Mariko has spent the last 10 years writing about travel, outdoor adventures and humanitarianism. When she's not travelling, you can find her on a local hiking trail, exploring the Canadian Rockies, or researching her next exotic destination.
In the last decade, Cuba has swung open its doors to tourism. Now one of the most popular places in the Carribean, the small island nation is lauded for its biodiversity, booming ecotourism, and its untouched hiking trails. Here are five of our favourite Cuban hiking trails for those who want to get up close and personal with nature.
Las Terrazas, Sierra Del Rosario
Length: 6km day hike
Features: Ideal for bird lovers and history buffs
Estimated time: 2-3 hours
An easy day trip from Havana, and on the way to the popular Viñales area, is the well-kept secret of Las Terrazas. The eco-community has a focus on sustainable living and can help organise access to one of the many hiking trails in the Sierra Del Rosario Mountains.
One of them is the El Taburete trail, a 6km hike up the El Taburete mountain. Around 460 metres above sea level, the route should take around two to three hours, depending on how often you stop to gawk at the local wildlife. The Sierra Del Rosario is home to thousands of tropical birds and you can spot parrots, parakeets and finches in the surrounding trees.
At the top you’ll be treated to stunning views of the Batabanó Gulf and the Mariel seaports, but it’s the giant Che Guevara statue that towers over the summit that many come to visit. The monument is a memorial for Che and 38 of his comrades who planned the ill-fated liberation of Bolivia.
Like many of Cuba’s fledgling hiking routes, the trail is unmarked, so it’s best to visit with a local guide.
Pico Turquino National Park, Sierra Maestra
Rating: Difficult. Guides required
Length: 13km day hike
Features: Cuba's highest peak - suits those seeking a challenge
Estimated time: 12 hours
With an elevation of 1944m, Pico Turquino is Cuba’s highest peak and one of the most difficult hiking trails in the country. Tough, but rewarding, the undulating trail is a nature lover’s paradise.
Beginning as a dense, tropical forest, you’ll spot wild orchids and bromeliads along the trail. With them is an abundance of both butterflies and tropical birds who thrive in the sweltering humidity of the Sierra Maestra. As you ascend, the vegetation transitions to lush cloud forests complete with thick climbing vines and prehistoric-looking ferns.
Bring your binoculars for a chance to spot the world’s smallest hummingbird or one of the many endangered animals within the national park.
The 13km hike can be done in one day, with an overnight stay in the small community of Aguada de Joaquín when you descend. Otherwise, consider a multi-day hike with a local tour company to learn more about the local flora and fauna.
Commandancia De La Plata
Pico Turquino National Park, Sierra Maestra
Rating: Intermediate, guide required.
Features: History buffs can dine out on a former rebel hideout
Estimate time: 2-3 hours
If you want to experience the beauty and spectacular views of the Sierra Maestra, (but prefer a little less altitude), a hike to the Commandancia De La Plata is unmissable.
Nestled in the remote, dense forest of the Sierra, this 4km hike passes through some of the most beautiful parts of the mountains. Part hike, part history lesson, this trek also features a visit to a former rebel hide-out.
Now a museum, the sixteen wooden buildings collectively known as Commandancia De La Plata were once the headquarters of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. The former rebel hideout still has Fidel’s Castro’s original furniture and a medical clinic operated by Che Guevara.
While you’re there, take a moment to explore the Cuba Heritage Museum and soak in the stunning views.
Rating: Difficult, guides required
Length: 575m climb
Features: Muddy passages, high humidity, waterfalls, rivers, a sensory overload of natural beauty
Time: 4-6 hours
Part of the Sierra Maestra, El Yunque is the stuff of local legend, and it’s a rite of passage to make the trek for both visitors and locals. Though the summit is only 575m, don’t be fooled. This is a day hike that will take approximately two to three hours each way to climb.
Located in the Guantanamo province, El Yunque is famous for its natural beauty, river crossings, loose terrain, and ankle-deep mud. The humidity in the region can be intense, and it rains every day. That said, slips and slides are inevitable, but part of the fun. Just be kind to your knees and come dressed for the occasion with some durable hiking pants and waterproof hiking boots.
After you’ve slogged it out, you’ll have an opportunity to relax and wash off the mud with a dip in the natural pools. Depending on the route your guide takes (you must have one for safety reasons) you can also spot some of the region’s many waterfalls.
You’ll need to be physically fit and prepared to scramble up rocks and wade across some rivers.
El Balcón de Iberia
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Rating: Intermediate to Difficult, guides required.
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is recognised by UNESCO as "one of the tropical island sites with the greatest biological diversity in the world”. Within the park are multiple day hikes, but the longest, and arguably the most beautiful, is El Balcón de Iberia.
The hike is around 5-7 km (depending on your starting point) and should take around five hours to complete. Located 740 metres above sea level, the hiking trail is home to some of the most unique flora and fauna in Cuba.
The beginning of the trail features edible fruit trees like mango, oranges and coconuts, and is home to the world’s smallest frog, the Eleutherodactylus Iberia, named after the mountain itself. You might even spot the national bird of Cuba, the Tocororo, amongst the flocks of parrots and nightingales. Local to the region, the red, white and blue plumage of the Tocororo matches the colours of the Republic’s flag.
After the hike, your guide will take you to the majestic El Majá Waterfall, a 25m waterfall on the Santa Maria River. Here you can swim and rest in the shade of the rainforest canopy and congratulate yourself on your excellent life choices.
If a day hike isn’t long enough, the Sendero El Balcón de Iberia trail now features a series of overnight huts. This multi-day hike is new to Cuba and still relatively unexplored, but is available through several tour companies.
A note on ecotourism
Cuba is home to several UNESCO world heritage sites, biosphere reserves and more than 17,000 kinds of animals. It’s also the only country in the world to meet the conditions of sustainable development as put forth by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF).
To encourage more sustainable ecotourism, it’s a good idea to tip your hiking guide, purchase hiking snacks from local sellers, and to choose Cuban tour companies dedicated to environmentally responsible practices. The more local families that benefit from sustainable tourism, the better.