Doubters of Cuba's outdoor potential need only look at the figures: six Unesco Biosphere Reserves, amazing water clarity, thousands of caves, three sprawling mountain ranges, copious bird species, the world's second-largest coral reef, barely touched tropical rainforest, and swaths of unspoiled suburb-free countryside.
Access to many parks and protected areas in Cuba is limited and can only be negotiated with a prearranged guide or on an organized excursion. If in doubt, consult Ecotur travel agency.
- Private Guides
Since the loosening of economic restrictions in 2011, it has become legal for private individuals to set up as outdoor guides in Cuba, though, as yet, there are few full-blown non-government travel agencies. Most private guides operate out of casas particulares or hotels and many are very good. If you are unsure whether your guide is official, ask to see their government-issued license first.
- Prebooking Tours
The following agencies organize outdoor tours from outside Cuba:
Scuba en Cuba (www.scuba-en-cuba.com) Diving trips.
Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk) Offers a 15-day walking trip.
WowCuba (www.wowcuba.com) Specializes in cycling trips.
Travelers in search of adventure who've already warmed up on rum, cigars and all-night salsa dancing won't get bored in Cuba. Hit the highway on a bike, fish (as well as drink) like Hemingway, hike on guerrilla trails, jump out of an airplane or rediscover a sunken Spanish shipwreck off the shimmering south coast.
Thanks to the dearth of modern development, Cuba's outdoors is refreshingly green and free of the smog-filled highways and ugly suburban sprawl that infect many other countries.
While not on a par with North America or Europe in terms of leisure options, Cuba's facilities are well established and improving. Services and infrastructure vary depending on what activity you are looking for. The country's diving centers are generally excellent and instructors are of an international caliber. Naturalists and ornithologists in the various national parks and flora and fauna reserves are similarly conscientious and well qualified. Hiking has traditionally been limited and frustratingly rule-ridden, but opportunities have expanded in recent years, with companies such as Ecotur offering a wider variety of hikes in previously untrodden areas and even some multiday trekking. Cycling is refreshingly DIY, and all the better for it. Canyoning and climbing are new sports in Cuba that have a lot of local support but little official backing – as yet.
It's possible to hire reasonable outdoor gear in Cuba for most of the activities you will do, although it may not always be top quality. If you do bring your own supplies, any gear donated at the end of your trip to individuals you meet along the way (head lamps, snorkel masks, fins etc) will be greatly appreciated.
Ecotur (www.ecoturcuba.tur.cu) Runs organized hiking, trekking, fishing and birdwatching trips to some of the country's otherwise inaccessible corners. It has offices in every province and a main HQ in Havana.
Campismo Popular (www.campismopopular.cu) Runs Cuba's 80-plus campismos (rural chalets). It has Reservaciones de Campismo offices in every provincial capital.
Marlin Náutica y Marinas (www.nauticamarlin.tur.cu) State-run company that oversees many of Cuba's marinas. It also offers fishing, diving, boating and other water-based excursions.
Boating & Kayaking
Boat rental is available on many of the island's lakes. Good options include the Laguna de la Leche, Laguna la Redonda and the Liberación de Florencia, in Ciego de Ávila Province, and Embalse Zaza in Sancti Spíritus Province. You can also rent rowboats and head up the Río Canímar near Matanzas, oaring between the jungle-covered banks of this mini-Amazon.
Kayaking as a sport is pretty low-key in Cuba, treated more as a beach activity in the plusher resorts. Most of the tourist beaches will have Náutica points that rent out simple kayaks, good for splashing around in but not a lot else.
The karst landscapes of Cuba are riddled with caves – more than 20,000 and counting – and cave exploration is available to both casual tourists and professional speleologists. The Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, near Viñales, is Cuba's largest cavern, with over 46km of galleries, and offers guided tours. The Cueva de los Peces, near Playa Girón, is a flooded cenote (sinkhole) with colorful snorkeling. The Cuevas de Bellamar near Matanzas also has daily tours, while the bat-filled Cueva de Ambrosio in Varadero can be explored independently.
Caving specialists have virtually unlimited caves from which to choose. With advance arrangements, you can explore deep into the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás or visit the Cueva Martín Infierno in Cienfuegos Province which has the world's largest stalagmite. The Cueva San Catalina, near Varadero, is famous for its unique mushroom formations. Speleo-diving is also possible, but only for those already highly trained.
Riding a bike in Cuba is the best way to discover the island in close-up. Decent, quiet roads, wonderful scenery and the opportunity to get off the beaten track and meet Cubans in rural areas make cycling here a pleasure, whichever route you take. For casual pedalers, daily bike rental is sometimes available and has become more widespread in recent years. Some hotels lend or rent bikes for about CUC$3 to CUC$7 per day. The bigger all-inclusive resorts in Varadero and Guardalavaca are the best bet as they sometimes include bike use as part of the package, although it's unlikely the bikes will have gears. If you're staying in a casa particular, your host will generally be able to rustle up something roadworthy. Some casa owners have even started renting out foreign-made bikes good enough for tackling rural day trips (bank on paying CUC$10 to CUC$15 a day).
Serious cyclists contemplating a multiday Cuban cycling tour should bring their own bikes from home, along with plenty of spare parts. Since organized bike trips have long been common in Cuba, customs officials, taxi drivers and hotel staff are used to dealing with boxed bikes.
Cycling highlights include the Valle de Viñales, the countryside around Trinidad, including the flat spin down to Playa Ancón, the quiet lanes that zigzag through Guardalavaca, and the roads out of Baracoa to Playa Maguana (northwest) and Boca de Yumurí (southeast). For a bigger challenge try La Farola between Cajobabo and Baracoa (21km of ascent), the bumpy but spectacular coast road between Santiago and Marea del Portillo – best spread over three days with overnights in Brisas Sierra Mar los Galeones and Campismo la Mula – or, for real wheel warriors, the insanely steep mountain road from Bartolomé Masó to Santo Domingo in Granma Province. For good private cycling tours around Havana and its environs, try CubaRuta Bikes.
With a profusion of casas particulares offering cheap, readily available accommodation, cycle touring is a joy here as long as you keep off the Autopista and steer clear of Havana.
Off-road biking has not yet taken off in Cuba and is generally not permitted.
If Cuba has a blue-ribbon activity, it is scuba diving. Even Fidel in his younger days liked to don a wetsuit and escape beneath the iridescent waters of the Atlantic or Caribbean (his favorite dive site was – apparently – the rarely visited Jardines de la Reina archipelago). Indeed, so famous was the Cuban leader's diving addiction that the CIA allegedly once considered an assassination plot that involved inserting an explosive device inside a conch and placing it on the seabed.
Excellent dive sites are numerous in Cuba. Focus on the area or areas where you want to dive rather than trying to cover multiple sites. The best areas – the Jardines de la Reina, María la Gorda and the Isla de la Juventud – are all fairly isolated, requiring travel time (and pre-planning). The more sheltered south coast, in particular Playa Girón, has the edge in terms of water clarity and dependable weather, though the north coast, offering easy access to one of the world's largest reefs, is no slouch.
What makes diving in Cuba special is its unpolluted ocean, clear water conditions (average underwater visibility is 30m to 40m), warm seas (mean temperature is 24°C), abundant coral and fish, simple access (including a couple of excellent swim-out reefs) and fascinating shipwrecks (Cuba was a nexus for weighty galleons in the 17th and 18th centuries, and rough seas and skirmishes with pirates sunk many of them).
In all, Cuba has 25 recognized diving centers spread over 17 different areas. The majority of the centers are managed by Marlin Náutica y Marinas (www.nauticamarlin.com), though you'll also find representation from Gaviota. Though equipment does vary between installations, you can generally expect safe, professional service with back-up medical support. Environmentally sensitive diving is where things can get wobbly, and individuals should educate themselves about responsible diving. As well as being Scuba Schools International (SSI), American Canadian Underwater Certification (ACUC) and Confédération Mondiale de Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS) certified, most dive instructors are multilingual, speaking a variety of Spanish, English, French, German and Italian. Because of US embargo laws, Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification is generally not offered in Cuba.
Dives and courses are comparably priced island-wide, from CUC$25 to CUC$50 per dive, with a discount after four or five dives. Full certification courses are CUC$310 to CUC$365, and 'resort' or introductory dives cost CUC$50 to CUC$60.
Hemingway wasn't wrong. Cuba's fast-moving Gulf Stream along the north coast supports prime game fishing for sailfish, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, barracuda, marlin and shark pretty much year-round. Deep-sea fishing is a rite of passage for many and a great way to wind down, make friends, drink beer, watch sunsets and generally leave the troubles of the world behind. Not surprisingly, the country has great facilities for sport anglers, and every Cuban boat captain seems to look and talk as if he's walked straight from the pages of a Hemingway classic.
Cuba's best deep-sea fishing center is Cayo Guillermo, the small island (then uninhabited) that featured in Hemingway's Islands in the Stream. Papa may no longer be in residence, but there's still an abundance of fish. Another good bet is Havana, which has two marinas, one at Tarará and the other – better one – at Marina Hemingway to the west.
Elsewhere, all of Cuba's main resort areas offer deep-sea-fishing excursions for similar rates. Count on paying approximately CUC$310 per half-day for four people, including crew and open bar.
Fly-fishing is undertaken mainly on shallow sand flats easily reached from the shoreline. Classic areas to throw a line are Las Salinas in the Ciénaga de Zapata, the protected waters surrounding Cayo Largo del Sur, parts of the Isla de la Juventud and – most notably – the uninhabited nirvana of the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. The archipelago is a national park and heavily protected. It is not unheard of to catch 25 different species of fish in the same day here.
A 'grand slam' for fly-fishers in Cuba is to bag tarpon, bonefish and permit in the same day; bag a snook as well and they call it a 'superslam.' The best fishing season in this part of Cuba is February to June. The remoteness of the many islands, reefs and sand flats means fishing trips are usually organized on boats that offer on-board accommodations. They are coordinated through a company called Avalon.
The north coast hides a couple of good fly-fishing havens. Most noted are the still-uninhabited keys of Cayo Romano and Cayo Cruz in the north of Camagüey Province. Trips are coordinated by Avalon and based at an attractive lodge in the mainland town of Brasil.
Freshwater fishing in Cuba is lesser known than fly-fishing but equally rewarding, and many Americans and Canadians home in on the island's numerous lakes. Freshwater fly-fishing is superb in the vast Ciénaga de Zapata in Matanzas, where enthusiasts can arrange multiday catch-and-release trips. Trucha (largemouth bass) was first introduced into Cuba in the early 20th century by Americans at King's Ranch and the United Fruit Company. Due to favorable environmental protection, the fish are now abundant in many Cuban lakes. Good places to cast a line are the Laguna del Tesoro in Matanzas, the Laguna de la Leche and Laguna la Redonda in Ciego de Ávila Province, Embalse Zaza in Sancti Spíritus and Embalse Hanabanilla in Villa Clara – 7.6kg specimens have been caught here!
Hiking & Trekking
European hikers and North American wilderness freaks take note: while Cuba's trekking potential is enormous, the traveler's right to roam is restricted by badly maintained trails, poor signage, a lack of maps and rather draconian restrictions about where you can and cannot go without a guide. Cubans aren't as enthusiastic about hiking for enjoyment as Canadians or Germans. Instead, many park authorities tend to assume that all hikers want to be led by hand along short, relatively tame trails that are rarely more than 5km or 6km in length. You'll frequently be told that hiking alone is a reckless and dangerous activity, despite the fact that Cuba harbors no big fauna and no poisonous snakes. The best time of year for hiking is outside the rainy season and before it gets too hot (December to April).
The dearth of available hikes isn't always the result of nitpicking restrictions. Much of Cuba's trekkable terrain is in ecologically sensitive areas, meaning access is carefully managed and controlled.
Multiday hiking in Cuba has improved in the last couple of years and, though information is still hard to get, you can piece together workable options in the Sierra Maestra and the Sierra del Escambray. The most popular by far is the three-day trek to the summit of Pico Turquino. There are also long day hikes available in the forests around Soroa in Artemisa Province.
More challenging day hikes include El Yunque, a mountain near Baracoa; the Balcón de Iberia circuit in Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt; and some of the hikes around Las Terrazas and Viñales.
Topes de Collantes probably has the largest concentration of hiking trails in its protected zone (a natural park). Indeed, some overseas groups organize four- to five-day treks here, starting near Lago Hanabanilla and finishing in Parque el Cubano. Inquire in advance at the Carpeta Central information office in Topes de Collantes if you are keen to organize something on behalf of a group.
Other, tamer hikes include Cueva las Perlas and Del Bosque al Mar in the Península de Guanahacabibes, the El Guafe trail in Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma and the short circuit in Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos in Varadero. Some of these hikes are guided and all require the payment of an entry fee.
If you want to hike independently, you'll need patience, resolve and an excellent sense of direction. It's also useful to ask the locals in your casa particular. Try experimenting first with Salto del Caburní or Sendero la Batata in Topes de Collantes or the various hikes around Viñales. There's a beautiful, little-used DIY hike on a good trail near Marea del Portillo and some gorgeous options around Baracoa – ask the locals!
Overview of Best Hikes
|Hike||Solo or guided||Start/Finish||Distance||Grade||Features|
|Pico Turquino||guided||Alto del Naranjo/Las Cuevas||17km||hard||mountain, bird-watching|
|Salto del Caburní||solo||Topes de Collantes||6km||medium||waterfall, natural swimming pool|
|El Guafe||solo||Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma||3km||easy||flora, archaeological sites|
|Balcón de Iberia||guided||Parque Alejandro de Humboldt||6km||easy||flora, fauna, natural swimming pool|
|El Brujito||guided||Soroa||15km||medium||eco-forest, bird-watching, coffee plantations|
|El Yunque||guided||Campismo el Yunque||8km||medium-hard||mountain, flora|
Cuba has a long-standing cowboy culture, and horseback riding is available countrywide in both official and unofficial capacities. If you arrange it privately, make sure you check the state of the horses and equipment first. Riding poorly kept horses is both cruel and potentially dangerous.
The state-owned catering company Palmares owns numerous rustic ranches across Cuba that are supposed to give tourists a feel for traditional country life. All of these places offer guided horseback riding, usually for around CUC$6 per hour. You'll find good ranchos in Florencia in Ciego de Ávila Province and Hacienda la Belén in Camagüey Province.
La Guabina is a horse-breeding center near the city of Pinar del Río that offers both horse shows and horseback-riding adventures.
Trinidad and Viñales are two of the best and most popular places in Cuba for horse-riding.
The Valle de Viñales has been described as having the best rock climbing in the western hemisphere. There are more than 150 routes now open (at all levels of difficulty, with several rated as YDS Class 5.14) and the word is out among the international climbing crowd, who are creating their own scene in one of Cuba's prettiest settings. Independent travelers will appreciate the free rein that climbers enjoy here.
Though you can climb year-round, the heat can be oppressive, and locals stick to an October–April season, with December to January being the optimum months. For more information, visit Cuba Climbing (www.cubaclimbing.com) or head straight to Viñales.
It is important to note that, though widely practiced and normally without consequence, climbing in the Valle de Viñales is still not technically legal. While you're unlikely to get arrested or even warned, you undertake climbing activities at your own risk. Take extreme care and do not under any circumstances do anything that damages the delicate Parque Nacional Viñales ecosystem.
You don't have to go deep to enjoy Cuba's tropical aquarium. Snorkelers can glide out from the shore at Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Coral and Playa Jibacoa on the north coast east of Havana. Otherwise, most dive operators can also organize snorkeling for cheaper rates.
Good boat dives for snorkeling happen around Isla de la Juventud and Cayo Largo especially, but also in Varadero and in the Cienfuegos and Guajimico areas. If you intend to do a lot of snorkeling, bring your own gear, as the rental stuff can be tattered and buying it in Cuba will mean you'll sacrifice both price and quality.
With stiff east-northeast winds fanning its jagged northern coastline, it was only a matter of time before the Cubans (and visiting tourists) woke up to the country’s excellent kiteboarding potential. The sport is still relatively new in Cuba, although several good operators have now established themselves at various points along the north coast, offering equipment rental and courses. The main kitesurfing hubs are Havana (more specifically Tarará), Varadero and Cayo Guillermo. There are also small scenes at Playa Santa Lucía and Guardalavaca. Havana Kiteboarding Club maintains operations in Havana, Cayo Guillermo and Guardalavaca. Ke Bola Kiteboarding School is based in Varadero. There are several other multilingual operators at both sites.
Three-hour basic courses cost from around CUC$150, and equipment rental starts at CUC$35 an hour, but there are various offers available. Kite operators can also help arrange accommodation packages at various beach-side hotels. Check the websites.