For a small country, Cuba punches way above its weight when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage sites. The country has nine beautifully diverse sites bursting with history, architecture, and nature.
According to UNESCO, to get on the list, a site must, “be of outstanding universal value demonstrating international significance; it must ‘transcend national boundaries and be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.’” Cuba’s UNESCO World Heritage sites have all the requirements and then some. Read on to learn more about the nine sites and their cultural relevance.
Going from west to east on the island, the first site you come to is the breathtakingly beautiful Valley of Viñales.
Valley of Viñales
Year of inscription: 1999
About 3 and a half hours west of Havana you come to the Valley of Viñales, home to the finest tobacco in the world.
The valley lies over a natural depression made of soluble rock, like limestone, with the Sierra de los Organos mountains rising on all sides. These unique topographic characteristics create massive limestone outcrops called mogotes covered in carpets of green dotting the landscape. The effect is magical.
Visitors travel to this verdant valley to enjoy organic farm-to-table meals, hike the trails that wind through farms, rivers and forests and learn about tobacco production in the vast plantations. Another unusual activity resulting from the eroding of limestone foundations is sailing on underground rivers through vast caves. Where else could you do that?
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The nearby town of Viñales is a great place to chill after a day of exploration. The town offers many restaurants, bars and live music venues on Cisneros Street, the town’s main drag.
Despite all it has to offer, the main draw of Viñales remains its natural beauty.
Old Havana and Its Fortification System
Year of inscription: 1982
Havana was founded by the Spanish in November 1519 on the shores of the wide and deep Bay of Havana. Today the original foundation site is called Old Havana. This area is Cuba’s oldest UNESCO World Heritage site.
The area encompasses about one and a half square miles of winding streets, parks and glorious – although sometimes crumbling – architecture dating from colonial times to the present. Havana’s former official historian and Director of Old Havana’s restoration project, the late Dr. Eusebio Leal, spent his career lovingly restoring large swaths of the city to its original splendor.
Some of the most notable features of Old Havana are the four main squares including:
Plaza de Armas, the site of the original founding of the city, this elegant plaza has a lush, leafy park surrounded by some of the finest museums in the city.
Plaza de La Catedral with its 18th century Baroque cathedral surrounded by colonial era arches.
Plaza Vieja, the recently restored square, was once a slave market. Today it is surrounded by cafes, breweries, and art galleries.
Plaza de San Francisco, a square so beautiful it is used as a backdrop for local celebrations.
Old Havana’s fortification system is also part of the UNESCO designation. Once the jewel in the Spanish Empire, Havana had to be protected at all costs. The Spanish built a wall surrounding the city, parts of which still stand. What has stood the test of time is the impressive network of defensive installations scattered around Old Havana including some of the oldest fortresses in the Americas, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, and others.
Urban Historic Center of Cienfuegos
Year of inscription: 2005
Arguably the most beautiful plaza in Cuba, the Historic Center of Cienfuegos is another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Founded in 1819, Cienfuegos is the only city in Cuba originally settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana. You can still see the city’s French heritage in the street names and the names on the tombstones at the city’s cemeteries.
Where the town’s French legacy is most evident is in the graceful architecture in the urban city center. The main plaza is surrounded by neoclassical buildings that are truly stunning including the Arch of Triumph, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Jose Marti Park and the fabulously ornate Tomas Terry Theatre.
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The area outside of the Cienfuegos city center is also worth a visit. Across Cienfuegos Bay is Fort Jagua, built in 1742 by King Philip V of Spain to keep out the pirates. Nearby is the Palacio del Valle, a historic villa built from 1913 to 1917 in Moorish architecture style. Today it is a hotel and restaurant overlooking beautiful Cienfuegos Bay.
La Reina Cemetery sits outside the city and is one of the most interesting cemeteries in Cuba. The funerary statuary displays a high artistic achievement. The caretaker gives tours and regales visitors with stories of the prominent families buried there.
Trinidad and the Valle de los Ingenios
Year of inscription: 1988
About an hour from Cienfuegos is the colonial town of Trinidad. The entire town of Trinidad and the surrounding area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial town with cobblestone streets, red-shingle-roof buildings and graceful plazas surrounded by lush vegetation and soaring palm trees.
The town’s most striking feature is the Plaza Mayor designed in the neo-baroque architectural style. Surrounding the Plaza Mayor are the beautiful museums, Museo Romántico and Museo de Arquitectura with an informative display of the area’s sugar producing history.
Nearby is the 19th century cathedral, the Iglesia de la Santísima with a steeple from which you can see the entire town and beyond.
Also part of the Trinidad UNESCO complex is the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) about 12 kilometers away. It’s actually 3 sugar mills: San Luis, Santa Rosa and Meyer. In the 18th and 19th century, this group formed the nucleus of Cuba’s sugar production. Today visitors can walk among the abandoned mills and crumbling, overgrown structures that were once the engine of the country’s economy.
With its sugar production history long gone, Trinidad has become a popular tourist town. It offers history, art and natural beauty with a hefty dose of lively nightlife, restaurants and open-air music venues and clubs.
Historic Centre of Camagüey
Year of inscription: 2008
Camagüey is Cuba’s third largest city and capital of its eponymous province. It is also the newest UNESCO World Heritage site.
Founded in 1528, the city thrived as a center of cattle breeding and sugar plantations. In the 17th century, privateer Henry Morgan burned the city down. The town was rebuilt but it was radically redesigned to confuse and disorient any future invaders and pirates. It is this historic city center with its bewildering patterns of winding streets and town squares that is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Camaguey also boasts a fine collection of Art Deco, colonial, neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture. The city’s social and cultural life still revolves around the historic town center.
Desembarco del Granma National Park
Year of inscription: 1999
The Desembarco del Granma National Park in Cuba’s south-westernmost tip is one of Cuba’s “nature” UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The name of the National Park translates into Landing of the Granma National Park. The Granma was the name of the yacht that Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba in 1956 in hopes of igniting a revolution there. The landing is considered by many to be the start of the Cuban Revolution.
Visitors now travel to the national park to enjoy its amazing biodiversity. It is a UNESCOworthy collection of tropical flora and fauna. Cuba’s largest river, the Toa River, runs through the park feeding the many unique species found there.
Alejandro von Humboldt National Park
Year of inscription: 2001
Alejandro von Humboldt National Park is Cuba’s other “nature” related UNESCO World Heritage site.
The park is named after Alejandro von Humboldt, a German scientist that toured the area in the early 1800s. He documented and fell in love with the biodiversity he found there.
At over 70,000 hectares, the park straddles the provinces of Holguin and Guantanamo. It is known to have the most plant density in all of Cuba and has been named “one of the most biologically diverse tropical ecosystems in an island setting anywhere on earth.”
The park is home to many unique mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and plants including 16 endemic plant species, no less than 145 types of ferns, and the endangered Cuban solenodon, a venomous, nocturnal mole-like creature endemic to Cuba.
Another remarkable park resident is the highly endangered and now protected painted snail, polymita picta. This snail is endangered because its shell is very colorful, and every shell is unique. People would collect the shells and use them as necklaces until very few remained.
Archeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba
Year of inscription: 2000
The First Coffee Plantations in the Southeast of Cuba is an archeological museum committed to educating visitors on the life of the enslaved Africans in the 19th century. It is one of the more unusual UNESCO World Heritage sites.
French settlers established coffee plantations in Haiti, but the Haitian Revolution and subsequent independence caused them to flee. The French re-established their coffee plantations in southeastern Cuba where they initially thrived. They later discovered they couldn’t compete with coffee plantations in South and Central America and the area fell into decline.
In its heyday, the area contained over 170 cafetales (coffee plantations). Most of the cafetales are ruins now but a few have been reconstructed to show what life was like when they were fully functional. Visitors can still view what remains of the intricate hydraulic engineering, irrigation and water management systems — all built on the backs of enslaved laborers.
San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba
Year of inscription: 1997
Also called El Morro de Santiago, San Pedro de la Roca Fortress sits majestically on the Bay of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city on the eastern coast of the island.
Built in 1638 to guard against pirates and invaders, San Pedro de la Roca protected Cuba in the 17th and 18th century. The main reason for building the fortress was to counter England’s interest in Cuba and the continued conflict between Spain and England who were both competing for the riches of the New World.
Inside the fortress is a small museum with a very interesting exhibit telling the history of the legendary pirates that lurked in these Caribbean waters.
The most fascinating – and real – Pirates of the Caribbean wandered these very same seas raiding coasts and attacking ships.
Designed by Italian Giovanni Bautista Antonelli, military engineer in the employ of the Habsburg monarchs of Austria and Spain, the fortification is known for its geometrical shape and symmetry. The fortress was constructed in the Spanish-American military architectural style and is considered to be the finest example of that style in the Americas. San Pedro de la Roca is also known for its complex network of staircases that wind up the side of the rocky coast, a unique engineering feat.
Cuba’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites shine on the world stage. In terms of culture, architecture and nature, these stunning Cuban sites have amazed and delighted visitors for centuries and will continue to do so for many years to come.