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Yhe road to Pinar del Rio

By Maureen Barry

Fidel Castro's regime has been making a real effort to haul bucolic Pinar del Rio into the 21st century in line with the rest of the country - but apart from the imposing six-lane autopista from Havana, you can offer a little prayer of thanks that they haven't succeeded.

One of the advantages of renting a car in Cuba is the random distribution of the gas stations, if only for the ingenuity it brings out in you. Forget about a general map of the country, our tour company's official guide to petrol outlets became a treasure beyond price, clutched to our Che Guevara T-shirted chests. However, with a spare gas-can always topped up and rudimentary Spanish at the ready, we never went without, and that's even before we got down to enquiring about the petrol.

Fidel Castro's regime has been making a real effort to haul bucolic Pinar del Rio into the 21st century in line with the rest of the country - but apart from the imposing six-lane autopista from Havana, you can offer a little prayer of thanks that they haven't succeeded. Even a novice straight from driving school would feel happy on Cuba's roads: there's so little traffic, and what there is seems to shun the highway and stick to the old Carretera Central, which is thick with cyclists and winds through picturesque small towns.

Pinar is Cuba's tobacco land, and the Cubans themselves say that tobacco - in spite of the phallic shape of the cigar - is feminine, and that sugar is all randy machismo, probably because of the back-breaking labour that goes into its cultivation. Tobacco is a delicate, unpredictable plant to nurture, requiring maximum attention, hand-rearing and plucking - hence the female analogy - and of all the provinces in Cuba, Pinar del Rio echoes this sublety and refinement. There's a laid-back elegance to its way of life and more accent on the charming - a general sprucing up and a lick of paint has transformed many of the western villages.

The provincial capital Pinar de Rio is home to the Donatien Tobacco Factory, where you can find out first hand what lascivious chaps back home always asked straight out. The narrow, pulsating streets of Pinar proved the exception to the province's otherwise sleepy languour. The lovely, lively ladies of the town - and gents too - had taken over the crowded pavements and the usual Cuban entertainment, a six-man band plus singer, belted out salsa music on a stage above the central market at 11 in the morning.

After a prolonged interval of sweaty, energetic dancing, the industrious, dark interior of the tobacco factory came as a welcome relief. Sadly no hand-rolling on a sun-kissed thigh seemed immediately apparent. In an ancient, creaking roomful of listless workers, every painstaking operation in the cigar chain was done by hand. One or two bare-shouldered Carmens lounged provocatively, but the most riveting performance came from an old crone who slapped and sorted bunches of tobacco leaf from one wrinkled, straddled thigh to the other, pausing occasionally to remove her cheroot and spew out a treacly stream of baccy juice.

Cigars are sold in the factory shop, but it seemed more interesting to accept the bargain offers of dubious provenance from street hustlers and nip around the back parlours, kitchens and communal courtyards of downtown Pinar, where a tethered household pig was usually in attendance and spin-off included tips on cooking from grandma and a sit-in on the fitting of Lolita's wedding gown.

Most visitors to the province end up staying at Los Jazmines, a vibrant pink hacienda hotel with a gasp-worthy view high up in the Mogotes. These awesome prehistoric hillocks had us whistling the theme tune from Jurassic Park every time we drove under their jungly shadow or took to boats in their subterranean caves. In the heat of the day the pool beckoned and the nights were spent in the pulsating disco gyrating with the local beautiful people. Afternoons were for lazy excursions into the backwaters, on horseback if the fancy took you, where mustachioed men are men and ride gaucho style, or less appealingly carry squealing pigs to market strapped across their bicycles. Down by the riverside young and old got together for a spot of bathing, usually fully clothed with boots on - we wondered whether this was a convenient way of doing the washing, or just to make sure their kit wasn't nicked.

The small town of Vinales is a contender for the most photogenic in Cuba, with arcades of pink and blue colonial style houses. The much-photographed 18th century restaurant Casa Don Tomas is worth a detour for its food, with a lobster rice criolla among the specials and the house cocktail a blend of Trepiche liqueur, mango juice and sparkling fizz.

Fly-drive to Cuba is in its infancy, but it offers the best way to scratch beneath the surface of this vibrant island, whose biggest asset is its untamed heartbeat. Driving down to Pinar del Rio gives you that pioneering shot of adrenalin - the buzz that's gone out of a lot of tamer destinations - and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

















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