West of Havana, the island bends southward into Pinar del Río province, spreading across a mountainous and sparsely developed area about the size of Jamaica or Puerto Rico. Lush forests cover mountain ranges full of porous rock and rare geological formations called “mogotes” which create dramatic natural skylines and picturesque palm flecked hills and valleys. There are a ton of natural cave formations, rivers to swim in and hike along, and a number of beaches and cays along the northern coast that have amazing empty beaches.
One of the most beautiful cays is Cayo Jutías, named for the island’s largest endemic mammal, a bush rat that some eat and others keep as pets. It’s a 3 kilometer spit of land extending out into the Caribbean and is located about 40 rugged miles past Viñales, the quaint tobacco growing valley and rural tourist hub. Between Havana, Viñales, and Cayo Jutías, there is lots to explore — here are a few places that are worth a look that lie roughly along the trajectory:
This “eco-village” is a popular tourist destination and has a wonderful hotel and nearby river for swimming called San Juan de los Baños. There’s a lunch spot overlooking the river, hikes and coffee tours, and even a zip line for the adventurous. A several hour stop or a night in the hotel is a nice way to break up the trip to Viñales.
Another good stop off between Havana and Viñales is Soroa, a little mountain town with ample hiking, an amazing waterfall, an orchid garden, and several dramatic peaks with stunning views of the countryside. This gem of a town has a small hotel and a handful of simple, quality, affordable casas particulares run by local families.
Pinar del Río
The provincial capital is nothing compared to Havana, but it’s buildings are quite impressive and it’s streets are bustling with life. At the center of the province with the most famous tabacco cultivation in the world, Pinar city has a working cigar factory that allows visitors during the day. (Also, if there were a place in Cuba with good prices on black market cigars, a city like this one — in close proximity to many sources of product, without the bustle and price increases of Havana — might be it. Just sayin’.)
This is a legendary family run farm that has produced some of the most famous and highly regarded cigars of the past half century. About a 20 minute jaunt south of Pinar city (away from Viñales) it’s a good place to get a tour and see firsthand how intensely hands-on the complex process of tobacco farming is.
We’ve written about Viñales before — so we won’t get into it too much here, but one place not to miss is El Paraíso farm and paladar. The food and the view are equally spectacular.
Just west of Viñales along the Salvador Cisneros highway that heads toward Cayo Jutías, there is a community called Moncada with cute little brick homes, a few casas particulares, and the island’s largest cave system: Cuevas de Santo Tomás. Several levels of the cave are explorable and visitors can hire local guides on the spot.
Minas de Matahambre
There is nothing of particular note in this town that is passed through by travelers headed to Cayo Jutías, which is precisely it’s charm. A remote town where the humdrum routines of rural life on the island can be observed and admired.
Th beach is a sight to be seen — the roads leading there are for most of the year so littered with potholes that they are more pothole than road. Once you get out onto the bridge that takes you to over the water to the cay, the bumpy trip seems worth it. There is a small restaurant and rental kiosk for snorkel gear and other things beach related, but other than that it’s pretty much just pure sand and water for as far as the eye can see. Potholes notwithstanding, the beach, and the adventure getting there, are not to be missed.
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