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.
From the Cueva de San Miguel it’s a two-minute drive or a twenty-minute walk north to San Vicente’s most captivating attraction, the Cueva del Indio. Rediscovered in 1920, this network of caves is believed to have been used by the Guanahatabey Amerindians, both as a temporary refuge from the Spanish colonists and – judging by the human remains found here – as a burial site. Well-lit enough not to seem ominous, the cool caves nevertheless inspire a sense of escape from the humid and bright world outside. There are no visible signs of Indian occupation: instead of paintings, the cave walls are marked with natural wave patterns, testimony to the flooding that took place during their formation millions of years ago. Only the first 300m of the large jagged tunnel’s damp interior can be explored on foot before a slippery set of steps leads down to a subterranean river. It’s well worth taking the boat ride here, where a guide steers you for ten minutes through the remaining 400m of explorable cave. The boat drops you off out in the open, next to some souvenir stalls and a car park around the corner from where you started.
Seventeen kilometres along the road west from Viñales village is the clearly marked turn-off for El Moncada, a scattering of houses that shares a sheltered valley with the magnificent Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. The most extensive cave system in Cuba, with 46km of caves, attracts serious speleologists and small tour groups alike, but happily it has not yet become overrun with visitors.
Highlights of the 90min guided tour – which covers 1km of chambers – include surprising cave winds, bats flying about and underground pools. The knowledgeable guides point out easy-to-miss plants, deposits of guano, and, on level six, a replica of a mural. The mural is part of the evidence, as is the 3400-year-old skeleton found here, that these caves were once the refuge of the Guanahatabeys, the original inhabitants of Cuba.
Considering the number of tourists who pass through it, the conveniently located village of Viñales is surprisingly undeveloped for tourism, with only one official state restaurant, no hotels currently in the village itself (though several close by, and one under construction) and very few amenities in general. Nestled on the valley floor, simple tiled-roof bungalows with sunburnt paintwork and unkempt gardens huddle around the pine-lined streets, with only the occasional car or tour bus disturbing the laid back atmosphere as it plies its way up and down the main street of Salvador Cisnero, which slopes gently down either side of a small square where you’ll find all but one of the village's noteworthy buildings. Despite the village’s diminutive size, there’s no shortage of people offering you a place to stay or a taxi, though this doesn’t constitute any kind of hassle. There’s a genuine charm to the village, though there’s actually little here to hold your attention for very long.
The Feria artesanía is a one-street market selling handmade crafts of an unusually high standard. Hand-carved, local-wood hummingbirds are small enough to buy several for a mobile, while the salad servers are smooth and well finished. Elsewhere straw hats and cartoon fridge magnets are good for whimsical holiday souvenirs.
The village’s main square is home to the Casa de la Cultura, which dates from 1832 and houses a small, sporadically active theatre on the second floor. You’re free to take a quick peek upstairs, where there’s still some old colonial-style furniture and a partial view of the hills.
Next door to the Casa de la Cultura, the diminutive Galería de Arte displays small collections of paintings by local artists. Most are somewhat mawkish acrylic landscapes of the Viñales valley, though there’s a handful of more original abstracts thrown in for good measure.
Top image: Morning view to Vinales valley, Cuba © Zaruba Ondrej/Shutterstock