Getting off the beaten path in Cuba is as much about how you choose to travel as it is which out-of-the-way places to visit. Some little-visited natural wonders may require a sense of adventure and a certain degree of stamina. Others simply involve taking the highway less traveled. And don't neglect Cuba's pristine shores. Some of the following adventures can be easily undertaken by independent travelers, while others may involve the conviviality of a shared group experience as part of an organized tour.
Dive Punta Francés
Cuba’s marine waters are as pristine as anywhere in the world and thus are great for diving. The island nation boasts hundreds of miles of coral reefs and Punta Francés, at the southwest tip of Isla de la Juventud, is the premier site. Its tranquil waters boast 56 sensational dive sites along a 10-mile-long wall that begins at just 60 feet deep and plummets into the dark abyss.
The reef is laced with canyons and grottoes overgrown with massive brain corals and frond-like gorgonians. Site 39 is renowned for the tallest coral column in the world. Here you can swim with nurse sharks, rays, and a never-ending parade of zebra-striped, polka-dotted, tropical fish. Northeast of the dive resort at Hotel Colony are several Spanish galleons, plus freighters that were sunk decades ago after serving as gunnery targets for the Cuban armed forces.
When not diving, take time to explore the town of Nueva Gerona and the island’s main site—the Presidio Modelo, the prison where Fidel Castro and 25 fellow revolutionaries were imprisoned after the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953. For more info on Cuban beach fun, see this article.
Discover Cuba on a Motorcycle
Exploring Cuba on two wheels in Che Guevara fashion is the ultimate adventure for tourists. You can’t rent bikes in Cuba (except scooters), but if you know how to ride consider joining a group motorcycle tour, some of which offer a fleet of BMWs and Harley-Davidsons on the island. The 8- and 11-day itineraries are legal for U.S. travelers and follow little-traveled roads through tobacco country, the Sierra Escambray mountain range, and across the pedraplén (causeway) to the Cayos de Villa Clara.
Many Cubans get around by motorcycles—mostly pre-revolutionary Harleys, Soviet and European clunkers, or modern electric bikes from China—so this is also an exciting way to commune with locals including harlistas, the passionate and proud owners of antique Harleys.
Explore Las Tunas and Holguín Provinces
Far from Havana at the gateway to Oriente—Cuba’s easternmost provinces—the twin provinces of Las Tunas and Holguín are way off the tourist track. A few days exploring here will unveil several compelling places of interest. Ideally, you’ll need a rental car for this itinerary.
There’s not much to hold you in Las Tunas city, but it’s the gateway to remote Refugio de Fauna Silvestre Monte Caganiguán-Ojo de Agua. Nature lovers and photographers who make the journey—a guided excursion is recommended—are rewarded by eye-to-eye encounters with crocodiles. There's also the bird-life: flamingos, roseate spoonbills, and many others.
Retrace your route to Las Tunas and head to Puerto Padre, a now-sleepy port town that in the 19th-century was Cuba’s foremost port for sugar export. Continue east and divert to Playas La Herradura and La Boca, two gorgeous beaches where you can laze and party on the sands with Cuban families without a tourist in sight. There are casas particulares (private B&Bs) and paladares (private restaurants) serving fresh seafood, tempting you to linger.
Next, aim for Holguín city—a one-hour journey—and spend a day roaming the historic core, centered on pleasant Plaza Calixto García, with its Museo Provincial de História (provincial history museum). Now add Museo Conjunto Histórico Birán—the fascinating restored former family estate where Fidel and Raúl Castro were raised. Surrounded by sugarcane fields and the Sierra de Nipes Mountains, it’s one hour drive east of town. Birán is a great way-stop en route to your final destination, Pinares de Mayarí, where you can hike to waterfalls amid cool pine-clad uplands, with overnight at the rustic eco-lodge.
Mountain Biking in Pinar del Río
Outside Havana, traveling by bicycle is the most common way for Cubans to get around. One of the best areas to explore on two wheels is the tobacco country of Pinar del Río and the Sierra del Rosario and Sierra de los Órganos Mountains west of the capital. Each day in this itinerary averages about 40-50 miles.
Begin in Havana by following the Costera Norte (North Coast road) west from the Jaimanitas neighborhood, after stopping to admire the local art kingdom of Fusterlandia. Beyond Mariel the road leads to Cabañas; turn left and head uphill for Las Terrazas, then Soroa, a lovely mountain eco-retreat with a pleasant hotel and B&Bs. After visiting the Orquideario (orchid garden) and waterfall, continue downhill to the Carretera Central and cycle west to San Diego de los Baños, a time-worn 19th-century spa town.
Follow the Carretera to Entronque de Heredia and turn right. This road is sublimely scenic as it winds over the mountains to Cueva de los Portales—a huge riverside cavern where Che Guevara had his headquarters during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Continue north to La Palma and turn west for Viñales for two nights.
Have your camera at the ready for the stunning scenery west of Viñales as you loop west via the towns of Pons and Cabeza. Turn left at Cabeza: the next two hours you’ll snake over the Sierra de los Órganos to arrive at Cangre, with a lakeside lunch at Rancho La Guabina. Continue the short distance to Pinar del Río and return to Viñales.
The serpentine road to La Palma leads east to the Costera Norte. Three miles beyond at Bahía Honda, turn south on the road for Soroa and Las Terrazas for a night at this mountain eco-resort. Your final day is flat all the way as you descend to Artemisa and follow the little-trafficked Carretera Central back to Havana. For more info on this area, check out our ultimate guide to tobacco country.
Hiking La Comandancia de la Plata and Pico Turquino
The rarest of treks in Cuba is Pico Turquino (6.476 feet), the island’s highest peak, located deep in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range. Combine it with a less formidable hike to nearby La Comandancia de la Plata, Fidel’s former guerrilla HQ.
The base for these hikes is the remote hamlet of Santo Domingo. To get here involves a steep 15-mile ride by vehicle south from the sugar-processing town of Bartolomé Masó, in Granma province. You can overnight at a simple but welcoming riverside casa particular (B&B), and register at the visitor center for a guided two-hike. The trill of birds rings through the forest as you ascend; look for the red-blue-and-white national bird, the tocororó (Cuban trogon), and the zunzuncito (bee hummingbird), the world’s smallest bird.
On clear days the summit—topped by a bronze bust of National Hero José Martí—offers stunning views of the mountain chain and the Caribbean Sea. Overnight accommodation is pre-arranged on the mountain for the descent, but you’ll need to fuel up with your own food and water. Relax again at Santo Domingo before hiking to La Comandancia de la Plata (2 hours) to view the former command center, kept impeccably as it was during the war to oust Batista.
The main gateway to Bartolomé Masó is the charming provincial capital of Bayamo, at the crossroads of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín It’s worth spending a day to explore, perhaps with a side-trip next day to Dos Ríos to view the monument and garden—full of white roses—at the site where Martí was killed in battle with Spanish troops on May 19, 1895.
Retrace Fidel’s Steps in Granma Province
Having sailed from Mexico, on December 2, 1956, Fidel Castro’s guerrillas landed at a remote beach—Los Colorados—in Granma province. They were ambushed by Batista’s troops, and only 17 of the 82 desembarcados (beach landers) survived to launch the second phase of the war to overthrow the brutal dictator. It’s an adventure to hike the route from Los Colorados to the ambush site at Alegria del Pío (11 miles) and on to Cinco Palmas, where the survivors made it to safety in the Sierra Maestra. Monuments line the route. The trail runs through Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma, a cactus-studded semi-arid zone, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Limestone terraces add scenic beauty, and there are caves with pre-Columbian pictographs. Guides can be arranged at Los Colorados.
At the gateway to Los Colorados is the much-faded, colonial-era port city of Manzanillo, with its Mughal-inspired architecture plus the superb Monumento a Celia Sánchez—a staircase lined with ceramic murals in homage to the revolutionary heroine who ran the secret supply network to Fidel’s guerrillas. Her home, now a museum, in the town of Medea Luna (30 miles south of Manzanillo) is also worth visiting, as is La Demajagua (eight miles south of Manzanillo), the former estate of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the plantation owner who in 1868 freed his slaves to begin the independence struggle against Spain.
Escape the Mainland for Isla de la Juventud
Located in the underbelly of Western Cuba, Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) gets very few visitors. You can fly here from Havana with Cubana Aviación or AeroGaviota, or take the high-speed ferry from Batabanó, south of Havana. Exploring Nueva Gerona—the charming main city—is a delight, as the main pedestrian boulevard is lined with colonial-era buildings and studded with quirky art pieces. Be sure to peer inside the charming church—Iglesia Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.
Then rent a bicycle or hop aboard a horse-drawn taxi and ride out to the Presidio Modelo—once Cuba’s main prison. Most of this huge and fascinating site is semi-derelict, but the unit where Fidel and Raül Castro and fellow revolutionaries were imprisoned following the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 is an engaging museum. English-speaking guides provide a spellbinding tour. Then add a visit to Museo Finca El Abra, a farm where National Hero José Martí lived under house arrest in 1870.
Then drive south through the countryside—dotted with former schools that once housed foreign students educated for free by Cuba—to Siguanea for beach time, sportfishing, and/or scuba diving. With a local guide, you can journey to the south shore, visiting a crocodile farm, before heading off to the stunning Playa Punta del Este, where caves contain pre-Columbian pictographs.