The valley is justly ranked among Cuba's most beautiful landscapes, an expanse of lush green studded with the famous mogotes—freestanding, flat-topped, sheer-sided rock formations. Don't fail to stop at the Hotel Los Jazmines mirador for a breathtaking view over the valley; immense mogotes tower over deep green vegas that stretch into the distance and are backed by the Sierra de los Órganos (so-called for the peaks'
resemblance to the pipes of an organ). The mogotes are the remains of the limestone meseta, or plateau, that rose from the sea some 160 million years ago to form the Cordillera de Guaniguanico. Subsequent erosion left a karstic terrain replete with sinks, ravines, underground streams, and hoyos—rich depressions of red soil ideal for cultivating tobacco. The hidden canyons and natural tunnels leading into them provided shelter for pre-Columbian peoples and later for communities of cimarrones (runaway slaves).
The valley's flora includes many unique treasures: the underbrush, ferns, and rare cork palms on the mogotes; the silk-cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra; the royal palm; the caiman oak; and the mariposa, Cuba's national flower. Fauna includes the world's smallest hummingbird, the zunzuncito (Bee Hummingbird), as well as various endemic snails.
The town of Viñales itself is a national monument and, officially, both the town and surrounding area are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Calle Salvador Cisneros, the wide main street, is flanked by stately tile-roofed houses, shaded by uniform rows of colonnaded arcades, all painted different colors. Since paladares (restaurants in private homes) were recently made legal, there is a string of more than 14 new bars and restaurants on this main street. Many other houses on the street are now casas particulares, private homes that rent rooms. The de rigueur José Martí monument sits in the large main square, bordered by the church and the elegant arches of the Cultural Center. Tree-shaded benches allow for some respite from the heat of the day. Throughout the town, the new prosperity is palpable in freshly painted and renovated houses.