Cuba is by far the largest of the Caribbean islands, covering an area of 42,000 square miles (114,000 sq km). The varied ecosystems spell Nirvana to tourists who appreciate nature. Many areas are buried in thick rainforest brightened with tropical flowers. Other areas are desert – dry plateaus dotted with cactus.
While Cuba depends heavily on sun-seeking tourists, it’s paying increasing attention to visitors who forsake sandals for hiking boots, shower in waterfalls, and shoot birds through the lens of a camera. Beyond the sun and fun world of the all-inclusives lies one of the most biologically rich areas in the world.
Three mountain zones, where the trails often reach into some very untropical looking countryside, separate the fecund lowlands. Each of the alturas (heights) offers its own compelling beauty, with cool pine forests and sparkling lakes.
At the far western tip of Cuba, the Reserva de la Biosfera Península de Guanahacabibes protects a zone of precious semi-deciduous woodland and mangroves and the wildlife that lives there. The willowy peninsula narrows down to the tip at Cabo de San Antonio, where a recently opened hotel – Hotel Villa Gaviota Cabo San Antonio – makes exploring this remote region easy. Compulsory guides can be hired for hikes along trails that lead to caverns and dramatic seascapes. A similar environment is protected within the área Protegida Sur de la Isla de la Juventud, harboring crocodiles, deer, wild pigs, and the endangered Cuban crane. EcoTur, in the town of Nueva Gerona, arranges tours, including to Cueva Punta del Este – caves containing remarkable pre-Columbian pictographs. Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, at Cuba’s very southeast tip, is a virtual copy made even more impressive by its dramatic landscape stair-stepping in orderly terraces from the shore to the Sierra Maestra.
When thoughts turn to mountain hiking, they usually turn to the Sierra del Escambray or Pico Turquino. One of my favorite spots is Reserva Ecológica Alturas de Banao, a mountain retreat accessed from the village of Banao, 20 kilometers west of Sancti Spíritus where the barren, whisky-brown crags seem to belong in the Scottish Highlands. With Campismo Planta Cantú as a base, you can explore four separate ecosystems rich in birdlife. A highlight is the rugged hike to the Comandancia del Guerrillero Heroico, Che Guevara’s former guerrilla headquarters deep in the mountains near the hamlet of Gavilanes.
Another guerrillero hero, Camilo Cienfuegos, is honored at the Monumento Ces Museo Camilo Cienfuegos in the agricultural town of Yaguajay in Sancti Spíritus province. Banao can be combined with an exploration of Parque Nacional Caguanas, north of Yaguajay. This national park, currently in development, protects coastal swamps, mangroves, forest, and offshore cays teeming with iguanas and birdlife. With luck you’ll get to see Cuba’s largest colony of endemic cranes. And more than 35 caves are adorned with pre-Columbian paintings.
If it’s remote cays that you’re seeking, follow me to Cayo Sabinal, a sea-swept, sun-bleached wilderness attached to the mainland of Camagüey province by a hair’s breadth isthmus. I first rode out there on my motorcycle in 1996. The road of hard-packed coral seems to float above the waters of Laguna de los Flamencos, a precious mirror reflecting gawky flamingos tiptoeing around in hot pink.
Some carboneros (charcoal burners) – isolated, hospitable people eke out an austere livelihood axing mangrove – pointed the way to Playa Los Pinos, the most beautiful Cuban beach that I’d seen. My folksy home was a homespun cabana madeof palm trunks and mangrove roots attached to a bucolic beach bar with chairs of sunbaked cowhide. A rowboat pulled up and a young man held up the lunch menu: a huge lobster in one hand and a large incarnadine snapper in the other.
Sitio Histórico Birán, about 60 kilometers southeast of Holguín is where Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926. In 2002, duly restored, the finca (farm) opened to the public as a National Historic Site run by the Council of State. Security is heavy – an armed guard will accompany you as you’re shown the graves of Castro’s parents; the simple schoolhouse that Fidel attended; and the huge main house, where Fidel’s personal effects include his baseball glove and basketball, and the crib in which he was supposedly rocked as an infant (actually, evidence suggests baby Fidel lived his first few years in poverty with his mother—the family housemaid).
Almost every part of the island offers opportunities for taking a walk on the wild side. So much diversity is sprinkled like pirate’s treasure across Cuba’s 1,200 kilometer length that it brings out the Indiana Jones in anyone.