Cuba is a place that holds equity in all matters of high esteem and strives to maintain that equity, so playing favorites is a dicey endeavor at best. Furthermore, picking a preferred province is a bit like naming your favorite child since each Cuban province, like every child, has its wonderful, inspiring attributes engendering awe and admiration. Still, I’m going out on a limb to say Pinar del Río is my favorite province.
Already I can hear the hoots and howls from fans and residents of the other 15 Cuban provinces. What about the stellar beaches and incomparable annual cultural extravaganza Romerías de Mayo in Holguín, they’ll say, or the fascinating roots of the Revolution, sown in the heroic city and province of Santiago de Cuba? Fans of the Isla de Juventud (a special municipality, rather than a province) will likewise stump for their favorite place, citing its archetypical Cuban hospitality and the Presidio Modelo (a must see for any Cuban history buff).
Valid arguments all, but traveling is often delimited by time and money considerations, which forces us to rely on individual preferences when picking a People-to-People program. So that you may be better informed about the options of where to go and what to do, I offer the top reasons to visit Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province.
Los Pinareños – The butt of jokes by Cubans everywhere, (former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, a Piñareno himself, has even written a book incorporating many), folks from Pinar del Río are generally down-to-earth, generous, hardworking and hospitable. On any visit to Pinar del Río, the people you meet will be a highlight. Plus, they make a mean spit-roasted pig.
The Food & Smoke – That spit-roasted pig? It will be accompanied by heaping servings of congrís (Cuba’s traditional black or red bean and rice mix), yucca with an extraordinary sour orange/garlic sauce known as mojo, and a harvest-fresh salad. If you’re deep in the campo, the meal will likely come from the back yard. Cuba’s finest tobacco, hand-rolled into the world’s most prized cigars, comes from the Vuelta Abajo area of the province around San Juan y Martínez– many fincas, as tobacco farms are called, can be toured and the wares sampled. A hand-rolled Pinar cigar makes a perfect finish to a traditional meal of puerco asado.
Valle de Viñales – Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, the valley of Viñales is one of Cuba’s most captivating landscapes. A series of verdant valleys dotted with distinctive pincushion hills known as mogotes, nature buffs will delight in the beautiful scenery and other outdoor activities here. The view of the valley is best taken with a cocktail at the Hotel los Jazmines. The quaint town of Viñales is an attraction in and of itself.
Puerto Esperanza – Once the secret escape for off-the-beaten track adventurers and cyclists, today Puerto Esperanza is gaining popularity as a laid back destination to sample ‘authentic’ Cuba. A traditional fishing village, the meals you’ll eat here may be the best of your trip.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012.
Photos by Robin Thom and Conner Gorry