11 UNESCO Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves in Cuba you could turn into a brilliant itinerary
If you’d trust UNESCO rather than TripAdvisor to plan your trips, here’s a list of UNESCO-designated sites in Cuba, and our tips on how to turn Cuba’s UNESCO Heritage Sites list into an amazing itinerary
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean but a relatively small island nonetheless, boasts an impressive total of 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Upon looking at the list for the first time, I though it could serve as perhaps the simplest, yet most rigorously selected holiday planner available to travellers. Or, at the very least, and excellent starting point to plan a holiday to Cuba.
Here’s the list, sorted by proximity to Havana were most holidays in Cuba start:
- Old Havana and its Fortification System
- The Valley of Vinales
- Trinidad and the Sugar Mills Valley
- Zapata Swamp
- Buenavista Biosphere Reserve
- Historic Centre of Camaguey
- Morro Castle in Santiago de Cuba
- First Coffee Plantations in Eastern Cuba
- Alejandro Humboldt Natural Park
- Granma Natural Park
How to turn the list of UNESCO Heritage sites in Cuba into an amazing itinerary.
If you only have a week or two to spend in Cuba on your holidays, covering all 11 sites in one trip could be too ambitious. But the first 6 UNESCO Heritage sites are relatively in close proximity to each other and can easily be turned into a fantastic itinerary.
Cuba’s UNESCO Heritage Sites in Detail
From the impressive Spanish fortresses protecting the bay of Havana to the vernacular architecture and centuries old traditions surrounding the tobacco industry and the large expanses of protected lands inhabited by hundreds of endemic species, the list of UNESCO heritage sites in Cuba highlight the sheer diversity and astonishing beauty of Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean Islands.
1. Old Havana and its Fortification System
Since its founding in 1519, Havana became one of the main centres of Spanish colonial power in the Americas, and a priceless trade route between the colonies in the Americas and the port of Cadiz in Spain.
Constantly harassed by the British, French, and Dutch empires, both royal fleets and pirates, Havana developed an impressive defence network around its bay, well preserved until present day. The three main fortifications of the Morro Castle, La Cabana, and La Fuerza castle stand guard in strategic positions around the bay. And the historic quarters hold colonial architectural gems like the Havana Cathedral, the Government Buildings (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and Palacio del Segundo Cabo), and several squares.
“ The historic fortunes of Havana were a product of the exceptional function of its bay as an obligatory stop on the maritime route to the New World, which consequently necessitated its military protection. The extensive network of defensive installations created between the 16th and 19th centuries includes some of the oldest and largest extant stone fortifications in the Americas, among them La Cabaña fortress on the east side of the narrow entrance canal to Havana Bay, Real Fuerza Castle on the west side, and Morro castle and La Punta castle guarding the entrance to the canal.”
Source: World Heritage Sites, UNESCO
2. The Valley of Vinales
Vinales, the land of the iconic Cuban cigars and one of Cuba’s finest areas of outstanding natural beauty, lies about 2 hours east of Havana.
According to UNESCO
“The Viñales Valley is an outstanding karst landscape in which traditional methods of agriculture (notably tobacco growing) have survived unchanged for several centuries. The region also preserves a rich vernacular tradition in its architecture, its crafts, and its music.”
3. Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios
Trinidad, located south of Santa Clara and west of Cienfuegos in the southern coast of Cuba, is hands down Cuba’s best-preserved colonial town. The Escambray mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this coastal village, and the Caribbean sea boats its majestic expanse of turquoise waters a stone-throw away from the town centre.
UNESCO explains it’s decision to include Trinidad in the World Heritage Sites:
“Shaped by the region’s 18th- and 19th-century sugar industry, the exemplary city of Trinidad owes to sugar its continued existence and its historical raison d’être, which is clearly legible in the existing built environment of the city and the nearby Valley de los Ingenios.
The Valley de los Ingenios is a remarkable testimony to the development of the sugar industry and a living museum featuring 75 former sugar mills, plantation houses, barracks and other facilities related to this vulnerable industry.”
4. Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos
Lovingly called by Cubans “The Pearl of the South”, Cienfuegos is anything but your typical colonial town. It’s uncharacteristic nature comes from its origins. Founded by French colonists, and one of the last cities founded in Cuba, it’s layout and French-influenced architecture makes it a distinctly different city in Cuba.
“ The Historic town of Cienfuegos exhibits an important interchange of influences based on the Spanish Enlightenment, and its is an outstanding early example of their implementation in urban planning in Latin America, in the 19th century.
Cienfuegos is the first and an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble representing the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order, in urban planning as these developed in the Latin America, from the 19th century.”
5. Zapata Swamps Biosphere Reserve
Located in the centre of the island, southern coast, lies the expanse of wetlands locally known as the Zapata Swamps. The name derives from the shape of the peninsula resembling a boot. It is the home of the Cuban crocodile and many other species like the pink flamingo. The area also has several sites of historical interest like Bay of Pigs and Playa Giron, and tourist attractions like Cueva de los Peces, a 70m-deep natural sinkhole popular with snorkellers and divers.
“ This reserve shows a great diversity of ecosystems and land cover types as grasslands, mangrove forests, Ciénaga forest , and semi-deciduous forest, evergreen coastal and sub-coastal forest; coastal and sub-coastal matorral, and coral reefs with principal coral species and coastal lagoons. The area also supports the main populations of the Cuban crocodile (Cocodrilus rhombifer) and American crocodile (C. acutus) and birds as the great flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber).”
6. Buenavista Biosphere Reserve
The Buenavista reserve covers some of the islets (cays or keys) in the northern coast of Cuba, towards the centre of the Island. The Buenavista Biosphere Reserve has eleven core areas in two National Parks: Caguanes and Santa Maria Key and two Fauna refuges: west of ’Santa Maria‘ Key and ’Las Loras‘ key. These core areas contain extraordinary natural, historical and cultural values with 35 archaeological sites and caves with rural art and wall paintings.
Cayo Santa Maria in particular was exclusively a biosphere reserve only accessible by boat up until 1999 when works started to open the island to tourism.
A 62-mile long natural stone causeway linking Cayo Santa Maria with Cuba’s mainland was finished then, and the first beach resort opened in 2001. At this time, there’s 17 hotels in total.
The area is known for its outstanding natural beauty, diverse flora and fauna, and for boasting some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Despite the arrival of tourism, the area retains its natural feel and the biosphere reserve remains well protected.
It is an incredible place for diving, snorkelling, deep-sea fishing, exploring the stunning natural surroundings, and relaxing by the beach.
7. Historic Centre of Camagüey
Camaguey is definitely off-the-beaten-track. Away from tourist centres and historically linked to agriculture and cattle breeding, it retains all of its authenticity and character. A beautiful town well worth a visit on the way to Guardalavaca or Santiago de Cuba.
“One of the first seven villages founded by the Spaniards in Cuba, Camagüey played a prominent role as the urban centre of an inland territory dedicated to cattle breeding and the sugar industry. Once settled in its current location in 1528, the town developed on the basis on an irregular urban pattern that contains a system of squares, minor squares, serpentine streets, alleys and irregular urban blocks, highly exceptional for Latin American colonial towns located in plain territories.”
8. San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba
The imposing castle overlooking the bay of Santiago offers dramatic views of the city and the historic bay, theatre of war for the crucial confrontation between US and Spanish navies in 1898 that help Cuba free itself from colonial power but frustrated the ideal of an independent Cuba as the island became a republic largely controlled by US interests.
“Constructed in response to the aggressive commercial and political rivalries that menaced the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Castle of San Pedro de la Roca and its associated defensive works are of exceptional value because they constitute the largest and most comprehensive example of the principles of Renaissance military engineering adapted to the requirements of European colonial powers in the Caribbean.
The Castle, a classic bastioned fortification in which geometrical form, symmetry and proportionality between sides and angles predominate, is an outstanding representative of the Spanish-American school of military architecture.”
9. Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba
Close to Santiago de Cuba, at the foothills of the majestic Sierra Maestra, lie the first coffee plantations ever built in Cuba. French and Haitian immigration were primarily responsible for this development. A little known fact about Cuba is that, along with Tobacco, Sugar, and Rum, Cuba was for a time one of the world’s largest exporters of coffee in the world. Cubans love their coffee, black and bitter espresso style in the morning. You should try it too.
10. Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Sierra Maestra, rich in history, richer in biodiversity. The Alejandro de Humboldt National park boast an impressive list of more than 1,300 seed plants and 145 species of ferns, of which more than 900 are endemic to Cuba and more than 340 locally endemic, respectively. The degree of endemism of vertebrates and invertebrates is likewise extremely high. About a third of the mammals and insects, a fifth of the birds, and vast majority of the reptiles, and amphibians are Cuban or even local endemics. As for the marine biodiversity the West Indian Manatee deserves to be noted as a flagship species.
“Complex geology and varied topography have given rise to a diversity of ecosystems and species unmatched in the insular Caribbean and created one of the most biologically diverse tropical island sites on earth. Many of the underlying rocks are toxic to plants so species have had to adapt to survive in these hostile conditions. This unique process of evolution has resulted in the development of many new species and the park is one of the most important sites in the Western Hemisphere for the conservation of endemic flora. Endemism of vertebrates and invertebrates is also very high.”
11. Desembarco del Granma National Park
Protected by legislation that prevents any human interference in the area, this National park is an off-the-beaten-track gem in close proximity to historic Bayamo, the city known for its pyromaniacal tradition: it was burned to the ground twice by its inhabitants rather than allowing Spanish colonial forces to take the town.
The name of the park which translates as “Granma Landing National Park” refers to the name of the yacht, “Granma” that transported the 82 guerrilla fighters that started the Cuban Revolution from Mexico to Las Coloradas beach, part of the national park, in 1956. The group included Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, and Che Guevara. Cuban army forces, alerted about the landing site, were waiting for them. Around 20 of the 82 guerrilla fighters survived the gunfight that followed. The Yatch Granma is in permanent display at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.
“The area, which is situated in and around Cabo Cruz in south-east Cuba, includes spectacular terraces and cliffs, as well as some of the most pristine and impressive coastal cliffs bordering the western Atlantic.”
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