The verdant and dreamily serene La Mensura National Park in Holguin is not a heavily trodden destination and remains a hidden gem in eastern Cuba that few tourists know about or aim to visit. But more definitely should. Not only is it home to Cuba's highest twin waterfalls but the entire protected region is also home to thriving endemic wildlife, with 36 different kinds of orchid and 33 types of fern, 323 endemic species and a colourful variety of wildlife in the form of reptiles, birds and mammals. It's a dream come true for nature lovers of all walks of life where you can encounter more than one unexpected wonder.
Not one, but two! The Guayabo falls
There is one main attraction that everyone comes here to see: the Guayabo Waterfall or "Salto del Guayabo" as the original Spanish version would read. Even when its name suggests one single fall, it consists of two parallel twin streaks, the first (and smaller of the two) fed by the Guayabo river while the second comes from the Sojo river. They both stream down to form pools that converge in the Mayari river, whose waters ultimately flow into in Nipe Bay.
Found at an altitude of 546 metres above sea level, the highest of the twin falls is also the highest waterfall in all of Cuba and stands very tall at a height of 127 metres, while the second highest (and most voluminous of the two) is found at height of a little less than 100 metres. The falls flow all-year-long, although the least abundant of the two can dry up during times of drought (highly unlikely though). They are the driving force supporting a rich environment that spans over 576 hectares.
The sight of these splashing twin beauties is one to behold and you can do so from a raised platform that lets you take in all the surrounding mountainous landscape in its full glory, as you contemplate these rapid water bursts squirting right out of the verdant mountains. Depending on how you make it here, you can enjoy a cool swimming session at the base of the larger fall or at the top of the smaller waterfall - the trails to follow are different (one being more arduous than the other) but both are incredibly rewarding.
You can reach this protected reserve on your own by renting a car and driving from the small town of Mayari (a 2.5 hour ride from Holguin), but it's easier to book a guided tour and gain local insight from an English-speaking local expert, who will not only guide you along the way but will also enlighten you on many curious facts about the falls, the biodiversity they support and the wildlife that inhabits this region.
Local dwellers - rare fauna to look out for
While it's safe to say that you won't be bombarded with sights of fauna everywhere you turn, if you're lucky and you pay special attention during your tour, you could spot a few rare dwellers including a wild population of pigs. Beyond that there are 29 species of reptiles to be found (14 of which are endemic to Cuba) and which include the endangered "Maja de Santa Maria" (an endemic tree boa), "lagarto de palito de ojo pardo" (brown-eyed stick lizard), "Chipojito" (a green-coloured species of lizard) the very rare "Chipojo Ceniciento Oriental" (Chamaeleolis porcus) and the little "majacito"; a broad-banded dwarf boa in the Tropidophiidae family. All species listed earlier are exclusively endemic to Cuba and some only found on this region, so if visiting you'll have a very rare opportunity to catch some rather peculiar creatures.
There's also a good population of mammals including different species of the endemic "jutia" (large cavy-like rodents that nest in trees) and various bat species. Threatened winged locals include the "siju platanero" (Cuban pygmy owl), "siju cotunto" (Cuban screech owl), the Cuban nightingale and, most notably, Cuba's rare national bird - the Tocororo; but more about birds in the next section.
A birdwatcher's dream come true
With over 300 bird species to catch sight of, La Mensura National Park can prove a real treat for keen birdwatchers. If you are serious about spotting as many different winged creatures as possible is best to come as early in the morning as you can, as birds (except for the owls) are early morning creatures and the reserve is at its quietest at this time, giving you more of a chance to spot them. If unable to come early, do tell your guide of your interest in seeing particular species so that he can try and point you in the right direction.
What to spot? Well, the king of them all, the one you should definitely aim to spot before you leave is the Tocoro, Cuba's national bird, endemic only to the island, with a plumage colouration resembling the Cuban flag. This national reserve is one of the few places in Cuba you can catch sighting of it, so don't let the opportunity go by and make of its sighting the most special memento of your Cuba holiday.
But, of course, it's not all about the Tocororo, there's also the "Zorza Real" (fieldfare), "Zorzal Patirrojo" (Red-legged thrush), the much sought-after and exceedingly gorgeous "Carta Cuba" (Cuban Tody) - it's tiny so eyes peeled - and the "Pitirre Guatibere" (loggerhead kingbird). Rarer than these is the rather unique "gavilan colilargo" (Gundlach's hawk), one of Cuba's 21 endemic bird species whose name honours German-Cuban ornithologist, Juan Cristobal Christoff Gundlach. Other threatened bird species endemic to Cuba include the "camao" (grey-fronted quail-dove) also called "azulona" - a vulnerable beauty.
An unforgettable hiking journey - as easy or as challenging as you like
There's more than one way to get to the falls, and more than one way to enjoy the whole experience. Those with a more adventurous side can choose the longer path and go solo (or with a Cuban friend), although my warning is that you could get easily lost as the trail disappears at more than one point, the closer you get to the base of the waterfalls - this is how hidden and unexploited this natural gem is. If you want to venture there on your own and drive a rented car to the park you can perfectly do so, but be warned that the roads are rough and you'll be in for a bumpy ride.
Alternatively, the easiest and most straightforward option is to book a packaged tour for the day, available at the front desk of most hotels in Holguin and Guardalavaca. It will cost you somewhere between 80 to 100 CUC but it will include a local English-speaking guide and lunch. Depending on the package you book, the tour could also include a visit to a local coffee-growing farm where you get to meet the farmers and enjoy a breakfast consisting of local fruits and, of course, the locally grown coffee.
The trip from Guardalavaca is done on a jeep and the journey is about an-hour-long, taking in beautiful raw views of the Cuban countryside along the way.
Once at the park you have two options, go on the full and more challenging trek (which is an hour going down to the base of the falls and two hours back up) or opt for the shorter version ending at the pool at the top of one of the falls. Whichever option you go for, you must be prepared for quite a hike, as the paths are quite steep and muddy at times. Watch out for young children slipping up, those unsteady on their feet or anyone who may have a problem with balancing and climbing.
If you opt for the shorter trail, you'll do a short, guided walk with your guide enlightening you about the wildlife you come across, the local way of life and the peculiarities of the reserve. After reaching the lookout tower, where you'll stop for photographs, you'll do another 30 minutes walking to the top of one of the cascades, where you'll be taken to bathe at a small pool and where you can sit or stand under a stream of potent waterfall (careful you don't lose your swimwear, the current is strong!).
What to bring and what to wear
Hiking gear is a must. This reserve is as raw and wild as it gets, with very little development anywhere, so dress appropriately to get the most of the experience. Bring shoes with non-slip soles and preferably waterproof shoes. The walk is up and down, over tree roots and wet rocks in places, so sensible footwear is a must. Clothing-wise, make it light and bring a swimsuit to dive into the waterfall's pool. Do bring water bottles and snacks if you opt for the longer trek.
When to come
Due to its mountainous location, the reserve enjoys a microclimate with uniquely pleasant weather all-year-round. Average annual temperature oscillates around 21.6 degrees Celsius, so virtually any time is a good time to visit. Even in the summer months' temperatures are nowhere as hot as in most of Cuba's eastern region, thanks to the cooling trade winds.
The rainy season falls between May and October, with May and September registering the highest rainfall. The dry season spans between November to April with January and December being the driest two months. In terms of accessing the park's trail it's always preferable to come when it's dry, but by no means should you avoid coming after heavy rains (never during, it will spoil the whole experience and the trails would be more cumbersome and slippery).
More than lush vegetation and trickling sounds
A trip to Parque La Mensura to enjoy the striking beauty of the Guayabo waterfalls is more than just about taking in the landscapes and photographing the falls. After all you can find much higher, bigger or otherwise spectacular waterfalls elsewhere in the world, but that's not what a trip here is all about. It's about embracing a part of Cuba that remains largely unexplored, it's about adding a taste of adventure to your Cuba holiday, about learning about the island's remote eastern countryside region, seeing how coffee farmers go about their daily business and meeting new lovely characters you'll remember for years. A little escapism can truly go a long, long way.