Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve stretches across the Escambray mountains in southern Cuba. Its jungle-clad slopes are packed with waterfalls and swimming holes. Perfect for a break from the Cuban heat.
Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve is packed with natural beauty. Caves and grottos hide amongst the ferns, palms and banana trees. Rivers cut through the valleys and waterfalls drop into crystal clear pools. Thanks to wet northerly gales and dry southerly breezes, the region is an important ecosystem for many of Cuba’s colourful endemic birds.
It’s a great place to visit.
The nature reserve is located between Cienfuegos and Trinidad in central Cuba and comprises 5 smaller parks. Each park has at least one short well-defined hiking trail that is easy to follow without a guide. While each trail is different, most wind their way through misty forests and end at a jungle-clad waterfall or a natural swimming hole.
Hiking in Cuba without a guide can be difficult, but the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve is an excellent part of Cuba that can be easily explored independently. Here’s our guide for the area including recommendations for which parks to visit, how to get there and some tips for a great experience.
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TOPES DE COLLANTES NATURE RESERVE AND THE CUBAN MILITARY
The Escambray mountains, rising to a height of almost 1,000 metres, peer over the colourful colonial town of Trinidad and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Stretching across most of the mountain range is the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve, protecting the region’s rivers, canyons, waterfalls and wildlife. It is a great place to enjoy a refreshing hike and swim and escape the noise and heat of Cuba.
But, with the military running most of the tourism outfits in Cuba, it’s pretty obvious they want you to join a guided tour. And we can’t blame them. With the economy in crisis due in part to US sanctions, Cuba is heavily reliant on its number 1 industry: tourism. Guided tours inject much-needed funds into the country.
But, under the planned economy dominated by state-run enterprises, and government salaries being notoriously low, we prefer to support locals by staying at casa particulars, joining locally run tours and eating in family-run restaurants.
So, we’ve put together a list of the 5 parks that are dotted throughout Topes de Collantes with some suggestions of how to visit them without using a government-run tourist agency.
MAP / TOPES DE COLLANTES
The Topes de Collante Nature Reserve stretches north from Trinidad and west towards Cienfuegos. It comprises 5 parques each with its own unique way to enjoy nature in Cuba. The below map contains all the great places we covered in this guide.
1 – PARQUE EL NICHO
Parque El Nicho has only one short 700-metre trail (called Sendero El Reino de Los Aguas) so there is not much walking involved in exploring this beautiful part of Topes de Collantes. But, what it lacks in long hikes, it well and truly makes up for in stunning natural swimming.
The diminutive trail rises steeply alongside a river before arriving at a beautiful natural pool with a very inviting waterfall. The pool is surrounded by large rocks, ferns and banana trees. It’s one of the most beautiful swimming spots in Topes de Collantes.
El Nicho is on the western side of the Escambray mountains, closer to Cienfuegos than Trinidad. There’s a very convenient collectivo route that runs from Cienfuegos, waits for a few hours at El Nicho, then continues to Trinidad.
You can find all the information in our guide to El Nicho.
2 – PARQUE GUAYANARA
Parque Guanayara is also deep in the Escambray mountains, taking about an hour to reach by car from Trinidad. The most rewarding hiking path here is the well-marked 3km (6km return) Centinelas del Rio Melodioso. The trail begins in coffee plantations before dropping into a valley containing the 27m high El Rocio waterfall and Poza de Venado, a natural swimming pool.
While El Nicho would probably outrank El Rocio in terms of beautiful wild swimming spots, it’s pretty close. What makes Parque Guayanara a good option in Topes de Collantes is the very informative and interesting private tours available from Trinidad Travels.
It’s a great way to support local business and learn a bit about Cuba in the process.
The park is also home to a number of birds which are endemic to the island. You can find more information, including the best way to get there in our guide to Parque Guayanara.
3 – PARQUE EL CUBANO
Parque el Cubano lies on the southern edge of the Escambray mountains a few km northwest of Trinidad. The entrance to the park is along a paved road and is easy to access from the town. The park itself has a relatively flat, easy to follow 3km trail (6km round trip) called Sendero Cimarrones de Javira.
The path winds its way through forest heading upstream until arriving at the Javira waterfall which drops into a large natural pool. Thanks to the large crevas between the rocks, it’s a great place for a very refreshing swim.
As an added bonus there is a cave with stalagmites and perhaps the odd bat. Parque El Cubano is a great way to relax after a few hectic days in Trinidad. It’s also one of the cheapest and easiest ways to experience Topes de Collantes.
Read all our information about getting to Parque El Cubano from Trinidad.
4 – PARQUE ALTIPLANO
Parque Altiplano contains the town of Topes, where most of the facilities and hotels for the nature reserve are located. If you want to spend more time exploring the reserve this is where you should be based. There are two well-marked trails in the park (Sendero del Caburní and Sendero Vegas Grandes).
Furthermore, the trailhead to Sendero La Batata is close by in Parque Codina, so you could complete all three well-marked hikes directly from the hotels without need to arrange transportation.
Sendero del Caburní is a 2.5km trail (5km round trip) which drops steeply into a valley. At the bottom, you are rewarded with a towering 64m waterfall plunging into a number of fine swimming holes. There are plenty of places for a dip and opportunities to hurl yourself into the water from quite a height. Allow 2 hours and 30 minutes to 3 hours for the round trip.
Sendero Vegas Grandes is a 2km trail (4km round trip) that drops very steeply down the valley side to a waterfall and a cave. The steepness makes it a more challenging hike even though it is short. Allow 2 hours to get there and back. This path and the Sendero del Caburní can be connected, but the linking trail between the two is not well signposted. It may be worth hiring a guide at the information centre.
5 – PARQUE CODINA
There are two trails in Parque Codina. Both are well marked and straight forward to follow.
The Sendero de Alfombra Mágica starts at Hacienda Codina, which lies down a difficult 4km road that can only be made in a 4×4. The trail makes a 1km loop taking you through some lovely flora including a fine orchid garden. Unfortunately, the shortness of the trail and difficulty of getting here make it a less rewarding option.
Although the Sendero La Batata is in Parque Codina its trailhead is near the much more accessible Parque Altiplano, making this an easy walk to do if you decide to stay a night in the hotels in Topes. This well-signed 3km trail (6km round trip) finishes at the Grotto of Batata where you will find caves with a series of pools and small waterfalls. Beware the water is a little colder here compared to other spots!
TIPS FOR VISITING TOPES DE COLLANTES NATIONAL PARK
1 / While taking short hikes in Cuba’s Escambray mountains is made easy within this park, arranging transport can be tricky. Check out the options and our recommendations on our more detailed posts for El Nicho, Parque Guanayara and Parque El Cubano.
2 / The Cuban sun can be a sizzler, make sure you pack sunblock, a hat and water.
3 / Most of these locations in Tope de Collantes have excellent wild swimming options. Pack a towel and swimming trunks.
4 / While the paths are generally easy, you might be on your feet a while. Wear comfortable shoes with good grip.
5 / Although there is plenty of shade under the trees, try to walk early before the day gets too hot.
6 / Almost all the forest hikes in Cuba provide the opportunity to see many endemic birds. So, if spotting birds is your thing, you may want binoculars and a telephoto lens.
7 / Bring your passport numbers to the gate entrance, the park officers often ask for them.
8 / If you want to learn more about the flora and fauna, and perhaps spot more birds, consider taking a guide from the visitor’s centre in Topes or a tour from Trinidad.
BEST TIME VISIT
Cuba is a hot destination all year round, with average highs about 26 degrees in winter and 31 in summer. The rains come in May and stay around till October so the best months to visit are the sunny but slightly cooler months of January to April.
The nature reserve is higher in the mountains and littered with shaded trails and pools to swim in. It makes an ideal escape from the heat at any time of the day but it may be best to avoid the hot afternoons.
WHERE TO STAY
The attractive colonial town of Trinidad, in southern Cuba, is the most convenient place to stay to explore the reserve. Most of these parks are very easily accessible from Trinidad, via either a short taxi ride or a private tour.
The only exception is Parque El Nicho which is closer to Cienfuegos and is best visited via collectivos that run between Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
The town of Topes in Parque Altiplano is another option. Hikes can be completed directly from the town, avoiding the need to organise transport. However, there’s not much else going on in the town so this would be a fairly quiet stay.
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
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