Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty – Pinar del Rio

After 25 years of living, working in adventure tourism and criss-crossing Cuba more times than we can count, at WoWCuba we should obviously be intimately familiar with alot of service providers, facilities, activities and areas available to visiting explorers by now. But the largest Island in the greater Antilles has 15 provinces and 1 special municipality, so there are always opportunities to dig deeper on our quest to keep up with new initiatives in farming and ecotourism trends. As a Cuban-Canadian couple we really enjoy and are often inspired by visiting farms, diving, hiking, nature, unique entrepreneurs and indulging in good food. We aren’t suckers for nightlife and avoid discos/hotel-type animation. We love to hit the road in September when the weather cools down just a bit and summer vacationers have disappeared. Following is my wish list so far for what I’d love to squeeze in on our next visit(s) to Pinar del Rio province. Not all places are new to us, but some are.

Dive Maria la Gorda, Blue Hole in Cabo San Antonio
Hike Guanhacabibes “Del Bosque al Mar” or “Cueva las Perlas”, Baby turtle release (mid-Sept) at Playa La Barca
Visit Cueva del Palmarito
Visit Viñales zipline
Visit Mirador/Lookout (22.625503, -83.743849)
Visit “Finca Coco Solo” Farm, “Finca L’Armonia” Farm, Patio MogoteArt, Finca C&J and El Rincón del Café
Visit Palacio de Guasch
Eat El Cuajani
Eat La Berenjena eco restaurant
Eat Agroecological Sunset Restaurant
Eat Jardin del Arte Sano
Drink Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso lookout
Drink Casa del Mojito
Stay Cabo San Antonio
Stay rural Viñales *Mogote Art, Brisas de San Vicente, Finca Media Luna or maybe Las Españolas (affiliate links)
Stay Castillo en las Nubes
Stay|Eat Puerto Esperanza Villa Wendy (affiliate link)

On that list, I have to admit that Mogote Art (available to book on AirBnB, but many  places listed on that platform are available for less $ locally) and Castillo en las Nubes are on the higher end of our personal accommodation budget. That said, we do occasionally spring for an overnight somewhere special and rarely regret it; sometimes we still discover something pretty spectacular along the way that’s not on any tourist radar. We’ll see where the wind blows us this fall. One thing’s for sure; the time we invest into Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty is well-spent. And if you’re one of our lucky guests, then you get the full benefits of our fabulous finds, first-hand experiences and adventures with streamlined planning and targeted recommendations.

 

 

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Protected Areas in Cuba

Over 20% of Cuba’s national territory is protected in 211 diverse land and marine areas.

Pause and reflect on that a moment, and compare that figure to the percentage of protected land/marine areas in other nations. It’s a hugely significant commitment, and not only in terms of implementing protective measures. Commitment to protecting these areas ensures that biodiversity, reforestation, and pure air and water resources are available to future generations. At the same time it’s a daunting task that requires enforcement, human resources, and most importantly implementation of educational programs to ensure visitors and locals alike are fully aware of how to respect the natural elements around them, and the larger significance of those fragile ecosystems to the local and international communities alike. Cuba doesn’t have all the resources it requires to effectively carry out this essential task for such a monumental territory, and it’s why you’ll sometimes see things like illegal extraction of wood from protected woodlots, mindless tourists who divert from designated trails in search of a smart-looking selfie, carelessly discarded trash on nature trails, or parrots and pretty polymita snail shells for sale as you climb La Farola mountain road to Baracoa. Designating the areas for protection is only part of the battle. Educating the public and enforcing their protected status to preserve the priceless natural treasures they contain is the real challenge.

Cuba’s protected areas include:
14 National Parks: Guanahacabibes, Cayos de San Felipe, Viñales, Punta Frances, Zapata Swamp , Los Caimanes, Caguanes, Jardines de la Reina, Pico Cristal, La Mensura-Pilotos, Desembarco del Granma, Turquino, Pico Bayamesa, Alejandro de Humboldt
6 Biosphere Reserves: Geographical zones in which human and economic development is balanced with the conservation and protection of the natural environment in which they are located, in Cuba they include the Sierra del Rosario (PRI/ART), Guanahacabibes Peninsula (PRI), Cuchillas del Toa (HOG/GUA), Baconao (SCU/GUA), Zapata Swamp (MTZ) & Buenavista (VCA/SSP/CDA).
6 Ramsar Sites: Wetlands of international importance, these include the Lanier Swamp & Southern part of the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Buenavista, Wetlands north of Ciego de Avila, Rio Maximo Wetlands, and Delta del Cauto Wetlands.
2 Natural World Heritage Sites: This UNESCO designation is bestowed on select world locations that have been nominated and confirmed for inclusion. In Cuba we are honored to showcase the Desembarco del Granma National Park and the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, both in the eastern end of the island.
28 Areas Important for Bird Conservation: This title is granted by the nonprofit BirdLife International and is designated to areas containing one or more globally threatened species, birds with a restricted distribution range, exclusive of their biome (ecological community), or those that gather in large numbers for reproduction, feeding or migration. The areas include: Mil Cumbres, wetlands south of Pinar del Rio, Sierra del Rosario, Lanier Swamp & South of the the Isle of Youth, Zapata Swamp, Las Picúas-Cayo del Cristo, Cays in the Mid-East of Villa Clara, wetlands south of Sancti Spiritus, Topes de Collantes, Alturas de Banao, great wetlands north of Ciego de Ávila, Sabinal-Ballenatos-Nuevitas Bay Cays, Río Máximo-Cayo Guajaba, Romano-Cruz-Mégano Grande-Paredón Grande Cays, Limones-Tuabaquey (Sierra de Cubitas), Sierra del Chorrillo (Najasa), Turquino-Bayamesa, Desembarco del Granma, Delta del Cauto, Balsas-Cobarrubias coastal region (Gibara), La Mensura, Delta del Mayarí, Pico Cristal, Gran Piedra-Pico Mogote, Siboney-Juticí, Alejandro de Humboldt, Hatibonico-Baitiquirí-Imías

Management of the 211 protected areas is categorized as follows:
4 Natural Reserves: These are protected areas created to preserve the natural habitat from human actions and maintain it as close as possible to its original state. Services to visitors are not offered at these sites.
14 National Parks: These are zones for the care, conservation, recovery or preservation of nature. They are land, marine, or a combination of both in natural or semi natural state, with sparse or no human population, designated to protect ecological integrity.
24 Natural Protected Landscapes: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, managed with goals of protection and maintenance of natural conditions, environmental services and development of sustainable tourism. They do not possess notable value in terms of natural resources, but serve as biological corridors, maintain air quality, water, protect against erosion, and maintain esthetic values, etc. They are generally located in areas of ecological, environmental and touristic interest.
32 Ecological Reserves: These are ecosystems or important regions or natural scenes, in which animal and plant species, the habitat and geomorphological elements, are of special scientific, educational, recreational and touristic importance.
45 Fauna Refuges: These are areas where the protection and management of habitats or species are essential for the subsistence of wild fauna populations.
41 Managed Flora Reserves: These are natural or semi natural areas that require management interventions to ensure the protection and maintenance of natural complexes or ecosystems.
18 Managed Resource Protected Areas: These are areas in natural or semi natural states, whose management is to guarantee the protection and maintenance of biological diversity. They combine conservation with the sustainable use of natural resources to generate certain services that satisfy local needs.
33 Outstanding Natural Elements: These are areas with natural elements of great local significance. They are sometimes located within a larger protected area.

The 211 sites are listed by province and referenced with further details on the SNAP (National System for Protected Areas) website en español.
Other links for references and information en español on Cuba’s protected sites include CITMA and EcuRed.

Protected Areas in Cuba (listed by province)

Pinar del Rio
Managed Resource Protected Areas Mil Cumbres, Guanahacabibes Peninsula
Outstanding Natural Elements Banco San Antonio, La Mina Mogote, Sierra del Pesquero – Mina – Sumidero
National Parks Viñales, Guanahacabibes, Cayo San Felipe
Ecological Reserves Los Pretiles, Sierra de la Guira, Gramales – Cabeza – La Peña, Sierra de San Carlos, Sierra de Guane, Paso Real de Guane
Fauna Refuges Lugones Swamp, Humedal Sur de los Palacios Wetland, Cayo Levisa – Corona de San Carlos, Punta Caribe
Managed Flora Reserves Cerro de Cabras, San Ubaldo – Sabanalamar, Sierra de Contadores – Cayo Ratones, Sierra Preluda – Cuabales de Cajálbana

Artemisa
Managed Resource Protected Areas Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve
Outstanding Natural Elements Santa Cruz River Canyon, Pan de Guajaibón, Soroa Mogote
Natural Protected Landscapes Guajaibón, Ariguanabo River
Fauna Refuges Cayos Las Cayamas – Los Guzmanes
Ecological Reserves El Salón
Managed Flora Reserves San Marcos
Natural Reserves Las Peladas, El Mulo

Havana
Natural Protected Landscapes Ensenada de Portier – Lamas, Isla Josefina, Tarara River Valley, Tiscornia Cove, Rincón de Guanabo, Laguna de Cobre – Itabo
Ecological Reserves La Coca
Managed Flora Reserves Cojímar River mouth, Cuabal de Minas

Mayabeque
Natural Protected Landscapes Escaleras de Jaruco
Fauna Refuges Batabanó Gulf, Southwest of El Inglés
Managed Flora Reserves Galindo, Boca de Canasí, Loma del Grillo

Matanzas
Managed Resource Protected Areas Zapata Peninsula, Yumuri Valley
Outstanding Natural Elements Bellamar Caves, Santa Catalina Cave, Zapata flooded cave system, La Pluma Cave
National Parks Zapata Swamp
Natural Protected Landscapes Varahicacos, Canimar River Valley
Fauna Refuges Cayos de las Cinco Leguas, Sierra Bibanasí, Hanabana Channels, Bermejas, Maya Lake
Ecological Reserves Cayo Mono – Galindo, Bacunayagua
Managed Flora Reserves Tres Ceibas de Clavellinas (home to the Molocactus Matanzanus in the Yumuri Valley)
Cienfuegos
Outstanding Natural Elements Martín Infierno Cave (houses one of the largest stalagmites in the world, in El Colorado, Cumanayagua), Rancho Luna Cove
Natural Protected Landscapes El Plurial, Guajimico, Aguacata – Boca de Carreras, Yaguanabo Valley
Fauna Refuges Guanaroca – Punta Gavilan
Ecological Reserves Pico San Juan

Villa Clara
Outstanding Natural Elements Ojo del Mégano (the deepest underwater cave in Cuba, east-northeast of the Bay of Cadiz)
Natural Protected Landscapes Hanabanilla
National Parks Los Caimanes
Fauna Refuges Cayo Francés, Lanzanillo – Pajonal – Fragoso, Las Picúas – Cayo Cristo, Cayo Santa María, Las Loras
Ecological Reserves Mogotes de Jumagua
Managed Flora Reserves Sabanas de Santa Clara, Monte Ramonal

Sancti Spiritus
Managed Resource Protected Areas Buenavista, Jobo Rosado
Outstanding Natural Elements La Chucha, Loma de Tasajera
Natural Protected Landscapes Topes de Collantes
National Parks Caguanes
Fauna Refuges Delta de Agabama, Delta de Higuanojo, Tunas de Zaza
Ecological Reserves Lomas de Banao
Managed Flora Reserves Lomas de Fomento, Arena Sílice de Casilda, Lebrije

Ciego de Avila
Managed Resource Protected Areas Wetlands North of Ciego de Avila
Outstanding Natural Elements Boquerón de Ciego de Avila, Pilar Dunes, Buchillones – Punta Alegre
National Parks Jardines de la Reina
Fauna Refuges Cayos de Ana María, El Venero, Loma de Santa María, Loma de Cunagua, La Lecha – La Laguna Lake System
Ecological Reserves Center and West of Cayo Coco

Camaguey
Managed Resource Protected Areas Cayo Romano Wetlands, Sierra del Chorrillo, Sierra de Cubitas, Cayo Guajaba, Cayo Sabinal
Outstanding Natural Elements Najasa Fossil Forest (forest turned to stone, of paleontological value), Cangilones del Rio Máximo
Natural Protected Landscapes Cerro Cachimbo, Sierra de Najasa
Fauna Refuges Correa, Máximo River, Cayos Los Ballenatos, Mangroves of Nuevitas Bay, Cayo Cruz, Macurije – Santa María
Ecological Reserves Limones – Tuabaguey, Maternillos – Tortuguilla
Managed Flora Reserves Silla de Cayo Romano, Los Orientales, San Felipe Wetlands, Laguna Larga, Sierra de Guaicanamar

Las Tunas
Fauna Refuges Malagueta Bay, Ojo de Agua, Cayo Rabihorcado
Ecological Reserves Nuevas Grandes Bay – La Isleta
Managed Flora Reserves San Miguel de Junco, Las Nuevas, Monte Naranjito

Holguin
Outstanding Natural Elements Bitirí Natural Bridge, Carstic Hills of Maniabón,
Natural Protected Landscapes Naranjo Bay
National Parks Pico Cristal, La Mensura – Pilotos
Fauna Refuges Tanamo Bay & Cays, Balsas de Gibara, Boca de Cananova, Delta de Mayari
Ecological Reserves Caletones
Managed Flora Reserves Loma de Miraflores, Cabo Lucrecia – Punta de Mulas, Matamoros – Dos Ríos, Ceja de Melones, Ramon Peninsula
Natural Reserves Cerro Galano

Granma
Outstanding Natural Elements Banco de Buena Esperanza – Manáguano
National Parks Desembarco de Granma, Turquíno, Pico Bayamesa
Fauna Refuges Delta de Cauto, Gua Cove, Manzanillo Cays, Monte Palmarito
Ecological Reserves Pico Caracas, El Gigante, El Macío
Managed Flora Reserves Monte Natural Cupaynicú

Santiago de Cuba
Managed Resource Protected Areas Baconao Biosphere Reserve, Carso de Baire
Outstanding Natural Elements Alcarraza Waterfall
Natural Protected Landscapes Gran Piedra, Estrella – Aguadores
Fauna Refuges San Miguel de Parada
Ecological Reserves Siboney – Justisí, Loma del Gato – Monte Líbano, Pico Mogote
Managed Flora Reserves La Caoba, Monte de Barrancas, Monte Bisse, Charrascales de Micara, Pozo Prieto, Caraquitas
Natural Reserves El Retiro

Guantanamo
Managed Resource Protected Areas Cuchillas del Toa
Outstanding Natural Elements Maisi – Caleta, Yunque de Baracoa, Yumurí Canyon, Pan de Azúcar, Pinares de Montecristo, Yara – Majayara, Paso de los Alemanes, Resolladero del Río Cuzco
Natural Protected Landscapes Maisi – Yumurí
National Parks Alejandro de Humboldt
Ecological Reserves Parnaso – Los Montes, Hatibonico, Alto de las Canas, Baitiquirí, Boquerón, Tacre
Managed Flora Reserves Esparto, Monte Verde, Macambo, Pico Galán

Isle of Youth
Managed Resource Protected Areas South of the Isle of Youth, La Cañada
Outstanding Natural Elements Pinar Calizo
Natural Protected Landscapes Sierra de las Casas
National Parks Punta Francés
Fauna Refuges Cayo Campos – Cayo Rosario, Cienaga de Lanier, Cayos los Indios
Ecological Reserves Cayo Largo, Los Indios, Punta del Este

Access to some of the more popular facilities doesn’t (yet) always require advance reservations. For some you can just purchase an excursion locally with transport/guide/entry, or pay directly at the Flora/Fauna gate where prices are established/scaled for visitors and for Cuban residents. But there other guided hikes/visits that are only available if you plan in advance. Some areas have “limited access” (like the Saturn Cave for example, near the Varadero airport, which tops out at 80 visitors/hour). Others (such as the Hoyo de Morlotte in the Desembarco del Granma park) are much further off the beaten path and you’ll only be able to visit and gain access by arranging in advance for an official park guide to meet you there. In our experience, exploring trails in the company of a knowledgeable local guide totally enhances the experience and proffers not only diverse information on local flora & fauna, but sometimes even a little history and local anecdotes as well. WoWCuba can arrange for entrance and official guided visits to many protected areas in Cuba as part of a bespoke WoWCuba travel package.

Support the Cuban People: US-Cuba general travel license category

If you carefully review the US Treasury regulations there are general travel license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, and opportunities for engaging with Cubans without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders or exorbitant prices from US group people to people tour operators. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. But being pragmatic, we think that ideology aside, travelers and Cuban travel intermediaries should be devising more practical ways to work within the existing guidelines that will both satisfy current US legal regulations and Cuban objectives/targets for tourism production without disrespecting Cuba’s right to self-determination and self-government as a sovereign nation. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant on the full-time itinerary component of this category within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (as this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the Revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity far more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.

“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA or United Nations to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.

Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses [note there are around 200 private entrepreneurial categories in Cuba]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.”

Ensuring Compliance

Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (generally understood to be ~ 6 hrs/day on weekdays) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), WoWCuba can confirm that’s definitely not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible (basically anywhere except a Gaviota or Habaguanex-owned hotel). License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).

Support the Cuban People full-time category compliance
WoWCuba’s suggested theme: Environmental Cleanup & Sustainability

If interested in pursuing an itinerary along environmental lines in the Havana area, following are some specific ideas on how to design a compliant program:
Volunteer activities could be with the United Nations or CITMA (Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment) and include cleaning up a section of public beach, for example, to promote non-proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or zika (also a benefit to public health). Landfills & garbage in oceans are major issues on planet Earth and Cuba is not exempt from the problem.

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

The Rincón de Guanabo is a Natural Protected Landscape in desperate need of immediate attention as it’s bordering on neglect, with a lack of financing to ensure its vibrant future. It’s less than 30 minutes east of Havana on the coast close to the Mayabeque provincial border. There’s a small interpretive center located at the Municipal Historic Museum. The UN is looking for help to conserve and sustainably manage the area which features mangroves, turtles in risk of extinction, beach, coral reef with abundant healthy elk coral just a short distance from the shore, and wetlands with local and migrant birds. Garbage and seaweed tend to collect on the beach and following are some photos taken in November 2017 (after Hurricane Irma). Evidently cleanup efforts haven’t yet made it to this section of the beach which is rarely frequented by visitors, but borders the wetlands and mangrove reserve area.

Natural Protected Landscape

Travelers could take this further by separating waste and donating aluminum cans to a private entrepreneur (often elderly people) who gather and return recyclable materials in exchange for a fee, thereby not only leaving a public area cleaner/more beautiful/safer for public health, but also economically assisting a vulnerable segment of Cuba’s society. Another extension of this type of project could include bagging seaweed to take to a local agricultural cooperative (such as the one in Alamar) to be rinsed and transformed into organic compost, where fresh (non-pesticide) materials are sorely needed to keep their urban gardening plots fertile and productive. Seaweed breaks down much faster than a lot of alternative organic matter. Or collecting seaglass for local artisans to be used for recycled art projects. The possibilities for collaboration with the private sector could be extensive.

Affidavits & Paperwork

Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign a do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a Sample Travel Affidavit Form-General for individual travel categories.

Travel Service Providers

OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. While the new US limitation on educational group people to people travel (§515.565b) requires that the organization sponsoring the group travel (not necessarily the travel agency employed for prepaying services itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance, the chaperone/group rules do not apply to the Support the Cuban People general license. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.”

For further information on Legal US Travel to Cuba, visit the US Travelers section of WoWCuba’s website.