Occupying the westernmost end of Cuba, the province of Pinar del Rio offers some interesting escapes at an easily accessible distance from the capital, Havana. Most of the tourists that visit this area, indeed, come only for the day on tours organized by one the government driven operators, beginning and finishing their circuit in Havana. This region is known primarily by the beautiful landscapes offered by the Viñales Valley and by the possibility to get to know a little about the tobacco culture (Pinar del Rio is responsible for around 80% of the tobacco grown in Cuba).
The provincial capital, which is also named Pinar del Rio, is located 165km (100mi) away from Havana and has a population of 165,000 inhabitants. Even though the city doesn’t really have a lot to offer when it comes to tourism, many tours end up visiting the spirits factory “La Occidental”, also known by its former name “Casa Garay”. This is where you can allegedly find some of the best Guayabita de Pinar, a distillated drink obtained from a small guava and available in two versions: dry, similar to rum, and sweet.
Continuing, around 30km (20mi) north of Pinar del Rio is the town of Viñales. This actually looks more like a small village, home to 10,000 people, that concentrates most of the touristic infrastructure of the region, offering a decent array of restaurants and casas particulares. A small distance away from there, the Viñales Valley covers an area of 132km² (51mi²) and constitutes an unique landscape in the whole country, dominated by the presence of several mogotes, hills formed by limestone erosion. Some of these mogotes have very suggestive shapes and were named after them, as is the case with the Two Sisters mogote. Many of these mogotes have caves inside, and many of these caves are accessible to the general public.
The best known caves in this region are around San Vicente. The Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave) is likely the most visited among them, since it is the longest easily accessible cave system in Viñales. A visit here usually consists of a brief walk through its interior, admiring its mineral formations, and then a boat ride through the river that flows there.
Another very popular activity around Viñales takes visitors on a tour to a local small cigar producing plant; as mentioned previously, this province is responsible for the largest tobacco crops in the whole island. Visiting one of these farms or small plants is an opportunity to meet the people that rely on this activity and find out a little about their way of living. Besides, it is an opportunity to observe on first-hand the manufacturing process of this product, probably the country’s biggest symbol.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that, among so many natural wonders and cultural riches, Viñales also hosts what should probably deserve a distinction as the worst touristic attraction in Cuba. Something so absurdly tasteless that would be a serious contender for worst sight in all Latin America. This is the Pre-History Mural, a giant mural painted on the virtually vertical cliff of a mountain. If for some reason your tour organized by a government led tour operator takes you there, at least try to enjoy the local bar and restaurant, otherwise try to make a better use of your time and head somewhere else in the province, or go back to Havana in order to continue exploring the country.