Praise Be To Pinar!


Before getting to the city, you’re tempted to drink a cup of coffee at Las Barrigonas. This roadside bistro is named after a palm tree species from that region whose trunk resembles the body of a pregnant woman. The palm’s wood is good for crafting canoes, furniture and even small kegs for storing drinkable water. In that place visitor can feast eyes on the only double-trunk palm of that ancient species, because Cuba’s westernmost territory is also the oldest geological area.

Once you drive in Pinar del Rio, the Hermanos Saiz University shows off a troupe of youngsters walking in and out. Not far from there, the local hotel delivers its conveniences. Straight ahead, you get to the downtown area –Queen Elizabeth II declared it a village by royal decree on Sept. 10, 1867.

The urban layout –designed like so many other Cuban towns– features a central park dominated by a gazebo, even though Marti Street has garnered stardom as the years have rolled on, an avenue jam-packed with pedestrians day in and day out, and home to the town’s main commercial establishments and businesses.

And this is the first thing that meets the eye: kind and humble people you chance upon anywhere, people who speak just about anything, especially on baseball on the La Colosal corner. No wonder this is a land that, in addition to superb tobacco, has also churned out great ballplayers like Omar Linares, Alfonso Urquiola, Rogelio Garcia, Luis Giraldo Casanova and Pedro Luis Lazo –the latter is a diehard Habano aficionado.

It fell to the Excelencias team’s lot to have the opportunity of having a guide of sorts in tow, a typical Pinar del Rio native named Rafael Cao Fernandez, a journalist, TV producer, cigar factory reader and host of a small cultural club that gathers local and guest artists.

Wonderful Polychromies

Pinar del Rio’s most singular building –and perhaps one of the oddest all across Cuba– is the Guasch Palace, currently home to the Museum of Natural History. It boasts a motley architecture that eccentrically combines an array of styles: gothic, renaissance, romantic, Egyptian, Islamic, Byzantine, Moorish and art nouveau, very characteristic of the times when its construction began.

This is a one-and-only eclecticism derived from its creator’s influences, Dr. Francisco Guasch Ferrer, who brought the Gaudi-style influx of his stay in Barcelona to the building. In addition to those visual attractions, there are life-size stone sculptures of dinosaurs that chip in magic and seduction to the place.

Another flagship edifice is the Milanes Theater, the set of choice for celebrated movie The Beauty of Alhambra, which has recovered the charms of its colonial time and features a patio called La Piscuala, a flower hailing from that region.

At the Globo Hotel, a standout for its eye-catching combination of brass and wood, the face clock was built in 1910 by Germany’s J.F. Weuler and is currently run by José Betancourt Ordaz. From up there, visitors can enjoy a cityscape of Pinar del Rio, with its French and Cuban-style rooftops. This is a view of placid beauty, solely disturbed by pedestrians and passing cars.

Sauntering down these streets paints a pretty good picture of the so-called citadel eclecticism, a style that blends a few neoclassic, art deco, art nouveau, and even rationalist elements.

Like in other territories around the country, Pinar’s overall vernacular architecture acquired modern influences without taking in-depth transformations, a reason why the façades exhibit combinations of styles and trends without downplaying some variations that have occurred in recent years and have added other non-harmonic characteristics of sorts.

Alongside the sidewalks, the colonnades –some of them trumpet recently-opened mom-and-pop businesses– have given Pinar the nickname of “the city of porches” as it displays full-fledged gaudiness.

City of Chants and Charms

The Francisco Donatien cigar factory (Vegueros) is just another must-see. Inside this space that tempts visitors to light up a good cigar, el Chino (the Palmares bartender) tells us it’d been only a while since a regular patron had left: Mijail Lopez, two-time Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling –he won the second title in London 2012.

This is a hotspot made for pilgrims. That’s what maestro Norman Milanes, founder of the Municipal Concert Band, says as he lets us in on his Habano preferences and his passion for performing in Pinar del Rio. Next to him, young Spanish conductor Jose Enrique Martinez de Estevez is equally enthuses about sharing his band conduction with colleague Emilio Rey Barrio.

Music is just another gift this location is blessed with. One of the greatest stars in this neck of the woods was Pedro Junco, a heartbroken young man who wrote the well-known bolero entitled Nosotros (We), performed through the years by a number of crooners from the turf and overseas, such as the Aragon Orchestra and Mexican heartthrob Luis Miguel.

Once in the region, the contagious song Me Voy a Pinar del Rio (I’m Going to Pinar del Rio) comes to mind, a tune exceptionally sung by Tito Gomez, Celia Cruz and Benny More, among others. The song the region “beautiful garden of the West” gifted with “marvelous polychromies.”

As we talk with the locals, it’s commonplace to hear people say “Praise”, a word that has become an identity hallmark for all Pinar del Rio natives all around Cuba. And make no mistakes about it, because in a land where tobacco, baseball and music are the name of the game, there’ll always be decisive elements of the Cuban nature.