A guide to the
Cuba is one of the best places to go hiking and mountain climbing in the world, just from the sheer number of different mountain ranges that exist and the variety of them as well. You don’t go hiking in Cuba just for the thrill of a hike; you go for the history – like the revolutionary history of the Sierra Maestra mountain range that features the highest peak in Cuba – or you go for the wildlife – like the bio reserve that is Cuchillas del Toa. All of this just happens to be combined with an amazing hike and incredible views across the country.
Sure, the mountains in Cuba are not the highest or the most dangerous mountains you could find – not by a long shot. As everyone knows, if you want that kind of vibe then you head to the Himalayas or the Alps. But that doesn’t mean that the Cuban mountain ranges are anything to be smirked at. Indeed, some of the best days of your trip can be had among the peaks of these mountains.
Just make sure you know everything you need to know before you go. Which is where we come in: our handy little guide is full of everything, from preparation before your trip, to where you should/can go, and even handy little tips to make your trip to the mountain ranges in Cuba more enjoyable.
Before you go
Check for the seasons
Always make sure you’re checking the weather before you go, as there are definitely best times to go hiking and worse times. May to October is the wet season, which means it’s typically a lot warmer and more humid as well. sure, the rain isn’t a constant, and it typically passes very quickly, but it is intense and if you get caught out in it, you’ll get drenched. Some people wouldn’t care, others will just pack a waterproof poncho, but if this is something that’s going to bother you then you should check when’s best to visit depending on what you’re looking for.
Pack plenty of insect repellent
The rainy season is full of difficulties, but the most annoying one is definitely the influx of mosquitoes. They don’t typically carry many diseases here in Cuba, but they are a pain, and the wet season is the mosquito breeding season – so they’re everywhere. Make sure you pack some insect repellent because you won’t be able to find it easily on the mainland.
Learn a little bit of spanish
I mean, you should do this before your trip anyway whether you’re hiking the mountains or not. However, hiking is when its most important – especially if you’re not going with a tour guide or anything. If you get stuck or lost, or you need any help in any way, the last thing you want to get in your way is a language barrier, and you can’t rely on people knowing enough – if any – English when you’re in the remote areas of Cuba. Just cover your back and learn a few key phrases in Spanish before you head out.
Where to go
Cuba has three main mountain ranges, but the actual hikes you can do around the mountains varies a lot, and there is a lot to choose from. There are also mini-mountain hikes that don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella heading of the mountain ranges, but they’re definitely worth having a go at.
The most famous mountains, Sierra Maestra is where Fidel Castro and his allies hid before the Cuban revolution. It’s now an area of absolute profound beauty, located in the Guantanamo Province, and it’s home to the highest mountain in Cuba: Pico Turquino. Don’t worry though, anyone looking for just a simple casual walk through the mountains can stick to the lower ranges instead of venturing to the highest point in Cuba, and still enjoy the natural beauty, stunning scenery, and amazing wildlife/birdlife.
The highest mountain in Cuba, Pico Turquino stands at 1974 metres high – or 6,476 feet. If you’ve got the time, a 3 to 4-day hike is what you need to try and conquer this mountain, staying in mountain refuges along your journey, and accompanied by a specialist guide the whole time. But this isn’t for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced hikers; the terrain is really steep, and the area is the hottest and most humid in all of Cuba. If you make it to the top though, it’s definitely worth the views.
Sierra del Escambray
Protected by the Topes de Collantes Reserve, Sierra del Escambray is Cuba’s second-highest mountain range. It’s an area of intense beauty; from the waterfalls and their abundantly green slopes to Lake Hanabanilla which you can take a boat trip across, and finally to Cola Cambiada, a fantastic trek if you want stunning lake views.
The mountain range rises up to the northwest of Trinidad, just outside of the Valle de Los Ingenios (the Valley of the Sugar Mills), and the steep slopes are covered with pine trees. Its highest point is only 1140 metres high – practically sea level compared with Pico Turquino, and at the range’s heart is a visitor park and hiking area perfect for people of all abilities.
El Yunque just has that ‘something something’ that makes you practically beg to climb it. It’s known as a tabletop mountain, which means that its peak is pretty flat and sprawling, and it looks over the town of Baracoa – which serves as a good base if you want to tackle this particular mountain range.
Known as “the Mighty El Yunque”, the whole area where the mountain can be found is very tropical. As in, it rains most of the time, and it’s pretty hot and humid. Some people choose to go up on horseback, but to be honest, this sounds terrifying and I’d rather get a bit hot and sweaty any day of the week. Up to you though.
Pan de Guajaibón
Perfect if you’re having a city break in Havana but want to mix things up a little bit, Pan de Guajaibóm is only a short distance away from the capital. Found in Viñales, this is where the Sierra de Los Órganos mountain range begins, which combines the Sierra del Rosario mountains before becoming the Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountain range. This is where Pan de Guajaibon comes in: the highest point of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico and one of the major mountains in Cuba.
It sits at 699 metres high and is fantastic for anyone with at least a little bit of experience climbing. I mean, you can tackle it with no experience if you want, but maybe test out the gentler peaks of the Sierra de Los Organos first, just to get the hang of things. Plus, the hills and mountains around here will give you an amazing view of the tobacco fields in Viñales.
Cuchillas del Toa
Declared a biosphere reserve in 1987, Cuchillas del Toa is one of Cuba’s main evolutionary centres, as well as a place of refuge from the Caribbean and American biota. Found nestled between Guantanamo and Holguin, is it one of the largest and most well-preserved mountain ecosystems in the region, with 15 watersheds, and 32 sub-basins.
None of the mountains goes particularly high, especially when compared with the Sierra Maestra region, but the “Ridges of Toa” are a truly breath-taking experience. The nature reserve stretches across 2083 kilometres, so there are plenty of different starting points for a hike along these mountains, and some of the most glorious spots can be found close to the shore.
There is the occasional area around the Cuchillas del Toa mountain range that aren’t protected, and so you will see cattle farming and the like. Sure, this is less pretty, but a fantastic insight into the local culture and way of life for a typical Cuban farmer. If culture’s not quite your thing though, don’t worry; the isolated nature of the reserve means it’s very easy to escape any signs of humanity. Which, of course, is why it was a favourite spot among escaped slaves, running from nearby plantations in the 1800s.
La Gran Piedra
La Gran Piedra is basically just a huge rock that happens to weigh about 63,000 tonnes, right on the peak of the greenest mountain range in Cuba, at about 1234 metres above sea level. So, you know, no big deal, right?
It forms part of the Cordillera de la Gran Piedra mountain range, which is Cuba’s greenest and most biodiverse. Basically, this means the mountain has a refreshingly cool microclimate – miles away from the humidity of Sierra Maestra – but it also has a great footing in history thanks to the 60 plus coffee plantations that were set up nearby by French farmers during the 18th century.
Accessing the National Parks
When you’re travelling in Cuba, you’re actually only allowed access to the national parks if you’re with a local, professional guide. Which isn’t a bad thing, as Cuban guides are very reliable, normally pretty well informed, and can be really fun to hang out with. Plus, there’s a daily limit to the number of people allowed in a park at any one time. So, it’s always best to book your trip well in advance and plan it at the same time as you’d plan the rest of your holiday, so you end up disappointed with nothing to do.
The number one thing you need to make sure you have with you is a good, solid pair of hiking boots. This seems obvious, but honestly, it’s so easy to forget. Trust me. If you’re going hiking, the last thing you want is to be uncomfortable, especially your feet; you’re going to experience the natural beauty of the landscape, which you won’t be able to do if you’re in pain.
Once you’ve made sure you’ve got a good pair of boots, tackle the rest of it. As in, the mosquito spray, the sun cream (vital), the sunglasses, sun hat, plenty of water, snacks (most important, I literally can’t do anything without a few snacks with me). If you’re an avid bird watcher, maybe take a small pair of binoculars with you as well – great for spotting those tiny little birds absolutely treks away.
Drink plenty of water
The weather in Cuba can be really, really humid – especially during the wet season. If you’re hiking up steep mountains, this humidity is going to get the better of you if you don’t stay hydrated, so just make sure you’re always carrying a bottle of water. It’s not always that easy to find, especially thousands of feet in the air on top of a mountain, so when you do find somewhere selling just make you stock up.
Beware the humidity
It’s not just dehydration you have to worry about when you consider the humidity. Surprisingly, humid weather can cause swollen feet when you combine it with hiking and a lot of physical activity. Easily manageable, just remember to bring a bunch of plasters in case this causes blisters, and bear it in mind when buying hiking boots.
Cuba life is different from life in the UK, or US, or a lot of western countries – that just comes with the territory. You need to understand this and appreciate it; sometimes things aren’t going to work the way you want them to, and that’s fine. Be flexible, and you’ll find your trip will be better for it.
Don’t expect 5-star accommodation
If you’re going on a multi-day trip, you’re going to stay in a mountain refuge for at least one night. Makes sense, right? But they’re not lying when they call these mountain refuges; the little huts are super basic, and won’t be anything like your resort back in Varadero. You will, however, be greeted by some very welcoming hosts who will cook you some amazing meals.
Don’t be fooled by the seasons
It can still rain in the dry season – surprising, I know, but it does happen. This isn’t a massive issue unless you’re really averse to rain, but it does mean that the paths can be quite slippery, even if you’re properly equipped. Just something to bear in mind if you visit during the dry season and it does happen to rain.
And there you have it. Everything you need to know to tackle the various different mountains that can be found in Cuba. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, there’s something for everyone, and it’s definitely a trip everyone should try and take at least once in their life.