Cuba extends for 1,300 km from east to west. The north-south distance across the island varies from 30 to 195 km. The alignment of the island reflects the influence of ancient mountains which once linked the Greater Antilles to the Central American mainland. The island has a coastline of some 3,200 km, guarded by archipelagos of low coral bays, of which only the Isle of Pines, partly forested with mahogany and West Indian cedar, is commercially important.
The extensive plains and areas of low hills are broken by three substantial mountain systems.
The most impressive is the eastern system which comprises two main ranges: the Sierra Cristal and Sierra Sagua-Baracoa in the north; and the Sierra Maestra which runs along the southeast coast and rises to 1,994 meters in Turquino Peak, Cuba's highest mountain. The central, mountains rise between Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus, while the western system (the Sierra del Rosario and Sierra de los Organos) lies in Pinar del Rio province. All three systems contain excellent examples of tropical karstlands- haystack hills, limestone caves, and knobs of resistant rock called magotes.
Nearly all Cuba's rivers are small and flow seasonally from north to south or south to north. Small vessels can navigate the Cauto and Sagua la Grande. Many of the southward-flowing rivers disappear in the coastal swamps, the largest of which occur in the Peninsula de Zapata.
In general the natural vegetation reflects the three climatic zones which occur with increasing altitude in tropical America. The low lying tierra caliente (hot country) supports tropical hardwoods, fungi and lichens. The successively higher zones (the tierra templada- temperate; and fria- cold) support chestnuts and orchids, pines and blackberries. Man's activities, however, have disrupted this simple pattern, and most of the lowlands which are not under sugarcane are characterized by palm-dotted savannas.
The almost ubiquitous royal palm provides thatch for the bohios (mud-walled rural homesteads). In the coastlands the savannas often grade off into mangrove swamps. But in the southeast, which is affected by rainshadow, drought resisting plants like cacti are common.