Cuba’s eclectic culture, nature and history are reflected in UNESCO’s World Heritage site list.
When Christopher Columbus and his expedition arrived in Cuba in 1492, there were more than 100,000 aborigines living in the country. Their ancestors were conquerers who arrived long ago on boats, from the north of South America. Disease, famine (some say it was caused partly by cows) and forced labour in the gold mines led to only 5,000 Native Americans remaining in 1550. They started to drag hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa, and in the 19th century around 100,000 Chinese arrived, along with a hundreds of French fleeing away from the Haitian Revolution, and later thousands of Jamaicans. A recent genetic investigation has shown, that nowadays 72% of the Cuban genetic makeup comes from European ancestors, 20% from Africans, and 8% from Native Americans.
Before the Europeans arrived Cuba was totally covered by forests – someone even said that it was possible to walk the whole country in the shade of the trees. The intensive exploitation left only 14% of forests by 1950. Fortunately now, more than 30% of the national territory is covered by them. In Cuba, there are beautiful colonial cities, extensive rainforests bordering with semideserts, wetlands with a rich wildlife, sea bottoms that are considered to be among the best conserved in the world (and keeping about 2,000 flotsams from the 16th to the 19th century), high Sierras, more than 20,000 caves and cavernous systems, known all over the world.
Part of this wealth has been included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. By no means all treasures are on the list however: missing are the colonial city of Remedios or Baracoa, the first town to be founded on the island.
Archeological landscape of the first coffee plantations in Southeast Cuba (included in the list in 2000)
The slave rebellion in Haiti provoked migration of French families to Cuba, especially the eastern part of the country, in the year 1803. They brought some goods and wealth; traditions and texts from the Enlightenment, and in little time gave an impulse to the cultivation of coffee. In a decade Cuba went from exporting 8,000 units of coffee to 30,000.
Part of all the heritage that was created remains today. The Archeological landscape of the first coffee plantations is comprised of 171 colonies in places of high historical and archeological value. In the mountains of Santiago de Cuba the international project “The Roads of Coffee”, has allowed the restoration of ancient coffee haciendas.
You can appreciate the huge manors of the plantation owners, the crunches, aqueducts, stairways, gardens, drying sheds, and bunkhouses in an area of more than 20 square kilometers between mountains and forests. The surrounding rivers have a great variety of flora and fauna.
Historical center of Camaguey (2008)
Founded in 1514, the town of Santa Maria del Puerto Principe, or Camaguey from 1903, is placed in an extensive plain, where sugar and livestock haciendas have prospered. The historical center is of about 380 blocks, while the part that is considered a World Heritage site consists of 54 hectares and 80 blocks. There, the labyrinth of streets makes many, even its own inhabitants, lose orientation.
Some people say that this “urban chaos” was a deliberately designed defence that disorientated the pirates that frequently attacked the city, bur historians explain that it is much more likely due to the lack of city planning in colonial times.
Camaguey is a city with many churches, beautiful colonial squares, such as San Juan de Dios (18th century), picturesque facades, and a rich cultural life. Its ballet, “Ballet de Camaguey”, is considered the second-best Cuban company of classical dance.
We recommend you start by exploring the Center of Interpretation of Heritage, where you can pick up a map and find a miniature model of the city’s historical centre. Then, as you go on your walk, there are coffee shops, bars, and small restaurants if you want to make stops on your way.
Old Havana and its fortifications (1982)
From the 16th century, Havana was the main port for the fleet carrying wealth from America to Spain. Its fortification system (including six big fortresses) shows how important it was for the Spanish Crown, who had to preserve it from pirates and other forces. Historian Irene Wright said that of the fortresses El Morro and La Punta “are monuments to Sir Francis Drake”, the great English pirate and marine.
Some people think that if San Carlos de la Cabaña had existed in 1762, it would be much more difficult for English troops to take Havana. Built in 1774, it was the biggest colonial fortification in America, but it never got to participate in a battle – only to shoot a cannon that announced the closing of the gates of the city and which remains today a tradition and tourist attraction.
The restoration of the historical center of Havana is internationally recognised. Squares, palaces, castles, and colonial promenades occupy 214 hectares by the shore of the bay. There are plenty of coffee shops, bars, little restaurants with a pleasant atmosphere, museums of any kind, from modern art to colonial art and archeology; concert halls in former convents, buildings like Catedral de la Habana and the luxurious Capitolio; and traditional cigar fabrics, such as Partagás – all of that makes it an inexhaustible destination.
San Pedro de la Roca castle in Santiago de Cuba (1997)
Along with the Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro (Havana, 1589) and San Juan de Puerto Rico, the Renaissance style Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca is considered to form the three most representative fortresses of the Caribbean. It is a work of the military engineer Antonelli, who served the King of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The castle was built around 1643 and reconstructed several times during the next two centuries. Experts point out its aesthetic, architectonic, and scenic value: it is built on five levels on a promontory entering Santiago’s bay. From its walls to the right one can see the inside of the bay, a small island called Granma, and the city of Santiago in the bottom; to the left the Caribbean Sea and in front the sea and the mountains of Sierra Maestra meeting together.
In the entrance of the castle, there is a beacon, built in 1842. San Pedro de la Roca was a prison in the 19th century. Now inside it, there is a museum with halls dedicated to piracy and the marine battle of Santiago de Cuba which took place during the Cuban-Spanish-American war.
Trinidad and Valle de Los Ingenios (1988)
Founded in 1514, Trinidad was once the most opulent city of Cuba. From there Hernan Cortés departed to conquer Mexico, only making a short stopover in Havana. Its richness came from the Valle de Los Ingenios which was nearby and produced sugar that was sent along with coffee and other goods from the Casilda port, often to the United States.
Trinidad is located on the south coast of central Cuba, between the Caribbean Sea and the high mountains of El Escambray, the second biggest mountain chain of the island. The conservation of its palaces, colonial mansions with wide hallways and patios inside, and its paved streets and squares is impressive. Its architecture combines baroque, neoclassic, and eclectic styles.
In 2018 it received the title of World’s Handicraft City, given by the Handicraft Council based in New York.
In Valle de Los Ingenios there were more than 50 sugar plantations in the 19th century. The Guáimaro stands out for collecting the biggest amount of sugar cane in 1827; and Manaca Iznaga for its tower which is more than 43 meters tall. These are two of the haciendas that can be visited now. About 70 industrial archeological sites, including caldrons, bunkhouses, mansions, alembics, warehouses, aqueducts, and towers are preserved in an area of 270 square kilometers.
There are big hotels on the shore and small casas particulares in the town, dozens of Casas Particulares, and small restaurants, beaches and diving zones nearby, and the choice of staying in Topes de Collantes for trekking and observing birds.
Urban historical center of Cienfuegos (2005)
Leaving from Trinidad to the west one can take a road known as Circuito Sur, which in one of its parts that goes alongside the shore has one of the most beautiful panoramic views in Cuba. Less than 100 kilometers away you can find Cienfuegos – a unique city, due to its late foundation (in 1819, by French who came from Bordeaux) and its modern urban plan.
On the shore of the bay of Cienfuegos the city is appreciated for its wide streets that form rectangular shapes, its central road (a promenade almost 2 kilometers long leading to a pier), its spacious parks with plenty of trees and splendid monuments, its palaces in eclectic neoclassic style, the Tomás Terry theater, one of the first built in Cuba in the 19th century and having the form of the Italian Coliseum (a hall in the shape a horseshoe with four levels for the public).
Its historical center reaches a hundred blocks in 90 hectares.
It is the only town founded by French under the Spanish government, and the first example of a city with modern architecture in Spanish-speaking America and the Caribbean. Cienfuegos is a haven with an old marine tradition, beaches nearby, and recognized diving zones. The oldest Botanical Garden in Cuba, founded in 1901, is also nearby. It is home to an important collections of palm trees, orchids, and bamboo.
Viñales Valley (2005)
Viñales Valley, located in the western province of Pinar del Rio, is impressive due to its huge mountains of round shape, known as antlers. Under these mountains you find the biggest caves in Cuba, with underground and intermittent water streams.
The Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, for instance, reaches 45 kilometers long on several galleries, and seven levels.
For a first approach, it is a good idea to leave Havana (178 km) at dawn, or the city of Pinar del Rio (25 km) early in the morning to observe the sunrise at the valley from the terrace of hotel Los Jasmines, at breakfast time. Surrounded by the antlers, peasants lead their lives, bound to old traditions, such as planting of tobacco and other crops.
With an area of 11,000 hectares, it is one of the oldest geological zones of Cuba. There are dozens of archeological sites, with fossils of ammonites, fish, and a Diplodocus dinosaur. You can still find Mycrocycas Calocoma, or cork palm, which is 150 years old and is considered a living fossil.
There are plenty of Casas Particulares, hostels and restaurants in the village of Viñales. Its main road is bordered by houses with portals and thatched roofs supported by wide columns. There are three hotels, and among other activities, one can do trekking, bird watching, horse tours, or navigation inside a cave.
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park (2001)
In the east of the country, in Holguin and Guantanamo provinces, the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park covers more than 70,000 hectares. There are located the best-conserved rainforests in the Caribbean Islands, the biggest hydrographic chain in Cuba and the biggest clean water reservoir in the Caribbean region.
Scientific reports identify it as one of the sites with the biggest biodiversity of the world, containing 2% of the Earth’s flora. Annual precipitation records range between 2,000 and 4,000 millimeters.
There still is some hope that the Royal Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis bardi) will some day fly in this forest. It is the most colourful out of the more than 100 species of woodpecker, seen for the last time in this forest in the 1980s and thought of as almost extinct. Among its fauna, there are the polychrome snail Polymita Picta, the almiqui, the parrot, the tocororo, the green woodpecker, and the Cuban tody; the manatee, and the smallest frog in the world of only 10 millimeters.
Virgin beaches, great rivers and forests, high biodiversity, and unique species: a true wonder of the Cuban and Caribbean nature.
Desembarco de Granma National Park
Located in the south of Granma province, in the east of Cuba, the Desembarco de Granma National Park occupies about 32,000 hectares of land on the western border of Sierra Maestra mountains. There one can appreciate the impressive sea terraces of Cabo Cruz, covered by robustious vegetation.
Its system of sea terraces that submerge in and emerge from calcareous stone, best preserved in the world, has a great aesthetic and geological value. It extends for 40 kilometers and includes 20 terraces emerging from 0 to 360 meters above sea level. Some of the walls of these cliffs reach 100 meters in high whilst the submerged terraces reach 180 meters deep.
The cliffs, the vegetation, and the sea conform a unique scenery in an environment with a high level of preservation. There are plentiful caverns, caves, cavernous systems, and fluvial canyons.
One of its most well-known geographical features is the Hoyo de Monte (discovered by a French aviator in 1938), a huge cavern of 55 meters in diameter and 78 meters deep.