national parks of cuba

National Parks in Cuba [Cuba’s Natural Reserves]

Many of the National Parks that you’ll find in Cuba benefit from protection from both the Cuban Government and UNESCO, which means that you’ll find some stunning and unspoiled landscapes here.  There are 14 protected areas in Cuba that are designated as National Parks, and a further almost 200 protected areas in the country.  There’s more than 25% of the coastal and marine environment belonging to Cuba that’s protected in this way.  In this guide to 6 of Cuba’s Best National Parks, we’ll cover where the national parks are, how to get to them, and what specifically to see in each of these glorious Cuban National Parks.

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The island of Cuba contains 6 UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserves.  There are also 6 wetlands sites designated as of international importance, with a further two under consideration.  (They’re known as RAMSAR sites).  And then there are 14 National Parks, 28 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), and 2 Natural World Heritage Sites.  These parks and areas of Cuba contain lush rainforests, pristine natural pools, impressive canyons, and a variety of creatures so rare that you’ll only find them in one of the parks.  Because of Cuba’s unique location and situation, all of these parks are unspoiled by mass tourism and they’re incredibly well preserved.  In these protected areas there are more than 6,000 plant species found in Cuba, 50% of which are found nowhere else on Earth. 

#1 PARK TO VISIT

Vinales Valley Cuba

Vinales Valley National Park

The easiest National Park in Cuba to get to, and it’s glorious. Visit in a classic car, on horseback, or even cycle – this UNESCO World Heritage area is stunning.

Your biggest challenge will be getting to them!  Let’s start with the National Park that’s most visited by foreign tourists.

1.      Vinales Valley National Park

The town of Viñales is located in the heart of this gorgeous valley.  It’s a small, charming town with a few restaurants and a variety of casa particulares.  The Viñales National Park is in the province of Pinar del Ro, in the northwest. The Sierra de los Órganos mountain range runs the length of the park, with dramatic karst mogotes towering above the landscape. The mogotes, which are large, rounded mountains, are the only remnants of a limestone plateau that existed 160 million years ago.  The Vinales Valley National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 and is included in the World Heritage List for the combination of its traditional agriculture, architecture, multi-ethnic culture, and unique landscape.

Water eroded the limestone over time, leaving behind the mounds you see today. When rainwater interacts with limestone, it produces carbonic acid, which helps dissolve parts of the plateau and carve out caves in many of the mogotes. If you explore the Vinales Valley area you can visit some of these caves and look for stalactites, and stalagmites. Although the mogotes’ tops lack deep soil, they are still covered in ferns, epiphytes, and cork palms.

In the fields in the Viñales area, you’ll find that this is one of the best tobacco-growing regions in the country, which should come as no surprise given the region’s deep red soil. The tobacco grown in the valley is organic and many claim it is the best in Cuba.  You can read more about tobacco and Cuban cigars in our guide here.

Once you’re in Vinales, then there are biking and hiking trails that you can explore and horse riding is also a popular way to see this Cuban National Park.  Taking a classic car tour is also a good way to get around the area.  The Vinales Valley National Park covers 132 square kilometers (51 square miles).

Here’s how to explore Vinales Valley National Park

It’s easy to explore the National Park in Vinales, and by several different transport means – here are the best ways to explore Vinales Valley National Park.

  1.  Take a Classic Car Tour of Vinales Valley National Park – take a 3.5-hour tour around the Vinales Valley in a classic car.  You’ll visit the Prehistoric Mural, some of the caves of Vinales as well as see the tobacco farms of this stunning area.  There’s more on classic car tours of Vinales here.
  2. Take a leisurely exploration of the Vinales Valley National Park on horseback.  Ride through the tobacco plantations, see the coffee and honey farms, and learn about local rum too on this 4-hour horseback ride through the National Park area and the Valley of Silence.  Book a horseback national park tour in Vinales here.
  3. If you prefer to get around under your own steam, then this four-hour bike tour of the Vinales Valley is a stunning way to explore.  It’s a great way to get to the Cueva del Indio, take a short boat ride, and also explore the tobacco-growing area.  Best of all most of this valley trail is flat!  Perfect – check dates and availability here.
  4. Now that you’ve seen the valley from the floor, it’s time to take to the tree tops – there are 8 zip lines here in the Vinales Valley, the longest is 400 meters ( 1213 feet) all of which gives you the perfect opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of Vinales.  This ticket includes pick up and drop off from your accommodation in Vinales.
  5. For a romantic trip to the Vinales Valley, you’ll want to check out this horse-drawn carriage trip through the Vinales Valley.  The area here is peaceful and watching the world go by as you trundle along the quiet roads is a delightful and perfect way to explore.  You’ll also get to see the tobacco farms, and the traditional farming techniques used here in the Vinales Valley area.  Reserve your carriage trip around Vinales here.

The best time to explore the natural world in Cuba is at the beginning and end of the day.  And so taking either a sunrise hike or a sunset hike will have you seeing the parts of Cuba that not many others get to.

Mogote in Vinales Valley National Park

Hike to Los Acuaticos, a community within the Vinales Valley National Park, is said to have healing waters.  And as you’re up for sunrise, you’ll be back at your accommodation in time for breakfast and with the rest of the day to explore.  Book a Vinales sunrise hike here.

If you’re more of a sunset-type traveler, then this trek deep into the heart of the Valley of Silence is perfect.  You’ll hike through the tobacco and coffee plantations and also have the chance to buy local produce too.  Check that your dates are available here.

Visiting Vinales is one of the top things to do in Cuba, and by visiting you’ll learn more about the growing, harvesting, and drying of tobacco, as well as this unique area of the country.

  • Where is Viñales National Park?  The Viñales National Park is close to the capital of the Pinar El Rio, Viñales and it’s about 180 kilometers (112 miles) from Cuba’s capital, Havana.
  • What’s the closest town to Viñales National Park? The closest town to Viñales National Park is Viñales.

You can get to Viñales by taking a tour from Havana, by bus, or by private transfer.  Our guide on getting to Vinales from Havana is here.

2.      The Topes de Collantes National Park

The Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve in southern Cuba stretches across the Escambray Mountains.  It’s just a short distance from Trinidad and to the south of Santa Clara (so if you’re traveling between the two, it’s a lovely option.  Waterfalls and swimming holes abound on its jungle-clad slopes. It’s ideal for escaping the Cuban heat.

The easiest way to explore the Topes de Collantes National Park is on a day trip from Trinidad.  And while you’ll get to hike, the guides won’t take you anywhere too difficult, but you’ll get to explore this glorious area and see the highlights.

topes de collantes National Park Cuba

The Escambray Mountains, which reach 1140 meters (3740 feet) in height, tower over Trinidad’s colorful colonial town and the Caribbean Sea’s turquoise waters and the Topes de Collantes National Park spans the majority of the mountain range, protecting the region’s rivers, canyons, waterfalls, and wildlife.   The Topes de Collantes National Park covers 175 square kilometers (67 square miles).  This park is home to Cuba’s National Bird, the Tocoro, aka the Cuban Trogon

The Topes de Collantes was founded by Fulgencio Batista in 1937 and the park has been used as a s refuge by Cuban revolutionists under the leadership of Che Guevara.

There’s a pretty good hiking infrastructure here, with multiple hiking trails leading visitors through a tropical rainforest with breathtaking waterfalls cascading from heights of up to 200 feet (61 meters). The most famous waterfall here is the Salto del Caburní.  And yes, taking a dip in the water after a hike is definitely the thing to do here.  The Rio Guayabo, located at the edge of the park is popular for kayaking.

The most popular trail here is the Sendero Vegas Grandes.  It runs only for about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles), but you’ll get to finish at the Salto del Carburni and see traditional settlements on the way.  If you have a little more time and energy, then the Ruta Gruta la Batata is renowned for the stunning flora and fauna on the way.  This trail ends at a cave that has pools where you can take a dip.  Finally, the route to the Hacienda Codina ends with a viewpoint over the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Valle de los Ingenios, the old sugar production valley.

Valle de los Ingenios Cuba

If you don’t have a private driver to take you (and wait for you) to the park, then a day trip can be organized from Trinidad.  This popular trip scores really highly and includes a local lunch.

The park is a great place to explore the fauna and flora of Cuba.  There are more than 40 orchids to be found here and around 100 different species of ferns too.  You also shouldn’t miss Cuba’s national flower, the butterfly lily, aka the Hedychium coronarium.  Legend has it that during colonial times, secret messages were carried inside the flowers to work toward Cuba’s independence.

  • Where is the Topes de Collantes National Park? The Parque Natural Topes de Collantes is located at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level in the Sierra del Escambray. Pico San Juan, at 1140 meters, is the highest peak.
  • What’s the closest town to the Topes de Collantes?  The closest town to the Topes de Collantes National Park is Trinidad, and the park is most often visited on a day trip from Trinidad.

3.       Jardines de la Reina

The “Jardines de la Reina” translates to “Queen’s Gardens.” And it was Christopher Columbus named this area in 1492 after Queen Isabella I of Spain.  Columbus is famous, too, not just for being one of the world’s greatest explorers, but he had a hand in the creation of Cuba’s famous cocktails too!

The Jardines de la Reina are also known as “Cuba’s Coral Garden,” and are one of the Caribbean’s last major intact marine protected areas (MPAs). This archipelago, located 70 kilometers ( 43 miles) away in the Gulf of Ana Maria off Cuba’s southern coast, is about 150 miles (240 kilometers) long. 

Jardines de la Reina

The Jardines de la Reina combines about 230 islets, mangrove channels, lagoons, and beaches, but going underwater is where you’ll see the truly spectacular.  Since Jardines de la Reina was designated a protected area in 1996, fish populations have increased by up to 50 percent, and it is the last refuge for critically endangered sharks, groupers, and sea turtles in Cuba. In fact, there are ten times as many sharks and groupers on these reefs as there are in the surrounding waters.  And they’re HUGE.

The Jardines de la Reina National Park is located on the southern coast of Cuba’s central-eastern region, in the provinces of Ciego de Avila and Camagüey, and has been proposed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site Marino because of its natural values. Jardines de la Reina is one of the four island groups that make up the Cuban archipelago, and it is home to some of the best-preserved marine ecosystems in the Caribbean and Cuba.

You’ll need to dive to see this area properly and access is strictly limited, there’s more information on diving the Jardines de la Reina here,

  • Where is the Jardines de la Reina? The Jardines de la Reina is an archipelago in the provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila. 
  • What’s the closest town to the Jardines de la Reina? The closest town is Santa Cruz del Sur, but access is by boat from Jucaro in the Ciego de Ávila province of Cuba

4.      Alejandro de Humboldt National Park

This park, in the southeast of Cuba, is said to be the most humid in the country.  It’s also the least visited National Park in the country, primarily because of its location.  It’s high altitude, although the altitude ranges from minus 200 meters (minus 656 feet) to 1175 meters  (3854 feet) at the El Toldo Peak.  The park’s name comes from the German scientist, Enrique Alejandro, who traveled the island extensively during the 19th century, earning the title of Cuba’s Second Discoverer. During his stay in Cuba, Humboldt, who is regarded as the “second discoverer of Cuba,” conducted extensive research in the area

This park, which spans 10,680 hectares and is home to some of the world’s most diverse endemic ecosystems, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

The park is most often and most easily reached from Baracoa on a very full day trip.

Until the 1960s, when declarations to protect the land as a nature reserve began, the land remained relatively untouched by civilization. UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage Site in 2001, calling it “one of the most biologically diverse tropical island sites on the planet.” The park’s incredible biodiversity includes 1300 plant species and 1200 animal species, plus 16 of Cuba’s 28 endemic plant species, as well as several lizards, parrots, hutia, snail, and hummingbird species. The park also protects the endangered Cuban solenodon, a long-nosed shrew that is only found in Cuba as well as the Monte Iberia Dwarf Eleuth, the northern hemisphere’s smallest frog!

Alejandro Humboldt National Park Cuba

The shortest trail here is the El Copal route, which takes you to waterfalls.  For a tad more adventure, then the Balcon de Iberia is a 5 kilometer (3-mile) route.

  • Where is the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park?  The National Park of Alejandro de Humboldt is located 40 kilometers northwest of Baracoa (about 1-hour drive). A taxi is an option for getting there.
  • What’s the closest town to the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park? Baracoa is the closest town to the national park.

5.      The Sierra Maestra National Park

You’ll find the Sierra Maestra National Park at the south end of Cuba, near Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba.  The Sierra Maestra National Park is also known as the Turquino National Park and is renowned for hiking.  The park is also famous for connections with Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries who made this their refuge after the first coup attempt in 1956.  Castro spent 2 years holed up here in the Sierra Maestra before he succeeded in taking the country.  This area has been protected since January 1980.

Sierra Maestra Cuba

The mountains are particularly interesting along this Caribbean coast, where they fall steeply towards the sea and provide stunning views. The Pico Turquino, at an elevation of 1974 meters (6476 feet), is the highest mountain in the Sierra Maestra and also the highest mountain in Cuba.  Hiking the summit of the Pico Turquino is one of the most challenging hikes in Cuba.  The trail is 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the start to the peak.

Historians will find this park of interest too – La Comandancia de la Plata – aka Castro’s headquarters was located here – and you can visit on a guided trip.  The hike is just 45 minutes to an hour and you’ll get to see both Castro’s house and the hospital (hut) that Guevara used during the revolution.

  • Where is the Sierra Maestra National Park?  The park lies mainly within the Santiago de Cuba and Granma provinces of Cuba.  It’s usually accessed from Santiago de Cuba and access is seasonal.
  • What’s the closest town to the Sierra Maestra National Park?  Santiago de Cuba is the nearest big town.

6.      Ciénaga de Zapata National Park

The Cienaga de Zapata, a Ramsar site and the Caribbean’s largest wetland is located in the southern part of Matanzas province and covers nearly 300,000 hectares.  This site contains the most important wetlands in the country and also is home to the best fishing and birding experiences in Cuba too.

This park is relatively easily accessed from Havana – and is one of the day trips you can take from Havana.

cienaga de zapata swamp

This park covers most of the Zapata Peninsular and the wetland environment is similar to that of the Everglades.  There are swamps, marches, and mangroves, along with a huge variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and plants.  Manatees live here, as to caimans and crocodiles.  It tends, though to be the birds that people come to see.  You’ll find 18 of Cuba’s 22 endemic birds here, including the national bird of Cuba, the trogon.  Migratory birds tend to be here from October until April.  The most popular bird-watching area in the park is the Laguna de la Salinas, which is frequented by flamingos in their thousands.

The easiest way to explore the Cienaga de Zapata for the casual visitor is on a day trip from Havana

This Cuban reserve includes several zones with high ecological and scenic value, such as Santo Tomas, where you can see unique birds like the Fermina and Gallinuela of Santo Tomas, among other species, and Salinas de Brito, which has a large diversity of migratory birds. 

You can visti independently, up to a point. You need a guide within the park, so you can go to the park office and book your trip. Go to the park to book it the day before you want the trip. You’ll be provided with a driver, which is at a cost of US$35 (for the driver). A guide is free, but a tip is expected. Trips into the park take place in the morning and you can elect to go towars the salt flats to see water birds and flamingoes or to the other birding sites.

  • Where is the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park?  The park is located on Cuba’s southern coast in Matanzas province.
  • What’s the closest town to Ciénaga de Zapata National Park?  Playa Giron and Playa Larga are the closest towns to the park.  They’re both popular for exploring the Bay of Pigs.

These are the resources and booking sites that we use when traveling to Cuba.

Get a Cuba Travel and Medical Insurance Quote from Visitors Coverage here

Alternatively, Civitatis Insurance is a great option for the required insurance for Cuba.

You will need a Cuba Tourist Card to enter Cuba – some airlines include these, if yours doesn’t, buy one from EasyTouristCard – now valid for 90 days.

Book your Viazul Bus tickets here

Pre-book and prepay shared & private shuttles here

Book the best FREE Walking Tours in Cuba

Reserve attractions, day trips, and activities in Cuba here

Get online in Cuba EASILY with a Cuba eSIMread about Cuba ESIMS here, or buy a Cuba eSIM here.

Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to Cuba > discount coupon here

Book Accommodation in Cuba’s Casa Particular here

Final Words on Cuba’s National Parks

Perhaps because of Cuba’s unique situation economically and politically, the country has been in a position to protect many of its natural resources.  And so Cuba’s National Parks really are quite something. From the marine environment of the Jardines de la Reina to the peak of Pico Turquino, the flora and fauna and animal life of Cuba truly is stunning and the opportunity to see this part of the natural world is unmatched. 

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