North Coast Nirvana

Northern Sancti Spíritus province is one of Cuba's most heavily protected areas, dominated by the 313-sq-km Buenavista Unesco Biosphere Reserve. It's also a Ramsar Convention Site (important wetlands area).

The nucleus is Parque Nacional Caguanes, consisting of the sinuous Caguanes Peninsula, the Guayabera swamps and 10 tiny islets known as Cayos de Piedra.

Beyond its unusual karst formations, the park has 75 caves and a pristine ecosystem with manatees, flamingos and the world's only freshwater cave sponge. So far 263 pictographs have been discovered in 40 different archaeological sites, made by the indigenous people who once frequented this area.

The area has had landmark environmental success in recent years. Pollution in Bahía de Buenavista bay from inefficient sugar mills had driven numerous bird species away from Caguanes by the late 1990s. The closure of the mills in 2002, coupled with efforts on the part of park authorities, has seen many species return.

Jobo Rosado Reserve

This region, protected as an area of 'managed resources,' is still little explored by independent travelers, although organized groups are sometimes brought here. Measuring just over 40 sq km, the reserve includes the Sierra de Meneses-Cueto, a range of hills that runs across the north of the province and acts as a buffer zone for the heavily protected Bahía de Buenavista. As in the Sierra Maestra, history is intertwined with the ecology here: General Máximo Gomez battled through these hills during the Spanish-Cuban-American War and in 1958 Camilo Cienfuegos' rebel army (Column No 2) pitched their final command post here. An imaginative monument by sculptor José Delarra marks the spot.

The nexus for the reserve is Rancho Querete just off the main road a few kilometers east of Yaguajay, which is equipped with a bar-restaurant, natural swimming hole, biological station and small 'zoo' (roosters mainly). Guided hikes from here can be organized to La Solapa de Genaro (1km) through tropical savanna to a gorgeous set of waterfalls and more swimming holes, and the Cueva de Valdés (800m) through semideciduous woodland to a cave. A longer hike heads 8km to Chalet Los Álamos, the house of an erstwhile sugar plantation near the village of Meneses.

You'll need a taxi or your own wheels to get to Jobo Rosado.