It’s an exciting time for outdoor adventurers in Cuba, as nature reserves and national parks that have been restricted to travelers for decades are now opening up to provide outdoor recreation, history, and wildlife watching for all.
When hiking and biking in Cuba, it’s key to remember that guides are still obligatory in most areas (Viñales is an exception), and you should be prepared for poor infrastructure in most national parks.
Southwest of Trinidad, at the heart of Sierra del Escambray and encircled by lofty mountains, Topes de Collantes National Park is where you’ll find ancient caves, rushing rivers, plunging waterfalls, and crystalline pools.
A tremendous diversity of flora, fauna, and cacophonous birdlife; including the eye-catching cartacuba, rare hummingbirds, and the tocororo (Cuba’s national bird) also call Topes de Collantes National Park home.
Escape the heat of Trinidad to give these trails a try:
One of the park’s well-trodden trails (8km round trip) leads to the Salto del Caburní, a 65m waterfall where you can bathe in emerald green waters.
The taxing trail (steep and muddy) traverses palm, pine, and eucalyptus forests which provide shade for more than 40 varieties of coffee.
Novice hikers should be mindful of steep descents along muddy trails.
Other popular hikes include a jaunt (also 8km round trip) to Salto Vega Grande waterfall, and a 3km hike to La Batata, which rewards with a river-cave system flush with natural ponds.
When it comes to logistics, skip the depressing Soviet-style hotels in the ‘resort village’ of Topes de Collantes and hole up in nearby Trinidad, one of the finest colonial towns on the continent.
Independent travelers can hire a car, or for more expediency and reassurance, sign up for an organized tour; not all trails are well marked.
Few places conjure such myth and foreboding as the Sierra Maestra, Cuba’s highest and longest mountain range.
Back in 1958, when Fidel Castro and his guerillas set up their camp here and plotted the revolution against Batista, the Sierra Maestra was an utterly wild, impenetrable jungle.
Beyond its revolutionary touchstones, the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra is a Mecca for hard-core hikers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Within the park, Cuba’s highest summit Pico Turquino (6,469 feet) is certainly not a cakewalk, with steep ascents, humid conditions, and some scrambling required; you’ll need a pretty high baseline of fitness.
Most hikers tackle the peak over two days from Alto del Naranjo, a 13km round trip.
Thrill seekers can opt for the 22km route which involves climbing up and over the mountain to the Caribbean coast at Las Cuevas; this hike must be undertaken with a guide, which costs around CUC$68 per person and includes an overnight mountain refuge en route.
For more revolutionary history and a (slightly) less challenging trail, an alternative (but equally breathtaking) hike leads to Comandancia de la Plata, the headquarters of the revolutionary army for nearly two years.
Along with the medical hut where Che Guevara treated injured fighters, you can check out Fidel’s private digs.
With its red-earth lands, valleys of tobacco plantations, and limestone monoliths (mogotes), it’s no surprise that Viñales is Cuba’s most alluring natural attraction.
As well as prime hiking, cycling, caving, and climbing, the farming town of Viñales provides an excellent base and a soulful immersion into traditional Cuban farming life.
Unlike most of Cuba’s national parks, in Viñales hikers have the freedom to explore the region’s trails, farmlands, caves, waterfalls, and swimming holes.
A tame introduction is the 2km hike from Viñales town to a working tobacco plantation, Finca Raúl Reyes and on to the Cueva de la Vaca, a cave which delivers tourist brochure worthy panoramas of the valley’s signature mogotes.
The 3km ascent to the eco village of Los Aquáticos is memorable for its soul stirring sunrises; a guide will cost around CUC$5 and organized tours often throw in a horse and cart for a leg of the journey, if you want to take it easy.
If you want to get off-the-beaten- track, this is the place. Nestled within the Guamuhaya mountain range, this small but magical ecological reserve spans four distinct ecosystems.
The captivating tapestry of serrated mountains and foothills dotted with the ruins of century-old farmhouses and laced with hiking trails allows for close encounters with myriad plant and animal species.
Accessed from the village of Banao, 20 kilometers west of Sancti Spíritus, the park headquarters (with a restaurant and visitor center) are located at Jarico, 3.5km from the Sancti Spíritus–Trinidad road.
A prime hiking base is the clean, no-frills Campismo Planta Cantú, located 4km off Route 12 between Banao and Sancti Spíritus.
Right on your doorstep, you gain access to several hiking trails and waterfalls, including Cascada la Bella, and a scenic 6km trail to La Sabina, a bio-station.
Seasoned mountain men and women take on the 10km hike to the Comandancia del Guerrillero Heroico, Che Guevara’s former guerrilla headquarters, deep in the mountains near the hamlet of Gavilanes.
Go scuba-diving, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and cycling in Central Cuba with these outdoor adventures from the Bay of Pigs in the east, to Las Tunas in the west.
Outdoor adventures in Eastern Cuba are aplenty. Here’s how to climb Cuba’s highest peak, dive among shipwrecks, and find the best waterfalls.