Some 1250km long and between 31km and 193km wide, Cuba is the Caribbean's largest island with a total land area of 110,860 sq km. Shaped like one of its signature crocodiles and situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, the country is actually an archipelago made up of 4195 smaller islets and coral reefs.
Formed by a volatile mixture of volcanic activity, plate tectonics and erosion, Cuba's landscape is a lush, varied concoction of mountains, caves, plains and mogotes (flat-topped hills). The highest point, Pico Turquino (1972m), is situated in the east among the Sierra Maestra's lofty triangular peaks. Further west, in the Sierra del Escambray, ruffled hilltops and gushing waterfalls straddle the borders of Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Sancti Spíritus provinces. Rising like purple shadows in the far west, the 175km-long Cordillera de Guanguanico is a more diminutive range that includes the protected Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve and the distinctive pincushion hills of the Valle de Viñales.
Lapped by the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea in the south, and the chop of the Atlantic Ocean in the north, Cuba's 5746km of coastline shelters more than 300 natural beaches and features one of the world's largest tracts of coral reef. Home to approximately 900 reported species of fish and more than 410 varieties of sponge and coral, the country's unspoiled coastline is a marine wonderland and a major reason why Cuba has become renowned as a diving destination.
Cuba has an unusual share of indigenous fauna to draw serious animal-watchers. Birds are the biggest draw and Cuba has over 350 different varieties, two dozen endemic. Head to the mangroves of Ciénaga de Zapata in Matanzas province or to the Península de Guanahacabibes in Pinar del Río for the best sightings of zunzuncito (bee hummingbird), the world's smallest bird. At 6.5cm, it's not much longer than a toothpick. These areas are also home to the tocororo (Cuban trogon), Cuba's national bird. Other popular bird species include cartacubas (indigenous to Cuba), herons, spoonbills, parakeets and rarely seen Cuban pygmy owls. Flamingos are abundant in Cuba's northern keys, though the largest nesting ground in the western hemisphere, located in Camagüey Province's Río Máximo delta, has been compromised by contamination.
Land mammals have been hunted almost to extinction with the largest indigenous survivor the friendly jutía (tree rat), a 4kg edible rodent that scavenges on isolated keys living in relative harmony with armies of inquisitive iguanas. The vast majority of Cuba's other 38 species of mammal are from the bat family.
Cuba harbors a species of frog so small and elusive that it wasn't discovered until 1996 in what is now Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt near Baracoa. Still lacking a common name, the endemic amphibian is known as Eleutherodactylus iberia; it measures less than 1 cm in length, and has a range of only 100 sq km.
Other odd species include the mariposa de cristal (Cuban clear-winged butterfly), one of only two clear-winged butterflies in the world; the rare manjuarí (Cuban alligator gar), an ancient fish considered a living fossil; the polimita, a unique land snail distinguished by its festive yellow, red and brown bands and, discovered only in 2011, the endemic Lucifuga, a blind troglodyte fish.
Reptiles are well represented in Cuba. Aside from iguanas and lizards, there are 15 species of snake, none poisonous. Cuba's largest snake is the majá, a constrictor related to the anaconda that grows up to 4m in length; it's nocturnal and doesn't usually mess with humans. The endemic Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) is relatively small but agile on land and in water. Its 68 sharp teeth are specially adapted for crushing turtle shells. Crocs have suffered from major habitat loss in the last century though greater protection since the 1990s has seen numbers increase. Cuba has established a number of successful crocodile breeding farms (criaderos), the largest of which is at Guamá near the Bay of Pigs. Living in tandem with the Cuban croc is the larger American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) found in the Zapata Swamps and in various marshy territories on Cuba's southern coast.
Cuba's marine life compensates for what the island lacks in land fauna. The manatee, the world's only herbivorous aquatic mammal, is found in the Bahía de Taco and the Península de Zapata, and whale sharks frequent the María la Gorda area at Cuba's eastern tip from November to February. Four turtle species (leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill) are found in Cuban waters and they nest annually in isolated keys or on protected beaches in Península de Guanahacabibes.