Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and it is undoubtedly the richest in flora, fauna and extravagantly beautiful landscapes. Its vegetation is extremely diverse with native Cuban plants numbering approximately 6,350 species, 51% of which are endemic. In 1976, nature reserves were established throughout the island to preserve large numbers of its animals and plants.
There are 80 such protected areas in the Cuban archipelago, which include both submarine and terrestrial sites.
When Columbus landed on Cuban shores in 1492 he described the country as ’the most beautiful that human eyes have ever seen’ and some parts of the island have hardly changed since he two established in Cuba in 1512, with its surrounding countryside of towering mountains, huge green rivers winding down to deserted beaches of every shade of sand though palest creamy pink to sparkling black, bordered by lush vegetation and protected from ocean swells and impressive coral reefs.
The tropical rain forest in the Sagua-Baracoa Mountains is verdant and beautiful; it contains a variety of ferns, mosses and orchids and is considered the best region in the island for birdwatchers. Such species as the Cuban Green Woodpecker, the Cuban Vireo, the Red-legged Honeycreeper, the Stripe-headed Tanager, the Oriente Warbler, the Cuban Solitaire and the rare Giant Kingbird, Tyrannus Cubensis, may be seen there.
The Cays are another entrancing holiday spot for those keen to appreciate Cuban natural life. In the Jardines del rey archipelago there are over 700 species of flora, 958 species of fauna and 900 species of fish on the second largest coral reef in the world, only surpassed by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Every year at Cayo Largo del Sur Visitors have the exciting experience of seeing hundreds of turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs.
Varadero’s famous beach resort, usually only thought of in terms of sunbathing and cocktails, is also popular with birdwatchers as it is only a few hours drive away from the Zapata Peninsula, the largest wetland in the East Indies.
Cuba is widely considered to be the best Caribbean island for bird-watching and the Zapata Peninsula is extraordinarily rich in species. Visitors arriving in the winter will see the greatest range of different birds, as winter residents and transients are in the area during that period, but in the summer one may observe greater courtship and nest-building activity amongst the native species including the Zapata Rail, the Zapata Wren and the Zapata Sparrow.
In response to visitors’ enthusiasm about Cuban wildlife, a number of very special places to stay have been created in some of the island’s most beautiful natural settings. One of these is the Hotel La Moka in Las Terrazas biosphere. The rolling hills in the area are still thick with the semideciduous forest which originally covered most of the island. The main species of tree to be seen at las Terrazas are cedar ( Cedrela odorata) Turpentine Tree (Bursera simaruba), Ginger Tree (Cordia Gerascanthus), Hog Plum (Spondias Mombin) and Lancewood (Oxandra lanceolata).
Typical birds found in the area are the Yellow-headed Warbler, the Oriente Warbler, the Cuban Screech-Owl, the Cuban Pygmy-Owl, the Stygian Owl, the Cuban Trogon, the Blue-headed Quail-dove, the Gray-headed Quail-Dove and wintering migrant warblers.
In the west of the island there are numerous areas of extraordinary natural beauty to be enjoyed, particularly the Valley of Viñales, in which rock formations known as ‘mogotes’ tower over the red earth and shimmering viridian tobacco fields. Down in Viñale, when graceful curls of blue mist rise from the valley floor and wreath around the trunks of the Royal Palms, are loud with birdsong.
Cuba’s natural pine forest contain four endemic species: Pinus caribaea, Pinus cubensis, Pinus maestrensis and Pinus tropicales, all of which are found in Pinar del Río, whose name means ‘Pinewood of the River’. Birds typically seen there include the Olive-capped Warbler, the Cuban Solitaire, the Cuban Grassquit, the Red-legged Honeycreeper and the Stripe-headed Tanager.
It is not necessary to travel vast distances from the main cities to experience the natural beauties of the island. Do what Cuban city-dwellers do on hot summer weekends: pack a picnic, jump in the card and head for the hills to spend the dayfrolicking in natural swimming pools and waterfalls. Access to these areas is carefully controlled to avoid crowding and too much pressure on the natural environment, which ensures an even more enjoyable day… but it also means you must go early to be among the lucky ones. Many people consider the hills and rivers to be preferable to the beach; the streams tumbling down from the mountains are much cooler than the sea and there’s nothing so idyllic as floating on one’s back in a deep green freshwater pool, staring up at the soaring walls of bamboo festooned with flowering creepers, and afterwards baking yourself dry on the sun-warmed rocks while drinking a cold beer.