Your Guide to Visiting Topes de Collantes in Cuba

Topes de Collantes is a nature reserve in Cuba’s Escambray Mountains. It offers some of the best hiking trails in the country with its thick jungle interior, ribbons of waterfalls, natural pools, coffee plantations, and an appealingly cooler climate. After weeks exploring cities and beaches, and fighting against the heat, I decided to take a visit. In this guide I’ll share the best hiking trails, how to get there, tips for eating and sleeping, and a map.

The Escambray Mountains

Geographically, the Escambray Mountains (Sierra de Escambray) are located in the south-central region of Cuba. Trinidad is the closest city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site worth a visit in its own right. The mountains are large enough to stretch across three provinces – Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, and Villa Clara and are around 80 km (50 miles) east to west and north to south. The Agabama River carves through the mountains creating the the western Guamuhaya range and the eastern Sierra de Sancti Spiritus range. Topes de Collantes (Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes) sits in the Sierra de Sancti Spiritus range.

Related: Disco Ayala in Hotel Las Cuevas, Trinidad, Cuba | The Bad Side of Varadero’s Beach Resorts

Topes de Collantes

Topes de Collantes is a nature reserve made up of several smaller parks. Translated, it means Collantes’ Highs which is accurate since it sits at 800 metres (2,600 ft) above sea level. While the reserve doesn’t have Cuba’s highest mountain or even the highest peak in the Escambray Mountains, it does offer impressive mountain hikes.

Highest peaks: If you want to tackle Cuba’s highest peaks, Pico de San Juan is the highest point in the Escambray Mountains at 1,140 meters above sea level (3,740 feet), and Turquino Peak in the Sierra Maestra range in southern Cuba is Cuba’s highest point at 1,974 meters (6,476 feet).

The Mountains and the Cuban Revolution

Military truck in the jungle of Topes de Collantes
Topes de Collantes still has an active military presence.

But it wasn’t just the promise of hiking that lured me to Topes de Collantes. After weeks of exploring the history of Cuba, I knew that Che “Ernesto” Gueverao had famously set up camp in the Escambray Mountains during the Cuban Revolution. In case you didn’t know, the revolution was a campaign to oust the military dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar who became head of state after a coup d’état. He was eventually overthrown during the Cuban Revolution.

Between the promise of epic hiking and my intrigue at the history, I decided to re-jig my itinerary and put Topes on my list.

The Parks in Topes Nature Reserve

Hiking trail pointer in Topes de collantes

If you visit Topes de Collantes, you’re almost certainly there to do some hiking, and there are several trails to explore, all of varying length and intensity.

Technically, the nature reserve is made up of four interconnected parks – Parque Altiplano, Parque Codina, Parque Guanayara, and Parque El Cubano.

Parque El Nicho (closer to Cienfuegos) is sometimes included in the list as it’s managed as part of the same park system.

However, as a tourist, you’re unlikely to notice where one park ends and another begins. I recommend focusing on the trail names and trailhead points instead of working out the park boundaries. You pay per trail rather than paying a park entry fee anyway. There is a small hub of a town, Topes, in Parque Altiplano, which is where most tourists base themselves. It’s where I stayed.

Summary of the Hiking Trails

Here’s a summary of the major trails within Toppes de Collantes including the length of each trail, the main sights, and the difficulty of each hike. I’ve also included how easy or difficult it is to get to the trailheads. Some trails are far easier to reach than others and, ultimately this might be the deciding factor if you don’t have your own transport. These points are all included in my map below.

ParkTrailLengthWaterfalls/SightsDifficulty (Trailhead/Hike)
Parque AltiplanoSendero Jardin
del Gigantes
1.2 km
One way
Rio Vega Grande (River)Easy to reach trail
(Plaza de Las Memorias)
30 mins (Easy)
Parque AltiplanoVegas Grande4 km
Round Trip
Natural pool and
small waterfall
Easy to reach trail
(Reparto El Chorrito)
2hrs (Steep)
Parque AltiplanoSalto del Caburní5 km
Round Trip
Salto del Caburní Waterfall
(62m)
Easy to reach trail
(Villa Cuburní)
3hrs (Steep)
Parque CodinaSendero La Batata6 km
Out & Back
Grotto del Batata
(Caves & underground river)
Easy to reach trail
(Casa Museo del Cafe)
2hrs (Less steep)
Parque CodinaSendero de
Alfombra Mágica
1.2 km
Round Trip
Cueva del Altar
(through caves)
Mud baths
Hard to reach trail
8k from Topes at
(Hacineda Codina)
4×4 needed (Easy)
Parque GuanayaraSendero Centinelas
del Rio Melodioso
6 km
Round Trip
El Rocio Waterfall (27m)
Río Melodioso (River)
Poza de Venado (Pool)
Hard to reach trail
15km from Topes
Hire a guide (Hard)

There is a $10 entry fee for all hikes. You typically pay at the trailhead. All hiking times are approximate.

Other trails: There is also hiking in Parque el Cubano (the Sendero Cimarrones de Javira trail is popular) but it’s a fairly long distance from Topes and there is better hiking and views closer by. Likewise, Parque El Nicho has hiking but is also hard to reach (best from Cienfuegos) and has a small trail and waterfall.

The Best Hikes from Topes Town

People abut to swim in waterfall
Sorry tourists, I couldn’t get a photo without you in it.

As you’ve probably gathered from the summary above, some of the trailheads are easier to reach than others. Some require you to hire a guide or have access to a 4×4 to navigate the off-road routes to the trailheads.

If you want an easier option, you can reach these four great trails from Topes town itself:

Sendero Jardin del Gigantes – more of a walk than a hike but this trail will take you past lots of flora, fauna, and trees. I’d recommend this trail if you’re visiting with kids or people with lower mobility.

Salto del Caburní – this is my favorite hike that has a steep gradient but is worth it for the huge waterfall.

Vegas Grande – a slightly shorter hike than Salto del Caburní but no less steep. It leads to a beautiful natural swimming pool.

Sendero La Batata – although this trail is in Parque Cordina, the trailhead starts near Topes. The trail takes you to caves and an underground river.

Recommended Trail: Salto del Caburní

    Looking out over the escambrey mountains

If you only have time for one hike, I recommend taking the Salto del Caburní trail otherwise known as the Blue Riband hike. Covering 5 km (3.1 miles) over hilly terrain, the hike takes around 1 hour to descend into the valley and around 1.5 hours to ascend, on a round trip. At the bottom of the valley, you’ll be rewarded with a 62 ft waterfall.

Absent any real information about the hike and no map to guide me, I set off for the trail using the wooden trail posts to plot the route. Leaving from the back of Villa Caburni, the hike offers a fun trail that quickly heads into the jungle undergrowth. Humid and buzzing with the sounds of nature, the descent passes over uneven and often slippery surfaces but is easily manageable with the right footwear.

Swimming in the pool at the bottom was sheer bliss.

Hiking Tips

Wooden cafe shack with man in hat
Jugo de piña stop on the way back up the Salto del Caburní trail.

Information: Centro de Visitantes (shown on Google Maps as Centro de Informacion de Gaviota) is a small building where you can get local information about hiking. To be honest, the lady at Villa Caburní gave me all the information I needed then I just followed the trail signposts.

Signposts: keep an eye out for signposts. Some are easier to spot than others. The trails aren’t packed with tourists so there aren’t many people to ask. And you can’t rely on Google Maps in Cuba due to the complete lack of mobile internet. Related: 10 Essential Things To Know Before Visiting Cuba.

Check the weather: weather can change quickly in the mountains. Rain clouds appeared on my way back up the mountain and it was a race to get back before the rain turned the steep slope into a mudslide.

Swimming: Take care getting into the water – the rocks are slippy with mossy and the water bed is uneven. Don’t jump into the pools unless you’re certain of the depth.

What to Pack for your Hike

Small waterfall in Topes de Collantes
  • Plenty of water
  • Quick dry towel
  • Sturdy shoes if you’re doing any hilly trails. Either good running/trail shoes or hiking boots.
  • Swimsuit
  • Sunscreen
  • Water shoes
  • Travel binoculars – the mountains are teeming with birds and wildlife. I always pack a small pair of cheap travel binoculars.
  • Lightweight backpack
  • Ask at your hotel for a packed lunch

Here’s my guide to essential Hiking Kit, my Ultimate Packing List, and Guide To The Best Shoes for Travelling

Things To See & Do Besides Hiking

There isn’t a whole to do in the area besides hiking but here are a few notable sights worthy of your camera.

El Mirador

Panoramic view of the escambrey mountains

About three-quarters of the way up the mountain from Trinidad, after many twists, turns and switchbacks, there is a stunning Mirador. You need to climb some steps to reach the viewpoint. Remember you’re at altitude (or at least that’s my excuse for why I was panting when I got to the top).

Jardín de Variedades del Café

Entrance to jardin de variedades de cafe

Cuban coffee is famous world-wide and some of it’s comes from the Escambray Mountains. While coffee tourism isn’t as popular here as it is in other coffee regions like Kona in Maui, Hawaii and the Blue Mountains in Jamaica, you can explore the coffee scene while you’re visiting. Jardín de Variedades del Café, a garden growing 25 varieties of coffee, is one of the most popular stops within Topes town.

Casa Museo del Cafe

Casa Museo del Café (also known as Casa de Café) is a rustic cafe where you can taste a truly local Cuban coffee. It has an excellent coffee menu including some spiked with rum. You can also take a coffee plantation tour if you have the time.

Museo de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo

The Museo de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo is a reasonable-sized modern art museum with three floors of artwork. It’s a relatively new addition to the area and features work from some of Cuba’s best artists. It’s worth a stop for an hour and costs a couple of dollars to visit.

El Reloj del Sol

Translated, El Reloj del Sol means the sundial. It’s a cute feature surrounded by pretty gardens. It’s also really close to the Topes Visitor Centre so you may as well swing by.

Parque de La Villa Caburní

Derelict accommodation

Parque de La Villa Caburní is less of a park and more of a landscaped development. It’s slowly undergoing re-development and improvements, which is positive. I found it fascinating when I visited because it had a real ‘forgotten’ feel to it. These benches without seats still haunt me.

Close up of bench frame legs without slats

Do you Need to Take a Tour?

Rock formation on hiking trail at Topes de collantes

Whether to hire a guide or not is a personal matter and will depend on the kind of experience you want. The local rules have been relaxed in recent years and it’s now easier to visit without a guide. Here’s what to weigh up.

Benefits of taking a guided tour

  • Tours typically leave from Trinidad and transport to Topes is included
  • 4×4 is needed to get to some of the harder trailheads
  • An experienced guide to navigate the trail route (more remote trails are less well-signposted)
  • Lunch is usually included (few local options if you arrange it on your own)
  • Experienced guide to help – some of the routes are steep and can get slippery with rain

Benefits of hiking without a tour

  • It’s usually cheaper to hire a driver to take you to Topes and return later/the next day
  • You can stay overnight for a more immersive experience (most guided tours are day trips only)
  • You can stay multiple days to do several hikes
  • The easier to reach trails are clear enough to navigate yourself
  • You don’t have a fixed schedule (you can swim as long as you want!)

I highlighy recommend staying overnight. As well as contributing to local tourism, you can see how this dramatic landscape shifts with the arrival of the night.

How To Get To Topes de Collantes

The town of Topes is 20 km north of Trinidad and it takes around 40 minutes to get there on a well-paved road. There is no public transport, so you’ll need to rent a car or hire a taxi driver. I didn’t have a rental car but since it was my second trip to Cuba, I knew how things worked. So, one night, over some rum, I mentioned the idea to the owner of my casa particular in La Boca. The next morning our taxi driver arrived. We agreed on a price of $40 USD for a round-trip – he’d take me that day and return to collect me the following day. It was seamless.

Related: The Hershey Train in Cuba: The Slow Way To Varadero

When to Visit

March to May is dry season which makes the trails easier and reduces the risk of rain. However, low rain means the waterfalls may not be as dramatic.

Where to Stay

There are only a few places to stay in Topes and none of them fall into the category of ‘great’. In fact, the accommodation in Topes was the worst and weirdest I experienced in Cuba. I suggest keeping your expectations low and remembering that Cuba lacks resources. Rooms cost a pretty standard $50 a night. The options are all government-run hotels and can be booked directly online on the Gaviota Hotels website.

Kurhotel Escambray

Kurkhotel Escbray - Former tuberculosis hospital now hotel

Kurhotel Escambray is the biggest hotel in the nature reserve. It was once a tuberculosis hospital / sanatorium and now serves as a place for health and medical tourism. It was such a curious transition from death house to health house that I was game for staying the night but I wasn’t even allowed past the guard at the front door. The rules have relaxed a little since then and foreign tourists can now stay.

Villa Caburní

Road leading to Villa Caburni

Villa Caburní is a sprawl of around 20 chalet-style cabins that are spacious and well-located in Topes town but they were last at their peak in the 1950s. The cabins were originally built to house staff who worked at the sanatorium and the rooms were possibly at their lowest point when I stayed. It took four attempts to find a passable chalet.

Villa with blue peeling paint

The first three cabins were vetoed by the receptionist – the door didn’t lock on one, I wasn’t allowed to see the second one (though the porch was filled with long-forgotten rubbish), and the third lacked electricity and had a bed infested with ants (at least they were not bed bugs).

Curtains with hole in it

The fourth room seemed a delight after all that – some peeling paint and torn curtains were easily overlooked. Importantly, Villa Caburní has started some renovations since I visited and the staff were super helpful so I’d still recommend it.

Hotel Los Helechos

Hotel Los Helechos is popular with tour groups staying the night. I’d still recommend Villa Caburní if you have a choice. If not, Hotel Los Helechos also gets average to bad reviews. But it’s only a place to rest your head for the night.

Where to Eat

Large chicken piece at Gran nena

Like the accommodation situation, there aren’t many restaurants in Topes and most get bad reviews. So, I’m not able to give you a long list of recommendations. Instead, I’ll give you one: eat at Restaurant Gran Nena. I ordered the chicken and rice which was beautifully cooked with creole flavours and came served with sautéed vegetables. There was also fresh fish BBQ on the menu. The location is great with tables overlooking a deep crevice of jungle and fireflies glowing in the dark. Beware: on the walk back, there were lots of tarantulas on the road. My phone torch was enough to send them scattering. Wear closed shoes.

Villa Caburní also offers food but I’d tried their lunch and didn’t fancy their dinner offerings.

Firefly with glowing eyes
So this is what a firefly looks like close up.

Packed lunch for hiking: if you’re hiking without a guide, your hotel should be able to give you a sandwich for a couple of dollars. It will almost certainly be a combo of dry white bread, cheese and ham (welcome to Cuba). My lunch topped my list of worst sandwiches ever, but you’ll be glad of it after a sweaty hike.

Tip: Try to keep in mind that Cuban chefs lack ingredients, not cooking skills.

Map

Here’s my map of the trails and places to go in Topes de Collantes.

So, that’s my guide to visiting Topes de Collantes. Leave any questions below.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.