CUBA PART ONE

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GENERAL INFO & SITE ACCOUNTS

PART TWO

 

 

FOREWORD

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.    

 

PARTICIPANTS

Jos & Wilma Wanten; Reuver – The Netherlands

Maurice & Rita; Kent – UK

Jack & Carol; LondonUK

David & Robert; Texas – US

Margaret; Vancouver – Canada

Margaret, John & Julie, Geoff & Matthew; Sydney – Australia

 

PREPARATIONS

For general birding preparations I used the usual websites at www.fatbirder.com. Many Cuba birding reports are available at  www.travellingbirder.com and www.birdtours.co.uk. General travel info about Cuba 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 the Cuba 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.

 

GENERAL INFORMATION

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.

 

GETTING THERE

From Amsterdam 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 via Paris. Virgin Atlantic and Cubana Airlines operates direct flights from London Gatwick to Havana. 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.

 

GETTING AROUND

Because 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

If 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:

 

Hotel Telegrafo (www.hoteltelegrafocuba.com) : excellent colonial style four star hotel right in the middle of Old Havana. Spacious rooms with high ceilings. Excellent breakfast.

Hotel 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 questionable quality.

Rancho 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.

Hotel 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.

Finca La Belen: 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 Najasa.

Hotel 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.

Hotel Sevilla (www.hotelsevilla-cuba.com): wonderful colonial four star hotel located in Old Havana. Spacious rooms, wonderful lobby and patio in Moorish/Andalucian style. Good breakfast. Recommended.

Hotel Occidental Miramar (http://en.occidentalhotels.com/hotels/Miramar.asp): 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.

 

BIRDING FACTS

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

At different birding sites we were accompanied by following local bird guides:

In 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 personal@mirador.sandiego.co.cu.

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 pnacionalcz@enet.cu 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.

Camelio 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 pbaga@enet.cu. His mobile number is 5352627287.

 

 

SITE ACCOUNTS

Below a short description of the sites we visited and the target birds to expect:

 

While 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.

 

The 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.

 

La 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 are 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 Reserve is 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 Paredon is 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 Mockingbird.  

 

 

 


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