There is a lot more to do in Cuba than sitting on a beach. After spending a few days on the seashore or in the city, it is good to change the environment and take a look into the inside of the country, where you can find:
- the best-preserved rainforests in the Caribbean which is also the biggest wetland of the region
- sites with very high biodiversity
- landscapes with no equivalent on the whole planet
- Over 370 species of birds living in the Cuban archipelago
- More than 8,000 flora species, almost half of them endemic
There are more than 210 protected areas in the country, six Ramsar (Wetlands of International Importance) sites, 28 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA), two natural World Heritage sites, and six biosphere reserves (three of them very close to Havana, less than an hour by car).
In many cases, these are virgin nature sites, where transportation may be lacking. It is always an option for the voyager to consider bringing a bike: it helps to reduce the cost and gives you more freedom, since you do not depend on the transport anymore, and are able to reach places which are difficult to access by car. It is also easy to combine cycling with walking.
Guanahacabibes Peninsula biosphere reserve (since 1987)
It is on the western end of Cuba, in Pinar del Rio province, and includes a territory of more than 121,000 hectares. The bigger part of it is covered by wide evergreen forests. There are caves, cenotes, a steep shore in the south with cliff up to 20 meters high, and many kilometers of solitary beaches with white sand to the north. Further to the east, on the northern shore, there are the mangroves. From October to November it becomes a spectacular scenery to watch the migrating birds.
There are hutias, iguanas, deer, boars, several species of reptiles, bats (including the butterfly bat, which only weights from two to three grams), and mollusks. None of these species is dangerous for humans. It is an important nesting zone for green, carey, and caguama turtles between May and September.
Guanahacabibes, almost uninhabited, is the area with the most jetsam of the colonial era in Cuba, around 200 pieces in 150 archeological sites. Maria la Gorda beach has spectacular sea bottoms and big black pearl populations (50 diving spots between 15 and 35 meters deep, and with 35 to 40 meters of visibility). There also is an international diving center, a villa with lodging, and other services for the tourists.
There is an eco-friendly hotel in Guanahacabibes, with comfortable wooden huts, and Casas Particulares in La Bajada and Sandino villages, few kilometers from the reserve (see Airbnb). Among other activities, you can do tracking with specialized guides, contemplative diving, underwater photography, bike tours, bird and nesting turtle observation (this last one, in the night). It is about four hours to the west of Havana.
Sierra del Rosario (1985)
Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve only a few years ago was situated in the province of Pinar del Rio, but now is part of Artemisa province. It is the first of Cuban biosphere reserves, occupying the eastern sector of the Guaniguanico mountain range which extends to the Sierra de los Organos, where the famous antlers of Viñales are.
This region abounds with evergreen forests, where is a high rate of endemism in plants (about 900 species) and animals, and more than a hundred of birds’ species are reported. During a tour, it is usual to find tocororos, woodpeckers, snowbirds, Cuban todies, muleteers, bee hummingbirds, Cuban grassquits thrushes, and sparrowhawks. Tall trees, many of them more than 40 meters high, are covered by epiphytic plants: Bromelia, curujey, and tree fern.
Some tracks lead to the top of high mountains (the height does not exceed 600 meters), that offer scenic views far away to the coast. In the XIX century there was an important development of the coffee industry here, impulsed by the settlers who came from Louisiana; now there are dozens of ruins of coffee haciendas in the area. Very close to it is Soroa, where is the biggest orchid garden in Cuba with more than 700 species.
If you want to travel the reserve with an area of 25,000 thousand hectares and crossed by various rivers, the best place to lodge is Las Terrazas, a wonderful ecological community, founded in the 70s, formed by a system of terraces on the shore of a lake, 60 kilometers from Havana. There are various options for lodging: an ecological hotel, some houses, and villas in the community, as well as rustic huts and tents on the river San Juan nearby.
You can do tracking, bird observation, photography, canopy, bike tours, boat trips, camping, and swimming in the river.
Cienaga de Zapata (2000)
Ramsar site and the widest wetland in the Caribbean islands, Cienaga de Zapata, occupies a territory of almost 300,000 hectares in the southern part of Matanzas province. With a high ecological and scenic value, the reserve includes several zones, such as Santo Tomas, where you can find unique birds, such as the Fermina and Gallinuela of Santo Tomas among other species, and Salinas de Brito, with a high diversity of migratory birds.
The swamp, a little more than 100 kilometers from Havana, includes in itself wetlands, mangroves, extensive forests (140 species of endemic plants) and fauna shelters. It is the biggest and best-preserved cave system of the Antilles, with caves and clear water cenotes where you can swim or dive with the help of specialized guides.
In the swamp, there lives the Cuban (Crocodylus rhombifer) and American (Crocodylus Acutus) Crocodiles, and there is a large hatchery, dedicated to its preservation and breeding. Among the 200 species of birds you can observe, there is the Cuban tody, the tocororo, the bee hummingbird, the Cuban crane, the pelican, the flamingo, the Cuban parakeet, and the parrot. Deer, boars, three species of hutia, and the rare manatee and Cuban gar also inhabit there.
You can practice photography and observation of birds, tour in the forest or wetland with a specialized guide, snorkeling or diving in clear water and beautiful coral sea bottoms such as those in Punta Perdiz or the international diving center El Pirata (with 20 diving spots), swimming in the beach, tracking, bicycling, and navigation and sport fishing in Laguna del Tesoro, the biggest freshwater lake in Cuba.
One of the many cenotes, La Cueva de los Peces (70 meters deep), is the biggest flooded cavity of the Cuban archipelago. Many people dive there with the help of local specialists.
A good place to stay for several days is Playa Larga, a four kilometers long beach, very quiet and with numerous hostels few meters away from the water with prices from 20 to 35 CUC per night. It as also home to the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the most recent US invasion.
Remedios could easily be among the Cuban cities of World Heritage. Founded in the XVI century, its historical center of irregular streets and colonial houses is impressive; it stands out among the other cities of the country, because it has two Catholic churches facing the main square, and for its traditional festivals, dating back to the start of the XIX century, and celebrated from the 16th to the 24th of December, and thought of by many as the most authentic and “incendiary” (for the many and original pyrotechnics) of Cuba.
The town, with many options of hostels and rooms for rent, may be the starting point to explore, prearranged with a specialized guide, the Buenavista biosphere reserve, which occupies 300,000 hectares of the territory of the central provinces of Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, and Ciego de Avila.
Buenavista covers marine areas and coral reefs, more than 20 kilometers of beaches, the biggest dunes of Cuba, cays (including the famous Cayo Santa Maria, which you can reach by a road above the sea of 48 kilometers and with 46 bridges), swamps, where aquatic birds breed, mangroves, and forests. Inside it, there are two national parks (Caguanes and Cayo Santa Maria), two fauna shelters, 35 archeologic sites, and almost twenty caves with cave painting. It is a Ramsar site since 2002.
About 25,000 people live in that area, mostly working in fishing, forest fostering, agriculture, and ecological tourism.
There have been registered 230 plant species and more than 800 animal species, almost 200 of them endemic. Among birds, both residing and migratory, there are the grey woodpecker, the iguana, the Cuban crane, and the tocororo. You can also see the manatee, dolphins, the American crocodile (Crocodylus Acutus), the butterfly bat, and a freshwater sponge that lives in a cave and is thought to be the only one in the world.
The Baconao Biosphere reserve, of 84,000 hectares, is 20 kilometers away from Santiago de Cuba, a Cuban city with the most Caribbean feeling to it.
It goes from the shore of the Caribbean Sea to the high mountains, and on its perimeter, there are almost 70 ruins of coffee haciendas founded in the XIX century by French settlers who fled from Haiti; and geographical curiosities, such as the Gran Piedra: a huge rock of volcanic origin of almost 65,000 tones settled on the top of a mountain.
You can reach the Gran Piedra by following a steep road, and then climbing stairs 459 steps long. Once you climb the rock, you are 1234 meters above the sea level. They say that on dark nights with clear whether you can see from up there the lights of the Jamaican coast.
In Baconao beaches, thin coast vegetation, pinetums, a semi-arid zone of dry forest with cacti and thorny bushes, and wet and evergreen forests in the mountains. There are around 1,800 plant species and more than 900 insects, bird, reptile, arachnid, and mammal species.
There are museums and open-air expositions; they also offer routes for tracking, horse tours, boat trips, and fishing.
Cuchillas del Toa (1987)
Probably the most remote and wild of Cuban biosphere reserves. It is recognized as one of the most important sites for preservation of endemic flora in the western hemisphere, and one of the areas with most biodiversity in the world.
It covers 208,000 hectares of land and sea in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Guantanamo.
There are pinetums, mangroves, reef systems, wide rainforests, and there have been registered more than 900 endemic plant species until now, which makes 30% of all reported in Cuba. Three hundred sixty of these species are found exclusively in Cuchillas del Toa, where are wide areas of virgin forests and the biggest rivers of the island, including the Toa which is more than 1,200 kilometers long and has 70 feeders.
Locals travel the river on wooden boats of indigene origin called “cayucas”.
Among the animals, there is the almiqui, which is considered to be a living fossil. There also are parrots, Cuban parakeets, amphibia, reptiles, manatees, Cuban todies, polymita multicolored mollusks, and three of the smallest vertebrate species in the world: the butterfly bat, the Alto de Iberia frog, less than 11 mm long, and the bee hummingbird of 60 mm.
Cuban scientists still expect the Royal Woodpecker to be inhabiting the hidden areas of this reserve. The last scientific report of it was thirty years ago.
More than a half of the reserve belongs to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, which is included into the list of World Heritage Sites.
Here, Baracoa may be a place to find a room for rent. It was the first village to be founded by the Spanish in Cuba in 1511. Built in a space between high mountains and the sea, Baracoa is a quiet city, where some local’s faces remind of the faces of aborigines that inhabited Cuba when the Spanish arrived.
Their cuisine is simple and exquisite, with some dishes using coconut milk; this land is known for producing coffee and cocoa. In its Parochial church, the only wooden cross is conserved out of the 29 which Cristopher Columbus planted on the different places he landed in during his travels to America.
There are beautiful solitary beaches, landscapes of immense beauty and high biodiversity, wide and voluminous rivers, one of the most famous Cuban roads known for its engineering quality, and scenic value (La Farola), with 11 floating bridges and 222 curves in a 33 kilometers extension.
It is the rainiest zone of Cuba; the high mountains make all the humidity of the Passat to rain down there. On the other side, there is the Cuban semidesert.