When thinking of Cuba, the usual images that come to mind are of sitting on a white-sand beach, cruising through a city on an American 50s car or enjoying a puff of the planet’s finest cigar whilst listening to the lively beats of salsa music. Whilst all these experiences depict an accurate representation of some of the island’s most popular attractions, there is much more to this nation. The impressive diversity and pristine state of Cuba’s natural landscapes have caught the attention of many locals and travellers throughout the years, including renowned scientist Alexander von Humboldt.
The island’s rich wildlife stems from its unique natural history. Cuba was not originally in the Caribbean Sea but in the Pacific Ocean, where the island was situated 100 million years ago before the forces of continental drift slowly brought it into the Caribbean. As the island migrated over the ages, an astonishing variety of life arrived by air, sea, and possibly by land bridges that may have once existed. Over time, these animals adapted to their new environment. Today, more than half of Cuba’s plants and animals, including more than 80 per cent of its reptiles and amphibians, are found nowhere else on the planet.
Peaceful havens for wildlife – Cuba’s best preserved nature parks
Protected by its isolation, the wildlife of Cuba has remained naturally preserved, untouched, and widely unexplored. Although all around the island, it is easy to find beautiful rural areas, I have selected ten reserves that have been carefully conserved and show off the best of the island’s varied flora and fauna. Those who have an adventurous soul and are keen to explore the depths of Cuba’s breath-taking countryside, will find details on what each nature park has to offer; from spotting exotic species to snapping shots of unrivalled landscape views.
Starting from Cuba’s westernmost province of Pinar del Rio, Guanahacabibes Peninsula is home to one of the country’s largest nature reserves. Listed as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1987, the area is separated from the rest of the island by white-sand plains where one of Cuba's largest lakeside areas lies. A relatively small area holds some 100 lakes, as well as the largest and purest fields of silica sand.
Just around 100 miles from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Guanhacabibes natural park is home to one of Cuba’s most important green turtle nesting beaches. It also provides shelter to 172 species of birds belonging to 42 families, 11 of which are endemic and 84 are migratory. In addition, to exploring the untouched beauty of the peninsula’s wildlife, travellers can also observe traces of Cuba’s first inhabitants. This region was one of the last refuges of aboriginals fleeing from the Spanish conquistadors and also holds some 140 archaeological sites linked to the life of aborigines, who were known as Guanahatabeyes.
Cienaga de Zapata
Moving along to the charming province of Matanzas, the Zapata Peninsula is home to one of the island’s most popular nature parks. A vast, virtually uninhabited swampy wilderness is ideal for reptile lovers, avid bird-watchers and diving enthusiasts.
The Criadero de Cocodrilos, or crocodile farm, is an amazing attraction that allows visitors to observe these creatures in their natural habitat and even allows them the opportunity of holding a baby crocodile, and eating rare crocodile meat in the restaurant. Visitors can also wander a little further and take a boat ride to Guama’s Treasure Lake, which houses a recreated Taino village.
Whilst in the peninsula, you may want to dip your feet in Playa Larga beach, which boasts white coral sand and shallow, clear waters. As for bird-watching, the Cienaga de Zapata is one of the best areas in the world to spot these flying species. Get the chance to see Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo (Cuban Trogon), or the Bee Hummingbird, which is the world's smallest bird, endemic to the island and fairly common within the park.
Topes de Collantes National Park
Situated amidst the majestic Escambray Mountains, Topes de Collantes is a nature reserve comprising one of the island’s highest peaks and some of its most beautiful valleys. Topes de Collantes stretches out through the provinces of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara and is also the name given to one of the peaks of the Escambray range. Topes de Collantes peak stands at almost 800 metres above sea level, along with Potrerillo peak (931 metres) and tallest San Juan peak (1,140 metres).
Nature lovers are spoilt for choice with caves, rivers, falls, grottos, canyons, natural pools with crystal clear water, and mountain hills surrounded by mariposa (butterfly lily), which is Cuba’s national flower. Topes de Collantes boasts more than 40 indigenous species of orchids and 100 species of ferns, as well as banana trees, jasmine, begonias, and around 40 species of coffee. Important animal species that live here include the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, unique hummingbirds, and the tocororo. Some of the most popular spots within the nature reserve are Caburni Falls, cave system La Batata, and the medicinal spa ranch Hacienda Codina.
Caguanes National Park
Located in Yaguajay within Sancti Spiritus province, Caguanes National Park stands out for its collection of 10 small keys (Cayos de Piedra) that reach out in the Bay of Buena Vista, as well as the Guayaberas swamps and mangroves. The area is also home to 35 archaeology sites are also conserved representing the life of former cave dwellers.
Covering an area of approximately 205 square kilometres, the reserve is lined with a total of 79 caves, as well as many arches and niches that open to the sea. The ecosystem itself consists of more than 200 species, 24 of which are endemic to the island. The most singular creatures that can be found here are mariposa bats and migratory aquatic birds such as spoonbills, flamingos and pelicans.
Jardines de la Reina
Named by Christopher Columbus to honour the Queen of Spain, Jardines de la Reina (Queen’s Gardens), is an archipelago of more than 600 beautiful keys located in the provinces of Camaguey and Ciego de Avila. Cayo Blanco, Cayo Caballones, Cayo Granada and Cayo Anclita are some of the most renowned keys.
Established as national park in 2002, the reserve is a popular destination for diving. Species of fish found here comprise Cubera snapper, bonefish, yellowfin grouper, black grouper, Atlantic goliath grouper as well as Strombus gigas (the large Caribbean conch), whale shark and reef sharks. Those who dare to submerge in the reefs will also observe an underwater landscape of canyons, pinnacles and caves lined with healthy mangroves, sponges and black corals. There is no commercial fishing in the Park and it is one of most secluded and magical places in the Caribbean as all keys are completely uninhabited.
Desenmbarco del Granma
Set in south-eastern Cuba, Desenmbarco del Granma National Park is named after the yacht in which Fidel Castro and other 80 supporters sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 and incited the Cuban Revolution. Featuring a series of verdant limestone terraces standing at an average height of over 200 metres above sea level, the area was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because of these incredible marine terraces and pristine sea cliffs.
The marine limestone terraces were formed by tectonic uplift and sea level fluctuations triggered by past climate change. Their number and height is as remarkable as their good conservation status. The little-disturbed landscape - and seascape - offers a wide spectrum of karst phenomena, such as giant sinkholes, cliffs, canyons and caves. This is the ideal place to wander through waterfalls, dip into rivers and take amazing snaps of the countryside landscape from the viewpoint of a cliff.
Bahia de Naranjo
Taking up an area of almost a 1 000 acres, Bahia de Naranjo Nature Park is an excellent spot to observe wildlife and also find a touch of entertainment. Covered in mangrove trees and marshy tropical forests, the park offers recreational options like the eco-tourist trails Las Guanas and Penon, as well as yacht rides to the Aquarium.
The Bahia Naranjo used to be the perfect hideaway for pirates and corsairs long time ago. Today, the bay is home to bountiful greenery and connects to key Cayo Naranjo via boat. Those who wish to hop off the mainland for a moment can visit the amazing Dolphinarium, where you are able to enjoy watching marine life (especially the lively sea lions), and even dip in and swim with adorable, trained dolphins that will play and perform tricks for visitors.
Presiding over the charming province of Holguin, Sierra Cristal was Cuba’s first ever national park, created in 1930. This beautiful natural Cuban landscape sits at the heart of the region's ecotourism and boasts interesting historical sites, such as La Plata, which served in the 1950s as Fidel Castro’s headquarters.
Mountains are undoubtedly the area’s biggest attractions. Dominated by pine forests, the ranges are also home to the endangered Cuban solenodon. Situated on the heights of Sierra Cristal (Cristal Mountains), one of the highest mountain ranges in Cuba (second only to Sierra Maestra), the park’s highest point is Cristal Peak (Pico Cristal) with an elevation of 1,300 metres.
Nicknamed Cuba’s own “Little Switzerland”, the reserve is also home to the smaller Parque Nacional la Mensura. Notable for its cool alpine microclimate and over 100 species of endemic plants, La Mensura offers hiking and horseback riding. The landscape of Sierra del Cristal is what is said to have inspired Buena Vista Social Club's hit “Chan Chan”. Now frequented by aficionados of lead singer Compay Segundo, the route is often dubbed Ruta de Chan Chan.
Turquino National Park
Situated in the south-eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, Turquino National Park is set amidst the majestic Sierra Maestra mountain range. Named after the country’s highest point, the Pico Turquino, which stands at 1,974 metres above sea level, the park is a buzzing ecosystem. The area is renowned for fostering the last redoubt of several species of Cuban flora and fauna, with notable differences among them depending on the altitude: they include everything from dry coastal thickets to mountain rain forests and small bushes typical of low-lying plateaus.
It is a land of rivers, forests, mountain peaks and valleys covered with lush vegetation, giving visitors the sensation of being on the top of the island. This is a wild place of difficult access and great variety of well-preserved species of flora and fauna make it one of the most important protected areas in Cuba.
The biggest challenge and most memorable experience here is surely climbing the Pico Turquino. Discover a scenario of 17,000 hectares of rivers, forests, valleys and summits crowned by this elevation. To make it all the way up a little cheerfulness, tenacity and fitness is all it takes. Some of the endemic species that can be observed are the Sabicu, the Savin, the Oak of Maestra, ferns and birds like the Cartacuba, the Tocororo and the Zunzun.
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Spread across the easternmost provinces of Guantanamo and Holguin, the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is one of the most amazing nature reserves in the island. Named after the German scientist who visited the island and studied its wildlife, the park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 for of its size, altitude range, complex lithology, landform diversity, and wealth of endemic flora and fauna.
The rivers that flow off the peaks of the park are some of the largest in the insular Caribbean. The park is said to be the most humid place in Cuba and this causes a high biological diversity. In total, 16 of Cuba’s 28 endemic plant species are protected in the park including various species of parrots, lizards, hummingbirds, the endangered Cuban solenodon (endemic), hutias and snails.
Historically an area of land little used by man, with only one archaeological site from the pre-Columbian period being known, the park is spreads over an area of 711 square kilometres including a substantial portion of the adjoining marine area. The visit is magical for travellers who will get to indulge in the stunning vistas of mountains, plateaus, plains, bays, rivers, and coral reefs.
Cuba – a paradise island for explorers and adventurers
Ecotourism in Cuba is becoming more popular every day, as more travellers learn of the island’s great natural diversity and well-preserved reserves. From high-adrenaline mountain climbing to relaxing bird-watching hikes or baths in medicinal waters, the country’s rural immensity can bring joy to all kinds of visitors. There is so much to be gained from experiencing Cuba’s countryside: learn more about life in rural areas by visiting the households of hospitable “guajiros” (local agriculture workers), who will treat you to delicious and genuine Cuban food and even serenade you with some “musica campesina” if you’re lucky! Whatever route you choose, Cuba’s natural sites will leave you with lasting impressions of unspoiled beauty and simplicity.