Go Green in Cuba
From UNESCO-listed biosphere reserves, lush mountain ranges, protected landscapes and endemic wildlife, the diversity of Cuba's ecosystems astounds and bewilders.
From £869 per person
Cuba offers more natural riches than any other island in the Caribbean, not only due to its size as the largest of The Antilles, but also because of its many sources of biodiversity. With 263 protected natural areas, Cuba is a green paradise for nature lovers and those seeking eco-friendly experiences to remember.
The pristine state of much of Cuba's countryside and the lack of development in many rural areas have helped preserve some of the world's most awe-inspiring wildlife, endemic flora and fauna in this part of the world.
Ecotourism in Cuba was once virtually inexistent and little developed but today it blossoms and shines brighter than ever with more options for tourists to explore in areas that were totally inaccessible just a few years back.
Evoking nature that inspires
With six Biosphere Reserves and four natural landscapes that belong to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cuba does indeed have an enormous wealth of rich, protected nature to be explored and admired. Whether you're an avid mountain climber or mountain biker, a keen hiker, trekker, a passionate birdwatcher or quite simply a nature lover, Cuba offers plenty of green landscapes to indulge in.
Cuba has a vast array of protected reserves, natural parks and endemic species to discover and admire. Whilst no one goes to Cuba thinking they’ll get a wild safari experience (no animal living in the island poses a real threat to humans except the Cuban Crocodile whose habitat is restricted to swamp areas and protected reserves), there are a few endemic species worth spotting, such as the third smallest frog in the world, the largest boa in the Caribbean, the most aggressive and most intelligent crocodile species in the Americas and the most beautiful, most colourful snail in the world - the wonderfully rare Polymita.
The one and only Viñales Valley
The Valley of Viñales, probably the most photographed, most praised and generally most talked about when it comes to the highlights of Cuba’s natural landmarks and wild landscapes, is the first stop on most nature-lovers’ itinerary in Cuba, with plenty of reasons why.
The only natural landscape in Cuba to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list under the category of Outstanding Example of a Type of Landscape which Illustrates Significant Stages in Human History; this is a natural destination as much as it is a cultural one.
Home to fertile lands that give way to tobacco plantations as well as other agricultural uses, the cultural aspect of this valley perfectly blends into a dramatic karstic landscape of rocky outcrops known as “mogotes”, dotted by tall palms and encircled by rolling hills and mountains.
An air of serenity prevails in what feels like a lost-world where the lifestyle of its inhabitants has remained unchanged for centuries. Extending over an area of 132 square kilometres and rising against the backdrop of small farms and villages, the landscapes of the Vinales Valley have the appeal of a raw, unusual natural panorama with the added charm and authenticity of the people that inhabit the area.
Activities to do here range from horse riding to mountain biking, rock climbing and trekking. You can also explore the Cueva del Indio, the most accessible cave system in this vast valley and if you are left thirsty for more cave adventures you can also visit El Palenque de los Cimarrones, a smaller cave leading to a rustic camp where runaway slaves once hid, a space now used to provide lunchtime entertainment for tourists. Make sure to take a picture of the twin sisters - two huge mogotes that lie side by side and are locally called Mogotes Dos Hermanas.
El Mural de la Prehistoria is the most fabricated of elements here - it’s a huge al fresco painting on one of the large mogote rocks done by Cuban artist, Leovigildo González Morillo. The mural depicts the evolution of the earth from the prehistoric years until the age of the humans. Most people either love it or hate it; some say it takes away from the natural experience, others that it adds a touch of folklore and local art. We’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.
Protected UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves
With a rich biodiversity, the likes of which are found no one else in the Caribbean, UNESCO has listed a total of six World Biosphere Reserves in Cuba, all spread throughout the Cuban archipelago so that, regardless of where in Cuba you choose to base yourself, you’ll be within accessible distance to at least one of these natural marvels.
Sierra del Rosario
The first place in Cuba to be classified as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and an IUCN Managed Resource Protected area since February 1984, the Sierra del Rosario mountain range protects a land area spanning over 260 square kilometres and comprising tropical forests with semi-deciduous and evergreen environments.
It’s an ideal place for taking a guided hike through the tropical forests as you look out for one of the world’s smallest frogs that calls this area home and try and spot the tiny and bright green endemic reptile known as chipojo.
More than 800 plant species call Sierra del Rosario their home and these are found in the mesic forest that covers the mountains. Around 35% of these are endemic while the fauna includes several bird species (most notably the smallest bird in the world – the Cuban zunzuncito, a.k.a bee hummingbird) as well as the Yellow-striped pygmy eleuth and a variety of lizards.
The area is fantastic for trekkers, with numerous trails to explore and home to the only place in Cuba where you can do canopy zip-lining across the treetops – Las Terrazas. A pioneering community and nature reserve in the municipality of Candelaria, part of the province of Artemisa and just under an hour’s drive from Havana, this exemplary eco-village had its foundation with a reforestation project that dates back all the way to 1968.
Las Terrazas is one of the best nature reserves in Cuba in terms of the quality of its tourist facilities, catering to visitors in a sustainable way that looks after the environment that they fought so hard to save and preserve. There is one hotel onsite that breaks the mould in being the first upmarket eco-friendly resort built in the early 1990s. Hotel Moka is the only hotel in Las Terrazas and its clever layout brings the outdoors in with an intimate, authentic and romantic feel. Las Terrazas is idyllic for hiking, birdwatching or simply relaxing in a pristine and totally undisturbed protected landscape.
Cuchillas del Toa
With a name that roughly translates as "The Ridges of Toa", or, more literally, "The Blades of Toa", this natural reserve is found alongside the river Toa, in Cuba's eastern region. Most of the reserve belongs to the province of Guantanamo and also covers part of Holguin to the north.
The region extends over 208,305 hectares (around 200 kilometres), 6,013 of which are marine area. It is considered one of Cuba’s main centres of endemism and biodiversity, home to some of the world’s smallest mammals and boasting beautiful cloud forests, lush pine forests, xeric scrub and complex coastal vegetation that also includes dense mangroves and coral reefs.
One of the main highlights to visiting Cuchillas del Toa is witnessing the karstic system of the great Cueva de Cabeza de Moa or Gran Caverna de Moa which is one of the five natural monuments in the country. The caves have a series of riverbeds, some active and some inactive, all of which eroded the solid rock overtime converting into a karstic sponge.
Other beautiful sights to take in include the flat table mountain El Yunque, the Caribbean’s highest waterfall at Arroyo del Infierno (Hell’s Creek) and the Bay of Taco, a place ideal for trekking and spotting rare endemic species such as the Polymita snail and the West Indian manatee.
Wildlife thrives in this prolific, untouched region, which is home to a total of 928 endemic plants and animals, some of which belong to the most primitive species. The rare and critically endangered Almiquí, a rat-like rodent with a long nose that had been previously declared extinct and was later rediscovered, also resides here and is internationally known as the Cuban solenodon This is also the home of the highly-endangered Cuban ivory-billed woodpeecker (Carpintero Real) and the Cuban kite (a.k.a gavilan caguarero), so keen bird-watches will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spot them here.
The reserve surrounds the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, which is its core area and has been designated a World Heritage Site in its own right. Spanning over 59,000 hectares, this vast region is the largest conserved remnant of a mountain ecosystem in Cuba and has the highest plant diversity of the entire Cuban archipelago and of all the Caribbean islands. Probably the most zealously protected park in Cuba and the least explored in the island, there are still areas here where a collection has never been made. The Alejandro de Humboldt is further divided into four areas: Ojito de Agua, Cupeyal del Norte, La Melba and Baracoa.
Cienaga de Zapata
Home to the largest wetlands in the Caribbean, the Cienaga de Zapata or Zapata Swamp is a national park and protectd reserve with over 900 autochthonous plant species(115 of which are endemic), 31 reptile species, 175 birds species and more than a thousand species of invertebrates.
Most famous for its large colony of the endemic and critically endangered Cuban crocodile, whose presence is limited to the Cienaga de Zapata only (although they are being slowly reintroduced to the Lanier Swamp on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), these extensive wetlands stand out regionally, nationally and internationally due to the the state of conservation of its fragile ecosystems and the efforts to preserve its rich biodiversity and other natural resources.
Its vast territory includes small keys, mangrove forests, coral reefs and deep reefs, with the preserved staturs of the coral reefs in the region being the most remarkable of all.
The fauna is varied, housing the largest wild population of the Cuban crocodile and the American crocodile, as well as an important colony of the Conga hutia and a variety of bird species.
It’s a fantastic place for birdwatching given that, beyond the 175 species of bird that reside there (18 of which are endemic), the area also receives 65 more species of birds that stop here during their migration pattern from North Americca to South America. Ones to watch out for are three endemic birds that are highly threatened due to their sparse distribution. These incluye the Zapata wren, the Zapata sparrow, and the Zapata rail.
Other birds to be spotted in the Zapata Swamp include the Cuban trogon, the Cuban Amazon parrot, the Cuban tody, the Cuban emerald, the bee hummingbird (Cuba’s beloved zunzuncito) and the Cuban parakeet. If this doens’t quench your thirst for birdwatching you can also look out for the yellow-headed warbler, the blue-headed quail-dove, the Common black hawk and the Cuban pygmy-owl.
This is also the only place in Cuba where the three Cuban sub-species of hutias co-exist, the Capromys, Mesocapromys and the Mysateles. They are all endemic to Cuba with the Mesocapromys being a genus restricted only to Cuba and divided into four further sub-species, two of which haven’t been sighted in years with one of these feared as possibly extinct.
The Gran Parque Natural Montemar (formerly called Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata) is the area of the Zapata peninsula that visitors are allowed to visit, teeming with wildlife and exotic vegetations. Make a stop at lake Las Salinas (Laguna de Las Salinas) where you can observe a flamboyant parade of graceful pink flamingos.
With public transport only going as far as Playa Larga, in order to be able to see anything of the Cienaga de Zapata you’ll need to come as part of an organised tour, or on your own rented vehicle.
Found in Cuba’s northern coast, mostly within the province of Villa Clara but also extending to Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila, the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve protects 20 endemic species and many endangered species whilst containing outstanding historical and cultural heritage in the form of 35 archaelogical sites.
Famous for its caves covered in ancient paintings and various forms of rural art, the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve encompasses 11 nucleus areas that protect the region’s abundance flora and fauna. The area’s rich biodiversity includes active dune zones, mangroves, coral reefs and vital reproductive zones for aquatic birds. Split into two National Parks: Caguanes and the Santa Maria Keys, most of this blessed region, which extends over a total of 313,502 hectares, comprises a large marine area that makes up most of the reserve.
The Caguanes National Park is known for its large population of pelicans and flamingos. The park includes the Guayaberas swamps and mangroves, which are practically uninhabited, as well as a collection of 10 small keys known as Cayos de Piedra. The coastal landscape is mapped by caves, arches and niches that open towoards the sea. With a total of 79 caves to be explored in the area with cave murals found in the partially submerged cave system. The park protects over 200 species of plants and animals, 24 of which are endemic to the park alone, there’s no shortage of sights to admire and sites to peruse. Here you can also fin an important population of the world’s smallest bat, the Cuban butterfly bat (murciélago mariposa), also known as Gervais’s funnel-eared bat. Over 112 bird species nest in the park, especially on the coastal mangroves, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity for beautiful photographs. The strict conservation measures here mean that public access to the Caguanes park is limited and restricted, but by no means impossible. We’d recommend that instead of turning up for a day trip, you check the entry details with Ecotur, which has a public office in Trinidad, or stay at the nearby Villa San Jose del Lago hotel, from which regular excursions to Caguanes are organised.
Whilst Cayo Loras is designated a special fauna reserve, other ecological zones that you can visit and even stay at in Buenavista include Cayo Frances, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria. The last three are already well-developed as tourist resorts with world-class all inclusive hotels as well as more basic accommodation.
Found at about 60 kilometres away from the city of Santiago de Cuba, the Baconao Biosphere Reserve comprises closet o 850 square kilometres of forestry, ranging from fog forest to evergreen mesophyl sub-mountain forest, evergreen microphyl coastal forest, rainy mountain forest and sub-coastal xeromorphic bush forests, with column cacti pine forests.
Of striking beauty that you will want to snap away from every angle, its seaside scenery with mangroves, rocky and sandy areas, cave ecosystems housing large population of bats (the Bulldog bat, the Pallid bat, the Gervais’ funnel-eared bat and the Cuban fruit bat) is nothing short of breathtaking.
As wondrous as it is rare, the park also includes an area that holds a collection of 240 life-sized dinosaur sculptures scattered around and creating a sort of Caribbean Jurassic Park. Although the pieces might look historically displaced, the dinosaurs still look at home here amidst the green plains and tall palm trees, plus; a visit to Valle de la Prehistoria (Prehistoric Valley) will help you understand how these stone creatures play an important role in creating a haven for the area’s ecosystem.
Containing over 18000 endemic species of flora as well as several types of endangered bats, spiders and other insects, the biodiversity of Baconao is not to be overlooked and provides a rich encounter with the most varied and rare of natural wonders. The beaches here might be smaller than those found along Cuba’s northern coast but there are around 70 scuba diving sites nearby, notable the Guarico one contaiing a small steel wreck to the south of Playa Sigua. From Mid-March to early May, Baconao becomes the mating and nesting ground for tens of thousands of crabs which congregate along Playa Verraco, so amazing photo opportunities are to be had if you visit in these months.
Another interesting sight, although totally unrelated to nature, is an outdoor car museum, with an impressive collection of vintage vehicles including the old car belonging to Fidel Castro’s mother, the first prototype of a Cuban car. There is small fee to gain entry to the Automobile Museum of Baconao but for vehicle buffs the visit is absolutely worth it.
Peninsula de Guanahacabibes
The peninsula of Guanahacabibes is Cuba’s westernmost point, located within the province of Pinar del Rio and covering an area of nearly 400 square kilometres of pristine protected grounds that are home to 172 species of birds, marine turtles, preserved coral reefs and 140 archaeological sites. The region is sparsely inhabited and famous for its large population of pink flamingos while waters surrounding the peninsula are fishing grounds for red snapper and spiny lobster.
One of Cuba’s largest natural reserves, it feels more remote and isolated than it actually is, with minimal tourist infrastructure and separated from the rest of the island by white-sand plains. As one can expect, nature tourism is a major attraction here, and the Parque Nacional Guanahacabibes is a must for keen birdwatchers and wildlife lovers. The beaches are protected breeding grounds for green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles with an average of 300 nests per season. If you’re as lucky as to come here during the hatching season you could witness a few of the estimated 14,000 hatchlings that are born every year.
Scuba diving is the other reason most people venture into this secluded region, since some of the best and most pristine diving sites in Cuba are found right here. In fact one of the only two hotel resorts in the peninsula is Maria La Gorda, named after the diving camp it’s found in, which includes an international-standard diving centre, small shop, sandy beach and two restaurants.
And it’s not just about nature here; culture has a place in Guanahacabibes too. As one of the last refuges of Cuba’s first inhabitants, the native Guanahatabeyes aboriginals, the area has more than a hundred archaeological sites that give you an insight into their lives.
It’s best to visit Guanahacabibes on an organised tour or excursion as the region might be a challenge to reach independently. It’s a two-hour drive from Pinar del Rio and it’s tricky to get to if you’re doing it on your own but if you go with a group or as part of a private excursion the experience will be much smoother and, as a result, that much more rewarding.
Hiking and rock climbing
Jonny Miles once said of climbing in Cuba “Rock is rock it’s true, but climbing in Cuba isn’t like climbing in any other place. Climbing in Cuba is as much about Cuba as it is about climbing.”
Where culture blends with nature to create the most peculiar of landscapes, the Vinales Valley, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, has been dubbed Cuba’s scenic backyard and still remains one of the most easily recognisable landscapes thanks to its distinctive topography. Its eye-catching mogotes have been extensively photographed, painted and referred to in national and international literature. When you Google the terms “Cuba” and “nature” together that’s the sight you’re bound to see appearing in most of the photographs in the image gallery. You don’t have to be a hiker or a climber to take in the beauty of the mogotes, but if climbing is your thing, this is one of the best places in Cuba to do it.
If you want to do less extreme climbing you can opt for making a journey to the top of Cuba’s highest mountain, El Pico Turquino, standing at nearly 2000 metres high (1974 metres to be precise). Located in the Sierra Maestra mountain range and part of the Sierra Maestra National Park, this peak offers the most amazing views, and not precisely from the top. Whilst reaching the top does indeed prove quite rewarding, the most spectacular views are actually found along the way, as you pass narrow pathways and look over dramatic greenery. There are two routes you can take to climb Pico Turquino, one that starts at Alto del Naranjo in the province of Granma and another that starts at Las Cuevas on the southern coast of Santiago de Cuba. Whilst the one starting at Granma is the longest route with around 18 kilometres to cover, the on starting in Santiago might be the shortest with only 11 kilometres to climb but is the most challenging as it’s the steepest climb. The route from Granma is generally done over two days and you only climb the last 974 metres while the one in Santiago is done in 6 to 10 hours on the same day and requires more endurance. There are several shelters and campsites on both trails where you can make a stop off to freshen up. There is a fee you pay to enter the Pico Turquino National Park and which also includes an obligatory local guide that must accompany you on the climb.
Fascinating trails and cascading waterfalls
For those who go chasing waterfalls, the Desembarco del Granma National Park offers one of Cuba’s most dramatic and spectacular cliffs from which water falls in short bursts over rocks and into beautiful green pools. One of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba, this jaw-dropping national park is home to some of the most pristine and imposing coastal cliffs that border the Western Atlantic. A trail around this phenomenal park will introduce you to one of the finest example of karst topography in the world, with its uplifted marine terraces, spectacular geomorphologic and physiographic features and dramatic cliffs. This is one that’s certainly not to be missed.
But, the most spectacular of all Cuban waterfalls is Salto Fino, which is also the biggest in the insular Caribbean. Located within the World Biosphere Reserve of Cuchillas del Toa, near Baracoa, the 305-metre-high cliff sees water cascading down at full speed creating a beautiful eerie mist on the pool below. Created by the abrupt interruption of Arroyo del Infierno (Hell’s Creek) is an awe-inspiring sight to behold.
El Nicho waterfall is yet another impressive sight. Part of the Gran Parque Natural Tope de Collantes in Cienfuegos, El Nicho can be accessed via a fascinating 1.5 km nature trail known as Sendero Reino de las Aguas (Kingdom of the Waters Trail) which takes you through a striking series of waterfalls, including a small but incredibly beautiful pool called Poceta de los Enamorados (Lover’s Stream) as well as a beautiful elevated viewpoint at the end from which you get a perfect birds’ eye view of the verdant landscapes with its rolling mountains and dense foliage. Furthermore there are two natural pools to bathe in, caves, a number of farm-style ranchon restaurants and excellent birdwatching opportunities. Horse riding is also offered and you can hike along the creek all at the top of the waterfalls. Entry to El Nicho Park is 5 CUC. Access to El Nicho is restricted to protect the area’s fragile flora and fauna. The drive from Cienfuegos is close to two but watch out for the road via Cumanayagua– it’s famous for its twists and turns. There is a daily truck serving the local community but it leaves at very inconvenient times, so we recommend renting a car or getting a taxi (which will work out at about 70 CUC).
Beyond El Nicho, the Tope de Collantes National Park has other impressive falls in a series of parks within the park, including the famous Salto de Caburní waterfalls in Parque Altiplano with a good hike known as Sendero La Batata taking you thorugh an underground creef and offering you the opportunity to swim in a cave. Salto El Rocío is another colossal waterfall at Parque Ganayara, which also offers numerous hiking trails, camping options and a restaurant.
For yet another spectacular fall, Soroa, is home to a really beautiful one – Salto de Soroa. Rising to a height of around 20 metres, its refreshing natural pool attracts locals and tourists alike. The small village of Soroa is the closest natural attraction to Havana, found in the western region of the Sierra del Rosario mountain range. Just 95 kilometres southwest of the capital the region’s heavy rainfall is responsible for the growth of magnificently tall trees and the most beautiful variety of orchid species - 700 to be precise and 250 of which only grow in Cuba. A fantastic area to explore by bike, a must-stop is the orchidarium and botanical gardens (Orquideario Soroa) as well as the Castillo de Las Nubes, a romantic castle that you can reach after climbing Soroa’s highest hill – the most breathtaking views can be observed from this elevation. Overnight stays at the Villa Soroa Hotel are most scenic as this retreat is set right amidst the dense foliage, with the mountains as the most dramatic of backdrops.
Much smaller but still an inspiring sight, the Cascada Bella waterfall in the ecological reserve of Alturas de Banao, is another one to add to the list. Much overlooked by most guides which push tourists to see Topes de Collantes instead, this smaller eco-reserve still has an abundance of beauty to be admired. Found off the main road between Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad, this wondrous lush area is home to pretty mountains (part of the Guamuhaya mountain range) ideal for climbing, while its highest peak’s foothills give way to scenic rivers, exuberant plant life and panoramic limestone cliffs. For further exploring when venturing into the forest, there’s the ruins of a few 19th century farmhouses and a conveniently placed ranchon-style restaurant as well as a visitors’ centre and a chalet offering 8 double rooms for rent right next to the park’s headquarters at Jarico. The trail of La Sabina, takes you to a biostation where food and overnight accommodation are arranged at La Sabina Chalet, which offers four double rooms. Alternatively, you can do the hike in a single day with the help of a local guide who will charge you around $3CUC. Entry to the reserve itself will cost you $3CUC extra.
Get InspirationAll about where to go and what you can do
The sultry climate and breathtaking scenery of Cuba makes it a top destination for a classic Caribbean getaway - a completely relaxing holiday where every detail is taken care of for you. Take your pick of the best all-inclusive beach hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria or sample more than one location on a twin-centre holiday and you can enjoy amazing facilities all included in the price.
Havana exudes time-worn charm and character - from the crumbling Art Deco and Spanish colonial architecture of its skyline to the lively culture, cafes and dance halls found in its streets. A fusion of influences has sparked magic, creating music and dance found nowhere else. And a truly unique, paradoxical history woven into the very fabric of the city makes it a destination in its own right.
Silky-soft sand lapped by iridescent blue water and warm sunshine streaming through tufted palms gently swaying in the tropic breeze - it's the archetypal Caribbean dream - and it really exists in Cuba. There are beaches here to suit everyone - check into a private enclave on a pristine sandy bay or book a beautiful retreat on one of Cuba's Seychelles-style coral cays, stay in a quirky seaside town with a distinctly Cuban feel or choose a classic Caribbean all-inclusive holiday.
Cuba has a special, undeniable romantic touch that few can resist. The element of romance in Cuba runs far deeper and beyond the allure of tropical sun-kissed beaches and idyllic keys - from the passionate attitude of fun-loving locals to jaw-droppingly beautiful architecture, sleepy towns that time forgot and a revolutionary zest for life, Cuba is definitely a destination to fall in love with as much as with each other. Find out just what you and your partner can look forward to on a romantic holiday to Cuba.
Master the art of Salsa in Cuba and step into a world of smooth moves, intoxicating rhythms and hip-swinging nightlife that will enhance your experience on the island and give you a real insight into its warm and vibrant culture. From the capital Havana to the thriving beach resort of Varadero, travellers can find sensational Salsa instructors and sizzling dance spots throughout the country.
Swim with dolphins, discover other-worldly landscapes, explore historic castles or ride in vintage cars and steam trains - just a few of the many exciting activities on offer in this incredibly child-friendly destination. With calm, clear waters, marvellous beaches and plenty of all-inclusive hotels, Cuba is the ideal place for a tropical family getaway.
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