For a single outing that has it all except for a beach, book a day tour to the Pinar del Río region and Viñales valley, west of Havana.
Pinar del Río is a gorgeous tableau – stunning natural beauty, prehistoric limestone formations rising like humpback whales from well-tended tobacco farms, a slightly cheesy glimpse into Cuba’s tobacco industry, unspoilt towns, hints of lost tribes and a disappointing underground river ride. Even the name is lyrical, meaning “pine trees of the river.”
You can go the pricey way, on a private or small group tour, or cheap, as I did. The $65 tour I bought from San Cristobal Tour Agency in the Saratoga Hotel sounded great on paper. It included hotel pickup and transport in an air-conditioned bus, lunch and a whirlwind, packed itinerary of stops – a snack, a scenic photo opportunity of the Viñales Valley, Pinar del Río rum factory, the Mural of Prehistory and lunch at the mural, a tobacco farm and finally the Indian Caves with its pointless underground river boat ride.
To be fair, a few of the region’s tourist attractions have issues. But my tour skipped attractions (the Jardín Botánico Viñales, walking tour of Pinar del Río town) of this lush region with quaint towns to hit some cheesy tourist traps. And the filthy onboard toilet stank up the bus.
First off, the bus was 90 minutes late getting to the Melia Cohiba Hotel for an 8 am pickup. It seemed a common problem, regardless of the bus operator, as there were half a dozen other tourists anxiously waiting in the lobby. One couple told me their bus had forgot to pick them up the day before which really made me worry over a possible no-show. Later, the guide explained that bad traffic and pickups at too many different hotels caused the delay. (Tip – get the bus operator’s phone number to check on any changes to the pickup time as well as the number of the tour agent who sold the tour; also keep your receipts!)
When my bus finally arrived, the only few available seats were near the on-board toilet, which suffused the back half of the bus with a vile stench that made the two and a half hour ride each way unbearable.
The town of Pinar del Río is fascinating – with its minute train station, horse-drawn carts loaded with hay and sugar cane, barbers opening shop on their home porches, the vibrantly hued and low-roofed homes and street corners of gossiping neighbors.A
But, frustratingly, my bus’ one and only stop here was a small rum factory. I almost got left behind after sneaking off to take street photos and had to hustle to get back onboard, which was such a shame as the town was pretty with multi-hued bungalows and the locals were charming and still unspoilt by tourism.
The factory itself, the Casa Garay Distilling Co., produces Guayabita del Pinar cane liquor flavored with an olive-like fruit. The few areas we were allowed to see, for bottling, labeling and storing, were pretty cool.
It was a glimpse into outdated mechanization with Cuban improvisation. All the bottles were recycled and washed by hand, and the tiny black, olive-like berries that make this brand of rum distinctive were popped in by hand. Also, the foil tops of bottles spit out by the rattling, laborious corking machine needed a few whacks by hand with a wooden mallet. I had a flash of the simple but crazed chocolate machine in I Love Lucy and couldn’t stop giggling.
Lucy and Ethel would love this
The tour would have been much more enjoyble if the factory staff didn’t look so painfully bored and if we were showed the actual distillery. Also, we barely had 20 minutes to see everything before being herded, with another large tour group, into a store selling rum and cigars that were not made on the premises, and were no cheaper than anywhere in Havana.
The only plus is relative freshness of the items as streams of tour buses pass through daily, depositing hapless tourists sucked into buying stuff here – every single person on our tour bought something, even skeptical old me.
The next stop was a hilltop overlooking the Viñales Valley mogotes (eroded limestone hills). The view of forests and neat farms interspersed with dramatic tree-clad limetone hills and the massive flame of the forest tree in full bloom were stunning. After we’d taken photos though, there was nothing to do but troll the daiquiri stand and stalls selling panama hats, Che berets and t-shirts bearing his earnest visage, leather bracelets and other forms of pointless knickknacks.C
So, there we were in a 300 million year-old Pinar del Río geological region, the oldest in the Caribbean, containing Jurassic dinosaur remains, 70 million year-old ammonite mollusks, and skeletons of extinct giant bears and aboriginal paintings but where did we end up on the longest visit of the tour?
The Mural of Prehistory, which I’m sorry to say is not in the least ancient unless 1959 (when painting began) is pre-history. The mural, impressive only in its size spanning a sheer limestone cliff, is simply executed, broadly sketches out points in the history of evolution, with a nod to the extinct Taino Indians. The only positive was the decent lunch at the restaurant located here.
The mural is disappointing but lunch is okay
After lunch, we visited an interesting tobacco farm, despite its bare fields (tobacco-growing season is around November to March). The tour’s 20 minutes took place in a dirt-floor tobacco drying barn filled rack upon rack of amber hued, aromatic leaves draped on poles between thick beams.
Tobacco farming seems backbreaking as it’s done the traditional way (i.e., without modern machinery). The ground is tilled and tender shoots planted and kept pest- and weed-free. Special care is needed to keep the upper leaves unblemished, as they are used for the binding layer. After the harvest, in February and March, the leaves are dried for three months. The curing process takes place in another barn, and can take up to a year before the leaves are made into cigars.
In the barn, the farm owner demonstrated how to roll the simplest form of cigars by hand. He carefully stacked the leaves loose enough to allow air flow for the cigar to burn properly, then shaped a handful of the crinkled “filler” leaves into a rough tube. Then he carefully laid out several uniformly-shaped and blemish-free binder leaves, and lay the filler on top. After rolling both sets of leaves into a compact cylinder, he popped it into a mold to form it into a cigar the desired diameter and length. At the end, we were each offered a free cigar.
The limestone cave/tunnel was unremarkable and the 10-minute ride wasn’t worth the 30 minutes’ wait to get into a crowded, painfully slow boat. Our poor guide worked hard to make the mind-numbing boat ride interesting. “Look at that rock, that’s a seahorse! Look over here – a witch!”
It was a relief to emerge though a creeper-lined cave mouth into dazzling sunlight. Some of the tourists had a grand time hopping onto a massive water buffalo for photos and at the small amusement and knick-knack area but other than that, it was a complete yawn.It was the most shopping-oriented tour, with the least stuff worth buying.
And that wrapped up the 7-and-a-half hour tour, including the pickup delays.
Tip- try to get on a tour that has alternatives to tourist traps in Pinar del Río and Viñales valley.Casual street scenes along the way are more rewarding than most of the official stops