Cuba has more than 400 white-sand beaches but it’s also home to seven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites. Nearly a quarter of the country is protected, including seven biosphere reserves and seven national parks.
Sunrise at the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata, one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean region and protected as a Biosphere Reserve since 2001. Matanzas Province, Cuba.
That’s why more visitors are heading to Cuba’s historic cities, such as Trinidad — considered the best-preserved colonial city in the Western Hemisphere — which is often compared to an open-air museum. The UNESCO-designated colonial town is home to once-grand mansions and palaces built from sugar plantation fortunes during the 18th and 19th centuries. The adjacent Valle de los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugar Mills, is also a UNESCO site.
With its Spanish-style churches, wrought-iron grillwork and cobblestone streets — filled with the sounds of local musicians playing salsa — Trinidad is considered a jewel of colonial architecture. Founded in 1514 by Spanish conquistadors, it’s a city frozen in time, with 500 years of perfectly preserved history.
This historic gem is also ringed by natural attractions, thanks to its location along the Caribbean Sea and set against the slopes of the Sierra del Escambray mountain range. Just south of Trinidad lies Playa Ancon, considered the best beach in the south of mainland Cuba; most beaches in the area can be found on Casilda Bay, with excellent snorkeling and diving.
For visitors looking to go beyond the beach and explore Cuba’s well-preserved natural attractions, Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, located on the Zapata Peninsula in Cuba’s southern Matanzas province, is about 160 kilometres from Trinidad. It’s also part of the larger Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-designated reserve covering 2,300 square miles — considered one of the largest remnants of coastal Caribbean biodiversity.
The reserve has a diverse ecosystem, from grasslands to mangrove forests, evergreen coastal forests and coral reefs in coastal lagoons — an ideal home for wildlife, from local and migratory birds to rock crabs, lizards and crocodiles. Birders can find the International Bird Watching Center here and try to spot the 372 species that call Ciénaga de Zapata home.
While visitors may not have heard of Ciénaga de Zapata, they’ve likely heard of the Bay of Pigs — located in this region — where a failed military invasion by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group took place in 1961. While history buffs will be interested in visiting this area, the Bay of Pigs is also a highlight for snorkellers and divers, with visibility reaching up to 20 metres and all sites accessible by shore. Experienced divers can also explore underwater caves that are part of the Montemar cave system, some of which are up to 70 metres deep.
Sun-worshippers and nature lovers alike will find something along Cuba’s southern coast — a relatively ‘undiscovered’ region where visitors will discover Cuba’s unspoiled natural beauty.
As originally published by the Toronto Star.