Cuba is a nature lover’s wonderland. The biodiversity is as diverse as the Cubans themselves.
On this beautiful island, the largest in the Caribbean, you can meet the world’s smallest bird, the Cuban hummingbird. You can come face-to-face with the Cuban crocodile that can leap up to 6 feet in the air to capture prey and strategizes hunts with other crocs. You can gaze at the Polymita Picta, a land snail so heartbreakingly beautiful that it was just crowned the world’s most beautiful, endangered mollusk of the year for 2022.
And of course, you can make friends with the world’s second largest lizard, the Cuban Rock lizard.
These natural wonders and thousands more can be appreciated in Cuba’s many natural protected areas.
Establishing and maintaining national parks has been a priority in Cuba since the 1920s. For a country smaller than the state of Florida in the U.S., Cuba punches way above its weight when it comes to protected nature areas. Nearly 20% of the country is located on a natural reserve. In fact, Cuba founded SNAP, The National System of Protected Areas of Cuba, to preserve the country’s nature. The efforts are evident today in some of the most dazzling nature preserves on earth.
Cuba’s nature can be experienced anywhere on the island, but ideal spots include:
- National parks
- The coastline
- Biosphere reserves
- Protected nature areas
The Cuban Coastline
When people think of Cuba’s natural riches, they think of beaches first. With over 3,570 miles (5,746 km) of coastline, it’s what has attracted visitors to the island year after year. Conservation and ecotourism experts look to Cuba for help in duplicating these achievements in their own backyards.
Cuba’s Protected Nature Areas
Cuba’s 263 protected nature areas include its biosphere reserves, UNESCO Heritage areas and national parks.
Related Post: Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina Wins Top Conservation Award
Cuba’s 6 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves
A biosphere reserve is “a learning place for sustainable development.” This is a place where scientists and students come to study, research and learn how to protect nature. And Cuba has 6 of them! They are:
Sierra del Rosario
Sierra del Rosario is home to thousands of plants and animals like hummingbirds and bats. It is also Cuba’s first biosphere.
Península de Guanahacabibes
On Cuba’s westernmost stretch of land is the Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, one of the largest nature attractions in the country.
Nature lovers head there to enjoy the beaches, fish, snorkel and dive.
Cuchillas del Toa
On the eastern side of the island, along the coast, is the Cuchillas del Toa. Covered in forest and dotted with mines and coffee plantations, this is home to an extensive cave system.
Ciénaga de Zapata
Perhaps the best-known biosphere reserve because of its crocodile breeding and research center, the Cienega de Zapata is also full of flamingos. But its primary claim to fame is the hundreds of bird species and prime bird watching area.
A big advantage of this remarkable biosphere is its close proximity to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, two of the country’s most beautiful towns.
Chock full of quaint villages, endemic flora and fauna, Buenavista is a lush, green paradise. Among the 79 caves in the area are some with primitive cave paintings.
Baconao is an unlikely combination of amusement park and biosphere reserve. There are life-size statues of dinosaurs on its ground in an incongruous display of prehistoric times. Since the biosphere is only about 25 miles from Santiago, Cuba’s second city, it makes for a great day trip.
Cuba’s National Parks
Cuba has ten spectacular national parks, each one more spectacular than the next.
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
One of the most popular parks in Cuba, the Alejandro Humboldt National Park is famous for its bird watching and hiking. The park was named after Alejandro de Humboldt, a German scientist who cataloged many species in Cuba.
There are plenty of tours of the park, and you can opt for a guided walking or boat tour.
This spectacular national park is home to the colorful and endangered land snail, the Polymita Picta.
Cuchillas del Toa
Some biosphere preserves overlap national parks. Such is the case with the Cuchillas del Toa National Park, known for its extensive cave system.
Likewise the Guanahacabibes Peninsula is biosphere and national park in one. There is so much to see here that it pays to stay at a local casa particular (private homestay) to give yourself a couple of days exploring.
Parque Nacional Caguanes
Loaded with mangrove swamps and a sprinkling of cays, this park is inhabited by many local species of animals; bats, flamingos and pelicans to name a few. You can also see over 30 different archeological sites!
Desembarco del Granma National Park
Named after the landing of the Granma, the ship that brought revolutionaries to Cuban shores to ignite the Cuban revolution, this park has it all. Choose from honey-colored beaches, several massive caves, brilliant coral reefs and rainforests thick with vegetation in every conceivable shade of green.
Jardines de la Reina
The aptly named Jardines de la Reina (Queen’s Gardens) is an archipelago of sandy beaches, impossibly blue water and verdant shores. It was named by Christopher Columbus in honor of the benefactor who financed his voyages to the Americas, Queen Isabella of Spain.
This is one of Cuba’s best diving spots.
Sierra Cristal National Park
Established in 1930 when Cuba’s conservation efforts began in earnest, it was the first national park. Here is where you’ll find Cuba’s tallest mountain range and a massive pine forest.
Sierra del Rosario
Another national park/biosphere reserve, Sierra del Rosario set the example for all other biospheres to come.
Sierra Maestra National Park
Also known as Turquino National Park in honor of Cuba’s highest mountain peak, Pico Turquino ( 6,476 feet), Sierra Maestra is also home to other tall Cuban mountains. The hikes in this area offer breathtakingly beautiful views of the Pico Cuba, Pico Real, and Pico Suecia mountains; hiking trails offer beautiful views of the areas nearby.
The Valley of Viñales is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is popular with tourists because of its awe-inspiring natural beauty at only about 3 ½ hours west of Havana.
The area is characterized by rare, limestone rock formations called mogotes. It is also a center for what is generally considered to be the finest tobacco in the world. Spend some time visiting tobacco plantations and exploring the area by bike, horseback or hiking.
If you’re looking for a truly different and special travel experience full of delightful surprises in a natural paradise, head to Cuba’s finest nature spots.
Hero image photo: Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.