Around Pinar del Río

South to the coast

The nearest beach, 25 km to the south of Pinar del Río, is
Las Canas
, near
La Coloma
. From La Coloma you can take a boat trip to the
Cayos de San Felipe
. The Cays are unspoilt and fabulous.

The Carretera Central continues west from Pinar del Río through pleasant farming country with villages strung along the road, sugar and tobacco fields, citrus trees and pasture. There are distant views of the mountains to the north and clearly marked side roads lead south to the fishing town of
Boca de Galafre
and the beach for Cubans at
Bailén
, where there is a sprawling camping resort stretching 2 km along the sand, with small A-frame cabins on the beach and concrete houses with self-catering facilities behind. It is very popular with Cubans in the summer months. Cubans are allowed here April to September for a very basic beach holiday. The beach is spoilt by the run-off from the Río Cuyaguateje, which makes the water muddy and there is no reef to snorkel on. It is cleared at the beginning of April but then left to get dirty, muddy and smelly. Further east, away from the river, the beach is nicer, but it is all rather rundown.

There is a bus from Pinar del Río in the morning, returning in the afternoon, but it often fails to appear. Several kilometres down the road to Playa Bailén and 1 km before you get to the beach, there is a
crocodile farm
, where they breed the American crocodile (
Crocodrylus acutus
). You can get uncomfortably close to the babies and can hold them. However, unless you are lucky, or come at feeding time, you are a 500m telephoto lens away from the 4- to 5-m beasts.

West to Península de Guanahacabibes

Back on the Carretera Central,
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. From Isabel Rubio, a very pretty way to return to Pinar del Río (about one hour) is through Guane, Los Portales and Sumidero.
Guane
, a large, attractive village with old houses and a little baroque church, is also the railway terminus. 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,
vegas
, everywhere.

After Isabel Rubio the countryside becomes completely flat. The villages are less lively and the agricultural landscapes less varied, with plantations of Caribbean pine in some stretches. On the north side of the road, 7 km west of Isabel Rubio, is the turning for
Laguna Grande
, a lake where you can fish or swim. A few miles further on at
Punta Colorada
is a small beach.

The main road continues through
Sandino
, where there are ten schools for Latin American students to study medicine, nursing and engineering, and
La Fé
to
Manuel Lazo
. After this village, potholes are more common. The last 15 km or so to the coast are through semi-deciduous dry coastal woodland. On reaching the coast at
La Bajada
, a very desolate little village, an immigration post will ask to see your documents.

The
Península de Guanahacabibes
, which forms the western tip of Cuba, is a Natural Biosphere Reserve. The reserve covers 1175 sq km but has not yet been developed for ecotourism. The peninsula is formed of very recent limestone, with an irregular rocky surface and patchy soil cover. There are interesting fossil coastlines, caves and blue holes; but with dense woodland on the south coast and mangrove on the north, the peninsula is uninviting for the casual hiker. However, for keen naturalists there are 12 amphibian species, 29 reptiles including iguana species, 10 mammals (including
jutia
carabalí
and
jutia conga
) and 147 bird species, including nine of the 22 that are endemic to Cuba. There is a scientific station at La Bajada. Permits are required for entering the reserve. The Science Academy offers a Safari Tour. You can climb to the Radar for a good view of the forest and the sea.

To the west of La Bajada, a good new road continues for 52 km to
Cabo de San Antonio
, where there is a new hotel, a few houses and a lighthouse built in 1849 and named after the then Spanish governor, Roncali. A marina opened in 2009, offering provisioning and refuelling for yachts, fishing and a dive shop. The coastline has several pretty white-sand beaches and clear waters with several suitable spots for snorkelling, but is otherwise lonely and desolate. There are some caves to explore, the main one being
Cueva La Sorda
, 1 km northwest of the lighthouse, where three different levels have collapsed into a central hole. There are many legends attached to the cave, where archaeological finds have been made. More recently an endemic frog was discovered after Hurricane Ivan: the 20-mm
Eleutherodactylus guanahacabibes
.

The main road continues 12 km south, hugging the coast, to
María La Gorda
, in the middle of nowhere, reputedly the best diving centre in Cuba and an idyllic spot for relaxing or doing nothing but
diving
. There are several wrecks off the western peninsula and freshwater cave diving in the blue holes is also possible, though not on offer as an organized activity. The dive boat tours usually go a short distance to dive sites, mostly reef or wall dives with caves, tunnels, drop-offs and even bits of old Spanish galleons, where there are lots of fish of all sizes, rays, moray eels, lobsters, grunts, groupers, turtles, barracuda and maybe whale sharks. The sea is very clear, very warm and calm, even when it is too rough to dive anywhere else in Cuba. There is good snorkelling with small coral heads close to the white sand beach, or you can go out on the dive boat, but from September to December there are sometimes jelly fish. They inflict only a mild sting, but they make swimming uncomfortable.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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