Sitting in natural swimming pools under the waterfalls of El Nicho is an invigorating way to cool off in Cuba. It’s a highlight of Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve and worth the effort to get to.
The Topes de Collantes nature reserve stretches across the south-eastern Escambray Mountains – an 80-kilometre mountain range in central Cuba. Packed with rivers, waterfalls, canyons and caves, this jungle-shrouded natural area is a great way to escape the heat and explore some beautiful natural scenery.
The nature reserve is made up of 5 ‘parques’, our favourite of which was Parque El Nicho. Here, a collection of short walking trails meander through swaying palms hiding crystal clear swimming holes, canyon views and cascading waterfalls. It’s the perfect spot for a refreshing wild swim and a bracing shower in the Cuban jungle. It’s a contender for the best wild swimming location we’ve stumbled upon on our travels.
El Nicho is situated between the popular cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad, but there are no regular public transport options. As a result, it’s not the easiest place to get to. Here’s all you need to know for a day exploring El Nicho in Topes de Collantes nature reserve.
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BEAUTIFUL WILD SWIMMING AT EL NICHO WATERFALL
We arrived at Parque El Nicho and fell out of our tightly crammed colectivo. Spilling onto the ground, we stretched our dead legs and wobbled off to the entrance. The guard to the park inspected our passports with the military efficiency we’d come to expect in Cuba. After giving us a quick once over then holding our cash up to the light, we got a grunt and a nod indicating the entrance to the path.
Salubrious welcomes aside, El Nicho impresses early. Passing a restaurant setting up for a busy day ahead, the path ambled along a charming river under a lush green canopy of trees covering us with very welcome shade. Coming to a small waterfall where a couple were frolicking blissfully in the clear water, the path rose sharply up the hill to a lookout over the canyon. The views from the top at El Nicho are typical Cuban landscapes. Palm and banana trees for miles and lush, green rolling hills that stretch into the distance.
A little further on and up several more steps, the sound of the waterfall could be heard as a faint rumble over the chirping of birds in the trees. Shortly, the air became cooler and the leaves glistened with the coating of a fine mist. The excited murmur of swimmers jumping in the icy water told us we’d reached the spot we were looking for: the natural swimming pool at El Nicho.
In front of us, the edge of the pool was surrounded by swaying palms, banana trees and fellow travellers. A beautiful cascading waterfall dropped into icy but inviting-looking water.
Getting into water this cold never looks classy. A splutter, a cough, an awkward tip-toe manoeuvre and an intake of breath.
Once we acclimatised to the temperature, swimming at El Nicho was magnificent. Reclining on a well-positioned rock with the waterfall beating down on your back was the perfect way to relax after a few days on the road in Cuba.
PARQUE EL NICHO VISITOR INFORMATION
There’s a short trail, called El Reino de los Aguas, which is a 1.5km loop around the most scenic spots in the park. It takes about 40 minutes to hike the loop and explore some of the many side paths that take you off to lookouts, smaller waterfalls or river views.
The trail is very easy to follow and despite the touts at the entrance and at the lookout over the valley, there is no need for a guide. The swimming hole is quite high up so shoes with decent grip would be a good idea. Although there’s quite a bit of shade on the paths, sunblock is always a good idea in Cuba.
There are no changing rooms at the pool. Your only option is to perform a discrete costume change behind a rock.
There is a 10 CUC entrance fee per person, payable at the entrance gate.
The park has a restaurant that serves meals between 12:00 and 17:00. There are also public toilets available at the restaurant.
You may be asked for your passport number when entering the park. If you visit on your way from Cienfuegos to Trinidad you’ll have this with you. If you’re doing a day trip, it’s a good idea to have a photo of your passport on your phone.
We were asked for our passports in some unusual places in Cuba and could never really work out why.
GETTING TO PARQUE EL NICHO
Parque El Nicho, on the western edge of the Escambray mountains, is a 1 hour, 30-minute drive from Cienfuegos. As one of the most inaccessible parts of the Topes de Collantes nature reserve, it takes a bit of effort to get there. But as one of our favourite outside swimming locations, it comes highly recommended by us. Here are your options:
If you have your own car, you can drive from Cienfuegos to the park entrance taking the road via Cumanayagua. The road, although paved, deteriorates towards the end and is steep in places. At the time of writing it was perfectly manageable in a normal car.
I suspect after heavy rain it would be slippery and significantly more challenging. Please be aware that if you intend to continue on to Trinidad through the mountains, the road deteriorates even more and may be impassable at certain times of the year. It’s easier and quicker to return to Cumanayagua and head via Ceibabo to join highway 12 around the coast to Trinidad.
Taxis can be hired from Cienfuegos. The driver will drive you 1 hour, 30 minutes to the park entrance, wait for 2 hours while you explore the park, then return you to Cienfuegos. It’s a long way and expect to pay around 80 CUC (per vehicle) for the return trip. Your casa particular host or hotel will be able to arrange a taxi for you.
A colectivo (shared taxi) route runs from Cienfuegos to El Nicho, waits for 2 hours, and then continues to Trinidad. Pick up is about 9:00 and drop off about 14:15. At 20 CUC per person, it’s excellent value and a good way to see El Nicho. It also allows you to break up the drive from Cienfuegos to Trinidad (or vice versa). The driver will look after your bags in the car. Your accommodation should be able to make the booking a day in advance. If not, head to the information offices in Cienfuegos or Trinidad.
If you don’t have your own car and don’t intend on going to Trinidad (but you should) you can book tours to El Nicho in Cienfuegos. Expect to pay about 70 CUC per person. But really there is no need for a guide in such a small simple park. We suggest you travel independently at a fraction of the cost.
You can read more about the various transport options in our getting around in Cuba article.
BEST TIME TO GO TO PARQUE EL NICHO
Cuba is a hot destination all year round. Average highs are around 26°C (79°F) in winter and 31°C (88°C) in summer. Additionally, the rains come in May and stay around till October. Therefore, the best months to visit are the sunny but slightly cooler months of January to April.
Parque El Nicho with its shaded trail and excellent swimming makes an ideal escape from the heat at any time of day. That being said you may want to avoid the hot afternoons. If you arrive by colectivo this is taken care of for you. The colectivo drops you at the park about 10:30 am and continues the journey at about 12:30 pm. Two hours gives you plenty of time to explore the park and go for a swim.
WHERE TO STAY TO VISIT EL NICHO
Parque El Nicho is high up in the Escambray mountains. The best town to stay in is Cienfuegos, in southern Cuba – a 1 hour, 30 minute drive away. While a casa particular is a good option in Cuba, there are plenty of good hotel options in Cienfuegos.
THINGS TO DO IN CIENFUEGOS, CUBA
Established around a large natural bay, Cienfuegos has a ritzy harbour with elegant French architecture. There are also enough interesting things to do to keep yourself occupied while you base yourself here for a visit to El Nicho. Here’s a quick list of a few things we loved in Cienfuegos.
STROLL AROUND JOSÉ MARTÍ SQUARE
Admire the functional heart of Cienfuegos in the pastel-coloured José Martí square. There are a number of café’s hiding behind 19th-century façades and the square is a pretty decent WIFI hub. There are shops on the streets nearby to pick up essentials.
PERUSE CUBAN ART ON CALLE 29
Early in the evening, Calle 29 comes alive with stalls selling interesting Cuban art and the odd souvenir. Many of the shops lining the street are makeshift art galleries with temporary exhibitions.
VISIT THE CEMENTERIO LA REINA
This atmospheric cemetery in a very non-touristy part of town is well worth strolling around. The beautifully ornate graves are wedged between atmospheric crumbling walls. / 8:00-17:00 | Location: Calle 7, Cienfuegos
SUNSET DRINKS AT CLUB CIENFUEGOS
The rather ritzy Club Cienfuegos appears disingenuous with the rest of Cuba. However, on closer inspection, the bar feels like a work cafeteria rather than the glamorous venue the building would suggest. Still, there’s no better place for a sundowner in Cienfuegos. / 18:00-23:30 | Location: Calle 37, Punta Gorda
DINNER AT VILLA LAGARTO
Cuba isn’t known for its excellent cuisine, but Villa Largo was a commendable option in Cienfuegos. But, it’s the jungle-like setting right on the water that takes the cake. / 9:00-23:00 | Location: Calle 35, Cienfuegos
SEE PELICANS AT LAGUNA GUANAROCA
Take a taxi out to this mangrove-surrounded lake for a boat ride out to see the masses of flamingoes that call this beautiful location home. The lake is 12 km from Cienfuegos. / Taxi: 20CUC (including waiting time | Boat: 10CUC per person.
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.
The best things to do in Cuba
Our complete guide to Trinidad
Viñales Valley – cycle routes through Cuban tobacco farms
How to visit Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park
Explore the best scenery in Cuba on this Viñales Valley hike
Impressions of Havana – a story from the streets
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