Cuba’s tobacco country—about two hours west of Havana—is where you’ll find some of the island nation’s most beautiful scenery. Dramatic limestone formations called mogotes soar over the Valle de Viñales, quilted in rust-red soil and chartreuse tobacco fields tilled by ox-drawn plows. There are caves to explore and tobacco farms to visit, plus heaps of activities—from ATVs to zip-lines. History buffs can explore a key site associated with Che Guevara and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And sugar-white beaches tempt you to turn your visit into the ultimate in relaxing vacations.
There are two routes to Tobacco Country. The quickest, the Autopista Este-Oeste, is a six-lane freeway that extends to Pinar del Río—the provincial capital and gateway to Tobacco Country, which extends north over the Sierra de los Órganos mountain chain into the Valle de Viñales; and west from the city into the flatlands of Vuelto Abajo. A slower route is the roller-coaster Costera Norte (also known as Ruta 2-1-3) winding inland from the Atlantic and sublimely scenic as it passes through time-worn villages, skirts sugarcane fields, and sidles past giant freestanding mogotes.
Víazul buses operate between Havana and Pinar del Río city and the town of Viñales via the Autopista. A trip that combines both destinations is recommended (you can also rent a car for greater freedom of travel). Departing Havana via the Costera Norte is easy: Simply follow Avenida 5ta westward, which eventually becomes Ruta 2-1-3. However, locating the Autopista for Pinar del Río can be tricky. From Havana’s International Airport, take Avenida Rancho Boyeros north; exit onto Avenida 100 west, then follow it half-a-mile to the entrance the Autopista Este-Oeste. From downtown Havana, the best route is to take Avenida 5ta west to Calle 17A; follow this (it becomes Calle 190) to the traffic circle and turn right onto Avenida 23, which leads to the Autopista.
Sights and Activities
Pinar del Río
Pinar del Río, the capital of the eponymous province is named for pine trees that flourished here when it was founded in the late 17th century as a center for tobacco production. Today a pleasant and manageable-sized city, its sloping and easily walked historic core has some intriguing buildings. The Gothic Museo de Ciencias Naturales, adorned with gargoyles, has motley exhibits on local geology and fauna. The Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién—the only cigar factory in the area—offers fascinating guided tours, while a short stroll away, the Fábrica de Bebidas Guayabita makes the region’s famous fruit-flavored rum; no tour is offered, but you can sample in the tasting room.
Viñales is a small village tucked into a broad valley framed by massive, sheer-faced mogotes, about 15 miles north of Pinar del Río town. Today booming as a popular tourist destination, it nonetheless retains its air of yesteryear. Cowboys on horseback and ox-drawn wagons still ply the main street, which is lined with colonial-era, tile-roofed homes fronted by colonnaded porches. It’s the main center for exploring the area and has scores of charming little B&Bs and some excellent private restaurants. Also, a state-run hotel boasts amazing views from atop the valley. The Jardín Botánico de Viñales offers tours of this private garden full of fruit trees, medicinal plants, and orchids; and Finca Agroecológico El Paraíso—a private organic farm—also has fascinating educational tours. The Casa de Cultura, beside the church on the small yet lively town plaza, hosts cultural exhibitions.
Parque Nacional de Viñales
Alluring for what has been acclaimed as the most scenic setting in Cuba, Viñales National Park is for good reason the second most-visited destination outside Havana. The dramatic karst scenery is reason enough to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which encompasses several contiguous valleys to east, north, and west of Viñales village. It's an opulent oasis of Royal palms shading centuries-old thatched-roof homes and tobacco fields.
Begin by visiting the Centro de Visitantes—Visitor Center—atop the snaking road between the village and Hotel Los Jazmines. It has excellent informative displays, and guides can be arranged for exploring. You’ll need at least two days to explore the sights, which include several caverns. Cuevas del Indio involves an exhilarating subterranean boat trip; Cueva de Colondrinas is named for the swallows that roost here; Cuevas de Viñales hosts a laser-light cabaret by night. The polarizing Mural de la Prehistória is a mogote gaudily painted in depictions of evolution. Here a lovely thatched restaurant serves classic criolla (local) dishes.
Hiking trails can be found throughout the park. Our favorites lead to the mountain community of Los Aquáticos; and to Valle de El Silencio, a private farm with a restaurant overlooking a lake. ATVs can also be rented, but horseback riding is far more environmentally sensitive. And you can enjoy the El Fortín Canopy Tour, where a zip-line spans two mogotes. The ViñalesBusTour departs on a regular basis from the village and makes an hour-long circuit of the major sights, but you can hop off at any of the stops along the route and hop onto the next bus as you wish.
Caverna de Santo Tomás
Cuba’s largest underground cave system, 10 miles west of Viñales village, has more than 30 miles of sinuous tunnels, chambers, and caverns—a wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones like plicated curtains. Guided 90-minute tours are given, with helmets and lamps provided.
Cuevas de los Portales
This vast and dramatic riverside cavern on the northwest perimeter of Parque Nacional La Güira, served as Che Guevara’s headquarters when he commanded the Western Army during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Che’s rudimentary block-house office still stands, and his bed still occupies a niche in the cavern wall. The park protects 208 square miles of limestone uplands in the Sierra de los Órganos mountain chain but is not set up to receive tourists except for a small section on its southeastern quarter, near the much-faded former colonial spa town of San Antonio de los Baños.
While Viñales gets the limelight, the Vuelto Abajo region immediately west of Pinar del Río town is equally stunning. The finest tobacco in all Cuba is grown here, due to the rich soil and ideal microclimate. Centered around the colonial-era town of San Juan y Martínez, the rolling plain is one endless quilt of tobacco fields pinned by thatched-roof drying sheds. Just west of town, Finca Quemado de Rubi offers guided tours, serves lunch, and has cabins to rent. Our favorite visit is to Finca El Pinar San Luís, the famous private farm of the Robaina family. Here, pre-arranged guided tours offer an in-depth lesson on tobacco growing and cigar rolling.
Rancho La Guabina
This horse-breeding center and recreational park amid lake-studded hills six miles northwest of Pinar del Río town will delight equestrians. Horseback and horse-drawn carriage rides are offered, and Appaloosa and Pinto Cubano horses, bred here, are displayed. Best yet, there’s a lovely boutique hotel lets you make more than a day of it.
A popular day trip or overnight add-on when visiting Viñales, this small, uninhabited offshore cay is a true gem beckoning with talcum beaches dissolving in a bathtub-warm turquoise sea. Twice-daily ferries run here, so you can catch the early morning ferry and return in late afternoon. Or opt to stay overnight in the delightful hotel, which offers scuba diving and watersports.
Perfect for a day trip from Viñales or Pinar del Río, Cayo Jutia is a small island joined to the mainland by a pedraplén (causeway) that twines between mangroves. There’s no lodging, but diving and snorkeling, plus kayaks, are available at the beach bar, and the beach and shallow ocean waters are sublime. Local tour companies offer excursions. For more on surf and sand, see our list of Best Beaches in Cuba.
Planning Your Itinerary
How much time you should spend exploring Tobacco Country depends on certain factors, such as whether you want to add an excursion to Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes, at the western tip of the island. Most visitors make the village of Viñales their base and take two or three days to explore the highlights in the area via hired taxi, scooter, or tour bus. Add one extra day if you want to roam Pinar del Río town and Vuelto Abajo, and one more day for Cayo Levisa or Cayo Jutía.
As for when to visit, any time is good, but winter months have the best weather, with plenty of sunny days and relatively little rain. If you’re interested in tobacco, the best months are February-April, when the plants are fully grown and the harvest is underway. However, winter is also the busiest period, and in peak season Viñales can be thronged to capacity with tourists. Book your lodging well in advance. Summer months are generally hot and rainy, but securing a choice lodging is easier; there's no price benefit except at the three state-run hotels, which offer summer discounts. For more on planning your Cuban adventure, check out this article.
Visitors can select from a range of options for guided tours, including multi-day packages by bus from Havana through Cuba’s state-run agencies. The same agencies have offices in both Pinar del Río and Viñales. Options for day excursions and package activities include guided ATV rides, hikes, horseback rides, and Jeep safaris. Private licensed entrepreneurs also offer horseback rides, and you can hire cars, scooters, and ATVs in Viñales—although noisy, splashing along remote muddy trails is huge fun on an ATV.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of lodging options in tobacco country, ranging from simple family-owned guesthouses to state-run boutique hotels, farmsteads, and even a beachside resort. The greatest concentration is in and around Viñales village, where several hundred casas particulares (private B&Bs) rent rooms. Many of these B&Bs also double as good restaurants and offer epic views of the countryside.
In Pinar del Río town, the nicest accommodations are rehabbed, antique-filled boutique hotels. There are also tobacco farms outside of town that are open to guests. Some are in converted mansions while others are more rustic, featuring elevated thatched-roof cabins. A few serve delicious country meals alfresco, including roast suckling pig.
On Cayo Levisa there's only one lodging option. Cubanacán Cayo Levisa is a small all-inclusive resort with three styles of log cabins, including handsome junior suites with four-poster beds. The food is desultory at best, but watersports are included.
Where to Eat
The dining scene remains undeveloped in Pinar del Río city and on Cayo Levisa, where options are limited (on the island you’re captive to dismal buffets). Fortunately, the Viñales area abounds with great options. To dine with a view and savor delicious country fare featuring organic ingredients, head to Finca Agroecológico El Paraíso, where classic criolla dishes such as slow-roasted pork use produce grown on the farm. Ropa vieja (marinated braised beef prepared with onions and sweet peppers) and other criolla staples are highlights at not-to-be-missed Paladar Buena Vista, just outside Viñales village. The view here is sensational.
In the village, where the dining scene is ever evolving, the stand-out option is 3J Tapas Bar, which offers Spanish-inspired tapas dishes such as stuffed olives and ravioli with spinach. It boasts a great neon-lit bar, cool music, and is located steps away from the Casa de la Cultura, which has live entertainment including a nightly cabaret. Down the street, Restaurante El Olivo has a menu featuring Italian dishes but also serves Mediterranean-style tapas. Both are hugely popular and reservations are recommended.
In Vuelto Abajo you can’t do any better than Finca Quemado de Rubi—it’s well worth the drive from Pinar del Río to savor delicious country meals served alfresco, including roast suckling pig. Linger over a cigar and fine añejo rum.
For more on this area of Cuba, see our Western Cuba Journey six-day trip plan.