñales have a green conscience,” said Alvarez. “They help conserve Viñales.”

One mainstay of Viñales is the 72 paladares—private restaurants—that now operate in the area. At Finca Agroecologica Paraiso, for example, tourism—and its farm-to-table restaurant—have become its main source of income. Each week, dozens of Cuban government-organized tour buses pull up outside the family-run ranch, which serves tourists heaping platters of locally grown fresh vegetables, pork and beef, family style, at its open-air restaurant overlooking terraced fields of vegetables.

Private casa particulares now offer more than 1,600 private rooms for tourists throughout the valley, according to Alvarez. These private homes provide visitors an authentic Cuban experience, with simple but modern rooms, including private bathrooms. They usually offer both breakfast and dinner. The casas also serve as middlemen for cultural activities, such as horseback riding and strolls through tobacco fields.

Viñales’s casas industry is a community affair. Alvarez oversees garbage collection, which is organized by community members who work voluntarily to keep the town clean. Once a year, all casa owners repaint their houses; the main residential street holds a neat row of candy-colored casas with little of the trash that marks many Cuban cities.

Villa de Olguita Amaro, a bright blue house with two private rooms for rent and an outdoor patio for dining, typifies the communal approach to entrepreneurship in Viñales.  The casa is connected by an unlocked gate to a casa next door.

Many casas keep visitors’ books. This is the first review that Olguita Amaro received after opening hers (Photo by Zoe Reda).

The owner, Olguita Amaro, said all the house owners helped each other. “She was always my neighbor, but now a colleague,” said Amaro, pointing to her neighbor Magalay Acosta, who operates a three-bedroom casa next door. Amaro said that if she was ever busy and couldn’t tend to guests, Magalay takes over tasks and works at both casas for the day.

“We help each other do this. If one person fails, we all fail,” said Amaro who, like most casa owners, lives at her casa.

It takes Amaro’s pequeno ejercito, her “small army,” to make the Casa de Olguita Amaro a success. In the morning, her sister-in-law stops by to help prepare breakfast and to pick up any excess food for the donation center in town. All casa owners take their extra food to this center for the people of Viñales to have free of charge, Amaro said.

In the afternoon, her close friend Penelope stops by on her way home from work  to collect money for any excursions the guests have signed up for. “The next morning, she brings the money to each private business owner and they prepare times for the excursions,” Amaro said.

An innovative irrigation system that takes advantage of a farm’s slopes helps sustain a crop of root vegetables, taro, and lettuce (Photo by Massy Vainshtein).

Amaro’s patio advertises activities throughout the area, including horseback riding, excursions through the mountains, morning strolls through tobacco fields and group visits to the Don Thomas Cave.

Amaro said she can get paid up to 10 percent of the net sales of each excursion that tourists sign up for at her casa. “This is how we build up the community in Viñales; all the tour guides are my friends, and they pay me to advertise their services,” Amaro said.

Since Amaro opened her casa to the public on her birthday, in December 2013, she said she had seen only benefits from running her own business. Each night at a casa costs $35 to $40 a night; each owner has to hand over about 10 percent of net sales to the government, Amaro and Alvarez said.

After taxes and operating expenses, “sometimes I only keep $10 a night, but that is more than I have ever made before,” Amaro said. Before opening her home to tourists, Amaro was a full-time stay-at-home mother. Her husband, who no longer lives with her, worked as a mechanic for local taxi drivers, to support the family, including two grown children.

The future looks bright for Amaro as tourism has surged 17 percent since 2014, according to the Cuba Journal, a web site that tracks business activity in Cuba, after President Obama and Raul Castro reopened relations with Cuba. Just last year, Amato signed up for AirBnB, which recently began operating in Cuba. While AirBnB makes it easier for tourists to rent a room in her casa, the country’s poor technology infrastructure—the town has only one internet hot spot, for example—makes it challenging for the home owners to communicate with renters.

“My first guests never even got here,” said Amaro. “They got confused by my directions and could not reach me because their phones did not work here.”

But she added: “In a few years, I will be the boss of multiple casas through both word of mouth and AirBnB.”

Alvarez, the historian, is also optimistic about Viñales’s entrepreneurial tourism industry. Three state-run hotels in town—La Ermita, Hotel Rancho San Vincente and Horizontes Los Jazmines welcome guests, but Alvarez said the casas are more popular, commanding over 90 percent of rooms rented in the area.

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