Named for the stands of pine trees that once shaded the banks of the Río Guamá, Pinar del Río has been Cuba's tobacco city since its first land grants were allocated in 1544. Viñales and Vuelta Abajo were the island's great tobacco plantations, and Pinar del Río prospered as the tobacco market town and manufacturing center, even after the rest of the island turned almost exclusively to the cultivation and export of sugarcane.
Today the city (population 137,000) is a bustling but dilapidated provincial capital with major hospitals and government offices. The streets are filled with horse-drawn surreys and pedal taxis, the main modes of public transport, and lined with crumbling building facades and crooked utility poles supporting tangles of cables. Like the fading revolutionary murals on abandoned building walls, the city suffers from severe neglect. It's a sobering sampling of life in Cuba, away from the major tourist sites. A small cigar factory, along with a distillery that produces guayabita (a brandy-like liqueur made from sugarcane and guava) offer up-close looks at surviving small-scale industries. The highlight, though, is a visit to a museum that itself is a relic of a fantastical architectural past.