Thoughts of Cuba evoke images of pristine beaches, far-reaching ocean, and tropical drinks. Cuba is a renowned beach destination but it’s also so much more than that: think wild, unspoiled wilderness, sun-bleached landscapes, lush forests, and abounding diversity in wildlife. This is an Indiana-Jones-worthy backdrop with plenty of places uninterrupted by throngs of people. Capture peaceful authenticity in Cuba across wonderful landscapes outside of hot spots and enjoy rich, fulfilling experiences. Mountain ranges, natural reserves, lavish jungle, traditional villages, and historic sites reveal a side of Cuban most never get to know.
La Boca is a bonafide fishing village in Cuba’s Camagüey province where clapboard huts are tucked along the coastline, overlooked by palms offering slices of beach shade. The village offers a look at local life through residents hustling catches out of the water, laundry swaying on taut lines between homes, and kids playing in the streets. Two seafood restaurants are located at La Boca beach’s far end, mostly catering to tourists day-tripping from popular Santa Maria. Avoid it and you’re likely not to see another tourist all day. Go a step further and rent a room from a villager. Trade buffet fish for a fresh catch grilled in front of you, a packed sand beach for a secluded coastal stretch, and a night sky filled with constellations that seem to belong only to you.
Anyone considering hiking in the Cuban mountains has likely come across the names Pico Turquino and/or Sierra del Escambray. One of the best spots is the mountain retreat Reserva Ecológica Alturas de Banao, accessible from Banao less than 20 kilometers from the central Cuban city of Sancti Spíritus. The area is reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with barren, sheer, craggy cliffs and four distinct ecosystems easily explored from the base of Campismo Planta Cantú. One of the top highlights is a nod to Che Guevara; hike to his old guerilla headquarters, Comandancia del Guerrillero Heroico, in the thick of the mountains close to the village of Gavilanes. Combine a visit to Banao with a hike through Parque Nacional Caguanas. The conservation area protects semi-deciduous forests, coastal swamps, offshore cays, and lush mangroves along with 35 caverns painted with pre-Columbian images.
Another excellent place to veer off onto the path less taken is at Sitio Histórico Birán, about an hour from Holguín. This is Fidel Castro’s birthplace, a complete two-story home surrounded by cane fields and pastures where he was born on August 13, 1926. The wood-built home is often called primitive and devoid of brick, mortar, and cement. But Castro’s father was an important man whose home was substantial in its simplicity. In 2002, the farm became a National Historic Site and was opened to the public for viewing. This became a rather big deal in the country and attracted thousands of visitors. It’s heavy on security though–armed guards escort tourists through the family home, Fidel’s austere schoolhouse, and his parents’ graves. Within the home, Fidel’s personal belongings are on display including the crib he used as a baby, his basketball, and his favorite baseball.
Some of the most remote places in Cuba reveal the country’s most beautiful backdrops, devoid of tourists and filled with nature’s most impressive creations. Cayo Sabinal, one of the most remote cays in Cuba, is connected to mainland Camagüey province by an exceptionally narrow slice of land on the tip of the northern coast. The sun-bleached landscape is wild and stunning, reached by a long and picturesque road created by crushed coral that seems to hover above Laguna de los Flamencos, reflective waters home to hot pink, tip-toeing flamingos, a sight that becomes familiar when traveling in these parts. On this cay is Playa Pinos, one of the most beautiful beaches in Cuba, and deserving of the description “breathtaking.” Where on most of Cuba’s best beaches you’ll most certainly find crowds, here it’s more likely you’ll find silence meeting headlong with the sound surf breaking. A row of homespun cabanas are the only accommodation option and lunch comes directly from the ocean.
Reserva de la Biosfera Península de Guanahacabibes lies at Cuba’s western tip, and is a protection zone filled with mangroves, semi-deciduous forests, and a vast array of wildlife. The peninsula recedes moving toward Cabo de San Antonio and here the land eventually narrows to its tip. A good hotel has opened in recent years, which makes exploring the dramatic seascapes, caverns, and other attractions in this remote area much easier. Guides are mandatory but offer excellent comprehensive tours and ensure the protected area remains so. Deer, crocodiles, wild pigs, and endangered cranes live within nearby Área Protegida Sur de la Isla de la Juventud, another of Cuba’s most important protected areas. A local tour company operating out of Nueva Gerona town can arrange a variety of tours. They also take visitors to the caves of Cueva Punta del Este where guests get a glimpse at pre-Columbian drawings which present a remarkable look into history.
World renowned revolutions started in the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range that has attracted the likes of Celia Sanchez, Che Guvara, and Fidel Castro. Sierra Maestra is the highest mountain chain in the country, runs west, and crosses Oriente Province in the south where it peaks abruptly from the shore. Important to the country for its rich cache of minerals (chromium, manganese, iron, and copper) it sees little traffic save for a small stream of hikers. The range is lush and green and smothered in towering palms. Hiking is excellent–a stop at the revolutionary base camp means standing in virgin jungle where world history was repeatedly made and views are epic. The symbolic area is topped by Pico Turquino, a whopping 6,580-foot summit, the highest in Cuba. The nearby village of Santo Domingo, an ideal mountain access point, offers clean classic cabins for overnight visitors.
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