Pinar del Rio (province)
Pinar del Rio is a province in Western Cuba.
This is the name of the provice (state) as well as the name of the Capital city. Apart from car rental, the best way to get there is Viazul Bus. In feb 2006, the ticket was $12 CUC from havana and there are three buses going there in a day starting from early in the morning. The buses are comfortable safe and very tourist friendly. Make sure you book for the ticket, otherwise you will have to be lucky enough to get a seat in the reservation. Taxi costs $200CUC.
Parque Nacional de Viñales (Viñales National Park)
Parque Nacional La Güira (La Güira National Park) and San Diego de Los Baños
Soroa is a valley 87 kilometers west of Havana. The first place we visited was the Orquideario Soroa. The guidebook says this is world's second-biggest orchid garden, with 700 species. We also hiked up the road behind the Orquideario, to a ruined mansion and a view of the valley.
We stayed in excellent casa particulares. There are many casas along the road. There's also a tourist hotel.
The next morning we hiked up the Mirador de Venus, a mountaintop viewpoint. The hike took about two hours at an easy pace. Then we went for a swim below the Cascadas El Salto waterfall. We had lunch at the restaurant, which was excellent. The guidebook says there's a six-hour hike to the ruins of the Cafetal Independencia coffee plantation.
Parque Nacional La Güira and San Diego de Los Baños
I looked forward to visiting this national park, from the three-paragraph description in the guidebook. My driver/translator, on the other hand, didn't like it and we barely stopped. It had been the estate of a wealthy landowner, with a mansion, formal gardens, both now in ruins; and 54,000 acres of mountain wilderness. We stopped at the restaurant at lunchtime, and after a lengthy wait and a short discussion with waitress/cook my translator said that the restaurant could only serve Cubans. Indeed the prices were in MN, not CUC, but I suspect that my translator wasn't explaining everything. We left in a hurry and drove to San Diego de Los Baños, where a restaurant served Cubans or tourists, or perhaps the wait for the food was so long that tourists qualified as landed immigrants. The hotel, with a beautiful swimming pool, in San Diego de Los Baños was the only hotel I saw that was open to Cubans, and was very popular.
The road from La Güira to the Cuevas de los Portales is about 15 kilometers. It looks like it goes through the highest mountains, and the guidebook says it's very scenic. However, locals said that it's impassable by car. It might be a good hike or mountain bike ride.
Cuevas de los Portales
This is the most beautiful place I saw in Cuba. A river cuts through a mountain, forming not one, not two, but three caves. The caves are big and open so you don't need flashlights or a guide. The jungle outside the caves is wilderness. Getting there is a long drive on the way to nowhere. No other tourists were there when we visited.
Che Guevara lived in the cave in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently he figured that if the Americans bombed the rest of Cuba, he'd be ready to lead the fight against the invaders. In and around the cave are plaques explaining that he played chess on this bench, wrote letters on this table, fired his rifle at that tree for practice, etc.
The government built a nice campismo or campground for Cubans to vacation. The cabins looked nice, if spartan. No one was camping there, just the caretaker. The bar and restaurant were closed.
This is one of the few beaches on Cuba's northwest coast. There's nothing wrong with the beach, but IMHO it wasn't as nice as the beaches on the south coast. There's a restaurant but no hotel. I found a beautiful conch shell in the water. One more point: you can amuse your Cuban friends, especially those under twelve, if you go to the restaurant and order a jutía (giant tree rat). The restaurant doesn't serve jutía. For the rest of your trip you can feign indignation and say that you're going to write to Raúl to complain that you went to Cayo Jutías, paid your 5 CUC at the gate, and didn't get your jutía.
The best and most widely used way to get it in is going there on a bus from Havana. Prior reservation is important which is possible online.
Mojito. Lots of it. it is a cool Cuban drink.