With the recent warming of relations between the United States and Cuba, interest in traveling to the Caribbean’s island nation has never been higher.
According to Paste Magazine, search traffic on flights to Cuba is up 500% from last year. Airlines such as American and JetBlue are pushing to ad more daily flights to the island. And as the travel restrictions are loosened and tourism floodgates open, industry experts expect to see prices on flights drop to more competitive levels.
Most travelers to will never venture beyond the perfect beaches and vibrant culture of major cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba. But those looking to get off the beaten path will find nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, six UNESCO-approved Nature and Biosphere Reserves, and myriad historical and cultural attractions. Here’s our guide to the Top 10 Places to Visit in Cuba:
BACONAO BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Located near the city of Santiago de Cuba in the country’s southeast region, this 327 square mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve offers a mixture of tropical forest, cloud forest, coastal areas, and caves (which are home to many of Cuba’s threatened endemic species of insects, bats and spiders). The reserve boasts numerous attractions, including Baconao Lagoon, which features a reproduction of a traditional Taíno Indian village; Great Rock (Gran Piedra), which can be climbed via 459 stone steps and offers stunning panoramic views; and the Valle de la Prehistoria, where dozens of life-sized dinosaurs sculpted from stone are surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.
BUENAVISTA BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Situated on Cuba’s northern coast and covering some 774,000 acres, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is broken up into 11 different parts that range from coastal forest and mangrove to sand and rock beaches and coral reef. Within its borders are two National Parks, Caguanes and Santa Maria Key, as well as two wildlife refuges. It’s an area of remarkable natural, historical and cultural value, containing 35 different archaeological sites and caves with rural art and wall paintings. With around 25,000 inhabitants in four towns and six rural villages, the region is ripe for responsible ecotourism development, offering activities such as cave exploration, fishing, beach tourism, and some of the Caribbean’s best Scuba diving.
CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA NATIONAL PARK
Commonly known as Zapata Swamp, this national park located approximately 90 miles southeast of Havana offers 1,681 squares miles of wetlands similar to the Florida Everglades. It’s currently on UNESCO’s tentative list to receive Biosphere Reserve status, as it’s home to Cuba’s most diverse array of plant and animal life. There are over 175 species of birds and 31 species of reptiles found here, including endemic species such as the Zapata wren, the Cuban Crocodile, and the Bee Hummingbird (the world’s smallest bird). There’s also great Scuba diving off the coast, and the famous Bay of Pigs is nearby.
Located on Cuba’s southern coast about 160 miles from Havana, this city of 150,000 residents is known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South). It was a vital hub for the nation’s economy in the 19th century: Its port was at the heart of Cuba’s lucrative sugar trade thanks to its prime location between Jamaica and the eastern coast of South America. UNESCO made the city a World Heritage Site in 2005, cited its early 19th century Spanish Enlightenment-style urban planning. It’s a beautiful city to walk through, with many colorful colonial buildings, public squares and monuments.
CUCHILLAS DEL TOA BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1987, Cuchillas del Toa encompasses about 800 square miles of mountainous land in Cuba’s northeastern Guantánamo province. It’s considered a haven of biodiversity, with over 900 endemic species including the endangered Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Cuban Kite, and Cuban Solenodon (a venomous shrew-like mammal). There are an array of different ecosystems within its borders, from pine forests and cloud forests to mangroves and coral reefs. Surrounding Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, the reserve’s prominent features include El Yunque table mountain, the 980-foot waterfall of Infierno Creek, the Bay of Taco, and the Great Cave of Moa.
Known among locals as La Habana Vieja, Havana’s old town is a lively cultural hotspot that was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1982. This is the picture postcard image of Cuba’s capital city that most people are familiar with, with vintage American cars and bustling public squares surrounded by impressive colonial-era architecture, . But it’s also got plenty of rough-around-the-edges charm, with numerous bars (including El Floridita, one of author Ernest Hemingway’s favorites) and salsa clubs for dancing the night away.
PENÍNSULA DE GUANAHACABIBES BIOSPHERE RESERVE
The westernmost point in Cuba, Guanahacabibes Peninsula stretches across around 296,000 acres of land and includes Guanahacabibes National Park, one of the country’s largest Nature Reserves. Separated from the rest of the island by white-sand plains, Guanahacabibes is known for its diverse landscapes, which includes grasslands, mangrove forest, coastal areas, coral reefs, and around 100 lakes. As a result, it boasts impressive biodiversity, including 172 species of birds (11 of which are endemic) and four species of sea turtles.
SAN PEDRO DE LA ROCA CASTLE
Did you know that there was a castle in Cuba? Well, it’s technically a fort, built during the height of high-seas tensions in the 17th and 18th centuries, when pirates and privateers made international shipping an increasingly dangerous industry. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1997, San Pedro de la Roca Castle made Santiago de Cuba a vital point of defense in the region, and remains a stunning example of Latin American military architecture today. Check out its small museum to learn more about the area’s military history and go atop the castle walls to get one of the best panoramic views in all of Cuba.
TRINIDAD & VALLE DE LOS INGENIOS
Located in central Cuba, the vibrant town of Trinidad was founded back in 1514 and played a major role in Cuba’s rise in the sugar industry. A major hub for both the production and trade of sugar, the town’s historic wealth is reflected in its signature colonial architecture. The Valle De Los Ingenios (“Valley of the Sugar Mills”)– a series of three interconnected valleys located 7.5 miles away– is home to dozens of ruins of sugar mills that were important back in the 19th century. Together, Trinidad and the Valley were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and they remain an essential stop for anyone wishing to explore Cuba’s historic cultural heart.
Located on the island’s west side, where it is surrounded by the Sierra de los Órganos Mountains, this picturesque 51-square mile valley is filled with small towns, villages, and vast expanses of farmland. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is best known for its traditional approach to agriculture, particularly the production of tobacco: If you get a freshly-rolled Cuban cigar, it was more than likely grown here. But it’s also noteworthy for its rolling hills and dramatic rocky outcrops that rise up to 1000 feet from the valley’s floor, which have made it an increasingly popular destination for avid rock climbers. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.