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Traveling Cuba – Part 2.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Havana – Pinar del Río (region) - Off the beaten track in Cuba
So, after spending five days strolling through the streets and beaches of Havana, our plan was to rent a car and drive around the country.
Arquitectura tradicional de Pinar del Rio
We rent our wheels from Cubacar in El Vedado. The car was Kia Rio, small four door sedan, which was in pretty good shape. We asked for instructions how to get out of Havana and didn’t get lost once. The road signs in Cuba are poor – perhaps part of Fidel’s plan that all road-users be equal. The trick is to stop and ask people, whenever you’re not sure where you are. In few minutes we were driving on the main highway heading west towards Pinar del Rio, our destination for that day.
The A1 highway lay like a concrete table-runner before us. It was eight lanes wide, yet we saw only a smattering of cars (Ladas and the odd 1940s Buick, pumping out smoke from a garden hose acting as a makeshift exhaust pipe). They are not so empty like in North Korea (as seen on some pictures), but they are still practically devoid of traffic by western standards. They are pretty similar in construction to Canadian freeways (concrete based), however pretty much in decaying state. Line markings are mostly nonexistent, that’s true also for any type of signs. This means no signs for cities on exits and interchanges, only signs counting km’s to Havana are pretty common. Potholes on otherwise wide freeways are common; at least medians are nicely maintained.
Highway Havana – Pinar del Rio Hitchhiking is very common in Cuba
The only modern freeway (actually tollway – they charge you 2 CUC each way) for Cuban standards is from Varadero to Varadero airport – actually low quality expressway for western standards, at least without potholes and with road markings and signs.
Gasoline is pretty expensive – 1.10 CUC/liter, it reaches almost European prices. Black market is therefore in full swing. Of course, vintage cars are everywhere and it is a joy to ride in ’51 Buicks and other beauties.
I was holding the speed limit of 100 km/hour because rent a car people warned me of police looking specifically for tourists. But luckily we didn’t see any police officer monitoring this stretch of highway. Driving in Cuba is easier than the guidebooks would have you believe; petrol stations are plentiful and roads are tarmac (though often pot-holed). Main highway is in good condition.
We forked off, after an hour (50km from Havana), to a smaller road going to Las Terrazzas, curling through the jungle.
Tourist Resort Las Terrazzas
Las Terrazas, rural community of sustainable development, is one of the most wonderful areas of Pinar del Río region. Located in Sierra del Rosario, Biosphere Reserve, it holds a natural irresistible exoticism. This beautiful community has a great deal of culture life. There you will find the following attractions:
The French coffee plantations’ ruins of the XIX century. You can also take a refreshing bath in the crystal waters of the rivers San Juan and Bayate’s.
By the small San Juan lake we discovered hotel ¨La Moka¨ of colonial style and exquisite comfort. This hotel is perfectly complemented with exuberant nature that surround it. There was also La Casa del Lago (house of the lake), located at one side of San Juan lake.
In about one hour of this detour, we were back on the main highway. But, just before the highway, we stopped in a village at one small local restaurant to have a lunch. The food was actually amazing considering how local this place was!!
Ljiljana by the San Juan lake
Restaurant in Cuba
Lunch… lot’s of food but very bland, but Bucanero beer was good!
Back on the highway it seemed odd when we passed gaudy billboards screaming ‘Patria O Muerte’ (Patriotism or Death) and ‘Bush, el Fachismo’ (you can work that one out for yourselves). These political messages didn’t seem to affect people’s lives in any way. It’s as if Fidel Castro is an embarrassing, rich old uncle who everybody has to humor (the type who snorts when he laughs and eats all the sausages at a party) until he totters off this mortal coil and everybody can finally enjoy their inheritance boon.
The three hour drive to Pinar del Rio on the A1 is untaxing. Cuba’s only serious highway runs from end to end of the island, six wide lanes of mesmerizing emptiness, sometimes pockmarked and gritty, sometimes smooth and solvent, melting into watery heat-haze. Few people outside Havana have cars. Occasionally, a horse and cart bent down with sugar cane sags by in the wrong carriageway, or a vulture-shaped silhouette swims across the road. We drove by tiny tobacco towns on the way to Pinar del Rio. Life here is serene, slow and self-sufficient, a cine movie of horses and carts, women fanning themselves in doorways, and fence posts in soil so fertile, they start sprouting papaya.
Pinar del Rio – Capital city of Province Pinar del Río
The city is named after a pine-tree forest at the shore of the Río Guamá. The city of Pinar del Río (Pop. 120,000) is the capitol of the province of the same name. The name, meaning “pine of the river,” refers to the tall pines that grace river banks around the province, and especially flourish near in the extreme western side of the island.
Picturesque view of the main street in Pinar del Rio
View of the house with arcades on the main street in Pinar del Rio
Pinar del Río is not a top tourist destination in its own right, but as the area’s largest city, plenty of tourists pass through for a day or two.
Picturesque view of their streets, in the city of Pinar del Rio
Our hosts in Havana reserved casa particular “Elena” in Pinar del Rio. We found the place with the help of locals. It was a small-but-perfectly-formed family house offering, like so many Cuban homes, self-contained rooms, breakfast and dinner to foreign travelers. We were greeted by beaming grins from all family members from grandfather to baby cousin.
Casa Elena, Pinar del Rio
The house is a virtual museum of kitsch, but boasts a delightful terrace in a courtyard – perfect for sipping a beer while the sun goes down – complete with guava trees that supply the morning juices and cages of the colorful canaries so beloved of Cubans. The two rooms are equipped with fans, but no air-conditioning – and have en-suite bathrooms – the only idiosyncrasy (of which you must expect many while staying anywhere in Cuba, be it hotels or casas) is that you must knock for entry when coming back late at night, but the hosts bear this with their normal cheer. They even arranged safe parking for our rental across the street for which I had to pay someone who was “watching” my car over the night.
The city of Pinar del Río is in fairly well upkeep by Cuban standards, especially considering the nationwide shortages of paint and construction materials. Like Havana, Pinar del Río features many beautiful pieces of beautiful architecture. Pinar del Río has a particular abundance of highly decorated, well maintained neoclassical buildings. Their main street was without traffic, so it served as a promenade for young people in the evening.
Historically, the city of Pinar del Río and surrounding area have been important in tobacco production. In the 18th century, smugglers seeking to evade the Spanish’ monopoly on the tobacco trade chose this area because of its distance from the government in Havana, as well as the prime soil and conditions. First cigar factory was opened in 1760.
Picturesque view of their streets, in the city of Pinar del Rio
As sugar cane became Cuba’s primary cash crop, and single greatest source of economic income, however, the importance of Pinar del Río’s tobacco crop fell and the city suffered from administrative neglect. Today, Pinar del Río manufactures some of Cuba’s finest cigars, using tobacco leaves grown near the city. Pinar del Río is still considered an unimportant city by many Cubans, despite its size and economic significance relative to the rest of the towns in the province.
Among the unique attractions offered in this city are cigar factory tours and gift shops, la Casa de la Culture (the House of Culture), and the beautifully restored Milanes Theater.
Next morning, we were off to Vinales. Unfortunately it was another rainy day and we spent most of the day not getting out of the car and just driving around.
The Valley of Viñales:
The jewel in Pinar del Río’s crown is the valley of Viñales, an official National Park and by far the most visited location in the province. With striking landscapes and an atmosphere of complete serenity, Viñales is an essential stop if you’re in the province or anywhere near it.
Road to Vinales
Though only 25km north from the city of Pinar del Río, the valley feels far more remote than this, with a lost-world kind of quality, almost entirely due to the unique mogotes, the boulder-like hills which look like they’ve dropped from the sky onto the valley floor.
These bizarre limestone hillocks were formed by erosion during the Jurassic period, some 160 million years ago. Rainfall slowly ate away at the dissolvable limestone and flattened much of the landscape, leaving a few survivors behind, their lumpy surface today coated in a bushy layer of vegetation. Accentuated by the flatness of the valley floor, the virtually vertical sides of the mogotes seem to erupt from the ground, creating a striking sense of enclosure across the valley.
Most of the population lives in the small village of Viñales, which you’ll enter first if you arrive from the provincial capital or Havana, and where there are plenty of casas particulares. From the village it’s a short drive to all the official attractions, most of which are set up for tour groups, but it’s still worth doing the circuit just to get a feel of the valley and a close look at the mogotes.
Early in the morning you can see vaqueros, Cuban cowboys who roam over the red earthen tracks with their horse and straw hat. Probably on the way to the indigenous constructions known as casas del tabaco, or triangular tobacco huts that the valley lodges. These drying sheds are covered with palm leafs for moisture and coolness. It is not surprising that this area produces the best tobacco in the world!
There are a number of places in Viñales difficult to find or impossible to access if you’re not on an organized excursion but, conversely, a stay in any of the casas particulares often yields information otherwise unavailable to tourists.
Church in Vinales
The valley supports its own microclimate, and from roughly June to October it rains most afternoons, making it a good idea to get your sightseeing done in the mornings. Mosquitoes are also more prevalent at this time of year and insect repellent is a definite must for any visit.
Since it was raining heavily during our visiting the valley, we didn’t stay for long. From the car, the view of the valley just wasn’t the same. We turned around and went back to Pinar del Rio. At one point it was raining so hard that I had to stop at the side of the road, as driving was impossible.
The Valley of San Carlos:
When the rain eased off a little, we decided to explore the back country heading west fro Pinar del Rio on the local country road. Pretty soon we felt like we discover a road that no other tourist did before. On a very narrow and twisty road we drove thru the remote villages San Carlos, Los Portales, Guane, all the way to Isabel Rubio.
Traffic… what traffic?
The road runs through limestone hills, crossing the pretty Río Cuyaguateje several times and passing through the Valle de San Carlos, a spectacular narrow valley with cliffs and steep wooded hills rising on either side. Farmers grow fruit, vegetables and tobacco, with ox-drawn ploughs furrowing the bright red soil and tent-shaped tobacco drying sheds everywhere. Guane, a large, attractive village with old houses and a little baroque church, is also the railway terminus.
At Isabel Rubio we were back on Carretera Central and turning back east towards Pinar del Rio. People were turning their heads after our rental and were probable wondering who we are and what are we doing there.
We leave the motorway and take small country roads. Here we’re stuck behind what’s the most usual kind of public transportation in Cuba.
TV house: There is only one in each village
But before we got too far on Carretera, we wanted to get to the beach and see the ocean again. We made the exit from the highway and stopped at Bailen beach. This beach is at south, eight kilometers from the main road. There we passed by Estación Biológica Zoocriadero, a crocodile farm which is open daily. The beach was deserted and not very interesting, except for the local boy, who wanted a pesos for “watching my car”, while we were exploring the beach. Playa Bailen is a vacation village for the Cubans. The vacation village, composed of bungalows, was to be rather pretty barren ground, but it was devastated by the Ivan cyclone few years ago…
Further east was a town of Isabel Rubio, a small yet relatively prosperous agricultural town that thrives on the harvest of citrus groves. Isabel Rubio has a gas station with a shop selling drinks, toiletries and canned foods. There is car rental in town and a place you can buy pizza at the junction of the road to Sandino.
The main road continues through San Luis, a municipality and city in the Pinar del Río Province of Cuba. All these places are centered mainly on agriculture (tobacco, rice, fruit crops), stock rising.
Once back in Pinar del Rio we were ready to hit the bed as suddenly we felt a lot of stress coming from all that we’ve seen today. The rain and all the poverty we’ve seen made huge impressions on us.
The following day we left Pinar del Rio heading back thru Havana all the way to Varadero, because our friend’s Ljiljana holidays were coming to an end. It was her last day to be with us. Vera and I are continuing our journey thru Cuba on our own for another week, visiting central Cuba.
To be continued…
You can’t go to Cuba and not try their tobacco…