Pinar del Río Province
Tobacco is still king on Cuba's western fingertip, a rolling canvas of rust-red oxen-furrowed fields, thatched tobacco-drying houses and sombrero-clad guajiros (country folk).
The crucible of this emerald land is the Valle de Viñales, a Unesco World Heritage Site framed by a backdrop of distinctive mogotes (limestone monoliths) that nigh-on beseech you to get hiking. Playing a tuneful second fiddle is the Península de Guanahacabibes, an uninhabited wilderness chock-a-block with fertile ecosystems that abut a swath of 50-plus offshore dive sites.
People primarily come here to be close to nature, basing themselves in the serene hassle-free village of Viñales. From here, huge cave complexes call for torch-lit exploration, tobacco plantations offer expert fact-finding tours, beaches invite lazy contemplation, and every horizon seems to be filled with a host of quintessential 'come to the Cuban countryside' images. So follow the fragrant aroma of tobacco and come.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Pinar del Río Province.
If they gave out Academy Awards for Cuban beaches, Las Tumbas might just win, edging out Playa Sirena on Cayo Largo del Sur (too many tourists) and Playa Pilar on Cayo Guillermo (blemished by an ugly hotel). It's certainly the nation's most isolated beach, 60km from the nearest population and backed only by a quiet 16-room hotel.
A grand crenelated entry gate a few kilometers west of San Diego de los Baños announces the surreal, long-abandoned grounds of Hacienda Cortina. The brainchild of wealthy lawyer José Manuel Cortina, this rich-man's-fantasy-made-reality was built as a giant park during the 1920s and 1930s, with Cortina plonking a stately home in its midst. After nigh-on a century of neglect, in 2014 refurbishment money arrived out of the blue and the hacienda has been partially restored.
A kilometer beyond the turnoff to Dos Hermanas and the Mural de la Prehistoria, a dirt road twists up to the mountain community of Los Aquáticos, founded in 1943 by followers of visionary Antoñica Izquierdo, who discovered the healing power of water when the campesinos (farmers) of this area had no access to conventional medicine. They colonized the mountain slopes and two families still live there. It's accessible only by horse or on foot. Most of Viñales' casas particulares (private homestays) can organize tours.
The tobacco farm of Hector Luis Prieto currently produces the 'Champagne' of Cuban cigars and invites visitors to find out exactly how they're nurtured. Prieto is Cuba's youngest-ever winner of the prestigious Hombre Habano award, given annually to the nation's best tobacco producer, and his 6-hectare farm, which rears around 250,000 tobacco plants a year, offers detailed tours in English, French and Spanish.
Welcome to Cuba’s largest cave system and the second largest on the American continent. There are over 46km of galleries on eight levels, with a 1km section accessible to visitors. There’s no artificial lighting, but headlamps are provided for the 90-minute guided tour. Highlights include bats, stalagmites and stalactites, underground pools, interesting rock formations and a replica of an ancient indigenous mural.
The famous Robaina vegas (fields), in the rich Vuelta Abajo region southwest of Pinar del Río, have been growing quality tobacco since 1845, but it wasn't until 1997 that a brand of cigars known as Vegas Robaina was first launched to wide international acclaim. The former owner Alejandro Robaina, who made the brand so famous, died in April 2010. But the show must go on, and does at the plantation today. It's been open to outside visitors for some years.
During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara transferred the headquarters of the Western Army to this vast and spectacular cave, 11km west of Parque la Güira and 16km north of Entronque de Herradura on the Carretera Central. The cave is set in a beautiful remote area among steep-sided vine-covered mogotes (limestone monoliths) and was declared a national monument in the 1980s.
A 120m-long painting, 4km west of Viñales village on the side of Mogote Pita. Leovigildo González Morillo, a follower of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, designed it in 1961 (the idea was hatched by Celia Sánchez, Alicia Alonso and Antonio Núñez Jiménez). On a cliff at the foot of the 617m-high Sierra de Viñales, the highest portion of the Sierra de los Órganos, this massive mural took 18 people four years to complete.
A former Spanish farm spread over 1000 hectares of pasture, forest and wetlands, the Rancho la Guabina is a jack of all trades and a master of at least one. You can partake in horseback riding here, go boating on a lake or enjoy a scrumptious Cuban barbecue. The big drawcard for most, though, is the fantastic horse shows.