10 of Cuba's Best Natural Attractions

Unseen wonders

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Thanks to the easing of travel restrictions and the start of commercial air service, more Americans will soon be able to go to Cuba. Because the island has been off-limits to U.S. tourists for so long, travelers might not know what to expect. They've probably seen plenty of images of charmingly outdated urban scenes, beaches, tobacco farms and coffee plantations.

In many parts of Cuba, however, nature is the main attraction. The island has an impressive array of national parks, preserves and other protected areas that are only now coming onto the tourism radar, like Viñales National Park, seen here. Remaining travel restrictions still make independent tourism difficult for Americans, but not impossible — as this government document explains. That said, there's a growing list of tour companies that can help with the red tape and put people in touch with the island’s impressive ecotourism scene. Here are 10 destinations in Cuba that let the country's stunning natural beauty shine.

Cayo Coco

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Cayo Coco is a remote island destination. It's connected to the mainland and adjacent Cayo Guillermo by a long causeway, but many visitors arrive by air. The uncrowded beaches are the star of the show here. All beaches in Cuba are public, so it's possible to hike for a long distance along the island's coast. Unfortunately, emerged coral sits between Coco's sandy areas. Locals call the sharp reef remnants "dog's teeth," and appropriate footwear is necessary for anyone who wants to hike beside the water.

The island is also known for its bird watching and offshore excursions such as fishing, catamaran cruises, snorkel tours, swimming with dolphins, and canoe trips along the mangrove forests. El Baga Natural Park is an ecotourism theme park with interpretive programs and conservation classes. The park is named after the local baga tree, which grows in swampy areas and has edible fruit that has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes.

Zapata Biosphere Reserve

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Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) contains one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean. It is officially designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The area has been zealously protected, so nature is thriving. Many of the visitors who come here find similarities between Zapata and the Florida Everglades. One of the main differences: Zapata has Cuban crocodiles instead of alligators.

Zapata is also known as one of the world's best bird-watching destinations. Birdwatchers flock to Ciénaga de Zapata National Park and to Laguna de las Salinas, which are both within the biosphere reserve. Some 280 of the 350 birds that have been spotted in Cuba have been seen in these wetland areas.

Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park

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Guanahacabibes National Park lies within the Guanahacabibes Peninsula UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which was created in the 1980s. With the nearest large population center more than two hours away, this is one of the most remote places in Cuba.

The interior areas of Guanahacabibes are covered by forest, while mangrove swamps can be found along parts of the park's coastline. Deer, iguanas and more than 100 species of birds call the area home. The sandy sections of shoreline boast sea turtle nesting sites that are among the most active in Cuba. Meanwhile, tourists seeking a deserted beach can head to María la Gorda, which has a single hotel and a dive shop, but nothing else except for a seemingly endless stretch of sand.

Topes de Collantes

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Topes de Collantes is a protected area in the Escambray Mountains. The name Topes de Collantes comes from a 2,500-foot peak within the preserve. The landscapes here are characterized by caves, waterfalls, rivers and plenty of greenery and wildlife. One of the local waterways, the Caburni River, boasts the area’s most photo-worthy falls.

Topes de Collantes embraces its ecotourism allure with "ecology trails" and the Hacienda Codina, which has special mud baths and gardens where medicinal herbs are grown. The preserve also features rare orchid species and towering ferns, some of which look more like palm trees!

Hanabanilla Lake

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Hanabanilla Lake was built as a reservoir during the reign of the Batista government before the communist revolution. Because of the way the reservoir was constructed, the underwater topography is ideal for freshwater fish. Indeed, the main attraction here is fishing. Hanabanilla is especially known for its oversized largemouth bass.

The lake is in the Escambray Mountains and is considered part of the Topes de Collantes area. Because of the legendary fishing, remoteness and scenery, however, it deserves special mention. The lake is surrounded by tobacco farms, coffee plantations, ranches and dense jungle. The reservoir is fed by several rivers, some of which have waterfalls. Tourists can arrange excursions through the aptly named Hanabanilla Hotel. In addition to fishing, there are hiking and horseback riding options in the mountains above the lake.

Viñales National Park

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Viñales is arguably one of the most scenic places in Cuba. It's also one of the most well-known nature destinations on the island. Tourists flock to this valley to see the picturesque rounded limestone rock formations called mogotes, which rise above the tobacco and banana farms on the floor of the valley.

Aside from the scenery and the chance to see where some of the world’s most celebrated tobacco comes from, visitors can explore caves, including the touristy Cueva del Indio and the more natural Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás. Horseback riding, bird watching tours and rock climbing are also available in Viñales.

Desembarco del Granma National Park

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Desembarco del Granma is another natural area defined by limestone formations. The cliffs and waterfalls here are very close to the coast. In fact, Desembarco has some of the most photo-worthy sea cliffs in the Caribbean.

Not only will visitors find waterfalls, but the rock formations create a kind of unique terraced "stair-like" topography. Mangrove forests can be found along the shoreline and coral reefs provide diving opportunities offshore.

Las Terrazas

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Las Terrazas is an eco-village in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve that got its start during a reforestation effort in the 1960s. At that time, the new trees were planted on terraced hillsides so that they would not be swept away by rain and erosion. Thus the area's name (which is translated as "the Terraces" in English).

Tourists often come here from Havana as part of a daytrip tour, although there's a resort called Hotel Moko and a selection of casas particulares, or private vacation rentals, in the area. Terrazas certainly has enough to warrant an overnight stay. The community has a vibrant arts scene, and trails that crisscross the area are ideal for hiking, bird watching and visiting waterfalls. Las Terrazas is also home to Cuba's oldest operating coffee plantation and one of the country’s only canopy tours.

Soroa Orchid Garden

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The Soroa Orchid Garden is a 7.5-acre attraction in Sierra del Rosario, the same reserve that houses Las Terrazas. The garden features 700 different species of orchid and a host of other ornamental plants. Not only are Cuban orchids studied and displayed here, classes are offered for visitors who want to learn how to cultivate and care for the fragile but beautiful flowers.

It's possible to wander the gardens and greenhouses, but it's far better to view the site with a guide. The garden is not far from Las Terrazas and from Viñales, so it's an ideal itinerary addition for a multi-stop tour in Western Cuba.

Baconao

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At first glance, Baconao seems like a strange destination. Its attractions include an outdoor car museum and a collection of more than 200 life-size concrete dinosaur statues. The parkland, which stretches for more than 300 square miles, is home to about 1,800 plant species and nearly 1,000 species of animals, including the endangered hot cave bat. Baconao also boasts a diverse menu of landscapes. Part of the reserve is in the rugged Maestra Mountain and part of it is along the sea with remote beaches that offer easy access to dozens of attractive dive sites.