Probably the first thing that pops to mind when someone says ‘Cuba’ are the spectacular beaches and picture-perfect blues of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea for which the island is famous. And while the Cuban coast is blessed with kilometers of world-class sands, the island is also a terrific hiking destination, with rarely-trodden trails and pristine natural areas.
For such a (relatively) small country, Cuba packs a big environmental punch: it has three mountain ranges, several UNESCO biosphere reserves and numerous national parks. In many of these areas visitors can pursue outdoor activities, something particularly rewarding in mountainous microclimates.
Independent travelers should be aware that most hiking and trekking in Cuba must be done with an official guide, which may be different from your hiking experiences in other parts of the world. The advantages to this are that the guides have broad knowledge of local flora and fauna and know their local terrain inside and out. For the most effortless experience, you can book an excursion (or entire two-week holiday package), which combines hiking with visits to significant historic and cultural sites.
The ultimate hiking experience in Cuba is summiting Pico Turquino, the country’s highest peak. Topping out at 1974 meters, this is neither an especially lofty or technical climb, but it is nestled in the heart of the Sierra Maestra, the dense mountain fastness from where the Cuban Revolution was coordinated and fought. Its historical significance gives it extra luster as a hiking goal.
There are two main routes to the summit of Pico Turquino – one from the north (Santo Domingo trailhead) in Granma province, the other via the south along the coast of Santiago de Cuba province. The latter is the shortest climb and, with a very early start (highly recommended), fit hikers can summit and descend on the same day, but the climb is steep. The northern route is longer (2 days), with more interesting scenery.
The Sierra del Escambray is one of Cuba’s eco-tourism hot spots due to its incredible mountain landscape and extensive trail network. For years, hiking excursions from Havana and Varadero to the Escambray have been popular with visitors of all ages and levels of experience.
While two-day trips are possible, travelers wanting a more intense natural experience will want to spend a few days more exploring the area. Basic accommodation is available in Topes de Collantes, a small mountain village which makes a great base for hiking. From here, you can trek through a diverse natural environment, passing several waterfalls along the way, including the Salto del Caburní, which at 64 meters, is one of the highest in the Caribbean.
The verdant and friendly province of Pinar del Río and especially the singularly picturesque village of Viñales (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has long been a hikers magnet. Its valley setting means many trails are flat, though more adventurous routes may head through caves and up mogotes – the limestone hills for which the valley is famous.
Mil Cumbres is another protected area in Pinar del Río. With an area of 17 hectares, this trail is off the beaten track.
The Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve an hour’s drive west of Havana has plenty of hiking trails, bird watching and gorgeous natural vistas.
One of Cuba’s most spectacular natural settings can be found in Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt in the east (the park straddles Holguín and Guantánamo provinces). A true hiker’s paradise and depository of incredible biodiversity, this national park is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
What makes Cuba an attractive hiking destination are the wonderful natural landscapes of course, but also the opportunity to combine your trekking holiday with singular historical and cultural immersion and visits to some of the world’s best beaches.