Adventure Cuba – It’s more than white sandy beaches
When someone tells you that they’re visiting Cuba, it’s tempting to drift towards a stereotype, imagining their holiday one of two ways. You may just assume that they’re planning to explore the obvious charms of Havana, where the colours don’t conform to the architecture they’re painted on, and the marvellous Mojitos and magical music don’t conform to “just one as a nightcap” or “play it slow”.
Alternatively, you may think that they’re going to lie in a sun lounger by the pool, airport novel slipping slowly from dormant fingers as the lunchtime Daiquiri lulls them into sun-kissed slumber. After all, Cuba is seeing a boom in luxury 5-star tourism around Havana as well as next to the magnificent beaches.
However, Cuba is, more than ever, a multi-layered destination which offers something for thrill-seekers and fitness fans too. There’s loads to do for those who want to dive to a deeper level rather than just relaxing for fourteen days on a white sandy beach soaking up the Caribbean sun.
Having exploded in popularity to become one of the Caribbean’s most visited travel destinations, Cuba is catering for more and more trekking tours, mountain hiking trips, caving excursions, paragliding adventures and scuba-diving experiences than ever before. And they’re exciting to boot.
Using Cuba’s natural strengths
For the increasing number of travellers visiting Cuba and wishing to partake in the many new experiences that are now widely available, enthusiastically participating in a wide choice of extreme sports and thrilling pursuits, this Caribbean island doesn’t break sweat.
Geologically, geographically, climatically and on an oceanic level, Cuba doesn’t have to try very hard to accommodate all these adrenaline-junkies.
Without writing an academic thesis on the subject, it’s difficult to sum up just how fascinating Cuba is when it comes to geology and geography. People quip that the island is a “happy accident” of Time’s meanderings, and it’s true.
Visitors only have to visit the stunning Vinales Valley towards the west coast with its other-worldy Mogotes, or the eastern “Yunque” sprouting from the lush vertiginous rainforest, to see the plethora of flora, fauna, and mountainous majesty here.
When you add in the azure surf lapping at the white sandy beaches and the unspoilt coral reefs which provide ample housing for numerous species of sea life, it’s easy to conclude that being entertained here is not difficult.
Five experiences we recommend for adventurous souls looking to explore Cuba
If you are a thrill-seeker visiting Cuba, maybe looking for some adventure and to work up a bit of a sweat, apart from cycling, there are many activities you can get involved in all over the island.
Here are some ideas we would suggest to travellers who look to live life slightly more on the edge!
Trekking El Yunque in Baracoa
Located near the beautiful town of Baracoa which itself was described by Columbus as “one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen”, and surrounded by cocoa plantations and royal palms, stands a 575 metre monster. Known as “El Yunque” or The Anvil, it is one of Cuba’s national and natural treasures.
El Yunque mountain is an imposing feature on the landscape, rising high and imperious against the skyline before levelling out at its summit, forming a gigantic jagged table-top, like a giant’s tooth.
People have been climbing El Yunque for centuries, and for various reasons. There are traces of long-gone civilisations and ancient peoples, as well as stories of how French colonists fled here to escape revolutionary Haitian slaves. It’s not difficult to see why it would make a good place to hide oneself. The jungle is thick and dense, and it’s a tough climb to the top. Some of the ascents are very steep and are rated as “medium to complex” climbs.
What’s more, the humidity of 75% and the constant 30-degree temperatures mean that you’ll sweat fairly profusely – great if you’re looking for a workout, but it does make bringing hydration essential.
Happily though, people now climb El Yunque for recreation, and not out of necessity. As stated, it’s not an easy climb and will take a reasonably fit and healthy person around three hours to reach the summit. But, is it worth it? The answer is resoundingly – yes!
Guides are always provided for the visitors’ safety as the paths can be difficult to navigate at times. The trails wind through cocoa plantations and the paths become overgrown and arduous to follow. One gets the impression that if tourists were left to find their own way up on their own, they could easily find themselves lost.
Hikers are able to admire the exotic insects and birds and it’s even possible to top up on energy levels by picking any fruit you may see by the side of the trails.
However, despite the heat and the humidity, this part of Cuba is fairly wet, and the sporadic heavy rains generally make the paths very muddy and extremely slippery. Good hiking boots are an absolute necessity if you’re going to undertake any one of these routes.
When you come to the top of El Yunque, the sights to behold are quite simply marvellous. It’s a view you’ll hold on to for the rest of your life. This visual banquet is a veritable feast for your eyes. You can scan a panorama consisting of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, while set before it, the tropical forest you’ve trekked through.
Baracoa lies on the coast, nestled contentedly between the two, and despite being just 575 metres high, it seems as though you’re touching the clouds, almost as though you’ve climbed to the top of Cuba.
When the time comes to rejoin civilisation and descend again, the good news is that going down is easier than climbing up. In two hours, you’ll reach the River Duaba where you can swim in a natural pool nearly four metres deep, with very clear, transparent and uncontaminated waters.
After the humid, sweaty ascent and the slippery, muddy descent, plunging into the cool waters of the Duaba definitely comes second place after the views from the summit!
Climbing El Yunque is not a walk in the park. It is long, muddy and tiring, and if you’re more of a beach person, maybe this isn’t for you.
However, if you’re a keen walker and you fancy a challenge, it is a “must-see” activity. As hikes go, this is one of the most rewarding ones you’ll ever go on, and will no doubt be one of the most memorable moments from your trip.
Climbing in Vinales
So, you feel as though you need something more strenuous than trekking up a 575 metre mountain in 30 degree heat for 3 hours? Right, let’s talk about rock climbing in Vinales Valley.
This is the prime rock-climbing area not just in Cuba, but in the whole Caribbean. Every year, hundreds of visitors to the island come here having accepted the challenge to scale the sheer rock faces – a challenge laid down by the fearsome “Mogotes” which are just another geological marvel about which Cuba can boast.
If you’ve never heard of them, Mogotes are isolated but steep-sided residual hills, composed of either limestone, marble, or dolomite.
They’re surrounded by flat alluvial plains and stand out for having rounded, tower-like forms. In short, they look strange, imposing, and difficult to climb. Therein lies the temptation.
Because the Vinales Valley is surrounded by vast expanses of tobacco plantations and over 50 square miles of almost unrivalled natural beauty, this part of the island is the second-most visited tourist destination in Cuba after Havana.
It’s also important to know that climbing these Mogotes, which can be up to 300 metres in height, is evidently not for novices. Some of the faces are sheer, and climbers obviously need all the relevant climbing equipment, safety gear, and a lot of enthusiasm.
However, the locals around Vinales, as well as the farmers that till the land are pretty enterprising. Not only can you rent all of the things you’ll need to climb, but you can also board and eat in the “casas particulares” (bed & breakfasts) that the locals offer.
Usually they’re their homes, but it’s not hard to set a few extra places at the table when the prices, though cheap for North Americans and Europeans, are the equivalent to a month’s pay in Cuba. Plus, the food’s authentic, the Mojitos are strong, and the stars shine bright in the night sky. It’s not a bad place to stay all things considered.
If you don’t have a lot of experience though, fear not. There are numerous places to find guides and climbing assistants, and there’s even an Information Centre to give you all the instructions you’ll need.
Scuba diving in Jardines de la Reina
The archipelago of Jardines de la Reina is one of the largest natural parks in Cuba and the best diving area around. Situated 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, it’s famous for having the highest levels of marine conservation in the entire Caribbean. As a result, the sea life that can be seen under the surface of the water is unforgettable.
Divers can expect to see pristine coral reefs and all the sea life that inhabits them, myriad types of tropical fish, numerous different types of turtles, and, if it’s your thing – sharks.
You’re practically guaranteed sightings of large Caribbean reef sharks and silky sharks. Furthermore, it’s also possible to encounter lemon sharks, hammerhead sharks, nurse sharks and blacktip sharks depending on the time of year it is.
However, because the sharks are used to seeing divers, they tend to approach out of curiosity rather than malice and they’re genuinely not to be feared. Watching them this close is simply spectacular.
The conditions for diving in Jardines de la Reina are pleasant too. There’s almost no current, the water is warm and the visibility underwater is amazing. The clarity under the surface allows divers to see distances up to 100 feet or more, thus ensuring you’ll be able to see the lush gardens of soft corals, marine sponges and sea fans.
This stunning area is 840 square miles of aquatic beauty, and significant research has been carried out there by the World Wildlife Federation in order to protect it further. Jardines de la Reina was declared a protected national park in 1996 and since then, fishing in the area has been limited.
As a happy consequence, there has been a significant increase in the fish population and marine biologists have also recorded a hike in numbers of vulnerable and endangered species.
In order to maintain the quality of the reef, only 500 people are allowed to dive each year, massively restricting human consequences on the natural habitat.
Overall, it’s a safe environment that beginner and experienced divers alike can enjoy. The marine life on offer to see here is some of the world’s best, and it’s guaranteed to be an experience that will stay with you the rest of your life.
Exploring Cuba’s wondrous caves
You may immediately think that evolutionary speaking, we’re regressing if we start promoting going back into caves whence we emerged, bleary-eyed into the light, hundreds of thousands of years ago.
However, after seeing some of the caves that Cuba has to offer, you may wonder why ancient humans decided to leave them in the first place.
Although not exactly cosy, the aesthetic beauty within is so staggering, they’d have every interior designer in Rome or New York open-mouthed.
There’s something truly remarkable about descending into the depths of the earth and being surrounded by ancient rock that has been there for countless millennia.
What’s more, Cuba fully recognises the archaeological importance of their numerous cave networks and has taken large steps forward in order to protect them. Many of them have been adapted so that they can be explored by visitors of any age or level of physical fitness too.
While Austria, Mexico, Slovenia and New Zealand all have networks of caves claiming to be the best, the caves in Cuba are by far the most user friendly.
In addition, it’s not as though there’s just one place in Cuba to visit these caves, they’re all over the island!
Tourists can visit the aforementioned Vinales Valley to see some of the best caves in Cuba, or alternatively near to the town of Matanzas where you can see Saturn’s Cave.
This cave is about 20 metres deep and is full of stalactites and stalagmites. That’s not all though. There’s also a small lake which is about 18 metres deep, and as the water is crystal clear, you can see right down to the bottom. Tourists are free to plunge in and indulge in various aquatic activities like swimming or snorkelling.
There are also caves in Bellamar which experts estimate are over 300,000 years old. After exploring the massive 2.5 kilometres of underground tunnels and subterranean trails, see if you can find the hidden pool, known as the “Fountain of Youth”!
Last but not least are the famous caves at Varadero where it can be pleasant to chill, literally, after a hot and humid day out in the sunshine.
You could say that exploring the caves in Cuba is a deep experience on many levels.
Paragliding in Jibacoa
I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
The high untrespassed sanctity of space.”
What else has Man wanted to do ever since he conquered the land and the sea? He has cast his eyes sunwards and has reached out to touch the blue.
At least in Cuba it’s usually blue.
If you’re left scratching your chin and thinking that hiking, trekking, climbing rock faces, scuba diving and caving isn’t quite what you’re looking for – or maybe you’ve done them and got the T-shirt – then how about paragliding?
This has been prevalent in Cuba since the mid-1990s and there’s a relatively small, but highly experienced pool of experts and aficionados.
In Pinar del Rio for example, there’s a fully functioning Cuban Aviation Club which includes skydiving, model plane flying, sports aviation and paragliding.
The Cuban experts say that the best locations for paragliding are on the Isla de la Juventud, Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara and an area just outside Havana called Mayabeque.
Paragliding is an exhilarating and highly thrilling activity. Those who have done it eulogise about it, and those that haven’t done it often speak fondly of trying it.
Once you are up high in free flight, the feeling is indescribable. You feel an incredible sense of peace and tranquillity, a humbling majesty of how vulnerable humans become when in the air. Twenty years into the 21st century, this calmness is almost impossible to attain on terra firma.
Which adventure is for you?
Cuba is a breathtaking country. It’s a booming travel destination that leaves visitors both enraptured and amazed. It’s fun and relaxed, magical and multi-layered. What’s more, people who visit Cuba usually come away vowing to return.
The most important thing however, is that there’s genuinely loads to discover and a plethora of things to do. Visitors to Cuba simply cannot get bored.
Many tourists who visit Cuba don’t leave Havana’s city limits, as the dilapidated but beautifully unkempt colonial architecture, the meticulously preserved historic heritage and the untethered musicality is enough for them.
Others seek the pristine beaches for long strolls across the white sands or paddling in the gently lapping tides of the turquoise ocean.
Still others pursue the scent of something more. They chase the perfume of awe-inspiring nature, the aroma of the hiking trails, the fragrance of the subterranean stalactites in deep caves, the thrill of a shark swimming just feet away from you, and the magnificent liberty of soaring on air.
People say that Cuba is like a “prince in a poor man’s coat; behind the shabby facades, gold dust lingers.” Go, my friends, go and find that gold dust.
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