Although many are familiar with Cuba’s vibrant and charming capital or have heard about the fascinating culture and music scene in the island, the well-preserved and beautifully diverse Cuban flora and fauna is a lesser-known treasure. From pristine white-sand beaches in remote keys to chirping birds flying atop majestic mountains, the island is filled with stunning natural wonders waiting to be discovered.
If you are a nature enthusiast travelling to Cuba who is unsure of which locations to pick for incredible excursions, the list below covers some of the most amazing natural attractions in the country. With stunning nature sites going from one tip of the island to the other, your eco-trips can be arranged to suit your convenience. Read on to make your decision easier and find out more about places you may have never heard of before but might very much enjoy discovering.
1. Cuba’s charming westernmost tip: Guanahacabibes Peninsula and Maria la Gorda
Cuba’s charming natural scenery starts at its very westernmost tip: the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. As one of Cuba's most isolated enclaves, the Guanahacabibes Peninsula is a UNESCO biosphere reserve with sea turtle nesting sites, mangrove swamps, dense forests and over one hundred pristine lakes.
It once provided shelter for its earliest inhabitants, the Guanahatabeys, an indigenous people of western Cuba at the time of European contact. Archaeological and historical studies suggest the Guanahatabey were archaic hunter-gatherers with a distinct language and culture from their neighbors, the Tainos. Today, there are two main reasons to visit the peninsula: its amazing nature park and the unparalleled diving site of Maria la Gorda.
According to the ancient legend, this area was once a pirate base, where Maria was their caring host. As she was allegedly a little chubby, she was called Fat Mary - Maria la Gorda. When she died, she was buried by pirates under the tallest palm in the bay - and as proof of gratitude they put a magnificent pirate treasure in the grave with her body.
Although finding the pirate treasure is quite unlikely; there are more rewards that come with visiting Maria la Gorda. The site’s coral reefs are some of the island’s most well protected and preserved underwater wonders. From the depth of 5 metres divers can observe individual reef formations with rich fauna containing more than twenty coral species (particularly gorgonian) and plenty of tiny and medium coral fish; it is often possible to watch lobsters, crabs and green morays in rocky holes. Other species include barracuda, horse mackerel, snapper, grouper and ray. The number of sharks is not high but there are also possibilities of spotting nurse sharks and, even occasionally, whale sharks.
2. Mogote-filled greenery: Vinales Valley
Continuing in Cuba’s westernmost province of Pinar del Rio, Vinales Valley is a popular and special stop on the tourist trail – and is so for good reason. Boasting lush vegetation all around, Vinales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its caverns, greenery and wildlife.
Home to exuberant fauna, the valley is ideal for spotting a rich variety of birds including endemic species like Cuban trogon, Cuban tody, Cuban solitaire and Cuban grassquit. The valley is also famous for its conspicuous limestone cliffs called “mogotes” that rise like islands from the bottom of the plains and can measure up to 300 metres. Another interesting feature of Vinales Valley are its large tobacco farms, where locals make by hand the world’s finest cigars.
When in Vinales, these are some of the activities you should not forget to try: venturing into a beautiful underwater cave and exploring the unique rock formations within; snapping pictures of the impressive “Mural de la Prehistoria”, a gigantic wall painting on a slope mimicking aboriginal art ; and visiting a local tobacco farm to see at first hand how locals make the exquisite cigars the country is renowned for.
3. Hop over from Havana to Las Terrazas
Relatively close to Havana, Las Terrazas is a convenient stopover nature site with fun options and stunning scenery to see. Today a pioneering ecovillage, the idea for Las Terrazas dates back to a reforestation project in 1968. Recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this waterfall-filled place is popular amongst locals and tourists alike for activities like zip-lining, canoeing and hiking. It is equally the site of the earliest coffee plantations in Cuba.
Although many select Las Terrazas for a half-day trip, those who wish to spend the night can also find comfort in the community’s sole hotel: the mould-breaking Hotel Moka. This upscale eco-resort was built between 1992 and 1994 and offers a haven of peace amidst striking greenery and waterfalls.
4. Swamps and crocodiles - Cienaga de Zapata National Park
Moving towards the beautiful province of Matanzas, the Cienaga de Zapata National Park occupies an entire peninsula on the south coast of the island. Home to swamps, mangroves and wetlands, the site is ideal for observing flamingos, crocodiles and many different bird species.
The top attraction in the Zapata Peninsula is arguable the Criadero de Cocodrilos, or crocodile farm, where visitors can observe these powerful creatures in their natural habitat. Those who are brave enough can even request to hold a baby crocodile for a picture, and arrange to eat rare crocodile meat in the restaurant.
Just a boat ride away from the crocodile farm lies Guama’s Treasure Lake, a recreated Taino village, ideal for a relaxing stroll and observing some bird species; from Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo (Cuban Trogon), to the Bee Hummingbird, which is the world's smallest bird, endemic to the island and fairly common within the park.
5. Top and centre - Topes de Collantes nature reserve
Not too far from the colonial wonders of Trinidad, Topes de Collantes is a striking nature reserve just outside the city in the Sierra del Escambray mountain range. At almost 800 metres above sea level, Topes de Collantes is situated in the centre of the island between three provinces: Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus. The wet winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean have made the north face of the mountains a luxurious refuge for plants and animals, whilst the drier south face hosts important ecosystems.
Topes de Collantes boasts everything from caves, rivers, falls and grottos to canyons, natural pools with crystal clear waters and mountain hills surrounded by mariposa (butterfly lily) Cuba’s national flower. Its flora is extensive and rich with over 40 indigenous species of orchids and 100 species of ferns, wild plantain and banana trees, jasmine, begonias, approximately 40 species of coffee plantations and West Indian mahogany. Important animal species live here as well; such as the Cartacuba and the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker.
Some of the most popular locations to visit within the magnificent reserve are the Caburni Falls, boasting a hike trail of coffee plantations and a series of ponds at the end of the Caburni river; Hacienda Codina, a ranch with medicinal mud baths, and gardens with and orchid collection; and Parque la Represa, home to an arboretum with more than 300 exotic species and the highest and oldest mahogany ever found in Cuba.
6. Untouched beach heaven - Cayo Coco
Though many are familiar with the beautiful white sands of Varadero, there are many other stunning beachfronts in the islands. The secluded key of Cayo Coco boasts one of the most immaculate beaches in the island, with fine sugary white sands and crystal-clear sparkling waters. Set within the Ciego de Avila Province, Cayo Coco is part of a chain of islands called Jardines del Rey ("King's Gardens") and the beauty of its beaches is such that this setting was used as the scenario for Ernest Hemingway's Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea.
In addition to relaxing on the stunning beaches, Cayo Coco offers the perfect opportunity to explore the Caribbean’s wondrous submarine world. A visit to the massive coral reef off the north coast attracts is a treat that divers from around the world look forward too; with many opportunities to observe colourful and diverse underwater life.
7. Dipping in with dolphins - Bahia de Naranjo
Taking up an area of almost four squared kilometres, 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. This will decidedly be the highlight of your trip, as you can observe 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.
8. An amazing range of natural wonder - Sierra Maestra
Cuba’s highest and longest mountain range, situated in the Eastern region of the island, the Sierra Maestra is a site of great natural beauty as well as historic importance. During the 1950s, Sierra Maestra served as a hideout for the rebels fighting the regime of Fulgencio Batista; namely Fidel and Raul Castro.
Nonetheless, Sierra Maestra’s true appeal is in its wondrous nature. Home to UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Turquino National Park this mountain range is a dream for advanced hikers. 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 biggest challenge and most memorable experience at Sierra Maestra is surely climbing the challenging Pico Turquino. Discover a scenario with stunning 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.
9. Paradise for nature enthusiasts - Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Set between the Eastern provinces of Holguin and Guantanamo, 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 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.
10. El Yunque – a unique elevation in the magical Baracoa
The first settlement in Cuba, Baracoa is quirky and charming city in Cuba’s easternmost Guantanamo province. Baracoa, which is difficult to access at times due to its mountainous surroundings, boasts many untouched natural sites brimming with beauty. One of its most renowned attractions is a flat-topped mountain called El Yunque that has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Due to its shape, resembling an anvil, this 575-metre-high elevation is known as El Yunque (“anvil” in Spanish). Situated between the banks of the rivers Duaba and Toa, El Yunque was mentioned by Christopher Columbus in his chronicles about the discovery of the Americas. Hiking through El Yunque is a perfect way to get acquainted with Cuban flora and fauna, as you trail through rivers, lakes, cocoa plantations, pristine greenery and get the chance to see exotic bird species and mammals like the nearly extinct and endemic “jutia”.
Cuba – a verdant paradise for all kinds of visitors
Regardless of your personal preference, Cuba is filled with natural wonders that leave a lasting impression. See endemic flora and fauna, take exciting trips through rocky roads and marshy lanes and swim through pristine coral reefs or sparkling beaches. Make the choice that is just right for you and create special memories that will surely last a lifetime.