Cuba’s natural riches are also reflected in the six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves dotted across an island approximately half the size of England. Cuba is one of the most environmentally protected countries in the world. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared that Cuba was the only nation that could credibly claim to be living sustainably. Certainly it has the most diverse and robust ecosystem in the Caribbean. Some 300 protected areas make up 22 percent of the country – one of the few in the world that has actually increased its forested area in the past 45 years. What’s more, the island is bursting with native species of plants and animals – some found only here in Cuba.
Cuba has a number of spectacular bird-watching locations, but if you wish to glimpse the world’s smallest bird, the zunzuncito [bee hummingbird], head out to Ciénaga de Zapata, in Gran Parque Natural Montemar. If you’re lucky, you may glimpse the red, white, blue and green feathers of Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo, or the tiny and scarce Screech Owl. While you’re there, you might want to visit the Criadero de Crocodrilos to see the government-run breeding facility that has brought the native croc back from the brink of extinction.
Pristine Marine Wonderland
Cuba is actually an archipelago made up of the main island (Cuba), the Isla de la Juventud [Isle of Youth] and 4,195 keys and inlets. You’ll find warm, sparkling-clear water and spectacular coral reefs teeming with colour and life. The reefs have evolved into a spectacular display of fissures, chimneys, walls and canyons with over fifty species of coral. Late, great oceanographer Jacques Cousteau famously said that he saw more fish on Cuban reefs than anywhere else in the world.
Scuba enthusiasts find themselves in underwater heaven at such famous diving sites as Cabo Francés on the western coast of the Isla de la Juventud, María la Gorda in the Pinar del Río province just west of Havana, and the Jardines de la Reina islands in the south – a secluded dive spot once favoured by Fidel Castro.
Catch-and-release and fly fisherman will delight in the bonefish – the ultimate sport fish – in Ciénaga de Zapata, the largest wetland in Cuba, or remote Jardines de la Reina. Excellent fresh-water fishing can be found in both man-made and natural lakes all across the island. But of course, big-story fishing (the kind Hemingway wrote about) takes place out at sea. Deep-sea fishing expeditions will challenge you to land a marlin, swordfish or yellowfin from the northern shores, or tarpon from the southern.
Thanks to Cuba’s tranquil waters, sailing along the southern coast of the Archipelago de los Canarreos is a great way to feel the breeze on your face for a day, a week or a month. Drop anchor at one of the hundreds of mooring spots and take a secluded dip, snorkel with sea turtles, and dine al fresco on deck or beach. The port city of Cienfuegos, with its 18th century French accent is a good departure point.