Climbing to Soroa's "Castle in the Clouds" and exploring a World Biosphere Reserve

There is one very peculiar, and fairy-tale-like, edification that regally stands atop a mountain as though floating among the clouds. With a privileged location at the highest point of a stunning natural enclave, part of the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in western Cuba, the so-called Castle in the Clouds is one of Soroa's rarest, most novel attraction and in recent years it has been refurbished to accommodate guests. Read on to see why you should stay here next time you're in Soroa.

Climbing to Soroa's "Castle in the Clouds" and exploring a World Biosphere Reserve

We’ve already addressed the beauty of Soroa in previous posts, albeit more briefly perhaps and recommending it as a stop on your way to Vinales, a bigger, much more popular attraction in Cuba’s western-most province of Pinar del Rio. But Soroa is due more credit, it deserves a post of its own and while we’re at it, we should also mention one of its most unexpected attractions: a medieval-looking castle on the area’s highest point, a unique vantage pointing overlooking a postcard-perfect landscape of lush tropical forest and winding rivers.

Poetically referred to as "Castillo en Las Nubes" (Castle on the Clouds) and rising from the top of Loma del Fuerte, this very real place feels somewhat surreal and seems taken out of a fairy tale. The great news is that not only can you climb to this spot, walk up to the castle and step inside to explore it, but you can even sleep among the clouds, thanks to a recent overhaul that converted the castle into a hotel.

But before we get there, let me tell you why you should include a visit to Soroa in your itinerary in the first place. If you’re in Havana or Pinar del Rio, you don’t have to go too far out of your way to get here, as this small settlement is only about some 84 km south-west of Havana and around 100 km north-west of Pinar del Rio and Vinales.

All in all, an hour or an-hour-and-a-half road trip from either point. The journey is easily doable via privately hired taxi or by booking a seat in a coach bus; like Viazul, the cheapest option; but trickier to arrange as you’ll have to nicely ask the driver, and perhaps slip him a little tip, to drop you off here as the official bus stop is in Las Terrazas, not in Soroa.

If you still want to do it on your own, the alternative is to get off at Las Terrazas and negotiate a taxi to Soroa, 16km away and around 8 CUC. You can definitely get there backpacking style and get local help on the go to get from A to B, hitch-hike or arrange accommodation, but again, the journey won’t be as smooth as if you had booked an excursion or planned ahead. Which takes us to our next to get to Soroa?

Getting there

Of course, it’s much easier and simpler to book an excursion directly from your hotel’s tour desk in Havana or Varadero or from your tour operator. Our Cuba Holidays office in Cuba has a wide variety of excursions covering all of Cuba, all you need to do is ask one of our representatives.

Packaged excursions and organised tours also include lunch and guided walks being the latter highly recommended, as otherwise the experience, the landmarks and best sites could be lost on you, unless you count with the help of a knowledgeable local - and most, truth be told, are more than keen to help travellers, while an overnight stay at the Castle on the Clouds can be easily added on.

Because of how little-explored this area is by foreign visitors, although tourism numbers in Pinar del Rio are slowly increasing, coming on your own can prove tricky, unless you are the adventurous type, especially given the lack of signs in some places and the fact that you need someone pointing you in the right direction, whether you want to go hiking, birdwatching or bathing in a waterfall. A booked excursion takes out all the hassle, often includes a visit to a local eco-farm and helps you get the most of the trip.

I went there myself quite some time ago, with my family and another family that had been there before so knew their way around. I loved cooling down in the pools of El Salto Waterfall, though in hindsight I should have brought rubber sandals or non-slip shoes because the bottom rocks are extremely slippery, very irregular in size, shape and depth and you can easily hurt yourself. So, there’s an extra trip for you. And here goes another one:

If you’re a hiker you’ll love the trails, especially the one leading to El Mirador, a lookout spot on the top of a hill. In terms of how hard the climbs are…not hard at all. Anyone with a moderate fitness level can do it, and I truly mean anyone, as my grandma; not a trekker at all, not even in her young days; had come along with us and did the climb.

Of course, at a slower pace than the rest of us and we had to give her a hand and words of encouragement at various points, especially steeper or rocky areas, and yes, she complained a few times of how much further we had to go, but all in all she was a great sport and did it to the top, no problems. She had never done such a thing in her lifetime, not the rural sort of person at all, and she was 68 at the time!

Soroa - A bite-sized natural kingdom of sublime beauty

There is a reason they call this verdant region “El Arcoiris de Cuba” (Cuba's Rainbow) and many ways to admire its raw, wild, untrimmed beauty. This is as real as it gets in every way. More authentic in some ways than the more tourist-adapted eco-community of Las Terrazas, which is still a great place to visit, especially for birdwatchers, this part of Artemisa, that used to belong to the Pinar del Rio province prior to 2015’s official geological rearrangement, feels like a rare gem.

It is impressive precisely because of its small size, not in spite of it. Such a small settlement packs in such a stunning variety of landscapes and attractions that you can easily linger here for a couple of days and not feel you’ve overstayed at all.

Its scenic location bordering the Sierra del Rosario mountain range, affords visitors the most spectacular views, especially if you climb to one of the area’s highest peaks, El Mirador, to take in the jaw-dropping surroundings.

A UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve, Soroa was first discovered by two Spanish brothers, Lorenzo and Antonio Soroa Munagorri, after whom the place is named. They arrived here sometime in 1856 with the hope of making a fortune by establishing a coffee plantation in the area. Subsequent owners took over the plantations over the following years, but the original surname of the Soroa brothers remained as the area’s official name.

El Mirador de la Loma

You won’t regret climbing this 250-metre peak to enjoy the most dramatic views over this lush mountainous region and pose for the most sensational photos, that you’ll be itching to show off on Instagram, standing at the edge of absolute mountain paradise.

El "Mirador de la Loma" (Hilltop Lookout) directly overlooks the Sierra del Rosario and Sierra de los Organos mountain ranges. Access to it is pretty easy, you’ll require adequate footwear, light clothes, sun hat is a must, and sun cream. That’s it, the climb is relatively easy, even for non-experienced trekkers, I just told you above my 68-year-old grandma did it!. The views are most definitely worth the effort. I promise you! The opportunity for selfies is too good to miss.

The waterfalls at El Salto

Another unmissable attraction of Soroa is its beautiful waterfall. It might not be the highest or most striking in the island, but it makes for a lovely sight and a cooling experience, and I’m talking about jumping in for a really cool dip, as even in the peak of summer the waters remain icy cool, giving a welcome respite from the outside heat.

El "Salto de Arcoiris" (Rainbow Fall or more literally Rainbow Jump) this waterfall is 22-metres-high. A bifurcation of the Manantiales river, this fall is famous for its beauty and seclusion since the 17th century.

This place is seldom isolated these days though, as it’s highly popular both with locals and national tourists, though outside summer months most Cubans wouldn’t dare get into the chilly waters, so you might have the falls to yourself if you travel here during the winter, with temperatures as high as 25 degrees during the day and hardly ever dropping below 18 degrees Celsius. If you climb to the top of the waterfall you’ll be rewarded with phenomenal views. Just remember to bring non-slip shoes or sandals! The rocks are smooth, slippery and perilous, so step with caution.

The orchid garden

For many, the highlight of a visit to Soroa is not the Mirador lookout point at the top of a scenic hill of El Salto waterfall but the delicate beauty of its impressive orchid garden or garden nursery referred to in Spanish as “Orquideario de Soroa”. In fact, when Cubans mention Soroa, many automatically respond with “orquideario”, that’s how famous this magical garden is, and with good reason to. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in Cuba, and much of the world.

The frequent and often torrential rains in this area nurture a wide variety of orchid species, as many as 700 with over 20,000 of them blooming in a space of around 35,000 square metres, making this one of the largest orchid gardens in the world.

It all started when in 1952, lawyer Tomas Felipe Camacho, who was from the Canary Islands and lived in the nearby Rancho Pinilla, decided to build a garden as a gift to his wife and daughter. Given the orchid was their favourite flower, he imported a large quantity of exotic orchid species from Asia, South and Central America as well as growing a wide variety of autochtonous Cuban orchids.

The garden grew and grew over the years and today, the Jardin Botanico Orquideario de Soroa, its official name, is not just a garden, and a public one at that welcoming visitors from all over the world, but also a scientific centre that belongs to the University of Pinar del Rio and dedicated to the preservation of the fragile local ecosystem and the conservation of Cuban orchid species, of which you can find all 130 endemic species here.

The magnificent "Castillo en las Nubes" (Castle on the Clouds)

As striking for the rarity of its architectural style in a rural area virtually in the middle of nowhere, as it is compellingly beautiful, this rather inconspicuous castle is an attraction of its own. How did it come to be? Why the medieval style? Are its fairy-like touches an accident or a deliberate design. The only person that knows the answers to all these questions can no longer answer them, as the castle is nearly a-century-old.

Construction of the castle dates all the way back to 1940 when a wealthy landowner named Antonio Arturo Sanchez Bustamante decided to erect his very own regal abode at the top of La Loma del Fuerte, a tall and scenic peak affording panoramic views. No expenses were spared in its construction or in the refurbishing of its interiors.

Furnishings and decorative objects that were originally from the medieval era were bought in European auctions and brought here to furnish the castle. Many of these remain on display until this very day and are part of the region’s heritage. Similarly, unique works of art were bought to decorate the walls, such as the “Bullfighter” and “Ballerina” paintings.

When the castle’s owners went into exile following the triumph of the Revolution, the castle became government property and it was converted into a luxury restaurant in the 70s, serving both national and international fare. Its proximity to the orchid garden made it one of the area’s biggest attractions but with the relentless passage of time and a series of devastating hurricanes that caused some serious damages to the structure, which went unrepaired, the castle ended up falling into complete disarray and finally closed down a decade ago.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago and after extensive renovations the castle has reopened and it has done so as a boutique hotel rather an restaurant, although it does include an onsite restaurant, with six double rooms, a restaurant, a lookout terrace decked with tables and chairs, the views from here are sublime, a garden, a cafeteria and even what could be considered as probably one of the world´s first infinity pools, directly overlooking some of the most gorgeous panoramic views of this striking biosphere reserve.

The Rooms among the clouds

Rooms are split into three categories: Standard, Superior and a Junior Suite, with the latter being the largest and most majestic of all, featuring a fireplace, sitting area and a king-size bed. The Superior Room is more spacious than Standard Rooms and comes with a queen-size bed. Standard rooms have either a queen-sized bed or two double beds. All rooms, regardless of category, offer the following amenities: flat-screen TV, mini-bar, hot water, hairdryer, en-suite bathroom and air conditioning. They all also have one more thing in common, large windows looking out to the lush wildness below and beyond.

With stained-glass windows, this atmospheric hotel is marketed as an ideal romantic enclave for couples and honeymoons, with intimate rooms, a fairy-tale atmosphere and modern commodities. The hotel also offers laundry service, 24-hour reception, concierge services, Wi-Fi access; for an extra charge, in case you cannot wait to upload that amazing infinity pool selfie on Instagram though I have trouble believing internet access is any good in such a remote part of Cuba. Birdwatching, hiking, trekking, horse riding and sightseeing tours are also offered. Oh, and there´s also a lovely little bar serving up delicious cocktails with a view.

What if I can’t get a room at the castle?

Soroa’s Castle in the Clouds is certainly the region’s most attractive and picturesque accommodation option, but it’s not the only one. Nearby there’s also the Villa Soroa Eco Hotel, or which the Castle is an extension of, and it offers an additional 80 rooms distributed along 25 independent blocks. They are found a kilometre away from the hotel and offer self-catering facilities such as kitchen, fridge and bathroom in every room.

Anything else to see in Soroa?

While you´re here, and if you have some time to spare do check out the small eco-village of Las Rositas, a new community project looking to improve the lives of locals through environmentally-responsible agricultural practices.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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