Millenniums ago Cuba was formed from the fusion of three large islands, whose generally flat land is now broken up by three main mountain ranges. The Sierra Maestra, the country’s highest mountain range, dominates the southeastern coast, with the massif of the Alturas de Sagua-Baracoa grouped in the far east. The Sierra del Escambray mountain range is located in the south-central part of the island. And the Cordillera de Guaniguanico forms a backbone in the extreme west of the country.
The Sierra Maestra massif runs westward across the southern part of Guantánamo Province to Granma Province. Of volcanic origin, the Sierra Maestra is the most rugged and isolated mountain system in Cuba, as well as being the highest. With a spine averaging 1,500 meters in elevation, the range rises to Pico Turquino, which at 1,974 meters is the highest mountain in the country. Picos Moa, Cristal and Nipe and others found in the far east have altitudes of between 900 and 1,200 meters.
Located in the southeastern part of the range in Santiago de Cuba Province, Pico Turquino is heavily forested – which provides coverage from the glaring sun even in the hottest summer months of July and August – and plicated with steep ravines, boulder-strewn deep river valleys, and impassable karst areas. Precipitation is common (some 2,200 mm annually), from a soft drizzle to pelting hail, and the weather is unpredictable, with cold winds and plummets to near freezing temperatures near the summit when night falls.
Another important mountain range is the Sierra Cristal, located in the southern part of northeastern Holguín Province and, after the Sierra Maestra, the second highest chain in Cuba. Rising above the narrow coastal plain, the range climbs to Pico Cristal (1,214 meters), with its pine-dominated slopes and deep incisions made by rivers.
The Sierra del Escambray is located in the south-central region of Cuba in Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus Provinces. It is divided into two sections by the Agabama River: the western Guamuhaya Mountains and the eastern, somewhat lower, Sierra de Sancti Spíritus. Pico San Juan (1,140 meters) is their highest peak and even on a summer day, it’s much cooler at the summit, with cold rain falling while the surrounding lowlands sizzle. In the south-eastern ranges of the Escambray is found the Topes de Collantes nature reserve, whose pine-covered slopes are refreshingly cool.
The Cordillera de Guaniguanico is a low, ancient and sharply-ridged mountain chain which forms an east-west spine running down the centre of Pinar del Río, Cuba’s most western province. The chain is divided into two mountain ranges, the Sierra del Rosario in the east and the Sierra de los Organos in the west. The highest point, Pan de Guajaibón (almost 700 meters) is located in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, which in 1984 was the first such reserve to be so classified in Cuba.