There’s little doubt that Sancti Spiritus’ biggest claim to fame is the wondrous city of Trinidad, the awe-inspiring, centuries-old Cuban town has almost magically managed to preserve itself intact, seemingly immune to the passage of time. Yes, Trinidad is the province’s biggest draw, some would indeed claim it as its only tourism-worthy draw, yet there’s more to Sancti Spiritus than quaint cobblestone streets, pastel-coloured buildings and vintage museum with an extraordinary collection of 20th century furnishings, paintings and valuable objects - all neatly arranged in mansions that look as though time had forever stood still and these grand residences were still lived in. So, the conclusion is that most travellers who embark on a Cuba holiday know or hear of Trinidad, but not so much about the region it belongs to.
In fact, few tourists are aware that the city of Trinidad is part of the province of Sancti Spiritus, a region spanning about 205 square kilometres and located some 360 kilometres from the capital of Havana. Sancti Spiritus’ capital is not Trinidad but its eponymous city, forever playing second fiddle to the latter though reasons abound for discovering, and even favouring it over the former, especially because of its more lively appeal (in many ways Trinidad can feel like something of a ghost town), its easy-going nature and laidback attitude, plus the fact it recently received a makeover to mark its 500th anniversary, so the town is looking its best. But most importantly the scarcity of tourists crowds further enhances its little-trodden appeal. Yet visitors rarely give it a chance. But they should. I’ve covered the many reasons why on a recent post enumerating Sancti Spiritus’ cultural riches. But today I turn my attention to yet another attraction in the province, one found about an hour’s ride from the heart of the city and its picturesque colonial allure and a real treat for nature lovers seeking untrodden treasures. Introducing Parque Nacional Caguanes, or Caguanes National Park, a blessed coastal region dotted by several virginal keys and home to fertile swamps and mangroves where a myriad of species thrive. A privileged and fiercely protected slice of land where you can get close to beautiful creatures as well as follow the trail of Cuba’s aboriginal civilisation.
Parque Nacional Caguanes
If you want to make hiking part of your Cuban journey, then you can´t go wrong with the Caguanes National Park, a Ramsar Convention Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that remains blissfully off-the-beaten-path while being an easy car ride away from Sancti Spiritus’ city centre. Or, if you are in Trinidad, it’s a scenic two-hour drive away from (130 km travelling distance) that can be split in two with a stop in the province’s capital (a stop that I, on the other hand, highly recommend to better round off your experience in this part of Cuba.
Spanning a total land mass of 2,249 hectares, including mainland, islets, keys and a marine area, the park is found in the Caguanes peninsula, covering part of the northern municipality of Yaguajay in the areas of Cayo Caguanes and Cienaga Guayaberas. The protected nature reserve also includes a collection of 10 adjacent small keys known as Cayos de Piedra (Stone Keys), named thus for their outstanding morphology, unique in its kind in the entire island.
There is plenty to discover in this amazing reserve, from ancient caves home to parietal art, to beautiful natural formations in the form of rocky arches and niches that open out to the sea. The national park’s fertile grounds are teeming with wildlife, housing over 200 species, 24 of which are endemic and 112 of which are birds who nest in the marshes and the coastal area. There’s also a significant population of “mariposa” bats (in the Tres Dolinas cave), a healthy colony of flamingoes and over 30 archaeological sites, perfectly preserved inside many of the caves and giving visitors a rare insight into the lives of Cuba’s first inhabitants - the indigenous Taino civilisation. For more details on all there is to admire at the wonderfully diverse Parque Caguanes, keep reading below.
The Marine Area
The shallow waters of Buena Vista Bay (Bahia de Buena Vista) are found to the north-east of Parque Caguanes, with depths that oscillate between one and three metres and whose sandy, muddy bottoms are populated by large extensions of seagrass (a.k.a. “little Neptune grass” whose scientific name is Cymodocea nodosa) and algae. These marine prairies are the first link in the food chain of these coastal ecosystems, and as such a vital part of the reserve, pumping life into all other areas.
The Buena Vista Bay, part of this protected eco-zone, spans the northern coast of three Cuban provinces: Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila. In itself, all of the bay is a declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2,000, but in the case of the area bordering Parque Nacional Caguanes, the bay borders the northern coast of Sancti Spiritus with a fringe of wild mangroves that extends for around 3.5 kilometres and the natural habitat of a wide variety of land and marine species
The mangroves’ widest area sits right at the heart of the park’s southern edge, an area known as Cienaga de la Guayabera (Guayabera Swamp), a thriving ecosystem with a rich biodiversity in terms of both endemic flora and fauna. The swamp is split into two areas - the grasslands and the wet forest lands. All of the southern regions of Parque Caguanes is fed by shallow currents from streams whose origins lie at the Cordillera del Noreste de Las Villas, more specifically in the Sierra de Bamburanao mountain range in the east, Sierra de Meneses y Cueto to the centre and Lomas de la Canoa to the west.
Dotting the waters of Bahia del Rosario from northwest to northeast, a collection of ten islets make up the sub-archipelago of Cayos de Piedra, whose geological formation is noteworthy and unique in the entire island given the karstic domes found at their centre formed by calcareous rocks dating all the way back to the Miocene period, which makes them about 25 to 30 million years old!
Parque Caguanes is home to an incredibly rich cave system of outstanding beauty. Throughout the ages, the different geological periods have influenced their formation and development, with some being drained of their former internal lakes, as is the case with the galleries of Cueva del Pirata y Grande de Caguanes, which boast a large variety of stalactites in the shape of inverted mushrooms.
Parque Caguanes’ total of 79 caverns include over two kilometres of galleries, while caves are over one-kilometre-long and feature flaps in the form of hollows, including rock shelters or tidal crevices (“nichos de marea”). Altogether, this group of caves boasts an incredible variety of secondary formations: stalagmites, stalactites, columns, cave pearls, pisolites and more. The fluctuations in sea level have hollowed out the caves, exposing some of the caves’ galleries, some of which give way to the sea or have marine openings.
Like I just mentioned above, Parque Caguanes’ impressive cave system is extraordinary, to say the least, covering a total area of some 114 hectares and boasting 11.5 kilometres of underground galleries, all of which makes it one of the country’s most notable speleological zones.
But beyond the unequivocal physical beauty of these caverns and their whimsical allure, lies so much more than curious speleological formations. These cavernous zones are living witnesses of the rich paleontological fauna that reigned in Cuba during the Pleistocene era, most prominently the healthy population of bats that still inhabit the caves today. The island’s primitive civilisations made use of these caves as dwellings and shelters, as well as worshipping sites and sacred burial grounds. Proof of it are the murals that adorn some of the caves´s walls. But more on this below.
The Aboriginal Remains
As I was explaining above, it wasn’t just bats, migratory and aquatic birds who mostly inhabited this zone in terms of fauna. This splendid area was also home to tribes of Cuba’s first inhabitants, the indigenous Amerindian people (including the Tainos, the last civilisation to inhabit the island before the Spanish conquerors wiped them out). The semi-deciduous forests with their caverns, caves, grottos and rock shelters are all of enormous archaeological value and hold valuable aboriginal remains, most visibly in the form of mural paintings, which takes me to our next sub-heading.
Rock art, or more precisely parietal art, is part of Parque Caguanes’ appeal, as this kind of primitive human painting is only found in a handful of other sites around the Cuban archipelago. Over 29 murals adorn the walls of 18 caves, a clear evidence of the presence of many aboriginal cultures. Most of the paintings are thought to belong to the Mesolithic period (right in the middle of the Stone Age) and depict hunting and fishing scenes. The inhabitants of this era were mostly hunter-gatherers, fishermen, but evidence also points to the fact that they also practised some rustic forms of art, like works with ceramics and had started developing agriculture.
Over 200 species have been identified in Parque Caguanes, 87 of which are registered as the following: 20 molluscs, 17 reptiles, 21 birds, 11, insects, 5 mammals, 4 arachnids, 4 amphibians and 4 crustaceans. Local endemic value is best exemplified in the five autochtonous species of molluscs found while thanks to the abundance of speleological formations in the area a healthy population of bats thrive in the park, and this means that all cave bat species found in Cuba can also be found in this single nature reserve. Parque Caguanes is in fact, home to the largest colony of fisherman bat (also known as greater bulldog bat).But the widest variety of fauna species in the reserve can be found in the invertebrates population, from reptiles to mammals, fish, molluscs and arthropods.
Among the many creatures that dwell in the marshes, the swamps and the rocky arches over the sea, the pink flamingo population stands out, as does the impressive colony of Gervais’ funnel-eared bat (locally known as “murcielago mariposa” or butterfly bat due to its tiny size and butterfly-like wings) which is also the world’s smallest bat and only found in Cuba and the Bahamas. Remarkable birds for birdwatchers to look out for in Parque Caguanes include the Tocororo (Cuba’s national bird) and the Cartacuba, if you want to find out which are the top 10 bird species to spot in Cuba read here. You can also spot iguanas as they scurry along and watch out for the endemic red scorpion or blue scorpion (Rhopalurus junceus) unique only to Cuba and whose venom the island´s scientific researchers have used to create a homoeopathic treatment for cancer, enhancing diagnosed patients ´quality of life.
In terms of vegetation, there are 233 species to be found here, all of which represent 41.4 per cent of Cuban flora. The four main basic species are red mangrove, black mangrove, white mangrove and the Yana tree, which out of the four is the least abundant due to the excessive tree felling the area suffered for years, before the park was declared a protected reserve. The semi-deciduous limestone forests prevail in the area with a variety of arboreal, shrubby, herbaceous and epiphyte vegetation. There’s also an abundance of lianas to spot in a wide variety of forms, from bejuco colorado to bejuco lenatero, bejuco de berraco, tocino, bejuco chino, climbing malanga, grape vines and a few more (translation for all these Cuban liana species has been very hard to come across, as I haven't been able to find their scientific names, perhaps on my next Cuba trip!). Before leaving this section, it’s also worth mentioning the reserves’ rocky coastal flora with an abundance of “diente de perro” (calcite soil) giving way to succulent plants, the only kind able to survive the constant splashing of the sea waves.
Access to the park is not as straightforward as one might think, given the strict conservation measures in place to protect its ancient aboriginal remains, the caves and the fragile flamingo population. What this means is that entry to the park is limited, but not impossible. It definitely helps to check first either at Ecotur’s public office in Trinidad or at the Villa San Jose del Lago in Yaguajay, offering convenient accommodation adjacent to the reserve in case you want to linger or make an overnight stay. I wouldn´t advise you to just turn up, even when there is a basic biological station on the coast accessible by a bumpy road north of Mayajigua, you might be terribly disappointed if they refuse you entry without prior arrangement or hiring a guide. Your safest bet is to enquire about an excursion at your hotel´s tour desk like I suggested earlier. At present, there is an advertised excursion that takes you to Parque Caguanes ´Ramos and Los Chivos caves with a bot trip around Cayos de Piedra. You can´t go wrong with that!