As Havana has begun to embrace the modern world a little more each year, this province remains firmly rooted in the past. The outskirts of the capital and paved roads give way first to dusty tracks in the Viñales Valley where horse-drawn or even goat-drawn carts are the norm and mules are regularly used to transport goods.
Indeed, in a country where fuel is scarce and expensive, these animals are essential to the smooth running of the rural economy here. Farmers in spurs trot down dusty tracks around their tobacco plantations. The rust-red soil is ploughed using oxen and seeds are sown by hand.
The Viñales Valley itself is a completely striking and unique landscape dotted with ‘mogotes’, a series of rounded hills that rise up sharply from the flat valley plains as well as waterfalls and rivers. This unusual landscape of limestone peaks offers a mystical and almost prehistoric feel to the region, enhancing its sense of being a land lost in time.
A network of underground rivers are dotted with spectacular caves that are easy to explore. They were once the home of Guantajatabey Indians and relics of this indigenous nomadic people have been found along with fossils of Pleistocene mammals embedded in the rock. This idyllic Eden also has some delightful protected nature reserves and national parks above ground.
The recent relaxing of government rules on private sector tourism has brought a new lease of life to this area, albeit thankfully still in a controlled and beneficial way. There has long been a dearth of decent accommodation here, with only exception, until recently. A delightful rustic and charming small hotel in Las Terrazas has always been a beacon of sustainable tourism close to Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, offering solar power, organically grown produce and cosy accommodation.
Elsewhere, a new wave of neatly spruced up and repainted local homes provide a delightful homely welcome to visitors. Enjoy a mojito while rocking on the porch of your casa particular before a home-cooked dinner as the farm animals cluck and oink happily in nearby pens. Yes, the style is simple but the warm and enthusiastic welcome by your local hosts can’t be bettered.
This stunning landscape then makes the perfect place for all sorts of outdoor pursuits that is both easy to access from Havana as well as rural and tranquil. Birdwatchers should base themselves in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve for one of the best locations in Cuba – look out for the iridescent red, green and blue Cartacuba (Cuban Tody) in particular or the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest in the world.
The flat terrain and lack of motorised vehicles also makes it the perfect region for hiking adventures or exploring on two wheels. Cycling here is fairly easy going although the quality of bikes is lower than in Europe so you may want to bring your own if you would like to spend a week exploring by bike. With so many horses in the region, we can also arrange some wonderful riding holidays in this beautiful area.
Horses here are really well cared for and healthy and well treated, Breeds tend to be small and hardy and smaller than breeds you may be used to in Europe or the US but they are the perfect means of transport in Pinar del Rio. Nod hello to passing farmers and stop for a chat in villages that rarely see foreign visitors.
This rural haven also of course is surrounded by the impossibly azure waters of the Caribbean which here are unpolluted and virtually undisturbed. This means fabulous visibility of up to 40 metres, pristine coral reefs and a remarkable array of marine life. Tiny rustic resorts with simple bungalows are all you will find here, definitely not a glitzy purpose-built resort in sight.
If you want or expect the sort of luxury you get in resorts elsewhere in the Caribbean, then these coastal towns will not be for you. If however you want superb diving and snorkelling with almost no other visitors and a truly remote barefoot beach paradise which is totally unspoilt where simple cabanas pepper powder white sand beaches, then you will love either Maria la Gorda or Cayo Levisa.