Forget Varadero's all-inclusive resorts - for a taste of the real Cuba, head west to Havana's backyard, the province of Pinar del Rio
The autopista looked like something out of a disaster movie. A killer virus had wiped out most of the population; the roads were deserted. We were the only survivors on a long stretch of empty tarmac. Stopping at a little roadside cafe, we sipped espressos - and I asked the waiter whether this was, in fact, the autopista. "Yes," said his mouth. "Idiot," said his look. Sloping back to our hire car, we rejoined the motorway passing a horse and cart, a few hitchhikers and a man on a bicycle. Rush hour.
On a road trip through Cuba's westernmost province you aren't going to encounter much traffic. You're also not going to find many road signs. What you will find is plenty of potholes, a string of lazy, low-slung towns, rolling fields full of emerald tobacco plants, a landscape peppered with clapboard farmhouses and barns, cattle under palm trees. The Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountain range forms the backbone of the province; the coast is punctuated by all-inclusive-free bays. It's low key and rural: an opportunity to change down a gear from the frenetic pace of Cuba's capital.
We were winding our way to the little diving resort of Maria La Gorda on the west coast via Las Terrazas, a biosphere reserve and Cuba's answer to ecotourism, and the region's main attraction, the picture-postcard village of Viñales, cradled in an otherworldly landscape of limestone mogotes (limestone knolls).
Into the rainforest
Just 80km from Havana, Las Terrazas was a reforestation project and social experiment in a hidden valley in the Sierra Rosario mountains back in the Sixties. Today, it is a tourist attraction: in 1985 it was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve and now visitors come here to hike through the semi-tropical rainforest, swim in the hot springs and soak up the peace. During the 19th century the valley sides were stripped to make way for French coffee plantations. The government instigated the replanting initiative to rejuvinate the forestry industry and rehoused local farmers in a village community during the 1970s.
Turning off the autopista, a dirt track led up through the trees. We crawled up into the mountains to the whitewashed, colonial-style Hotel Moka Las Terrazas, built around an enormous carob tree that does a Jack and the Beanstalk impression through reception. The hotel was full but there are also rooms in some of the community houses. We climbed back in the car and drove down to the village. Our hosts were an old couple who had been among the first to move here. Framed photos of Castro plastered the walls. A guided hike through the valley, a canopy tour - read adrenaline rush - through the treetops, an evening in one of the best restaurants in Cuba - El Romero, which serves organic vegetarian food - and we were ready to hit the road again.
The autopista ends in the capital of the province, a sleepy backwater also called Pinar del Rio. Viñales is 25km further north along a winding country road bordered by fields of sugar cane, farmsteads and distinctive tobacco drying barns made from wood and palm thatch. We passed brightly painted wooden houses, the gardens full of flowers, chickens scratching in the dirt, before arriving in Viñales. A little one-horse town, its dusty streets are lined with pastel-painted villas and 1950s Chevrolets ply the main drag.
All around the mogotes rise out of the valley floor. Swinging uphill we made our way to La Ermita, a small hotel with panoramic views out over the valley of flat-topped mogotes. You can climb the prehistoric mounds but with the sun beating down we opted the next morning for an 8km valley walk. Our guide, Jesus, took us past tiny smallholdings with picket fences, fields of yams and sweet potatoes, tethered goats. Farmers ploughing the fields with oxen were turning up earth a rich red. Hot and thirsty, we stopped at a small farm for juicy pineapple and grapefruit, freshly brewed coffee and just-rolled cigars.
On the road again
After a couple of days we were back on the road heading west again. We doubled back to Pinar del Rio to pick up the Carratera Central, missed the turn-off and drove round in circles until a cyclist led us to the main road. Which got gradually worse, and the villages poorer. La Fe, a little fishing village, is just a line of shacks and a rusting boat on the beach. Eventually we hit La Bajada on Peninsula Guanahacabibes, and the start of the national park. This forested biosphere reserve is home to 16 species of amphibians, 35 reptiles, 18 mammals, 192 species of bird.
The road split left to Maria La Gorda and right to Cabo de San Antonio. Our final stop was the low-key but world class diving spot but first we were going to spend a couple of nights in the even quieter Cabo de San Antonio. The dirt track was lined with scrubby vegetation; iguanas scuttled across the road. We passed an old 19th-century lighthouse. Cabo de San Antonio is 77km from Maria la Gorda. It feels like the end of the earth. There are just a few log cabins, a tiny restaurant serving fresh fish and the beach, a long sweep of powdery white sand backed by mangroves. The end of the road.