Cuba has been
on our travel wish list since many years mainly due to the fact that it is a
very special country with an interesting history and culture giving it an
atmosphere of its own. Besides Cuba
has a relaxing Caribbean atmosphere and
wonderful beaches. Initially the country did not appear to be of very high
interest for me from a birding point of view. Some research on the internet
however turned out that a visit to the country could yield quite some new birds
for my life list. Cuba
however cannot be compared with countries like Peru,
Ecuador and Brazil with
checklists of 1000+ birds. Nevertheless it has some very interesting birds.
Since I never birded in the Caribbean and in North America
before I had the possibility to see 75+ lifer birds meanly due to the 28
endemics, 25 Caribbean specialties and a nice set of North American migrants
occurring there during the northern winter. With all of this in mind I began
searching the web to find out what the best option for us would be. We wanted a
combination of birding with some culture and beach leisure. Most bird tour
companies however do not spend any time on culture stuff, so we opted to rent a
car and do a tour on our own. I read in several bird reports however that
finding your way on Cuban roads is not always easy because of the poor
signposting. Besides we would have to arrange our own local bird guides which
isn’t easy during the busy birding season between January and April. After some
more searching on the web I came across a website from a company called Cuba
Welcome (www.cubawelcome.com) who
offered a 15 day birding itinerary alternated with some culture and leisure
activities against a very reasonable price. I contacted them to inform about
the tour and after a few e-mails and phone calls with Mike Mirecki we decided
to book the tour. We also booked an extra night in Havana at the end of the trip to have more
time to enjoy the city. Afterwards we did not regret our decision although
there were quite some things that did not work out as expected. You will read
more about that further on in this report. The itinerary followed the classic
birding route in Cuba
which is mostly done by other companies in 12 days. The first three days we
spend at Vinales, La Guira
and Soroa in the western part of the island followed by four days in Zapata. We
then headed further east to Najasa for two days followed by 3 days at Cayo
Coco. We ended the trip with two days in Havana.
We were in an excellent and very enjoyable international group of fourteen
people which certainly made the trip very worthwhile despite the things that
went wrong during the trip.
Jos & Wilma Wanten; Reuver – The Netherlands
Maurice & Rita; Kent – UK
Jack & Carol; London
David & Robert; Texas – US
Margaret; Vancouver – Canada
Margaret, John & Julie, Geoff & Matthew;
Sydney – Australia
For general birding
preparations I used the usual websites at www.fatbirder.com.
birding reports are available at www.travellingbirder.com and www.birdtours.co.uk. General travel info
is available at www.gocuba.ca, www.travel2cuba.co.uk and at www.cuba.com. In the field we used the Helm
Field Guide Birds of the West Indies. Some
people in our group used The Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba but to my opinion
the West Indies book is much better. The West Indies book is small, compact and easy to use with
text and maps opposite the plates. The illustrations are much better then in
guide. However the West Indies book has one
disadvantage. The text and maps are less detailed then in the Cuba book. For
general travel information we used the Cuba Lonely Planet guide.
Cuba is very different and special having its own
appealing atmosphere. It is a large island offering plenty of variety. The most
spectacular scenery is found in the west with its green fertile valleys dotted
with steep limestone hills and royal palms. In the central south it offers the
extensive swamps and wetlands of Zapata which also holds patches of good
forest. Further east towards Camaguey
the country consists of open pastures, agricultural fields and open woodlands
near Najasa. The northern keys consist of mangroves, swamps, dunes, shrubs,
small forest patches and beautiful white sandy beaches along a turquoise sea.
And then there is Havana
with its old colonial buildings and squares, classic American cars from the
1950’s, old Ladas and the rhythms of salsa, rumba and meringue from every
corner of the street. Having a nice rum and Cuban cigar in one of the many bars
accompanied by live salsa music was really enjoyable. Havana is also a very safe city where crime
is nearly non-existent. The people are very friendly and not obtrusive at all. Cuba has two
different currencies. The Cuban peso (for residents only) and the Cuban
Convertible Peso or CUC (for tourists). The exchange rate during our visit was
about CUC 0,96 against one USD and CUC 1,29 against one Euro. You won’t find
any ATM’s in Cuba.
Bring cash Euro’s or Pound Sterling to change at the airport or a bank. There
is a 10% extra fee on changing USD into CUC.
direct flights to Havana
and Varadero are available with Martinair/KLM. This was the cheapest option for
us and we really made a perfect deal at Euro 495 each. Other possibilities from
Amsterdam and Dusseldorf
are with Iberia via Madrid and Air France
Virgin Atlantic and Cubana Airlines operates direct flights from London Gatwick
There are no direct flights from the US
to Cuba simply because
travelling to Cuba
is not legal for US citizens. Many American travellers use Cancun or the Bahamas as a
hub. Entering Cuba
requires a Tourist Visa (Euro 30) which can be obtained at your tour operator,
airline or Cuban consulate in your country. At all Cuban airports there is a
CUC 25 departure tax applicable which has to be paid in cash at the airport.
we were on an organized tour all our transport was pre-arranged. We travelled
in an excellent and brand new air- conditioned 30-seater coach of Chinese
origin which was perfectly driven by Felipe, our friendly Cuban driver. On Cayo
Coco we travelled by Jeep and in Havana
we used taxis. Roads are in a very acceptable condition and the traffic is very
light outside the big cities. An almost empty two and sometimes three lane
motorway extends over a distance of about 550 km across the island
from Pinar del Rio eastwards. The only poor
road we encountered was the deeply potholed last section from Camaguey to Najasa. Road signposting however
is sometimes very poor. Even Felipe, our experienced Cuban driver sometimes had
to ask for directions especially in remote areas. Our domestic flight from Cayo
Coco to Havana
operated by Aero Caribbean was a real disaster. We had a four hour’s delay for
a 1:15 hrs flight. Taxi transfers in Havana
were also unreliable. Usually we had to wait about an hour longer than agreed.
Fortunately our taxi ride back to the international airport at the end of the
trip was on time.
WEATHER AND WHEN TO GO
Cuba has a sub-tropical climate
with warm to hot weather throughout the year. During summer (May through
October) it can be unpleasantly hot and humid with temperatures peaking into
the mid 30’s. Summer is also the period with the highest rainfall, and from
August to October is hurricane season. Due to the higher humidity during summer
mosquito’s can be a real nuisance, although we also had a lot of mosquito’s
during our visit in March possibly due to the heavy rains in the preceding
weeks before our arrival. Winter (December to April) is a far better period to
visit. Temperatures are more pleasant (low to high 20’s) and nights are cooler.
Also from birding point of view this is the best period with late February
until mid April being the most popular. During this period it tends to be easer
to find the endemics. Besides many migrants are around and the winter visitors
from the north are still around.
ACCOMODATIONS & FOOD
it comes to food Cuba
is not really the place to be. Many restaurants in Cuba are government owned and the
quality of food is low to mediocre. There is not much variety and the food
isn’t prepared with much care. Meat (mostly chicken or pork) and fish was
nearly always accompanied by rice and beans, and most of the time the only
vegetables available was a tomato and cucumber salad. The weirdest desert I
ever had was a slice of cheese floating in a kind of marmalade sauce. Resort
hotels offer more variety but still it isn’t haute cuisine. One exception was
our meal at the La Fontana
restaurant in Havana.
The charcoal grilled beef, pork and chicken was a real delight and was
accompanied by potatoes and a nice selection of barbecued vegetables. Cuba’s national
drink is rum. The white 3 years old rum is mainly used for mix drinks like
Daiquiri and Mojito. The excellent 7 years old Havana Club is used pure, on the
rocks or with a bit of water. Cuba’s
best beers are Cristal and the stronger Bucanero. Accommodations in Cuba range from
budget private guesthouses called Casa Particular to luxurious resorts. We
mainly used three to four star hotels which were perfectly adequate. The only
annoying thing was that in several occasions our hotel had been changed at the
very last moment. Fortunately the alternatives were of reasonable to good
quality. We stayed in the following hotels:
: excellent colonial style four star hotel right in the middle of Old Havana.
Spacious rooms with high ceilings. Excellent breakfast.
Rancho San Vicente near Vinales: adequate midrange hotel in a natural setting.
The rooms in cabins scattered through a nice garden are okay. Food was of a
Charco Azul: new lodge near Las Terrazas. Nice natural setting located on a
hill. Rooms are available in the main house and in few separate cabins. Rooms
in the main house are quite nice but a bit small. The lodge also has a pool and
separate restaurant. Food quality was very reasonable.
Playa Larga: midrange beach hotel at the Bay of Pigs
in Zapata. Rooms in separate chalets are okay and spacious enough. The hotel
offers a bar, restaurant and a nice and quiet sandy beach with beach bar. Food
quality was mediocre.
located near Najasa about 60km from Camaguey.
Nicely located on a large ranch with a nice natural setting. Rooms though are
fairly basic and the food and service was of poor quality. Only option close to
Oasis Playa Coco: Large midrange all-inclusive
resort. Rooms were spacious but not very clean. Choice of food was good,
quality was reasonable. Excellent beach.
wonderful colonial four star hotel located in Old Havana. Spacious rooms,
wonderful lobby and patio in Moorish/Andalucian style. Good breakfast.
excellent four star hotel, spacious clean rooms, nice pool area with bar,
excellent breakfast. The only drawback was that it is quite far from Havana city centre.
Cuba is not the country to
produce trip lists of 300 or 400 plus birds. On the other hand it is possible
to see many of its 28 endemics, 26 Caribbean specialties and many northern
migrants during the period we visited the country. We achieved a trip list of
150 species while I expected between 150 and 175. However we did very good on
endemics having 25 out of possible 27. We only missed the very elusive Zapata
Rail and the Gundlach’s Hawk which was probably briefly seen by some of the
group members. We saw 21 out of 26 Caribbean
specialties and a nice set of northern migrants being mainly warblers. I was
very happy having a total of 82 lifers which is nearly 55% of our total trip
list. We dipped however on a couple of birds with a common to fairly common
status. This was probably caused by the high water levels. We saw remarkably
few waders, missed a few ducks and did not see any Rail species. The birding
strategy to find the endemics and specialty birds is sometimes very
challenging. We spend for instance nearly one and a half morning to find the
Blue-headed Quail-Dove. For me the highlights of the trip were Great
Lizard-Cuckoo, Cuban Screech-Owl, Bee Hummingbird, Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon,
Northern Flicker and Western Stripe-headed Tanager.
LOCAL BIRD GUIDES
different birding sites we were accompanied by following local bird guides:
Vinales we had Froilin, a guide who was probably more interested in plant
and trees than in birds. He was not much of a help in finding our target birds.
At Cueva de los Portalos and La
Guira we were accompanied by Julio Cesar Hernandez who was an excellent guide and keen
birder. He was very persistent in finding the targets and his English was very
good. Julio can be contacted at email@example.com.
At Soroa and Las Terrazas we were accompanied by Justo another excellent
bird guide of the same quality as Julio at La Guira. Unfortunately
I do not have any contact details from him but he is often used by tour groups.
At Charco Azul lodge
local guide Dennis accompanied us. He was fairly new into birds
and still had to learn a lot.
At Zapata we
were accompanied by Mario Morejon who was probably the best guide we
had on the whole trip. He was a very keen birder, good equipped with excellent
hearing skills. His English however is limited. Mario can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his mobile
phone at 52753589. At Bermejas we were also accompanied by local park warden
Orlando Ramirez, a local expert who does not speak any English.
was our guide at Sierra de Najasa. He was not very keen on birds and
not much of a help.
At Cayo Coco and the other
islands we were accompanied by Odey Martinez, and excellent and very
persistent bird guide who speaks English very well. Odey can be contacted at email@example.com.
His mobile number is 5352627287.
a short description of the sites we visited and the target birds to expect:
driving west from Havana to Pinar del Rio a couple of wetlands and ponds along
the motorway can produce a nice set of wetland birds like Herons, Spoonbills,
Ducks, Waders and Terns.
path along the steep rock face at Mural de la Prehistoria just north of Pinar del Rio produced an excellent set of warblers including the
endemic Yellow-headed Warbler. The trees in the back of the restaurant are a
reliable spot for Yellow-faced Grassquit.
Vinales NP in the far west. We birded
the Maravillas de Vinales Trail, a rocky trail going gently up into the forest.
The open spot at the start of the trail is a reliable spot to find Cuban
Grassquit. Other birds to expect are Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Bullfinch,
Cuban Solitaire and several Warbler species.
Cueva de los Portales is a cave located just
north of La Guira NP.
It is a reliable spot for Cuban Solitaire and Cave Swallow.
Guira NP is actually a large estate called Hacienda Cortina
consisting of gardens, ponds and patches of broad-leafed and pine forest. Target
birds are Cuban Solitaire and Olive-capped Warbler.
Soroa and Las Terrazas are located 85km west of Havana and are part of
the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. The area consists of broad-leafed and
pine forests and ponds in a mountainous area. Target birds are amongst
Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Cuban Pygmy-Owl and Olive-capped Warbler.
Zapata NP is Cuba’s most
famous birding destination containing a mix of habitats like vast marshlands,
tidal flats and forests. We visited La Turba located in the northern
section near the park entrance. We followed a dyke-top track through a forested
area into the extensive swamps. Target birds here are Zapata Wren and Zapata
Sparrow. La Boca located just south of La Turba is a park like area
around a lake and pond which is an excellent spot for a variety of warblers. Palpite and Soplillar
forested areas close to Playa Larga. Both sites are good for Bee-Hummingbird,
Cuban Tody & Trogon, Cuban Vireo and a selection of Warblers. La Salinas is an area with tidal flats
and mangrove islets rich in herons, ibises, ducks and waders. It is also a good
spot for Cuban Black-Hawk, and a nice surprise was a group of Black Skimmers. Bermejas
an excellent forest area with a maze of trails. Target birds are amongst four
Quail-Dove species, Cuban Screech-Owl, Cuban Nightjar, Cuban Tody,
Bee-Hummingbird and Fernandina’s Flicker.
Sierra de Najasa is a protected area 70km
southeast of Camaguey
consisting of a large Hacienda with open pasture land, forest patches, palm groves
and ponds. Target birds here are Plain Pigeon, Cuban Parakeet, Giant Kingbird
and Cuban Palm-Crow.
Cayo Coco is part of a string of
islands stretching along the northern coast connected by a causeway with the
main island. The habitat consists of tidal flats, saltwater lagoons, mangrove
islets, scrubs, low secondary forest and white sand beaches. On Cayo Coco the
targets are Oriente Warbler, Piping Plover and Key-west Quail-Dove. Cayo
located east of Cayo Coco reached by a bridge. Targets here are Cuban
Gnatcatcher and Thick-billed Vireo. Cayo Guillermo lies west of Cayo Coco
having it’s target bird in the Bahama