For US nationals, visiting Cuba is more than just another trip. Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. Regardless, for decades independent travelers have been doing so by flying to a stopover country like Mexico or Panama and procuring the all-important "Cuban Tourist Card" needed to board a flight to Cuba. Some changes came about with re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 2017, but the US continues to maintain a comprehensive economic embargo on the Republic of Cuba that forbids travel by Americans outside of the current 12 categories of authorized travel. Authorized categories include - family visit, business of the U.S. government, journalistic activity, professional research, public performance and the like. We applied under the category “Support for the Cuban people” , the only one that would enable us to gain access to the country.
As dedicated independent travelers, we are not in the habit of using tour operators during our travels and engaging one for Cuba initially seemed like a comedown. But some quick research made it evident that it would be the pragmatic option, especially if one wanted to venture anywhere beyond Havana. Without reliable or frequent inter-city public transport, we would otherwise need to rent a car. Our plans included a significant portion of time set aside for birding and without a car we would constantly need to find and negotiate with locals to take us to remote birding hotspots. We found a small locally owned operator that specialized in arranging birding trips (and guide) and who was willing to put together a custom itinerary with a car at our disposal once out of Havana. This would help with making the best use of our limited time, and more importantly ensure that we comply with OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba.
With Tourist Cards delivered to us over a week before we were to leave, we were ready to find out what today's Cuba was all about.
Day 1 - Arrived Jose Marti Airport, Havana in the afternoon. Strolled around Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and late evening visited Fabrica de Arte Cubano a multi purpose venue that serves as Art Gallery, Dance Hall, Live Music venue and restaurants, and is open late on weekends.
Day 2 - A more focussed walk around Old Havana visiting Plaza Vieja, Humboldt Garden, Plaza de San Francisco, Calle Mercaderes, Plaza de Armas , Castillo de la Real Fuerza de La Habana Plaza de la Catedral and Parque Central. Enjoyed a Classic Havana Tour in an antique convertible before a casual stroll on the Malecon (waterfront) looking for shorebirds.
Day 3 - Tour of Havana Vieja museums (Palacio de los Captanes Generales, Palacio del Segundo Cabo and Museo de Arte Colonial). Mojitos and lunch followed by a mojito-making lesson and trial at a 6th floor Old Havana terrace with sweeping views of the sun-drenched city.
Day 4 - Travel to Cienfuegos (City Center, Waterfront) and Trinidad, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Day 5 - Explore Trinidad's Plaza Mayor in bright morning sunshine. Views of the surrounding valleys, mountains and the Caribbean sea from Palacio Cantero rooftop. Horseriding through the countryside and forest to Pilon Waterfall, stopping at a sugarcane farm and coffee farm enroute. Get caught in a big thunderstorm on horseback on the way back.
Day 6 - Depart Trinidad stopping at the nearby town of Manaca Iznaga and continue on to Santa Clara to visit Tren Blindado, City centre and Che Guevara Mausoleum. Turn back west and head for Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs.
Day 7 - Zapata Peninsula, Bay of Pigs birding at Santo Tomas and Casa Ana Birding House, Playa Larga
Day 8 - Zapata Peninsula, Bay of Pigs birding at Salinas. Evening birding at Soplillar.
Day 9 - Depart Playa Larga. Morning birding at Bermeja (near Playa Giron). Return to Havana after brief stop at Criadero de Cocodrilos. Afternoon walk through Havana Vieja to cover remaining sites.
Day 10 - Depart Havana and head west to Viñales (UNESCO World Heritage Site). Brief stop at Los Jazmines mirador to view Valle de Viñales and magotes. Birding in Viñales town and surroundings.
Day 11 - Viñales area birding at San Vicente, Casa Barbaro and Calle Adela Azcuy areas.
Day 12 - Viñales area birding at Pre-historic Mural site. Evening birding at Calle Adela Azcuy south area.
Day 13 - Depart Viñales and head east back towards Havana. Birding stops near Los Palacios Fish Pond and Las Terrazas pig farm and biosphere reserve. Drop off at Havana Jose Marti airport for flight back to the US.
Traffic was light on the Sunday afternoon drive from the airport into the city. Cuba has what they call Casas Particulares, which are rooms for rent at someone’s house (or even full apartments to rent, in some cases). Ours was located in one the narrow streets of the compact grid that constitutes Havana Vieja or Old Havana. After settling in at the casa and converting some Euros to Cuban Pesos, we went for a stroll through the streets to soak the new country/city in and also get some local food. As expected, vegetarian food proved to be a challenge and we calibrated our expectations for the rest of the trip accordingly.
A late afternoon thunderstorm had us rush back to the casa for cover. After waiting it out, late in the evening, we took a taxi to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) - a multi purpose venue that serves as an Art project, Art Gallery, Dance Hall and Live Music venue that is open late even on a Sunday evening. It has some nice restaurants and bars one can retreat to when strolling through rooms with art installations. It seemed very popular with the young and hip of Havana and gave us a chance to see the trendy and artsy side to Cuba's capital city. People were still streaming in when we decided to call it a day after listening to a rock band play in one of the live-performance areas.
Among the first things that we check for in a new country (besides looking for an ATM) is mobile internet connectivity. The phones came off 'airplane mode' but received no "Welcome to Cuba" message, confirming what we already expected. Internet in Cuba is just a tiny bit more complicated than in most countries. While in most countries, you would simply piggyback on the internet connectivity of your lodging through wifi, as a foreigner here you are required to buy a NAUTA internet card ($5 USD for 5 hours of use) and login to a ETECSA wifi hotspot in order to access the internet. Being able to get online was reassuring, but within the first couple of days, we found that while logging in was simple, finding the Cerrar sesion (end session) button to log out successfully was completely another matter. It resulted in burning through the 5 hours despite having used it just for a few minutes. A happy consequence of this was that we decided to not buy any more of the cards and enjoy our internet-free status for the rest of our time in the country.
It is no secret that Cuba is heaven for classic car enthusiasts, colorful old Plymouths, Buicks, Chevrolets and Fords ply the streets. And these are not just used by tourists. Fidel Castro banned car imports from the United States in the 1950s and made it nearly impossible to buy new, foreign-made vehicles or purchase new parts for the American-made cars that were already on the island. As a result, the current classic cars continue to be repaired using improvised parts by ingenious local mechanics. It was a delight to see so many vintage cars roaming all around the city, as if it was the 1950s. But in other respects Cuba is not stuck in time. Youngsters are out on the street, to see and be seen, just like anywhere else. Parks are busy with young families and the elderly. Closer to the core tourist area, there are a few restaurants, bars and ice-cream shops actively soliciting business.
It is perhaps a cultural thing, many people sit just outside their doorway or on the sidewalk to talk to their neighbors or friends while children play on the streets. Pedicabs or bicitaxis are common for short rides within the old town. It is one of the means of private market self-employment that is permitted by the Cuban Government. They are more numerous than automobiles within Havana Vieja and it makes for a relatively noise-free environment in an area with dense housing.
One concession we willingly made to going into full-on tourist mode was to go on a Classic Havana tour in an antique American car. Ours was an '57 Oldsmobile 88 convertible and we hopped on to a flaming-orange boat-sized car outside the Museo de la Revolución. With the scorching sun on our skin and the wind in our hair, we first drove past El Capitolo, a structure slightly taller than the US Capitol. We craned our necks to take in the faded elegance of Havana's grand, old suburbs. The buildings are a mixture of architectural styles, but several are in varying stages of disrepair. Havana actually has a Chinatown; a flourishing Chinese community lived here in the 1900s. Much of the Cuban-Chinese population left after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 after businesses were nationalized by the Communist government.
The José Martí Memorial at Plaza de la Revolucion is Havana's monument to Cuba's national hero, the intellectual and independence advocate, José Martí. He sits in a meditative pose at the base of the tower which is the tallest structure in Havana. He also appears on the 1 peso note (sadly it is not worth much today and not much in circulation). The Plaza, the scene of many a speech by Fidel, is surrounded by important government buildings like the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Informatics and Communications. Two steel sculptures adorn the facades of buildings around the plaza. The first is of the ever popular Che Guevara (accompanied by the words Hasta la victoria siempre (Always strive for victory) and the other of the lesser known Camilo Cienfuegos, who was one of the four heroes of the Revolution (along with Che and the Castro brothers).
We stopped to check out a seated sculpture of John Lennon at Parque John Lennon. The Beatles were once banned by the Castro regime, but the statue was unveiled in Fidel's presence in 2000, on the 20th death anniversary of Lennon. John is featured without his signature spectacles. Evidently they have been stolen every time they have been replaced, so they now have a custodian place it on his nose only when an important visitor is scheduled to visit.
The drive took us through the densely forested area around the zoological gardens on the way to Fusterlandia, a community project consisting of mosaic artwork that covers walls, pavements and dozens of homes. Inspired by Gaudi, Picasso and Brancusi, Cuban artist José Fuster set about decorating his studio and also his neighbors' homes and business. Over the course of a decade, it has resulted in a whimsical rainbow of colors and shapes.
As we drove down 'emabassay row', the mansion-lined 5th Avenue, we tried to rapidly identify the countries they belonged to based on the flags flying in front. A minimum speed is enforced as a security measure, so all vehicles had to keep a steady clip when passing through.
The wide boulevards and neat residential blocks of the suburbs of Miramar and Vedado made it apparent that there is a solid middle/upper class segment of the population that live fairly well despite the embargo. The final stretch along the Malecon seafront brought us back to the old town in the evening and we decided to get dropped off at the Castillo, a restored 16th century harbor fortress that is within walking distance from our casa.
We began to look forward to breakfast served at casa which invariably included a selection of sumptuous tropical fruits. On this, our final day in Havana, we made time to fully explore Old Havana on foot. On a stroll through Plaza Vieja, we made note of the old and new facades and arches, various fountains and statues. Several street corners were punctuated with small parks with bright red-orange Royal Poinciana or Flame trees in full bloom.
We were surprised to see a bust of Alexander von Humboldt at one such park that is named for him and learned more about his time in Cuba. Among other sights that are of interest to the visitor were Fidel's personal train carriage, a dubious "Gentleman of Paris" and the familiar name of Portola in the even more familiar name of San Francisco plaza. There is also modern art in the form of the 'Conversation' statue and a brief encounter with a seated Chopin statue at the same plaza.
While we were not technically birding yet, we did not ignore opportunities when they presented themselves. A delight in the form of a first encounter with a Cuban endemic, the Cuban Blackbird, interrupted our stroll and got the cameras working. We also saw our first Gray Kingbird on Calle de los Mercaderes, a Cuban Emerald in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and a Yellow Warbler in the Plaza de Armas. We would see many more of all of them in the birding hotspots later during the tour, but it was an unexpected thrill in Havana Vieja.
In all the hours of walking about the heart of town, one thing that we were actively looking for but failed to see is a single supermarket or corner mom-and-pop store as we know it. Yes, there were a few 'shops' but the shelves were mostly empty. What was there was just the basics like rice, beans, flour, oil, soap, and other essentials. You can buy massive avocados and other fruits on the street, but if you are hankering for packaged food like cookies, saltines or chips, you are out of luck.
We learned that some markets are dedicated to selling 'rations'. Cuban families get a ration coupon-book that provides them a certain amount of food for the whole family for a month. They buy it at a subsidized rate but supplies can be erratic and even essentials could sometimes go out of stock. For example, milk powder was limited to families with young children and seniors, there simply wasn't enough supply for everyone.
Families that have the means, supplement the rations with extras that they buy at the regular market, which stock more of the same essentials. We also did not come across any hardware stores, electrical stores, stores selling mobile phones etc. business that you would normally see even in small to mid-sized towns in other countries. Cuba imports most of its goods from China and Russia leading to high transport costs. Under the embargo, a cargo ship that docks in Cuba is forbidden to trade or transport goods from/to the U.S. for six months and naturally, companies/countries shy away from dealing with Cuba.
After sampling mojitos at the La Bodeguita del Medio (known for its famous patrons like Hemingway, Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda among others), we walked up 6 floors of stairs to a rooftop bar for lessons in mojito making. We had ample supplies of Havana Club rum, lime juice, sugar syrup, mint leaves and ice to practice and a hot day on the roof with sparkling views of the city to absorb the fruit of our labors. The most crucial part of the process is the muddling of the mint leaves with the cocktail mix to let the flavors mingle.
One of the great joys of travel within Cuba is the near total absence of traffic on the roads. Even on the Autopista Nacional (A1), the main east-west national highway that links Havana with Santa Clara, there were long stretches where we seemed to be the only vehicle on the road. The dual carriageway with 6 lanes was built in the 70s and 80s, but Cuba has never had enough cars, new or old, that would push its capacity. Even on the main highway we were often sharing the road with horse-drawn buggies that were being used to transport both passengers and goods.
The long empty stretches are punctuated by infrequent petrol stations and rest stops (not necessarily together). These are helpfully named with KM numbers, indicating the distance from Havana. Facilities are limited, so one should not count on buying anything on the way. Cuba’s minor roads are no busier, but while traffic is light, passing through small towns and villages, one has to look out for cyclists, animals and children as well.
The maritime city of Cienfuegos (hundred fires) on Cuba's southern coast has a well-preserved historic center with a nickname 'Pearl of the South'. It is situated on a picturesque gulf called Bahia de Jagua which was discovered by Columbus in 1494.
At its outskirts we came across a rare monument to Fidel Castro in the median of the main road. While the face of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, is plastered on buildings and billboards everywhere, there aren't Castro statues as one may expect. The reason is that shortly after the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s Communist Party enacted laws prohibiting the commemoration of living persons by way of monuments, street names and the like. This was a countermeasure against the creation of a cult of personality! Obviously that was not a very effective measure.
The Paseo del Prado avenue runs through the heart of the historic center, and boasts of a beautiful pedestrian promenade. It gave us a chance to both stretch our legs and enjoy the architecture and symmetrical layout of this compact town. We came across monuments and sculptures, among which was one of Maximiliano Bartolome More, aka Benny Moore, a Cuban music legend.
With rain threatening, our legs hastened towards Marti Park, the plaza named for the aforementioned national hero José Martí. Extending for about 2 blocks, It was the original heart of the city and there is an abundance of trees and fountains, a gazebo and busts of local personalities. A French-inspired triumphal arch and two marble lions guard the entrances to the park which is crowned by the sculpture of Martí himself.
The Malecón seafront begins just where the Prado ends and by the time we got there, it was coming down in sheets. Not willing to completely give up, we took shelter under some trees, watching pelicans, gulls and terns dive and fish in the choppy waters of the Bahia de Cienfuegos. Unwilling to expose our camera to the elements so early in the trip we waited for the storm to pass, which it did eventually and gave us a chance to walk on to the pier to get a closer look.
From there, the road to Trinidad starts out inland but soon joins the coast making for a scenic hour and a half drive. As it approaches the historic city, the road winds through the highly wooded Gran Parque National Topes de Collantes.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, Trinidad de Cuba was founded by Diego Velazquez (not the painter!) in 1514. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, it was a major player in the sugar trade and its cobblestone streets are well preserved today. Once we settled into Casa Ramirez, our home for the next two days, we headed out to explore. A short climb up through busy, narrow streets, brought us to Plaza Mayor, which is surrounded by buildings that bear witness to the wealth of the landowners of the time.
Enjoying the charm of Trinidad de Cuba, mostly involves wandering in and out of iglesias, museos, conventos and plazas and we did them full justice. From the top of tower at Palacio Cantero, there were great views to be had of Plaza Mayor, the historic center of the town and its surroundings.
At the town bus terminal, we learned that the waitlist for intercity travel in Cuba could be several weeks/months. It was unclear if foreigners would even be allowed to board as the payment is likely to be restricted to Cuban bank cards. The lady of the house at Casa Ramirez bemoaned the difficulty of travel even for locals. Her parents lived only a couple of hours drive away in Santa Clara, but she only visits them about twice a year. Renting a vehicle for a private trip is an expensive proposition for most Cubans, so they tend to stay local and there is very little domestic tourism in the country.
The terrace garden of Casa Ramirez served both as the breakfast area for guests and also an outdoor place to relax, complete with a small soaking pool in which to cool off at the end of a hot day. We also used it to great advantage to look out for birds in the area and were rewarded with our only sighting of the Magnificent Frigatebird on this trip. Turkey Vultures were plentiful, with large numbers roosting in the surrounding trees.
A popular activity for visitors to Trinidad is horseback riding, and we went riding to El Pilon Waterfalls, an approximately 6 hours roundtrip. Rather than bringing the horses into town where they could be easily spooked by traffic, we trekked a couple of km. through the lower part of the historic center until arriving at a staging area for horses at the outskirts of town. We engaged in some roadside birding (Killdeer,) while the Caballero in charge matched each of us up with a horse based on the riding experience and temperament, both of the rider and the horse. Paloma, a tall chestnut horse was the chosen steed for M, while Pequeno, a shorter and more sedate horse was deemed a more compatible ride for V.
As we headed out on a scenic road, we could see that riding on horseback is a way of life with many families here. We encountered kids going to school and adults go grocery shopping on horseback. In a little while, the paved road gave way to a dirt road and soon we were riding through open countryside. The pace varied between a comfortable slow trot rising to a canter for short stretches. The horses seemed to take their cues mostly from the owner's voice and movements rather than the tug of the reins from the rider. They have probably 'done' this route several times and needed little direction throughout the way. But there seemed to be some simmering rancor among the horses with Pequeno being the one at odds with Paloma and the others. At some mysterious cue (possibly from the horseman) the horses would suddenly pick up speed and gallop. Pequeno would try and get a steal on Paloma and would get into a head butting match if Paloma did not cooperate. This pattern repeated several times during the day.
Our first stop was at a sugarcane farm where a farmhand demonstrated the use of a hand-cranked threshing machine to extract sugarcane juice from ripe sugarcane. A Cuban Pewee perched on a wire caused some minor excitement, but trying to balance a camera with holding on to the reins was easier said than done. Further down the path we stopped at an establishment (a thatched awning) where we enjoyed a demonstration of the traditional manner of roasting coffee beans, rhythmically pounding it to powder and brewing it to make delicious Cuban coffee. With impeccable comic timing and a propensity to bestow visitors with celebrity nicknames, the gentleman entertained the group while sharing curious facts about growing tobacco, cigar making (especially mellow honey flavored cigars), Cuban Rum and the special Honey collected in the area.
Soon it started to drizzle and continued on and off and the path was reduced to deep slush. We made a few stops along the way to check on birds we noticed along the path. We were lucky to spot a pair of Cuban Orioles ( the unmistakable flash of yellow), but they were gone before we were able to whip out the camera. We spotted several Cuban Emeralds and a Red-legged Thrush, but without binoculars had to be content with leaving others unidentified.
After tying up the horses in the "Horse Parking", we covered the final stretch to El Pilon on foot. The falls are essentially a two-level cascade with a deep upper pool and a shallower lower pool. A Louisiana Waterthrush was bobbing up and down the edge of the waterfall, turning over leaf litter looking for insects.
Just as we waded into the water, the skies opened up again and this time it was just the beginning of a serious thunderstorm. We beat our retreat in blinding rain, trying not to slip on the now slippery boulders. Reunited with our horses, we rode through the steady downpour that continued almost the entire way back. Being completely soaked was not particularly uncomfortable, but we were worried about the cameras getting wet and tried our best to wrap them as best as we could and shove them deep into our soggy backpacks.
We departed Trinidad for Santa Clara the next morning, but not before enjoying the fruit-laden breakfast that we had come to expect each morning. Daily 4 hour power cuts were the norm in Cuba outside of Havana, and this morning our hosts had to shuttle between the gas stove in the kitchen downstairs and the rooftop since they only had an electric stove at the upper level.
As we headed out of Trinidad bound for Santa Clara to the north, we passed through Valle de los Ingenios, where the sugar industry flourished in the 16th century. A living museum of Cuban sugar production, it includes the sites of 75 former cane sugar mills, plantation houses, barracks and other facilities related to this vulnerable industry, which has witnessed a gradual and progressive decline.
We visited the Manaca Iznaga Tower, which is located in an old sugar estate located about 15 km from the city of Trinidad. Constructed between the years 1815-1830, the 45m high bell tower allowed for surveillance of the sugar plantations, preventing the possibility of the slaves escaping. The bells located in the upper part of the tower marked the beginning and end of the working hours. In addition, they served to give warning in case of fire in the surrounding land. An interior staircase allows visitors to climb seven levels to reach the top of the tower from where you get a panoramic view of the area including the sugar factory, the main mansion and the slave sheds.
On the onward drive to Santa Clara, we passed through several small towns and villages, watching people go about their daily lives. Unlike most countries, there are hardly any commercial signs on roadside billboards. Those that exist are political messages, socialist encouragement, criticisms of the embargo, and images of key political figures like Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Patria o Muerte, Revolución and Bloqueo are some commonly occurring words and themes painted on walls along major streets and avenues.
Santa Clara holds a special place in Cuba's revolutionary history. It is famous for the Battle of Santa Clara. The city was taken over by a revolutionary battalion led by Che Guevara in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve 1958. This precipitated a decisive chapter in the revolution as President Batista escaped Cuba within 12 hours.
Quite appropriately, our first stop was the Tren Blindado monument. On 29th December 1958, a train that was carrying government troops and armaments to the beleaguered armed forces in the East of the country, was derailed here by the small band of guerrillas. It was a pivotal point in the battle and the eventual victory of the rebels. The memorial park consists of an obelisk dedicated to Che Guevara, and a monument representing the bulldozer used by Guevara and his soldiers to derail the train. The derailed cars themselves are used as the rooms of the museum.
Santa Clara is among Cuba's top 5 largest cities by population and the everyday life of the locals is more evident and accessible as one wanders through its streets and parks around the center of town. The town square at Parque Vidal had a lively atmosphere with city buses and bicycles vying for space surrounded by a mix of colonial and neo-colonial buildings. We ventured several blocks away from the main square to Iglesia del Carmen, the oldest church in the city that also served as a prison for Cuba patriots during the War of Independence. We were quite unprepared for yet another Beatles monument adjacent to the church!
The Che Guevara Memorial and Mausoleum was our final stop. Located in "Plaza Che Guevara", a 22-foot bronze statue of Guevara, stands atop a set of sculptural elements that memorialize key events of the young revolutionary's life. A frieze depicts him in the Sierra Maestra consulting with Fidel, beside Camilo Cienfuegos, and in the mountains on horseback. The text of Guevara's farewell letter to Fidel Castro when he left Cuba is reproduced in stone . Another section shows Guevara as Minister of Industry performing his usual voluntary work. A museum inside contains a comprehensive collection of photographs, depictions, writings, and memorabilia related to El Che. It covers not just his revolutionary days; there are photographs and personal items from his early childhood through his adult life.
As one exits the museum, one enters the mausoleum. Guevara was buried with full military honors on 17 October 1997 after his remains were discovered in Bolivia, exhumed and returned to Cuba. The mausoleum houses not just his remains, but also that of twenty-nine of his fellow combatants killed in 1967. It has been designed to look like a thickly wooded forest, an environment that Che spent much of his time in and would have been very comfortable in. An 'eternal flame' lit by Fidel Castro in his memory burns to this day.
Back on the A1, we headed back west towards the Bay of Pigs. As we passed a few petrol stations on the way, we learned how to tell if the petrol station had petrol/diesel to sell. The ones which had no petrol were usually empty and forlorn looking. If they had supply, there typically was a long queue of cars snaking all the way out to the highway.
As we exited the main highway at Jaguey Grande for the Bay of Pigs, there was the expected bout of afternoon thundershowers. It gave our driver some anxious moments (who suspected that parts of the road may be impassable), but the rain provided some needed relief from the afternoon heat.
At Playa Larga, we met Cesar Sr., the experienced birding guide who would accompany us for the remainder of our time in Cuba. We settled in at Casa Leives, a provincial version of the casas we had stayed at thus far and located in the outskirts of town. We got acquainted with our hostess before heading to the main part of town for a view of the Bay of Pigs and the hunt for a vegetarian meal. From this point on, Cesar, our guide, took on the responsibility of finding us vegetarian food for every meal, not a mean task in smaller towns and remote parts of Cuba!
The three of us went door to door (of food serving establishments) on the main street. Nothing looked promising even though everyone was friendly and welcoming. Cesar spotted a van parked in the street and saw that it was stocked with bananas and plantains and locals were gathered around it. We bought a bunch for meal top-ups! And they cost us 40 pesos (official rate being 120 pesos to the dollar).
We eventually managed to find a place where the owner agreed to prepare a custom vegetarian dinner for the evening as well as the next day. With one less thing to worry about, we looked forward to our pre-dawn departure the next morning for the birding phase of the trip!
Up by 5am and finished breakfast and all ready to go when our landlady got the call from Cesar that our car had tire trouble and would not be ready for another couple of hours. This gave us the opportunity to do some morning birding around the casa (flocks of Cuban Parrots flying and landing on a tall tree, White Ibises on the grass, Smooth-billed Ani on the wires and West Indian Woodpecker on utility poles). We eventually got going at 7:30am wondering if the late start meant that we would have missed the opportunity to encounter the two Zapata endemics: Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow.
Cesar gave us some anxious news. There was a diesel shortage in the country and this limited the use of our Ford Fairlane in the area as we needed the car to get us back to Havana on Monday. (We also learned later that Cesar had to knock on stranger’s doors to get help to fix the tires as all the usual service options had not materialized in this remote part of the country!). But for today, the Ford would take us into the swamps to Santo Tomas. Apart from Cesar and our driver Miguel, we had a local birding expert to help with spotting and identification.
Enroute we stopped at a spot that was teeming with birds, many of which were lifers for us. One wished that they would all come in an orderly parade, but it doesn’t work out that way ever. Our ears were ringing with the shouts of both guides: Northern Parula! Yellow-faced Grassquit! Cuban Bullfinch! Prairie Warbler! Look, there! Here is a better view! Our hands switched from binoculars to camera as our brains worked hard to ensure that we had a good look first before attempting a photo.
Santo Tomas is a spot at the edge of an area with tall sawgrass rising from the still water. A boardwalk over the swamp leads us to a small boat that is operated by a pole. We had a boatman to help us with that. At times, he just abandoned the pole and pushed the boat forward. As we enjoyed the waterlilies and other flowers while keeping our ears cocked for the Zapata Wren (like all wrens, it makes itself heard but only makes fleeting appearances). We did encounter one that moved from one clump of grass to another in a circle but never long enough to get a photograph. However, an individual Zapata Sparrow was more cooperative and stood in place for a half minute allowing us to get a good look and photo. The ambience of the place reminded us of a similar habitat that we had visited in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
The way back on the boardwalk (we were cautioned to be very careful as several planks were either missing or about to go missing) was quite busy with all the blackbird species in Cuba putting in an appearance - Cuban Blackbird, Red-shouldered Blackbird and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. Apart from the distinctive coloration, size was also a crucial indicator as the females do not have the coloration of the males. This was followed by our first sighting of a Cuban Green Woodpecker and American Kestrel at the edge of the boardwalk. Venturing into a thicket, we were rewarded with sightings of the much anticipated Cuban Tody, Cuban Vireo and the dramatic appearance of a Gray-fronted Quail-Dove that quickly headed deep into the bush but stood still for us to find a good angle to get a good look.
The drive back from Santo Tomas to Playa Larga was uneventful and after the planned lunch, we called at Casa Ana Birding House - the anticipated event was the sighting of the world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird (zunzuncito is the common name in Cuba). We had to wait an hour for it to emerge but it was a busy hour in the idyllic garden filled with bird feeders and a stream that emptied into the Bay of Pigs. The constant game of musical chairs by Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, the frequent appearance of Cuban Emeralds, the occasional Cuban Pewee, a Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron by the water, a pair of Cuban Orioles feeding upside down at a feeder - all of these kept us busy. Eventually, a female Bee Hummingbird showed up and we were told that males come later in the season and one may not show up today. Thankfully, this was immediately proved wrong by a sole male zunzuncito buzzing right in front of our eyes - all 5 cm of it! And preened itself for several minutes for the benefit of our binoculars and cameras.
After a brief break to document the day’s sightings, we birded around the casa well into the evening. M encountered a Yellow-throated Warbler on a pine tree and both of us spotted a Cuban Crow on a distant tree, the only one we ever saw on this trip. Ironic, that a crow is a hard species to spot! The sight of a Cuban Nighthawk hunting at dusk was also a first for us.
Our departure time for Day 2 was the same as Day 1 but this time it was as per schedule. So wake up and breakfast were relaxed and we got a half hour to bird near the casa and encountered the same species. Our destination for the morning was Salinas which is different from the previous day’s habitat. We would have an opportunity to view shorebirds and stop at various viewing platforms erected to view the channels that flow into the Bay of Pigs. In view of the diesel shortage, we were on a Willys style jeep with a back cabin that made it easy to get in and out of the vehicle during the frequent stops.
Before we even left Playa Larga, we saw dozens of female Purple Martins seated rump to rump on a wire. We initially identified them as Cuban Martins but this was corrected by an expert later. They formed a great spectacle silhouetted against the sun, but no color details could be obtained because of the lighting.
At the brief stop outside the entrance to the National Park, we encountered a Greater Antillean Grackle and adult White Ibis that showed off their pink bills in great lighting.
Once on the straight, dirt road (covered for the first part by the branches of trees like an arboreal tunnel), our local guide quickly spotted a Cuban Blackhawk sitting high up on a tree. This was a lifer and we spent a few minutes absorbing the sight before moving on.
Once we got past the arboreal tunnel, blue skies emerged and the viewing platforms appeared along the channels. Highlights of the morning included dozens of American Flamingoes showing off their unique salmon color while in the water or in flight (when you could see the black edges on their wings). Other species included Double-crested Cormorant, Neotropical Cormorant, Osprey, Crested Caracara, Cuban Blackhawk (including a pair on a tree and one close to the jeep). We got real close to a pair of Cuban Bullfinches munching on flowers. Male and female Yellow Warblers around the plants near the viewing platforms. The occasional Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron (juvenile), Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird, Willet, White-crowned Pigeon, Royal Tern and Cuban Pewee. On the return route we saw several shorebirds like Spotted Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt and Killdeer.
Happy with the morning’s adventure, we returned to Playa Larga for lunch at the same place. After a brief rest, we explored the beach (playa!) at Playa Larga to view the Bay of Pigs fully. The area is infamous for the disastrous 1961 US-sponsored invasion that eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. On this quiet afternoon, families were enjoying the breeze and children were playing in the sand and the placid water.
Different time of day for a different birding experience. As we approached the evening, we headed (in a taxi) to Soplillar, 15 minutes away from Playa Larga. The car waited for us outside a lone country house and we walked past a chain link fence onto the sendero (path). We saw a half dozen Cuban Parakeets fly over but they disappeared before we could get any pictures. Some lifers are like that and we took it in our stride and enjoyed watching Cuban Parrots dining on fruits. Our main targets for the evening were two species of owls and the Greater Antillean Nightjar. The owls were spotted in quick succession with the help of our local guide. The Bare-legged Owl emerged from the top of a bare wooden stump. The Cuban Pygmy-Owl was seated high on a tree obscured by branches and we waited a bit to get a good look at both its eyes. Meanwhile, less shy birds like Limpkin, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Common Ground Dove, Zenaida Dove, Smooth-billed Ani. Cuban Emerald sat on a wire nearby. A West Indian Woodpecker boldly perched on a branch almost at our eye level. Other birds of note included a Solitary Sandpiper and a Louisiana Waterthrush (we had encountered this at the Piron Waterfall near Trinidad last week). We took a careful look at its throat to distinguish it from the Northern Waterthrush whose throat is streaked.
We still had the Greater Antillean Nightjar on target but it was still twilight and we had to wait a half hour before it got dark enough for them to emerge. We waited just outside the fence which seemed to be the favorite spot of these nocturnal birds in that area. As soon as it got dark, a pair of them emerged one after the other and flew right over our heads forcing us to duck in order to avoid being hit. They moved from fence to tree back and forth a few times. We opted not to use our flash and our hand-held cameras could only get fuzzy pictures in the low light.
We checked out of Casa Leivis before dawn and loaded the Fairlane and headed east towards Playa Giron, driving past it to a spot on the lonely road just as the sun came up on the horizon in front of us. It was a quiet half hour as we entered the forest cover for just a few feet and hid behind a set of trees to watch a long forest path. The sun had come up on the road, but it was still dark under the forest canopy. We could see the figures of a pair of doves that were identified as Zenaida Doves by our guide. After a few minutes, a pair of Blue-headed Quail-Doves made their appearance. The light got slightly better as they came closer to us and we got a good look through our scopes and cameras. Another lifer! They were accompanied by a Gray-fronted Quail-Dove (not a lifer as we had seen the one at Santo Tomas on Day 1).
And another lifer within a few minutes in the form of a Great Lizard-Cuckoo which we heard from a tree above us and soon saw a creeping figure climb higher. We walked around the tree and onto the forest edge where the rising morning sun soon lit up the high branch to which the bird had climbed for a brief pause.
We came back on the road and yet another lifer for V in the form of a Yellow-faced Grassquit (M had seen it on Day 1 at Santo Tomas and Casa Ana, but V had missed it). A pair of Fernandina’s Flickers added yet another lifer. On a distant tree perched a Western Spindalis. On the wire above us a Common Ground Dove. There was some excitement as it appeared that a Northern Flicker (which we see at home in the Bay Area quite often) had joined its cousin on a utility pole. Closer inspection revealed that to be a West Indian Woodpecker. A Loggerhead Kingbird appeared and sat on a wire for a few seconds.
Once the commotion died down, we headed back into the forest to look for Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon. After a brief quest, our guides managed to spot one that was impossibly obscured by trees and branches. Another one followed in a better position. Delighted with yet another lifer under our belts, we got back to our car and bid goodbye to the area and headed back to the highway.
Stopping for lunch by the Criadero de Cocodrilos (we were not planning to visit the Crocodile farm), we looked for signs of the Cuban Crow but could not spot any. Antillean Palm-Swifts flew about in the dozens occasionally emerging from their resting sites on the thatched roofs of the buildings in the area. A close look at an American Kestrel (white-morph) and another sighting of a West Indian Woodpecker before we left the Bay of Pigs behind us and headed back to Havana.
We could see that Miguel and Cesar were still discussing the diesel situation. At the 79.5km station, we saw a truck emerge and Miguel stopped the car to ask the driver and let out a big whoop of delight at the news that diesel was available at the station. We turned into the station and waited in queue for a half hour. The store was open but it only had beer and liquor, no refreshments of any kind. A woman with a thermos was selling coffee under a tree and V wangled half of the last cup that Cesar had got from her.
The familiar sights of the Havana Harbour, Parque Central, Museo de la Revolucion and the narrow streets of Havana Vieja in the afternoon. We felt like we had lived here much longer than the 3 days we spent last week. We visited the southern side of Old Havana and some spruced up areas that provided some relief from the normal ruined look of many streets. Just outside on Ave Belgica by Plaza de las Ursulinas was a building featuring Moorish (Neo-Mudejar) Architecture with airs of the Alhambra in Andalucia, Spain recalling our fond visit to that region a decade ago.
It was time to head west for the final phase of our Cuba tour and what could easily be the most picturesque landscape in all of Cuba if the reports were to be believed. While our primary purpose was birding, we were also eager to experience the beauty of the valley and the magotes (hilly blocks that dot the plain). A 2 hour ride through an empty carretara (highway) A4 took us to PDR (Pinar del Rio) province and its eponymous central town and a short distance on route 241 brought us to Viñales Valley.
We stopped at the Los Jazmines overlook to get a comprehensive view of Viñales Valley before we headed down into the valley and past the town of Viñales to Casa Barbaro, a rustic country house and restaurant and surrounding countryside. The hosts were friends of Miguel and looked after us well fashioning an impromptu vegetarian meal for us. The palm roof attracted Antillean Palm-Swifts while the surrounding trees were favored by Common Ground Doves, Loggerhead Kingbirds and American Kestrels.
On our way back to Viñales town, we stopped at Ranchon el Arado, a tobacco farm where we got a tour of its cigar producing process. We also got a tutorial on how to smoke a good Cuban cigar. We knew that cigar smoke is not meant to be inhaled, but we also learned that you have to spin the cigar during intake to ensure even burn and also not be too obsessive about tapping the ash as the quality of the cigar is revealed in the ash. Dipping the mouth end in honey suppresses the bitter taste and serves as a natural filter. We spotted more Antillean Palm-Swifts in the area before the inevitable thunderstorm came down and had us rushing to the car.
Cesar offered to take us to visit his friend and author of the “Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide”, Mr. Nils Navarro. He was very generous with his time and shared fascinating aspects of authoring such a scientific work and keeping it up to date. He gave us a tip on where to quickly spot another lifer for us, the Olive-capped Warbler. We followed his directions and spotted one on a pine tree around the street corner. It was not at the best position being directly overhead on a tall tree in the shade, but a lifer is a lifer! We hoped to get a better look over the next 2 days.
We stayed at the most picturesque lodging of our entire trip on Calle Adele Azcuy. The property featured a pool right outside a room and a terrace for viewing the valley and magotes. We could bird right from our porch at the surrounding trees happily spotting Western Spindalis, Cuban Blackbird and Gray Kingbirds from our doorstep.
We did see an unusual and astonishing sight at the lodging. A butterfly chasing an Antillean Palm-Swift! We are familiar with smaller aggressive birds chasing larger ones (like crows chasing hawks), but not something like this!
A much different habitat compared to the Zapata Swamp, Viñales valley’s surroundings are much more picturesque as you are never far from a magote or two. We quickly came across a lifer in the form of a pair of Scaly-naped Pigeons that landed high on a distant palm tree. A surprise find was a pair of nesting Scaly-breasted Munias. These are native to Asia and are rare outside. We have had visits to our home in the Bay Area on a rare occasion.
We were still hoping for a better sighting of the Cuban Trogon since our earlier encounters in Bermeja earlier in the week were obscured. We got our wish with a good look one clear of any obstruction. We also spotted a Cuban Tody but only for a fleeting moment. But the highlight of the morning was a Cuban Pygmy-Owl in good morning light (compared to the fading evening light at Soplillar earlier in the week).
With several endemic sightings under our belt, we now only had a countable few to go that were realistically possible given the geographical location. One such was the Cuban Solitaire, known for its distinctive call and song that belies its drab appearance (it is more heard than seen). We learned to identify its calls that were heard quite loudly and after much peering above, Cesar spotted one. We got a brief glimpse before it took off.
The other remarkable sighting was that of a Smooth-billed Ani bathed in the morning sunlight (our earlier sightings were against the light, but the Ani has a remarkable silhouette that stands out).
We headed to the same establishment, Casa Barbaro for lunch but went for a walk in the surrounding field as the rising heat of the day stung us with its intensity. The sight of a juvenile Little Blue Heron helplessly dying in the grass was distressing, but we carried on with our walk up a slope to a grove of pine trees and sure enough we spotted a pair of Olive-capped Warblers but at a much lower level and better light compared the previous day’s sighting in Viñales town.
Almost a repeat of the previous day’s lunch experience including the birds that visited. After an extended stay in the shaded location which was welcome after walking in the heat of the morning, we headed back towards town, stopping at the Palenque Cimarron site. It is a large cave that has been converted to a bar and stage featuring plays illustrating the history of slavery in Cuba. We couldn’t stay long due to the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm that had us rushing back to our casa in the town.
Once the storm ceased, we ventured to walk on Calle Adele Azcuy towards the Cueva del Vaca. We got a closer look at a male Western Spindalis (like the one seen at a distance the previous day) and its mate. An unexpected sighting of a female Red-legged Honeycreeper in a tree overlooking a stream followed. We also had a very close look at a flock of Yellow-faced Grassquits flying over a field.
Once darkness descended, we walked to the town to sample a local favorite, the Canchanchara, but the catch is that it is local to Trinidad where we were the previous week! We were happy we did not let go of it as it soon became a favorite and we still plan to make them at home with the equivalent of the original ingredients (Rum for Aguardiente). Vegetarian food was difficult and we settled for a modest sandwich.
The Pre-historic Mural site in Viñales is a remarkable sight by itself. Cuban painter Leovigildo Gonzalez Murillo (who had studied with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera) was chosen for the task of painting the mural over a massive rock face. It represents the life of the original inhabitants of the Cuban archipelago. Early morning fog covered the magotes giving the place a mysterious look.
We were there for birding and were quickly rewarded for getting there early in the morning with sightings of a Cuban Solitaire seen in full cry (literally) among several that were heard. A much better look at a pair of Scaly-naped Pigeons compared to yesterday’s distant pair. Still these shy birds eluded a full body exposure and we had to be content with the purple head, red eyes and scaly nape. We spotted our second Great Lizard-Cuckoo of the trip and our first in Viñales (we had seen it in Bermeja a few days prior for our lifer sighting).
A very satisfactory look at a Cuban Trogon that was on a branch calling out (barely competing with the much louder Solitaires) to its companions followed. We walked across the field in front of the mural (the fog had lifted and it was getting hot). A brief walk through the dense woods behind the mural yielded great rewards. Great sightings of Cuban Tody, Cuban Vireo (calling incessantly for several minutes), Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Trogon. Best of all was another Cuban Solitaire which gave us a rendition of a song with varying pitch pattern and voice texture. A very moving sight.
We had a remarkable lunch in Viñales town. We happily spotted Pizza Vegetales on the menu and asked for it. The waiter got anxious and went in and came back with “we don’t have vegetables, perhaps we can rustle up some beans from our garden for your pizza?” We said that would be wonderful. Miguel ordered a regular pasta and we were surprised to see him get some boiled spaghetti with pink bits strewn on top. He had to order some tomato sauce to be able to wolf it down. We talked hopefully of dessert and fantasized about an ice-cream bar around the corner but realized that none such existed in the province.
We waited out the afternoon thunderstorm before heading south on Calle Adele Azcuy as it climbed over the valley for our last birding in the Viñales area. The highlight of the walk was a bare tree full of female Red-legged Honeycreepers and a pair of Zenaida Doves. One more sighting of an Olive-capped Warbler and a lone female Western Spindalis.
We enjoyed a final look at the Viñales valley and magotes on our return walk back to town. We made another hopeless search for vegetarian food in the town before settling for a repeat of the previous day. Sandwich and Canchanchara!
Our return flight to Miami was only at 6 pm and so we had plenty of time to go after the final two target species: the Cuban Grassquit and Stygian Owl (not an endemic but a lifer for us).
Back on the A4 heading east, Cesar had Miguel stop even before the Los Palacios Fish Pond. A short walk on the dirt road yielded plenty of delights. Eastern Meadowlarks followed by the appearance of the brilliantly colored Tricolored Munia with a piece of grass in its mouth. A pair of Smooth-billed Ani and our last encounter with a Great Lizard-Cuckoo were other highlights.
A short ride brought us to the Los Palacios Fish Pond where we expected to see Snail Kites. We spotted 7 terns busy fishing in the water in a quietly energetic way. We could not positively identify the terns and argued in the car citing various inclusion and exclusion criteria. But only after spotting a pair of nesting Snail Kites that put on quite a show for us, flying back and forth between the pond and the tree across the highway. We came back home and as expected our eBird submission went to Mr. Navarro for review and he identified the terns as Black Terns.
Our final birding stops were in the Las Terrazas Biosphere area. First to the Finca Rosario Pig Farm to spot the Cuban Grassquit. We walked a fair bit around the farm and a short wooded trail (spotting a Cuban Bullfinch). We had our eye on our watches as we needed to get to one more site, have lunch and then an hour to the airport. We turned back at some point and on our way back spotted a male Cuban Grassquit, but only a fleeting photograph. Still a lifer is a lifer! Happily, we saw a pair on the wire not 200 feet from our parked car! We got a good look on our scopes and cameras before they flew away.
With the clock ticking, we headed to the Biosphere area to a large grove of very large pine trees numbering in the hundreds. We divided up and scanned the tree tops for the Stygian Owl. M was the first to spot it just as Cesar saw a marker left by a friend of his who had marked the tree with a pine twig after spotting the owl recently. We walked around the tree trying to find a clear view and could find none. It was obscured on all sides and we did our best with the scope and cameras. Cesar reminded us of our flight later in the afternoon and we pleaded with him for a few more minutes of the Stygian Owl.
We had our finest vegetarian meal of the entire trip at the Eco Restoran El Romero inside the biosphere reserve. And just like that, it was time to head to the airport and bid goodbye to Miguel, Cesar and Cuba!