Soon after renewing my fifth passport, an opportunity arose that was simply too tempting — President Obama opened the door for travel to Cuba. As an avid bird watcher, many of my journeys include going places with beautiful birds.
So of course, I joined a 12-day avian research trip with the Caribbean Conservation Trust to survey migrating birds that winter in Cuba and spend the summer in Maine.
Searching for birds leads to places few tourists ever see, sometimes on private land. So, I expected our group to be the sole visitor to these amazing places in Cuba. I soon learned the rest of the world had never been banned from visiting Cuba and had paved the path for us.
Global tourists have visited Cuba since the Caribbean was colonized centuries ago. According to Granma International, a weekly Cuban newspaper I found at the airport, a milestone was marked when the 4 millionth international tourist arrived at the Varadero Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport On November 6, 2017.
Of course, Havana is a major destination, but many visitors love Cuba for its natural beauty outside the Havana box. Beyond vibrant art, cigar-smoking women, rum-flavored drinks, and flashy vintage cars, the natural side of Cuba is far more interesting to travelers who prefer wildlife in a forest versus a bar.
Slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, over 350 bird species either live permanently or migrate to Cuba of which 27 are endemic to this uniquely placed island. To put this in perspective, 1,107 species are found in the whole United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. Why is the high number of birds in Cuba important? Bird counts are used to measure the health of an ecosystem.
Cuba has 14 national parks, six UNESCO biospheres, and 284 designated protected areas, making up 11 percent of Cuba’s 11 million total hectares of land (over 27 million acres). Then add 1,600-plus islands, islets, and cays producing over 2,000 miles of coastline that host 6,370 plant species, of which 52 percent are endemic to the archipelago.
The northern coastline was packed with elaborate resorts dotted along never-ending albino-sand beaches. The buffet-style meals filled an entire first floor of our hotel, with numerous languages heard around tables from swimsuit-clad tourists.
However, the favorite parts of my trip were in Western Cuba. Our route followed the Cordillero de Guaniguanico mountain range to the farthest tip of the island, then aimed back towards Havana, hugging the southwestern coast to protected wetlands and coral reefs.
Cuba has preserved important natural habitats, not only for animals, but also to create a beautiful country for a thriving nature-based tourism industry. Keep reading to learn of just a few of these natural places to visit in this beautiful and interesting region of Cuba, all within easy access from Havana.
1. Havana’s Suburbs
A day after landing in Havana, our bus arrived before daybreak and was soon cruising through tree-lined neighborhoods of tidy stucco homes painted in vibrant colors. Blood red flowers filled every corner and decorative iron fences graced the courtyards. Children played in the front yards under huge trees while grandmothers kept vigil.
The natural beauty of Cuba begins only an hour away from the busy noisy dusty city center. These charming neighborhoods are well worth a visit to learn how Cubans love greenspaces and include nature within their daily lives.
Pro Tip: Work with your travel agency to include this excursion as part of your trip, adding a nice off-the-beaten path café for authentic Cuban cuisine.
2. Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve
Less than 50 miles from Havana is the Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve, known for its orchid gardens, waterfalls and 18th-century French coffee plantation ruins. Granted UNESCO status in 1985, the community is thriving because of its dedication to visionaries. Twenty-five years earlier, the area was bare of trees logged for making charcoal. Located on the Sierra del Rosario peak, the area was once rich in flora and fauna, including lakes, rivers, and waterfalls attracting the French to plant coffee in the early years.
In 1968, as part of President Fidel Castro’s Green Revolution Initiative, a group of Cubans and environmental specialists from around the world — sponsored by the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) program — obtained approval to create a self-sufficient ecological community. They planted over 8 million trees on the surrounding deforested area by building terraces to avoid erosion.
A cool, natural contrast from the congested Havana, Las Terrazas is where the locals go for peace, tranquility, and a lot of shopping. It is now a haven for artists, vegetarian cafes, coffee houses, and shops full of textiles, wood crafts, fabric creations, and colognes from local flowers. The artisan community supports numerous charming homes, schools, and medical services for almost 1,000 residents.
Hotel Moka, located on the reserve’s highest point, was a wise choice for lodging. This beautiful, white-washed lodge hidden under a forest has spectacular views of the valley, village, and lake. One evening, we walked to the village below our hotel and dined at an excellent vegetarian café after a tour of a well-known Cuban artist’s studio.
Pro Tip: Popular with Havana weekenders, it is best to stay during the week, unless you want to swing to lively Cuban music in Hotel Moka’s beautiful deck tavern overlooking the lake.
3. Valle De Vinales
Much of western Cuba is punctuated by spectacularly shaped mogotes, a series of tall, rounded hills that rise abruptly from the flat plain of the valley. Ginger-stained soil on the valley floor creates a strong contrast to the deep green forests crawling up the mogotes. The Valle de Vinales is designated a Natural Heritage of Humanity site by UNESCO and it’s where century-old tobacco farming traditions have deep roots in peasant culture.
We arrived in early December — planting season — and I watched in wonder as horses and oxen were used in the tobacco fields. Later, I learned that mechanical methods of cultivation and harvesting lower the quality of tobacco. Therefore, time-honored methods, such as animal traction and field workers planting by hand, are still used by choice, creating the famous Cuban cigar known for its superb flavor.
Beautiful historic tobacco barns are scattered throughout this picturesque valley. Cubans, especially field workers, identify strongly with the Vinales Valley because of its beauty and historical significance, resulting in a culture that reaches to the visual arts and portrays it in pottery and landscape paintings.
Pro Tip: Plan your trip according to the growing season desired. Both planting and harvest activities are fascinating to watch.
4. Vinales National Park
The unique tall limestone mogotes are famous for spacious caves, drawing spelunkers from around the world to the Vinales National Park. The Santo Tomas Cave System is one of the largest in Latin America, consisting of seven levels that string for over 29 miles of interconnected caves and galleries. Pre-Columbian rock art is scattered among the caves along with very large galleries of impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations.
The Cueva del Indio cave is about 5 miles from the village of Vinales and unique because half of the hike into the cave is by boat. The San Vicente River flows through the cave with pictographs and drawings hovering above head.
The nearby Palenque de los Cimarrones cave is smaller and has a short trail perfect for inexperienced cave-sporting visitors. At the end of the trail sits a living museum that represents the community and its story of escaped slaves who hid in the caves during early Spanish rule.
We never entered the caves, but one evening waited at the mouth of one to watch thousands of bats swarm out for their nightly feast.
Pro Tip: Tours and cave excursion tickets are sold in the quaint village of Vinales, where charming private homes have been turned into hostels and bed and breakfasts.
5. Zapata Peninsula
The Peninsula de Zapata is a large boot-shaped peninsula forming the largest wetland in the insular Caribbean region, bursting with swamps, mangroves, and swamp forests. Hundreds of plants and animals coexist here, including the endemic Cuban crocodile and the bee hummingbird — the smallest hummingbird in the world only found in Cuba.
The Zapata Peninsula offers coastlines from Playa Largo all the way to the city of Cienfuegos, offering paradisiacal beaches up to 1,000 yards wide, ideal for swimming, diving, and snorkeling.
Fidel Castro loved the ocean, was an avid scuba diver, and a good friend of Jacques Cousteau. According to Ocean Doctor — a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to protecting and restoring oceans — Cousteau visited Cuba often, assisting Dr. Julia Azanza Ricardo who directed the University of Havana Center for Marine Research Center.
Located in the Playa Giron, nicknamed the Bay of Pigs by the United States, is a crystal-clear cove surrounded by rugged rock packed with fossils. An ideal spot for beginner snorkelers, the Caleta Buena resort offers the most facilities than other places along the beach, which include never-ending cocktails, delicious buffets, and royal blue beach chairs facing the ocean. On the rock edge of the sea, several ladders lead into the pristine calm cove for easy access to the ocean floor’s treasures.
La Cueva De Los Peces
Serious protection and the prohibition of fishing has contributed to this pristine ecosystem. Sea urchins, bluehead wrasse, and groups of sergeant fish find shelter in the cove. About 20 feet further into the ocean, the seabed turns from rock to sea. Fans and soft corals where blue tang, stoplight parrotfish, and butterflyfish are abundant.
Pro Tip: If you don’t know how to scuba dive or snorkel, there are four training centers and more than 30 dive sites along the entire Barrier Reef. Tours from Havana are available from local tourist agencies or online companies such as Tripadvisor.
6. Zapata National Park
Zapata National Park forms a fundamental region of the Gran Parque Natural Montemar Biosphere, a fragile ecosystem due to hurricane damage throughout the years. Established as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2001, it remains one of the Caribbean’s most untamed regions. So of course, that is exactly where we went looking for the Cuban pygmy owl. With help from the local forest ranger, we quietly sneaked through the thick brush to a dead tree where two tiny owls popped their heads up to check us out.
One day, our target bird was the rare and shy Zapata wren, an energetic bird that thrives on top of swamp grass. We headed for the La Salinas Wildlife Sanctuary where faded blue swamp boats waited. Gliding along one of the hundreds of canals that snaked through the wetlands for almost an hour, we almost gave up. Suddenly, the wren began to sing, and our guides expertly took a detour through the crowded grass leading straight to this rare bird.
Pro Tip: Kayaking, biking, hiking, and photography tours through the wildlife world of this park can be found at Cuba Unbound.
If You Go To Cuba
Cuba lies in the tropics, which is influenced by the northeast trade winds in winter and east–northeast winds in summer. The annual mean temperature is around 79 degrees Fahrenheit, with little variation between January and August. The dry season is from November to April, and hurricane season is from June to November.
U.S. Travel Restrictions
Various travel restrictions still apply for U.S. citizens, most created and enforced by Cuba. Canadians travel to Cuba en masse for pleasure and business, therefore, using a travel agency in Canada might be a good avenue to this fascinating Caribbean island.
Check out and see where else Cuba has been featured on TravelAwaits: