Pinar del Río is the westernmost major city in Cuba and is connected to Havana by a 150 kilometer-long highway. The city is often a stopover between Havana and some of the most beautiful and well preserved nature sites on the island, which in some cases include secluded and breathtaking beaches.
Guest post by Boaz Sobrado
Blog: Why not Cuba
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PINAR DEL RIO?
The best time of the year to get there is from October (Cuba’s holiday season is over, places are less packed and the country’s long and hot summers are slowly cooling off) to April (the rain season starts and the heat returns). The average temperature during this period is around 22-30 degrees Celsius.
High tourist season runs between late November and March, but Viñales is the tourist hub in the Pinar del Río province. Travelers mainly go there, while the city of Pinar del Río is a quieter, undervalued place.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT PINAR DEL RIO
Pinar is a medium-sized low-rise city with a population of around 140 thousand people, founded in the 18th century. Red tile roofs abound, as well as houses with colonial porches that make up fresh galleries along the streets.
Tobacco and stunning nature define the region.
This is the land where the best tobacco in the world is grown, a worldwide-acknowledged fact. Between 60 and 80 percent of leaves used in Cuban cigars, or Habanos, come from Pinar del Río. Vueltabajo, the name historically given to this region, is a certificate of origin, a guarantee of high-quality Habanos. Just by being grown, desiccated and rolled in Pinar del Río, a cigar can be the best Cuban cigar you will ever smoke.
Many travelers arrive in Pinar del Río, find stay in the city for two or three nights and spend the days visiting nature destinations: Viñales and its “mogotes” and caves, a Natural World Heritage site; María La Gorda diving centre, among the world’s best diving spots; Guanahacabibes Pensinsula, UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Vast tropical forest, caves, pristine and virgin beaches are also among the main reasons to visit.
The city gives travelers the opportunity to spend a day walking around, tasting local and international cuisine, visiting tobacco factories and savoring one-of-a-kind liquor, Guayabita del Pinar.
ONE DAY IN PINAR DEL RIO ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the best of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Pinar del Rio.
Start your day from Parque de la Independencia
Parque de la Independencia (Independence Park), on Calle Martí, the city’s main street, can be the place to start the tour around Pinar del Río. This is the oldest square in the city and, for a long time, Plaza de Armas (main square). One of the buildings surrounding Parque de la Independencia is an art gallery where local works of art are on display.
Those seeking another way to explore the art scene can visit, with prior notice to the painter’s office (pedropablooliva.com), Pedro Pablo Oliva’s studio. Oliva is one of the most brilliant and original Cuban artists of the last few decades. At the studio, it is possible to appreciate some of his best works.
Check out the cigar factory and learn about its culture
A must, given that you are in Vueltabajo, is the cigar factory Francisco Donatién. It is the right starting point for travelers seeking to explore the culture around the tobacco industry. Inside the factory, workers blend and roll tobacco leafs (they are known as rollers, or twisters, “torcedores”) while others put paper bands or rings (“anillas”) that assign each cigar a brand, or pack cigars ready for sale.
Habanos of brands such as Vegueros and Trinidad are hand-rolled in this factory by “torcedores” who display skills that take years to master. A roller, man or woman, can roll up to one hundred Habanos in one day, or even more, depending on the cigar brand.
The scent on the air is fresh and penetrating and a bit spicy at the same time. You can spend a while looking at rollers, trying to follow their hands as they cut leaves and roll one cigar after another while smoking their own, which they call “la fuma” (the smoke).
After touring the cigar factory, travelers can visit the store El Estanco (located within the factory) and buy Habanos of different “vitolas” (shape or variety) and brands.
Those willing to taste a Cuban cigar but who are not experts or bold smokers may try small-sized cigars that deliver a short tasty smoke (a Romeo y Julieta No. 3, for example, is ideal in cases like this). Some rather smoke “minis” or “mini Habanos”: little cigars of a variety of brands (Cohíba, Guantanamera, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Punch, Partagás…) which are cigarette shaped. They allow a shorter though equally spicy smoke.
Make a short stop at the Casa Garay factory and taste the region’s unique beverage
Walking five or six blocks from the cigar factory, you will get to the Casa Garay factory where a type of liquor unique to this region, Guayabita del Pinar, is produced. It is a strong alcoholic drink obtained from a small fruit only found in Pinar del Río (guayabita del pinar, little guava of pinar). Guayabita del Pinar is bottled and offered in two versions: sweet and dry, the latter being the most popular and valued by Cubans as a sort of cognac.
Guayabita del Pinar factory was founded in the late 1800s. As a part of the tour of the factory, you can taste the liquor and even buy a bottle to take it home. Some people like to pair (“maridar” is the Spanish term for this) a drink of Guayabita with a Cuban cigar.
Visit the Natural History Museum – one of the most original buildings in Cuba
Not far from the Casa Garay factory is another local attraction, one of the strangest and most original buildings in Cuba, the Natural History Museum, also known as Guasch Palace.
Located on Calle Martí (this is the city’s main street, an extension of the highway that connects Pinar del Río to Havana), the eclectic building is a symbol of the city and a mix of Art Nouveau, Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, Islamic, Egyptian and Byzance architectural styles. It was designed and built in the early 1900s by a local doctor who was also an artist, geologist and enthusiastic naturalist, and even came to speak seven languages.
Inside the museum you will find an exhibition of flora and fauna from the region. There is also an interior patio with stone sculptures of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.
WHERE TO STAY IN PINAR DEL RIO
Some travelers choose to stay at hotels such as E Vueltabajo (Calle Martí, three star hotel, 39 air-conditioned rooms, wine cellar, cigar shop, restaurant, around 50 CUC per night) or Pinar del Río (at the entrance of the city, two stars, 150 rooms, 2 restaurants, 4 bars, shop and a pool, around 40 CUC per night). Others prefer one of more than two dozen “casas particulares” listed on TripAdvisor, Airbnb and cuba.travel. Among these are traditional houses branded as “casa colonial” (colonial house). The average price is around 20-30 CUC.
Where to eat in Pinar del Rio
There are several private restaurants or “paladares” near downtown. El Gallardo is also located on Martí Street, next to the Natural History Museum. This “paladar” offers Cuban and International cuisine, and the average price is 7 CUC. The house’s specialty is “chuleta El Gallardo”: pork chop gratin, soaked in sauce and with olives.
Other restaurants are open on the same street: Las Mil y una Noches (Cuban, Italian), Café Ortúzar (International) and El Mesón (Cuban). For more options just download AlaMesa app to your mobile, there you will find any information on bars and cafes and restaurants in Cuba.
DAY TRIPS FROM PINAR DEL RIO
You can also choose to organize a day trip from Pinar del Rio. As mentioned, the nature of this area is absolutely mesmerizing, and the roads taking you through it will offer you the adventure of a lifetime.
The most interesting day trip from Pinar del Río city is the one that takes you to Guanahacabibes Peninsula and goes westward through the whole province and the famous tobacco fields of Vueltabajo. The last section of the road, within a Biosphere Reserve, runs between the coast (sometimes near 20-metre high cliffs) and one of the vastest forest areas in the country.
This is a one day (or longer) excursion. You can reach the westernmost point of Cuba, Cabo de San Antonio, where there is a beautiful lighthouse built around 1850. You will see amazing landscapes, trails on the forest and virgin beaches that stretch along for kilometers. This is a place where you can enjoy with no rush. In case it gets late and the night falls, there is an eco-hotel nearby, Villa Cabo San Antonio, with 16 wooden piling cottages.
Viñales is 25 kilometers away from the city, you have to take a road full of curves and ups and downs. This is a picturesque town near the famous and peculiar round-shaped mountains known as “mogotes” (UNESCO World Heritage landscape), with dozens of “casas particulares” for rent and “paladares”.
You can spend a day at Viñales, doing some trekking and climbing, and bird watching. Santo Tomás Great Cave is the largest in Latin America and the Caribbean, a 45-kilometer long cave system with many galleries and seven different levels (stories) of caves, one above the other.
At Cueva del Indio cave it is possible to sail on a boat along a subterranean river.
There are dozens of “paladares” and “casas particulares” at Viñales, if you visit the town out of high season it will not be an issue to find lodging. If it is high season, you best book in advance, or plan your activities in a way that allows you to be back in Pinar del Río by the end of the day.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING PINAR DEL RIO
-The best time to leave Havana on the way to Pinar del Río is before daybreak. It is the best way to avoid rush hour (let’s say around 6 AM) and arrive to Pinar del Río when the day is starting. This also makes it possible to enjoy the landscape, the visual effects the morning mist creates on the plain, to the extent that palmas barrigonas (potbellied palms, an endemic species), appear to be floating on a white smoky lake.
-Private taxis charge above 100 CUC, but give you the advantage of not relying on bus schedules or the availability of space on collective taxis.
-Buses of Viazul line are at 11 CUC (the station is located in front of the Havana Zoo). Collective taxis departing from the area outside the National Bus Station, near Plaza de la Revolución, are 5-7 CUC.
-Bolder travelers take trucks departing all day long from La Lisa, 20 minutes away from central Havana, and pay less than 50 Cuban pesos (about 2 CUC) for the ride to Pinar del Río.
-You will find a wide range of services on Calle Martí (Martí Street), Pinar del Río city’s main street: “casas particulares”, currency exchange, stores and a handicraft shop, wifi, coffee shop and restaurant.
PIN FOR LATER!
If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Pinar del Rio Itinerary, feel free to share it in the comments below!