Western Cuba is blessed with spectacular scenery, a proud regional character, and a scattering of quiet beaches.
A far cry from the bustle of Havana, western Cuba has a lazy rural feel. As in many parts of the countryside, one has a sense of going back in time. Farmers use oxen to plough the fields, the horse and cart is much in use, and tobacco leaves hang in thatched wooden vegas or drying houses.
Chains of hills run along the spine of the region, with the Sierra del Rosario in the east, and the Sierra de los Organos to the west.
The Cuban national tree, the Royal Palm, is everywhere and gardens grow bananas and other fruits in abundance. Flaming flamboyán trees, purple bougainvillea and red hibiscus stand out against fields bursting with the vibrant green of tobacco flourishing on the rich soil.
Sierra del Rosario
Just an hour up the autopista from Havana, the Sierra del Rosario is a remarkable success story for Cuban conservation. Its pretty limestone hills have been extensively reforested and now the region boasts UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Bird life is particularly good, and there are plenty of opportunities for walkers. Its a pleasant place just for exploring too.
The epicentre is Las Terrazas, a harmonious eco-resort and model working community founded in 1971 to explore how self-sufficiency could work in a Cuban context. The answer seems to be 'excellently'.
The climate is suited to coffee, and close to Las Terrazas an original nineteenth-century coffee plantation house, Cafetal Buenavista, has been restored, complete with some of its drying terraces and the incredibly cramped slave quarters.
Orchids grow well here too and the village of Soroa, nestling in the hills of the Sierra del Rosario, hosts an orchidarium with over 700 species, 250 of which are native to Cuba.
Sierra de Los Organos
Limestone scenery runs amok in the Sierra de los Organos, with the most extraordinary formations of complex caves and rocky outcrops.
Sheer-sided hills, known here as 'mogotes', rise craggily in many parts. Close to the little town of Viñales, the hills are set above pastures that are flat as a billiard table and scattered with traditional smallholdings, with the same other-world beauty of the limestone landscapes of Yunnan in China. UNESCO has been here too, rightly declaring the Viñales Valley a 'world cultural landscape'.
The town of Viñales itself preserves the same rich traditions, with its pantile-roofed, colonnaded buildings running the length of the main street, and picture postcard wooden houses set in neatly fenced gardens. It's a step back to an idyllic era, but this is a thriving community too and a thorough delight.
An excellent stop for gardeners is the nearby Casa de Caridad, a private house where the family maintains a tradition of growing local species: a lush mix of ornamental and medicinal plants and flowers, orchids, bromeliads, palms, and fruit trees.
Among the many caves in the region are the Cueva del Indio (Indian's Cave), where Arawak people found temporary refuge when the Spanish arrived on the island, eventually driving them almost to extinction. Visitors can walk and explore the interior by rowing boat to reach a small waterfall. Other caves that have been made over to tourist 'attractions' can be safely ignored, with the exception of the Cueva de los Portales which was Ché's HQ during the Cuban missile crisis and is worth a visit.
Not far from here is Hacienda Cortina (now known as Parque La Güira), an early twentieth century folly reminiscent of Stourhead or Giverny; a surprising find and a great place to stop for a stroll or a picnic.
Pinar del Río
The provincial capital of western Cuba, Pinar del Río is a largely commercial town with unusually little to recommend it: a cathedral, regional museums, and busy streets of small shops. There is also a cigar factory, if you missed the Partagas version in Havana.