Everyone knows that Cuba is a great place for a beach vacation. There is plenty of sunshine, blue waters, sparkling white sand and a colourful culture to explore. But Cuba is also a great place to discover a unique collection of natural wonders, from the world’s tiniest bird to the wonders of not one, but six UNESCO Biosphere Preserves.
Photos Cuba Tourist Board
On LandCuba boasts an amazing array of terrain that creates a wide variety of ecosystems housing a huge number of plant and animal species.
In fact, four per cent of the world’s land species live on the Cuban archipelago. It is home to some 6,700 species of higher plants (about half of which are native) as well as 14,000 species of invertebrates and 650 vertebrates – including 350 bird species. Among Cuba’s countless gems are the world’s smallest frog (Eleutherodactylus limbatus, only 12 millimetres long) and tiniest bird (Mellisuga helenae – the bee hummingbird, 63 millimetres long).
Terrain and microclimates include lush tropical forests, where rare orchids grow; dry mountainous areas, where prehistoric cacti still live; everglades populated by mangrove, manatee and flamingoes; wetlands harbouring species important to biotechnology; and hummocks that guard fossilized plants such as the cork palm.
The country also boasts more than 100 nature trails and hiking paths. Main hiking routes are well signed, and professional guides are available. Spelunking, bird-watching, nature photography and horseback riding are only a few of the activities awaiting nature lovers.
• Guaniguanico Mountain Range: noted for unusual rock formations surrounding the Viñales Valley, an agricultural region.
• Sierra del Rosario (biosphere reserve): houses Soroa-Las Terrazas and the Santo Tomás cave system.
• Guanahacabibes Peninsula (biosphere reserve): protected areas include La Guabina and Mil Cumbres.
• Zapata Peninsula Nature Park (biosphere reserve): features Caleta Buena, Playa Girón and Playa Larga; Laguna del Tesoro and the Amerindian village of Guamá; and La Boca crocodile farm.
• Guamuhaya Mountain Range: home to Topes de Collantes Tourism Complex, El Nicho and Tunas, Zaza and Lebrige wild animal preserves.
• Sierra de Cubitas: stretches from El Paso de los Paredones to Hoyo de Bonet to Cayo Ballenatos – in Nuevitas Bay – and the protected area in the northern Camagüey keys.
• Northern Holguín: offers tours to scenic Guardalavaca-Estero Ciego and Pinares de Mayarí National Park.
• Sierra Maestra: famous for its historical hideouts, this area spans Desembarco del Granma National Park, Pico Turquino National Park, Santo Domingo-La Sierrita, Marea del Portillo (including Las Yaguas and Cilantro Rivers).
• Baconao Park (biosphere reserve): site of La Gran Piedra, ruins of the island’s first French coffee plantations.
• Baracoa: the place where Christopher Columbus first set foot in Cuba remains relatively untouched by civilization. The area is marked by Alejandro de Humboldt National Park; Yunque de Baracoa; Toa, Miel and Yumurí Rivers; Maguana beach.
Under WaterTake the plunge and see eye to eye with the creatures of the deep in the waters off Cuba. Unusual wrecks and fabulous topography are just the beginning of underwater adventure here. World-class dive sites, equipment and instructors combine to make the Cuban underwater experience one to revisit again and again. Jacques Cousteau thought so, too – when he filmed Cuba, Waters of Destiny.
Cuba’s 30 dive centres provide packages for everyone – from novices to pros. Some also provide certification as well as courses in marine photography, night diving and other interests. Most centres are near hotels and resorts, and have equipment for rent. However, underwater photographers should bring their own camera equipment, silicone and film to ensure they get the shots they need. Cuba also has several recompression chambers.
There are many treasures beneath the unpolluted waters of the Cuban archipelago, which offers through-water visibility of 30 to 40 metres. Home to more than 500 varieties of fish, crustaceans, sponges, mollusks and coral, Cuba’s ecosystem is one of the most treasured in the Caribbean. And the wrecks of several 17th- and 18th-century Spanish galleons carrying valuable cargo provide treasure-hunting of a different sort.
CARISUB, a Cuban marine archeological organization, charters salvage tours of such sites around Cuba. One well-preserved wreck that went down more than 100 years ago near Santiago de Cuba is the 6,800-tonne El Cristobal Colon, once the pride of the Spanish navy. The wreck is also home to colourful underwater life attached to the hull and swimming playfully in and out of the wreck.
Spectacular canyons and caves harbour natural treasures galore. There are angelfish, blue chromis, squirrelfish, snook and groupers; turtles, sharks, blue marlin and swordfish. And, coral gardens that rival any on earth.
Main dive sites:
• Los Canarreos Archipelago: 56 designated dive sites at Puertosol Colony International Scuba Centre and Cayo Largo del Sur.
• Guanahacabibes Peninsula: offers access to more than 50 dive sites from María La Gorda International Scuba Centre.
• Havana: 72 scuba sites available through four international diving centres. Immersion area is more than 100 kilometres long and three kilometres wide. About 20 kilometres east of the city there is a coastal belt of white coral sand.
• Santa Lucía: an extensive coral reef just off this beach resort has 34 designated dive points and numerous shipwrecks.
• Varadero: more than 25 diving sites. Especially popular is the Cayo Piedras del Norte underwater park, where old yachts, frigates and planes have been deliberately sunk for recreational diving.
• Playa Girón: the top attraction here is the sheer drop off the island’s underwater platform.
• Northern coast of Holguín: more than 20 dive sites are located just off Esmeralda and Guardalavaca beaches.
• Ancón Peninsula: this area’s two dive sites are Ancón and Cayo Blanco de Casilda.
• Santiago de Cuba: scuba centres operate out of Baconao Park (Sigua and Bucanero) and Guamá municipality. Site of the Caribbean’s best-preserved sunken ship, the Spanish warship Cristóbal Colón.
• Cienfuegos: international jet-ski competitions are held here every year, as are occasional speedboat competitions.
• Jardines del Rey: In Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, coral reefs offer attractive underwater landscapes.