When you experience Cuba’s wonderful natural surroundings, you’ll fall in love with it. There’s lots to see and do, with a beautiful Caribbean coast and a lush interior of mountains, ancient towns, and calm tobacco plantations. Some of Cuba’s most stunning natural wonders are protected as national parks, and we’ve compiled a list of five of our favourites to help you plan your next trip to the island.
The Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park, which stretches across a horseshoe-shaped peninsula at Cuba’s far western tip, is a secluded and picturesque area with little indication of human influence. It is most recognised for its unspoiled coastal nature and animals, having been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the late 1980s. The peninsula is forested on land, attracting over 100 species of birds, and there are some spectacular wilderness beaches of white sand and turquoise sea, intermingled with mangroves, along the peninsula’s wide shore.
The entire peninsula is surrounded by beautiful marine environments that have long been protected, making it an excellent diving and snorkelling area. Marine turtles come ashore to lay their eggs from May to October, and nighttime treks to the beaches are typically rewarded with sightings. The red swamp crayfish, which can be found all along the coast and in the mangroves, is another well-known resident of the peninsula. Maria la Gorda is the most well-known and well-equipped beach in the area, as well as the main diving centre.
The Sierra Maestra Mountains rise steeply from the shore to the west of the capital city of Santiago de Cuba, the peaks bursting spectacularly from the coast in a linear configuration. The Turquino National Park (also known as Sierra Maestra National Park) is a popular hiking destination for hikers, with a few prominent paths offering spectacular views of the range and the coast, but it’s also of importance to historians looking for Fidel Castro. These cloud-covered mountains provided a safe haven for Castro and the dozen other rebels who escaped the 1956 coup attempt. Castro’s revolutionary command centre was located in these highlands.
Along with political pilgrims, the historic woodland greenery and outstanding birdlife will pique the interest of nature lovers. If you’re in decent shape and have a couple of days on your hands, climb Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain, which sits at 1974 metres.
With a journey to the wonderfully rustic Viales valley, you can slow down the pace of your Cuba vacation. Since 1999, the valley has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique environment, traditional agriculture, vernacular architecture, and multi-ethnic culture. The environment is an unusual panorama of quiet valley floor fields planted with tobacco and dotted with farms, set against a backdrop of neighbouring mountains and the unique’mogotes’ – karst outcrops that dot the valley.
Because of its proximity to Havana and contrast with it, Viales Valley is a popular tourist destination, but it is well-deserved. Hiking and bike routes crisscross the area, some of which are leisurely rambles on level ground, while others take you higher for spectacular views of the valley. Horseback riding is another romantic option to take in the countryside at a slower pace, and wherever you go, you’ll come across tobacco farmers drying their prized crop on drying racks or inviting you in to try a hand-rolled cigar right there in the field. You might even be lucky enough to witness the old art of cigar rolling, which the Cuban people are justly proud of.
Because of Cuba’s lengthy isolation and protection from tourism, many of its treasures have remained in pristine condition, just as nature intended. The Jardines de la Reina, a line of islets and mangrove cays located about 70 kilometres off Cuba’s south coast, is a prime example of this. They are collectively known as Cuba’s Coral Garden, and if you prefer diving or snorkelling, they should be at the top of your vacation list. The coral and fish here are breathtakingly gorgeous and undisturbed, giving hope to marine conservationists.
The islands are a network of mangrove waterways, beaches, and lagoons, with some fascinating bird, iguana, and rodent species to be found on land. The appellation Jardines de la Reina, or ‘Gardens of the Queen,’ was given to the underwater life. Elkhorn corals, which are rare and colourful, can be found in abundance, surrounded by shoals of fish ranging from spectacular rays to enormous grouper, tarpon, barracuda, and a variety of reef sharks. Visitors and divers are now restricted, and must remain so if the Jardines de la Reina are to remain a pristine haven for Caribbean marine species.