Off the beaten track in Cuba (self-drive)
2nd November 2020
Fall for Cuba’s charms when you explore its incredible natural surroundings. With a captivating coastline of Caribbean colours and a verdant interior of mountains, colonial towns and peaceful tobacco farms, there’s plenty to discover. Some of the most impressive natural sites are protected as national parks, and we’ve put together this overview of five of our favourites to give you inspiration for your next Cuban trip.
5 of the best national parks in Cuba
Slow the pace right down on your Cuba holiday with a trip to the delightfully rustic Viñales valley. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the valley merits its inclusion for its unique landscape, traditional agriculture, vernacular architecture and multi-ethnic culture. The landscape is an otherworldly scene of tranquil valley floor fields planted with tobacco and dotted with farms, against a backdrop of the surrounding mountains and the unique ‘mogotes’ - karst outcrops which are scattered throughout the valley.
The accessibility from and contrast with Havana means that Viñales Valley is a popular spot, but its popularity is entirely justified. Hiking and biking trails criss cross the area, some of which are easygoing rambles on the level while others take you higher for great viewpoints over the whole valley. Horse riding is another romantic way to see the scenery at a leisurely pace, and however you travel you will encounter tobacco farmers hanging their precious crop on drying racks or inviting you in to sample a hand rolled cigar in situ. You might even be lucky enough to see the cigar rolling process in action, an ancient technique of which the Cuban people are justly proud.
Experience the beauty of Viñales Valley, along with adventures in Havana, Playa Giron and the island idyll of Cayo Levisa with our Off the beaten track in Cuba trip idea.
Cuba’s long isolation and protection from tourism has preserved many of its treasures in a pristine state - as nature intended. This is particularly true of the Jardines de la Reina, a string of islets and mangrove cays located around 70 kilometres off the south coast of Cuba. Collectively they are known as Cuba’s Coral Garden and should be top of your holiday priorities if you enjoy diving or snorkelling. The coral and fish here are outstandingly beautiful and untouched, and a source of hope in the world of marine conservation.
The islands are a maze of mangrove channels, beaches and lagoons, and on land there are some interesting species of birds, iguana and rodents to look out for. But it is the underwater life which earned the title Jardines de la Reina or ‘Gardens of the Queen.’ Rare and colourful corals such as elkhorn are everywhere, populated by shoals of fish, from magnificent rays to giant grouper, tarpon, barracuda and several varieties of reef sharks. Currently numbers of visitors and divers are strictly limited, and need to stay that way if the Jardines de la Reina is to remain an untouched haven for Caribbean marine life.
Right down at the southern tip of Cuba the Sierra Maestra Mountains rise to the west of the major city of Santiago de Cuba, the peaks erupting dramatically from the coast in a linear formation. The Turquino National Park (aka Sierra Maestra National Park) is an attractive destination for trekkers and boasts a few standout hiking trails with impressive views of the range and the coast, but it is also of interest to historians who are on the trail of Fidel Castro. These mountains cloaked in cloud forest were the safe haven for Castro and the dozen fellow revolutionaries who survived the first attempt at a coup in 1956. These mountains were host to Castro’s revolutionary command centre which he set up as a recruitment and training centre 2 years before the storming of Havana.
Along with political pilgrims, nature fans will find much of interest here, not least the ancient forest vegetation and impressive birdlife. If you have a decent level of fitness and a couple of days to spare consider conquering Cuba’s highest peak, Pico Turquino which stands at 1974 metres tall.
Stretching across a horseshoe shaped peninsula right at the far western point of Cuba, the Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park is a remote and beautiful spot with little sign of human influence. It is primarily known for unspoilt coastal nature and wildlife, making up part of the UNESCO Biosphere reserve which was established in the late 1980s. On land, the peninsula is forested and attracts over 100 species of birds, while along the extensive shore there are some stunning wilderness beaches of white sand and azure water, interspersed with mangroves.
The whole peninsula is surrounded by the pristine marine habitats which have long enjoyed protection, making it a wonderful location for diving and snorkelling. During the months of May to October, marine turtles come ashore to nest, and night-time visits to the beaches will often allow sightings. Another renowned inhabitant of the peninsula is the red swamp crayfish which is found all around the coast and in the mangroves. Maria la Gorda is the best known and best equipped beach in the region and the main centre for diving.
A short hop from idyllic Trinidad, the Sierra del Escambray mountain range is protected by the Topes de Collantes National Park, 175 square kilometres of forested peaks, shady valleys, several caves, beautiful green rivers and pools and some wonderful birds including the tocororo which is Cuba’s national bird.
The hiking infrastructure is pretty good, with a variety of scenic paths to choose from. Enjoy a walk to the lovely Salto del Caburní waterfall which enjoys a pretty location among the tall pines and stands of eucalyptus, a great spot for a refreshing swim after your hike down. The whole Escambray range is a wonderful place to get back to nature with a fabulous variety of exotic plants, animals and birds to discover, including around 100 species of ferns, 40 orchids, and the scented butterfly lily which is Cuba’s national flower, in bloom between June and early September. Important bird species noted here include the ivory-billed woodpecker, several species of hummingbirds, and the endemic Cuban today.
Make it happen
Get to know Cuba's finest landscapes and natural sites with a visit to some of the wonderful national parks, where waterfalls, caves, rivers, peaks and wildlife come as standard. Our local experts can put together your ideal itinerary, all you need to do is fill in our enquiry form. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.