From coniferous mountaintops and cloud forests to iridescent coral reefs humming with marine life, the island of Cuba is an ecological phenomenon. The last bastion of undeveloped Caribbean beauty, it is a sanctuary for many species that have disappeared from all other places on earth. Aptly nicknamed “The Pearl of the Antilles,” Cuba boasts the largest expanse of unharmed reefs, swamplands, and rainforest, as well as the greatest diversity of plants, birds, and marine species, in all of the Caribbean. The island’s unique geological composition and strong emphasis on preservation have helped it maintain a natural mystique.
The elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, for example, known for its fiery scarlet crown, was feared extinct for decades after zoologists failed to prevent its apparent extinction. Many had resolved to accept defeat in the face of ecological degradation and climate change until in 1987, a group of scientists venturing through miles of unexplored mountainous forests in Cuba’s eastern provinces glimpsed a pair of these massive birds. The mystical woodpeckers found their last opportunity for survival on the sanctuary island of Cuba.
Rumor has it that when Columbus first arrived in Cuba, he declared it “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” Wading through the tepid waters of the Ciénaga de Zapata, ultra-fine grains of white sand slipping between the toes, with nothing but miles of transparent turquoise water expanding to the horizon in all directions, visitors would be hard-pressed to argue. This Biosphere Reserve*, located in the Matanzas province, is the largest swampland in the Caribbean, and you're more likely to encounter flamingos than humans while traveling through the roughly 80,000 acre expanse of shallow ocean.
The ride inland features tarpon, turtles, crocodiles, and other aquatic creatures milling through the crystalline waters. Mangroves thicken to create emerald tunnels, and a cacophony of bird calls produces a deafening Amazonian orchestra. Many consider Cuba a Pleistocene (Ice Age) Refuge; its unique ecosystem allowed many species to survive periods of climate change, contributing to the island’s astonishing biodiversity. Furthermore, many of the rocks that comprise Cuba’s surface are toxic to plants and as a result, plant and animal species were forced to evolve at an expedited rate. Significant portions of flora and fauna are native to the island, and as many as 80% of Cuba’s reptile and amphibian species cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
The southeastern side of the island is dominated by the Sierra Maestra, recognized in modern times for being Fidel Castro’s stronghold during the revolution. Yet the environmental value of this mountain range rising abruptly from the eastern coastline precedes its revolutionary history. The 150-mile mountain range is home to Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest point at 6,476 feet. A climb to the top is relatively feasible for active travelers, and although the journey typically takes only two to three days it leads through such distinct ecological zones that you’ll feel you’ve circled the world. From a soft, pine-covered path littered with colossal boulders, to ridges lined with tall grasses that whistle in the breeze, to steep stretches so thick with fog that it’s impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, the trek to the top is anything but monotonous. Breathtaking vistas along the way offer humbling views of blue and green-toned beauty stretching on for eternity. Hikers should take advantage of these panoramic rest stops, because the peak’s summit is flat, surrounded by trees, usually bathed in clouds, and therefore does not offer a phenomenal vantage point.
Regardless of where you find yourself within the 3,500 miles of Cuban coastline, you are certain to be surrounded by unparalleled biodiversity and pristine natural beauty.