Maria la Gorda Beach, Cuba

Cuba //

Artemisa and Pinar del Río

Despite their relative proximity to Havana, the provinces of Pinar del Río and Artemisa (the latter newly created in 2010) are a far cry from the noise, pollution and hustle of the capital. This is a distinctly rural region, where the laidback towns and even Pinar’s regional capital of Pinar del Río are characterized by a markedly provincial feel. The major attractions are well away from the population centres, the majority situated in and around the green slopes of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, the low mountain range that runs like a backbone down the length of the landscape. Famous for producing the world’s finest tobacco (that most time-consuming of crops), Pinar del Río is stereotyped as a province populated by backward country folk, and is the butt of a string of national jokes. Life here unfolds at a subdued pace, and its hillside and seaside resorts are well suited to unfettered escapism.

Hidden within the Sierra del Rosario, the relatively compact eastern section of the cordillera, the peaceful, self-contained mountain retreats of Las Terrazas and Soroa are billed slightly inaccurately as ecotourism centres, but provide perfect opportunities to explore the tree-clad hillsides and valleys. Heading west along the autopista, which runs parallel with the mountain range along the length of the province, there are a few low-key attractions to the north. It’s unlikely you’ll want to make much more than a fleeting visit to any one of them, unless you’re in search of the healing qualities of the spa at San Diego de los Baños, a small village straddling the border between the Sierra del Rosario and the western section of the cordillera, the Sierra de los Organos. Although the area is host to a large park and a set of caves of both geological and historical interest, their considerable potential is mostly untapped through neglect and isolation.

Most visitors instead head straight for Pinar del Río’s undoubted highlight, the Viñales valley, where the flat-topped mountains, or mogotes, give the landscape a unique, prehistoric look and feel. While heavily visited, Viñales remains unspoilt and the village at its centre, full of simple houses with rooms to rent out to tourists, has an uncontrived air about it. Easily visited out on a day-trip from Havana, there’s also enough to see away from Viñales’s official sights for a longer, more adventurous stay. Conveniently close to the valley is the secluded little beach on serene Cayo Jutías, while on the same northern coastline is the more substantial but even more remote Cayo Levisa, better suited for a longer visit and for diving.

You’ll need to be pretty determined to get to the country’s westernmost locations, which are beyond Pinar del Río’s provincial capital, where the autopista ends, and more or less out of reach unless you rent a car or book an official excursion. If you make it, you’ll find the serene and scenic patchwork landscape of the Vuelta Abajo region, said to produce the finest tobacco leaves in the world and home to some internationally renowned tobacco plantations, including the Alejandro Robaina, which is one of the few you can easily visit. The modest beaches of Playa Bailén and Boca de Galafre and the small tourist site at Laguna Grande provide quick detours if you want to break up the journey to María La Gorda, whose fine sandy shores, crystal-clear waters, outstanding scuba diving and fantastic sense of out-of-reach tranquillity are the real justification for coming all this way.