An official national park and by far the most visited location in Pinar del Río, the jewel in the province’s crown is the valley of VIÑALES, with its fantastically located accommodation, striking landscapes and an atmosphere of complete serenity. Though only 25km north of Pinar del Río city, the valley feels very remote, with a lost-world quality that’s mainly due to the unique mogotes, the boulder-like hills that look as if they’ve dropped from the sky onto the valley floor. These bizarre hillocks were formed by erosion during the Jurassic period, some 160 million years ago. Rainfall slowly ate away at the dissolvable limestone and flattened much of the landscape, leaving a few survivors behind, their lumpy surface today coated in a bushy layer of vegetation. Easily the most photographed examples are the Mogote Dos Hermanas or “twin sisters”, two huge cliffy mounds hulking next to one another on the west side of the valley, with acres of flat fields laid out before them serving to emphasize the abruptness of these strange explosions of rock. For the archetypal view of the valley, head for the viewing platform at the Hotel Jazmines, a few hundred metres’ detour off the main road from Pinar del Río, just before it slopes down to the valley floor.
Laidback locals and a sensitive approach to commercialization ensure that Viñales retains a sense of pre-tourism authenticity absent from other popular destinations. The tourist centres and hotels are kept in isolated pockets of the valley, often hidden away behind the mogotes, and driving through it’s sometimes easy to think that the locals are the only people around. Most of the population lives in the small village of Viñales, which you’ll enter first if you arrive from the provincial capital or Havana, and where there are plenty of casas particulares. It’s also one of the few places in the country that acts as a hub for independent travellers and is a good place to hook up with travel buddies. From the village it’s a short drive to all the official attractions, most of which are set up for tour groups, but it’s still worth doing the circuit just to get a feel of the valley and a close look at the mogotes. If time is limited, concentrate your visit on the San Vicente region, a valley within the valley and home to the Cueva del Indio, the most comprehensive accessible cave system in Viñales. Also in San Vicente are the Cueva de San Miguel and El Palenque de los Cimarrones, the latter a much smaller cave leading through the rock to a rustic encampment where runaway slaves once hid, but now set up to provide lunchtime entertainment for coach parties. Difficult-to-explore and little-visited Valle Ancón lies on the northern border of this part of the valley. On the other side of the village, the Mural de la Prehistoria is by far the most contrived of the valley’s attractions.
The valley supports its own microclimate, and from roughly June to October it rains most afternoons, making it a good idea to get your sightseeing done in the mornings. Mosquitoes are also more prevalent at this time of year and insect repellent is a definite must for any visit.