Despite their relative proximity to Havana, the provinces of Pinar del Río and Artemisa 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.
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.
To the west of Havana, the nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Río are popular destinations with day-trippers. However, they also offer more than enough to sustain a longer stay. The most accessible resorts here are Las Terrazas and Soroa, focused around the subtropical, smooth-topped Sierra del Rosario mountain range. But it’s the peculiarly shaped mogote hills of the prehistoric Viñales Valley that attract most attention, while tiny Viñales village is a pleasant hangout frequented by a friendly traveller community. Beyond, on a gnarled rod of land pointing out towards Mexico, there’s unparalleled seclusion and outstanding scuba diving at María La Gorda.
With its verdant fields, expansive reservoirs and lush plantations all glistening in the sunlight, it’s no surprise to learn that Eastern Artemisa is known as the Jardín de Cuba (Garden of Cuba), an area of great fertility where bananas, sugar cane, citrus fruits and tobacco flourish in the rich red ferric soil. It’s a somnolent area, with a couple of passing attractions like the photogenic town of San Antonio de los Baños and the poetic decay of Antiguo Cafetal Angerona. The area had a brief moment of infamy thanks to Mariel on the northern coast. The nearest port to the US, it was from here that some 125,000 Cubans left the island in 1980 in what was known as the Mariel Boatlift.
Of all the small towns in Artemisa, San Antonio de los Baños, about 20km south of Havana’s western suburbs and a 45-minute drive from Habana Vieja, is the only one that merits more than a fleeting visit. A riverside hotel with good opportunities for swimming and boating, an engaging museum and a countryside park provide at least a day’s worth of laidback activity. The town itself has the undisturbed, nonchalant feel that characterizes so much of Cuba’s interior, with an archetypal shady square and residential streets largely free of traffic.
Heading west on the autopista nacional, the first attractions you’ll come to, just inside the provincial border, are Artemisa’s star attractions, the isolated mountain valley resorts at Las Terrazas and Soroa. These are by far the best bases from which to explore the densely packed forest slopes of the protected Sierra del Rosario, but only Las Terrazas can uphold the claim popularized in tourist literature of connecting tourism with conservation and the local community. Considerably smaller but no less popular than Las Terrazas, Soroa’s compact layout makes it more accessible to day-trippers from Havana.
The sierra was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1985, acknowledgement in part for the success of the reforestation project of the 1970s, and visitors are encouraged to explore their surroundings using official hiking routes. There’s a comprehensive programme of guided hikes at Las Terrazas and some gentler but still rewarding walks around Soroa. Though sometimes referred to as such, the peaks of the Sierra del Rosario don’t quite qualify for mountain status, the highest point reaching just under 700m, and although there is some fantastic scenery, it’s rarely, if ever, breathtaking.
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.
A wonderfully harmonious resort and small working community, Las Terrazas, 74km southwest of Havana, is one of the most important ecotourism sites in the country. About 2km beyond the tollbooth on the main access road, where you pay your entry fee unless you’re staying at the resort’s solitary hotel, there are right- and left-hand side-roads in quick succession. The right turn leads to the Rancho Curujey visitor centre, while the left turn leads several hundred metres down to the village, a well-spaced complex of red-roofed bungalows and apartment blocks, beautifully woven into the grassy slopes of a valley, at the foot of which is a man-made lake. Below the housing, you can see the compact Las Terrazas village buildings dotted around the lake. Though the cabins look as if they’re meant for visitors, they belong to the resident population of around a thousand.
The final stretch of the main road leads up to the other tollbooth (where you won’t get charged if you already paid at the Havana end) on the western border of the resort, immediately after which a left turn will take you on the road to Soroa and back to the autopista.
The Las Terrazas community was founded in 1971, with its residents encouraged to play an active role in the preservation and care of the local environment. They formed the backbone of the workforce, whose first task was a massive government-funded reforestation project covering some fifty square kilometres of the Sierra del Rosario. As well as building the village itself, this project entailed planting trees along terraces dug into the hillside, thus guarding against erosion and giving the place its name. This was all part of a grander scheme by the government to promote self-sufficiency and education in rural areas, one of the promises of the Revolution. Today a large proportion of the community works in tourism, some as employees at the hotel and others as owners of the small businesses that have been set up in response to the growing numbers of visitors.
As well as excellent hiking, there are several other activities on offer in Les Terrazas. Most thrilling is an aerial canopy tour of the village on one-man seats suspended from steel cables 25m above the ground. It starts from a platform in the woodlands around the hotel and extends for 800m all the way down to the boating house, the Casa de Botes, on the edge of the lake, stopping at several other platforms along the way. Bookings are taken at the Hotel Moka or the Casa de Botes.
More sedate options include horseriding, booked at the Hotel Moka. The various set rides include 2hr excursions to the Casa del Campesino and the Baños de San Juan, a 3hr ride to the Cafetal Buenavista and a couple of 2hr rides, including one that scales the nearby Loma de Taburete. If you want an even more subdued pastime, you can rent rowing boats on the lake. The Casa de Botes, where boats are moored, is easy to find just off the main road through the village.
A mixture of semitropical rainforest and evergreen forest, the Sierra del Rosario is home to a rich variety of bird species, fifty percent of which are endemic to this region. Among the more notable of the seventy-or-so species here are the white-and-red Cuban trogon or tocororo, Cuba’s national bird, and the Cuban grassquit, known in Spanish as the tomeguín del Pinar.
From the south side of Las Terrazas village, at the junction where the road to the hotel begins, another road leads off in the opposite direction for the Baños de San Juan, a delightful spot featuring natural pools, riverside picnic tables, a simple restaurant and some even simpler cabins providing rudimentary accommodation. From here it’s a hop and a skip down to the river, where a footbridge takes you over the water to the paths zigzagging both ways along the river’s edge, mingling with tiny tributaries branching off from the main river, creating a network of walkways punctuated by paved clearings where you can stop and sit under matted roofs. Following the route downstream leads to the focal point here, a small set of clear, natural pools fed by dinky waterfalls – ideal for a bit of midday bathing.
Sixteen kilometres southwest of Las Terrazas, the tiny village of Soroa nestles in a long narrow valley. Although a cosy spot, access into the hills is limited and the list of attractions brief, meaning the resort is best suited to a shorter break than a prolonged visit.
Most of what you’ll want to see is within ten minutes’ walk of Soroa, but if you’ve driven up from the autopista, the first place you’ll get to, 100m or so from the Villa Soroa hotel, is the car park for El Salto, a 20m-high waterfall. Though a relatively modest cascade, a dip in the refreshing waters is a fitting reward for the half-hour walk through the woods to reach it; take the dirt track from the car park.
Signposted from the El Salto car park, the scenic viewpoint of El Mirador de Soroa is the more challenging of the two hills in the area, and you may well feel like a massage after the thirty-minute hike up along an increasingly steep and narrow (though shady) dirt track. While there are a number of possible wrong turns on the way up, you can avoid getting lost by simply following the track with the horse dung – many people choose to ride up on horseback. At the summit, you’ll find vultures circling the rocky, uneven platform and impressive views over the undulating peaks of palm-smothered hills.
On the way up to El Mirador de Soroa, a sign points over a small bridge towards the Baños Romanos, located in an unassuming stone cabin; massages, cold sulphurous baths and other treatments including acupuncture can be arranged here through the Villa Soroa hotel.
West of Soroa along the autopista lie a number of relatively entertaining detours, all within a forty-minute drive of the main road. If you are driving – which is the best option, given no bus routes currently operate to this area from Havana or Pinar del Río city – it’s easy to cover them all in a single day. The place you’re most likely to spend a night, or at least stop for a meal, is the sleepy town of San Diego de los Baños, famous for its health spa, which is said to be the best in the country, though there are now several more modern, upmarket hotel-spas on the island offering better facilities (minus the same range of therapies).
The box-like exterior of the spa contrasts strikingly with the flourishing forests on the other side of the river. When you’ve had your fill of the waters, you might want to rent bikes and motorbikes at the hotel, or arrange hiking and fishing trips into the hundred square kilometres of protected woodlands just a leisurely stroll away. You could also wander around the village to the leafy little square, with its creaking seesaws and swings and church; or spend a few hours in the cinema, next door to the Hotel Mirador.
From here it’s only a short drive to the area’s other main attraction, towards the north: the Cueva de los Portales, a modestly impressive cave that cuts a dramatic hole straight through the Loma de los Arcos, and which was once the military headquarters of Che Guevara and his army.
Perched above the river that cuts along the edge of San Diego de los Baños, the Balneario San Diego’s reputation for medicinal powers dates back to 1632, when a slave, forced into isolation because of ill health, took an afternoon dip in the natural springs here and was supposedly instantly cured. Word rapidly spread and the country’s infirm began to flock here to be healed. By 1844 a town had been established to provide for the visitors, and eventually a rather utilitarian health spa was built to house the waters, though this didn’t take its current shape until after the Revolution. Nowadays most visitors are tourists, or Cubans on a prescribed course of treatment, as well as for beauty therapy, though you can just take a wallow in the waters. Popular treatments include acupuncture, medicinal mud and apitherapy (the therapeutic use of bee products), a field in which Cuba is reportedly a pioneer.
Stranded out on the far side of the westernmost province in Cuba at the end of the autopista, Pinar del Río is, quite simply, a backwater of a city. Close to some more alluring destinations – particularly Viñales, just 25km to the north, but also María La Gorda and the beaches Boca de Galafre and Playa Bailén to the south – the city works best as a base for exploring this half of the province. Despite its 125,000-strong population, Pinar del Río has the feel of a much smaller place, its central streets more reminiscent of a residential neighbourhood than a town centre.
Despite being the capital of the province, Pinar del Río is comparatively undeveloped for tourism: none of the international or upmarket hotel chains is represented here, nightlife is limited and dining options and the museums could do with a rethink. On the other hand, countless casas particulares are spread all over the city. You’ll need no more than a couple of days to get to know the place inside out, and in fact very few visitors spend even that long here. The highlight is the Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién, a diminutive cigar factory offering illuminating tours, while the Cabaret Rumayor offers a taste of classic Cuban entertainment whose extravagance feels somewhat out of place in this less-than-cosmopolitan town. If you do find yourself here for any length of time you’re probably best spent seeking out a paladar or casa particular to suit your taste and retreating to one of these, or lounging around the pool and grounds of the Hotel Pinar del Río, away from the attentions of the jineteros.
To see Pinar del Río in a more favourable light, time your visit to coincide with the November Nosotros music and culture festival when musicians perform for free at stages set up around the central streets. Contact Infotur for dates.
Pinar del Río could not be described as a tranquil city, thanks to the increasingly aggressive nature and disproportionately large number of jineteros who thrive here away from the attentions of the state, which generally focuses on Havana and the more popular tourist locations. As a result, levels of pestering and prostitution are surprisingly high. Foreign visitors, particularly those in rental cars or on Víazul buses, are often surrounded by touts within minutes of arrival and are likely to attract what can become a tiring level of persistent attention throughout their time in the city.
The problem is particularly tiresome when you’re looking for accommodation. Some jineteros have adopted particularly aggressive techniques, going as far as following you to the door of a house and claiming that no one lives there or that it’s full, just as the owner approaches to let you in. With this in mind, be careful if asking directions, particularly from young men who offer to take you to the address. Many house owners have complained of touts demanding commission even when the guests have actually arrived independently. If you got there on your own, make it clear to the house owner that you did not get their address from a tout; it can also help to let the tout know you will be doing this.
The nearest beaches to Viñales are the two cays, Jutías and Levisa, that lie off the northern coast of Pinar del Río province. Both are easily accessible by car and relatively undeveloped, so if you’re looking for white-sand beaches without the contrived air that’s part and parcel of the all-inclusive resorts elsewhere in the country, the cays are ideal.
Just off the north coast of this part of Pinar del Río province (a 60km drive north and west from Viñales) is Cayo Jutías, a secluded island hideout that’s relatively untouched compared to most of the other tourist magnets in the region. Besides the road ploughing through the middle of the low-lying thicket that covers most of the cay, the only signs of construction are a wooden restaurant at the start of the 3km of beach on the north side, and an old metal lighthouse built in 1902. The beach itself is admittedly a little scrappy in places and rarely more than 3m wide, but this does nothing to spoil the place’s edge-of-the-world appeal – this may well be the best spot in Cuba to lie back and do absolutely nothing.
On the same stretch of north coast as Cayo Jutías, 50km northeast of Viñales, the lonely military outpost of Palma Rubia is the jumping-off point for Cayo Levisa, more developed for tourism than Cayo Jutías but still relatively unspoilt. This 3km-wide, densely wooded islet boasts some of the finest white sands and clearest waters in Pinar del Río, and unless you take advantage of its diving centre, there’s blissfully little to do here.
The boat moors on a rickety wooden jetty, a two-minute walk from the only accommodation on the island, Hotel Cayo Levisa, sprawled untidily along the gleaming white beach. Behind the beach, thick woodland reaches across the island to the opposite shore, forming a natural screen that encourages a sense of escape and privacy.
Heading southwest from Pinar del Río city on the Carretera Central, the only main road through this part of the region, the tourist centres become less developed and the towns more isolated, snoozy but likeable little places that hold scant reward for even the most enthusiastic explorer – twenty minutes in any one of them should suffice for the whole lot. The one place that demands a longer visit between Pinar del Río city and the Península de Guanahacabibes is the Alejandro Robaina tobacco plantation, just under 25km from the centre of the provincial capital. Of the numerous vegas (tobacco farms) in the area, this is the one best prepared for visitors and the most renowned.
After the small town of Isabel Rubio, 60km from the provincial capital, the landscape becomes increasingly monotonous and doesn’t improve until the dense forest and crystalline waters of the peninsula move into view, well beyond the end of the Carretera Central at the fishing village of La Fe. On Cuba’s virtually untouched western tip, María La Gorda is one of the best scuba-diving locations in the country.
As the Carretera Central heads southwest from the provincial capital, it cuts through the famed Vuelta Abajo region, one of the most fertile areas in the country and the source of the finest tobacco in the world. There are countless vegas (tobacco plantations) in this zone, but one, the Alejandro Robaina, has an edge over the rest. While most plantations produce tobacco for one or more of the state-owned cigar brands, such as Cohiba, Monte Cristo and so on, this is the only one to farm the crop exclusively for its own brand, named after the grandson of the original founder, who bought the plantation in 1845. The brand was established in 1997, then only the third brand to have been created since the Revolution in 1959. The owners have gone further than any other vega in their efforts to attract tourists, offering engaging guided tours of the plantation, product sampling opportunities and even the chance to meet members of the Robaina family, though Alejandro himself died in April 2010, aged 91.
You can visit on an excursion from Viñales, though it is the enterprising owners, not the state, running the short tours. Though this adds to the sense of authenticity, it also means the plantation is difficult to find, for independent visitors, with no road signs pointing the way nor any mention of the place on maps. To get there by car, take a left turn, marked by a small collection of huts and a solitary bungalow, off the Carretera Central 18km from Pinar del Río. Follow this almost ruler-straight side road for 4km until you reach another left turn, just before a concrete roadside plaque that reads “CCS Viet-Nam Heróico”. This dusty track leads to the plantation.
The best time of year to visit is between October and January during the tobacco growing season. The tours (which are conducted variously in English, French and Italian) take in the various stages of tobacco production, starting with a visit to plots of land covered by cheesecloth under which the seeds are planted. Next you’re taken to one of the casas de secado, the drying barns, where the leaves are strung up in bundles and the fermentation process takes place. There’s a table here where cigar rolling is demonstrated, although no cigars are actually produced for sale on the farm.
Tobacco is one of the most intrinsic elements of Cuban culture. Not as vital to the economy as sugar (Cuba’s most widely grown crop), tobacco farming and cigar smoking are nonetheless more closely linked with the history and spirit of this Caribbean country. When Columbus arrived, the indigenous islanders had long been cultivating tobacco and smoking it in pipes that they inhaled through their nostrils rather than their mouth. When the leaf was first taken back to Europe it received a lukewarm reaction, but by the nineteenth century it had become one of the most profitable Spanish exports from its Caribbean territories.
There are a couple of beaches in the La Fe vicinity, around the wide-open bay of Ensenada de Cortés, although the appeal lies more in their proximity to the provincial capital and their popularity with locals than in their negligible beauty. Around 15km beyond San Juan y Martínez on the Carretera Central there’s a clearly signposted turn-off for Boca de Galafre. Five kilometres past the turning for Boca de Galafre, a side road leads down 8km to a more substantial beach, Playa Bailén, the most popular seaside resort along the southern coastline.
Though a challenge to reach independently, the forest-covered Península de Guanahacabibes has become a popular destination for organized excursions and in this respect is easier than ever to get to. The journey is certainly not without its rewards, especially for scuba divers, who can enjoy some of the best dive sites in Cuba. One of the largest national forest-parks in the country, the Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes covers most of the peninsula, the whole of which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1987. Some of Cuba’s most beautiful and unspoilt coastline can be found here around the Bahía de Corrientes, the bay nestling inside this hook of land. It was on the peninsula that the Cuban Amerindians sought their last refuge, having been driven from the rest of the island by the Spanish colonists. Guanahacabibes is still relatively untouched by tourism and the only two hotel resorts are the low-key María La Gorda and Villa Cabo San Antonio. This is also an important area for wildlife; birdlife is particularly rich between November and March, during the migration season, while May to September is the best time for seeing turtles.
Make sure you bring enough cash to cover all your costs on a trip to this area, as you cannot withdraw money or use credit cards for accommodation or restaurants. The only way into the peninsula is along a potholed road through a thick forest that begins where the Carretera Central ends, at the tiny fishing village of La Fe, 15km beyond the turning for Laguna Grande.
The pristine waters around María La Gorda are widely regarded as among the best for diving in the whole of Cuba, protected by the bay and spectacularly calm and clear, averaging 25m in depth. Diving here is enhanced by a quick drop in water depth, with a large number of the fifty-odd dive sites only ten to twenty minutes by boat from the shore, while the spectacular variety of fish life here includes barracuda, moray eels, several species of rays, lobsters, whale sharks and more. Among the specific dive sites of note are Ancla del Pirata, featuring an two-ton eighteenth-century anchor covered in coral; colourful Paraiso Perdito, which reaches depths of 33m and is particularly abundant in coral and fish life; and Yemayá, a 2m-high cave at 32m deep, which ascends almost 20m through a long, gently curving, mysterious tunnel.
Several boat trips are offered at the marina too. You can opt for an all-day excursion, which is aimed at couples and includes an on-board dinner. The club also runs fishing trips for a minimum of four people.
Turn left after La Bajada to get to the Península de Guanahacabibes’ most popular spot, María La Gorda, where there is an international dive centre and a small hotel complex on a fine white-sand beach. The relaxing drive here follows the shoreline of the bay, with dense forest on one side and an open expanse of brilliant, placid blue-green water on the other. Along the way are a few slightly scrappy but likeable little beaches, which you can make your own if you want complete privacy, but it’s best to wait, as there’s usually plenty of room on the much larger beach belonging to the resort at the end of the road. The white-sand beach is expansive enough for guests and non-guests (who can use the beach for free) to spread out without feeling too crowded. The sense of idyll is marred only slightly by the presence of a hard frill of rock which fringes the sand at the water’s edge; and the fact that as the beach is rarely swept, a small amount of debris usually accumulates.
You should bring enough cash to cover all your costs here, as there are no banks, ATMs or places to change money, and the restaurants don’t accept credit cards (though the little shop does).
Top image: Vinales © rphstock/Shutterstock