Cuba’s Natural Paradise

Photo by Christopher P. Baker

The high and low of Cuba — an ecological odyssey

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You’d expect Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest isle, to boast diverse scenery, the best of nature’s tropical bounty, and great outdoor activities. It doesn’t disappoint. Three mountain massifs rise over the plains. Sugar-white sands limn the north shore. And the turquoise ocean waters shelter pristine coral reefs. Nature lovers will find their Nirvana in Cuba, with its 3,180 endemic plant species.

This is one itinerary that deserves an end-to-end tour. So, pack your hiking boots and binoculars and get ready for an immersion in Mother Nature. Allow two weeks minimum to see the entire island. Note that you can’t just lace up your hiking boots and set out willy-nilly: a guide is more-or-less compulsory at most sites open to tourism.

Western Cuba

Only a one-hour drive west of Havana, Las Terrazas is billed as Cuba’s crown jewel of eco-sustainability. The community hosts horseback riding, hiking, and mineral springs. No dispute about it: Parque Nacional Viñales is unrivaled for scenic beauty: Dramatic limestone formations surround a fertile vale pitted with caverns. At Cuba’s western extreme, Parque Nacional Peninsula de Guanahacabibes has a unique ecosystem good for hiking and birding, plus scuba diving and snorkeling at María la Gorda. For the best beaches, head to Cayo Levisa.

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Central Cuba

Visiting Cuba without a sojourn to the Bay of Pigs is like visiting France without ascending the Eiffel Tower. The site of the infamous 1961 CIA-inspired invasion adjoins Parque Nacional Ciénaga de la Zapata, the Caribbean’s largest swamp (no wonder the invasion flopped). Hire a guide to seek out Cuban crocodile or go birding or fishing. Some of the best hiking in Cuba awaits in the Sierra Escambray, while offshore the Jardines de la Reina is unrivaled for diving and fly-fishing. Southeast of Camagüey, the semi-deciduous forests of the Área Protegida de Recursos Manejados Sierra del Chorrillo is good for spotting the Cuban parrot and tocororó, or Cuban trogon.

Eastern Cuba

Soaring to 1,974 m atop Pico Turquino, much of this region is mountainous. A few zones are open for ecotourism, including Pinares de Mayarí, where you can hike in mist-shrouded pine forests. Hardy trekkers can hike to Cuba’s highest summit in Parque Nacional Pico Turquino, or even seek out the thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Parque Nacional Alejandro Humbolt.

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