07 - 16 February 2002
by Judith O'Neale
[For original off-site trip report click here]
Cuba is just over 100 miles from Florida, yet so difficult to visit because of the embargo placed on Cuba by the U.S. during the early 1960's, The U.S. has not traded with Cuba for 40 years and the American people have been banned from visiting. Some people have been able to go on humanitarian and scientific missions or to visit relatives, with approximately 140,000 Americans visiting legally each year. Some people have circumvented the system buy traveling to Canada and going with Canadian groups. For years, customs have ignored these people when they reentered the U.S. but recently they have been fined when returning through Miami. In order to stick mostly to birds here, I refer you to a couple web sites if you want to know more about licenses and travel restrictions to Cuba. They are the U.S. Treasury's web site: http://www.ustreas.gov/ofac/t11cuba.pdf or the Science and Human Rights Program web site at: http://shr.aaas.org/rtt/policy.htm.
When the August 2001 issue of ABA's Winging It arrived on a Friday announcing a legitimate birding survey, I immediately contacted the tour people to see what I needed to do. I sent my deposit on Monday, and along with 15 other impulsive birders, we made up the trip which would visit February 7 - 16, 2002.
Cuba, the westernmost of the Greater Antilles, is also the largest island in the West Indies as a whole. At approximately 43,371 square miles, Cuba accounts for 48 percent of the total West Indian land mass and is just slightly smaller than Pennsylvania. It is a long, relatively slender island, stretching 781 miles with 2,334 miles of coastline and literally thousands of offshore keys. There are several major mountain ranges, the largest being the Sierra Maestra where Pico Turquino rises to 6,507 ft. To date, 357 bird species have been recorded for Cuba, twenty-one species are endemics.
On February 6, I drove to New Orleans and caught a flight to Miami where I overnighted.
On Feb. 7, I boarded a Jamaica Air flight to Montego Bay (flying over Cuba) and then returning north on another flight to Havana. I met two of our group in Miami and several more in Montego Bay. We arrived in Havana and after going through necessary immigration/customs lines, we were met by John McNeely and our Cuban guide and bus driver. As we drove through Havana, our guide pointed out landmarks of interest. We arrived at the Hotel Nacional which overlooks the Malecón (Havana's famous waterfront drive overlooking the Gulf of Mexico). The Hotel Nacional of Cuba, emblem of Havana, built in only 13 months in 1920, is one of the most beautiful and luxurious in the country. What a treat it was for us to spend our first night in such a fabulous place. Special care has been taken to conserve the original decorations in the majestic building. Its several levels, embellished with small and lovely artistic mosaics, its marble columns and scagliola that support the roof and its public areas have all been preserved to look as they did when the building was completed, endowing the Hotel Nacional with a very special appearance.
Our trip was led by John McNeely, who has perhaps seen more of Cuba's birds than any other U.S. citizen. His relationship with Cuba dates back to 1988 and he may be best known for expeditions between 1989 and 1991 seeking to determine the status of the world's last Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We were there to help John survey the birds in specific areas.
After being assigned our rooms, several of us walked around the hotel grounds checking out the birds and taking pictures. We had two lifers very quickly with Antillian Palm Swift flying over and Cuban Blackbird in the trees. The dinner buffet that night was almost overwhelming. Much what I would expect on a cruise ship. The breakfast buffet was also very good, with fresh squeezed juices, many kinds of fruit and choices of eggs, bread, cereal and other dishes.
Most of you know that my nephews and I are antique car “nuts” and I was told to take lots of pictures of the old cars in Cuba. Indeed, it was like going back to the sixties with many '57 Chevys and lots of other old cars on the roads.
We left the hotel around 8:30 for our drive to the Jardin Botànico Nacional, just south of Havana. On the way, we picked up Orlando Garrido, coauthor of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. Orlando is a quick, older gentleman who was eager to show us “his” birds. We walked some trails and birded several areas finding Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Vireo and Great Lizard Cuckoo. We had lunch at an organic vegetarian restaurant on the grounds.
Then we headed southeast to the Zapata peninsula (Zapata Swamp) which is by far Cuba's most prolific coastal birding region. We stopped at an area which had been known as a habitat for the Bee Hummingbird (worlds' smallest bird - 2 ½") but they had not been seen this year by the previous groups. We had wonderful sightings of the Cuban Emerald, a much larger hummingbird, in the area but were almost about to give up when one of the ladies said: “Does it have a blue back?” YES, we all tried to get on the bird but it was chased by an emerald and out of sight. Then someone else said: “I've got it! Right in front of me!” Most of us were lucky enough to get good views of this precious little hummer, which is much prettier than the picture in the book. As I watched, I said to myself “This one's for you, Nancy.” I wish she could have been there to see it with me. One of the primary reasons I came to Cuba was to see this bird, so I was a happy camper!
A very happy bunch trekked back through the brush to the bus to head for our next stop. The only road into Cienaga de Zapata National Park follows the route of the Bay of Pigs invasion passing through extensive “everglades” and forest on limestone flats that includes stately Royal Palms. Unfortunately, it was hit very hard by Hurricane Michelle in November of 2001. We could see areas of devastation but we still found many birds. Some of the world's rarest and most restricted-range birds reside in this region.
We arrived at our beachfront hotel, Playa Larga, where we would stay for two nights. This was the first place that we encountered the conservation practice of shutting down all electricity when you weren't in your rooms. There were motion detectors and detectors on the doors which didn't always work as you would like. The power went off one night and then when it came back on the air conditioner came on in the middle of the night. We would also encounter our first menus of “chicken, pork or fish” with “beefsteak” to be added at a later place. Food was generally good, but best at the places which had buffets. Like many tourist places, they serve food they think the travelers want. We got black beans and rice only one or two places. After dinner, we went in search of owls and were rewarded by finding two Stygian Owls in the parking lot, just down from my cabana. This large owl has shown up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas a couple of times.
An early breakfast was followed by birding in a restricted area west of the Bay of Pigs. Frank Medina, naturalist at Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata was our local guide for the day. In the las Salinas Refuge, we encounter numerous birds, including the Cuban Trogan, Cuban Tody, Cuban Crab Hawk, West Indian Woodpecker, Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Pewee. Frank led us back in the brush to some dead palm trees where he located a Cuban Screech Owl. A break that afternoon from 1 - 3:30 had several people swimming in the Bay of Pigs and I went wading and took pictures. From 3:30 to 6 p.m. we searched for the Fernandina's Flicker. There are only about 100 birds left and it is very site selective. We had a long hike through a cow pasture but no luck. Lots of Smooth-billed Anis and several Northern Jacanas and numerous Palm Warblers. It became quite muddy and now I have another pair of khaki pants with foreign spots on them.
We left very early and drove to Perelta Road and a three-mile, fast-paced hike into another Zapata Swamp area. We were trying to reach the end of the road early enough to see Zapata Rail, Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow. We were all successful in seeing the wren but the rail was only heard and the sparrow seen by only a few. We did see Cuban Bullfinch and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. We had excellent views of the Cuban Pygmy Owl on our way out the trail. This little owl (6 ½ inches) is a real cutie.
Then we headed for the south-central coast and Trinidad, via the beautiful Escambray Mountains. Trinidad is a 16th century settlement and former provincial capital. We had lunch in route and then arrived at the very new Brisas Trinidad Del Mar Hotel. What a resort! I'm surprised that they let birders in but I guess as long as we have “dollars” we are welcome. Beautiful stain glass windows separated the lobby with the courtyard area with swimming pools and palm trees. The restaurant was large and the buffet good and varied. You had to wander around to see what was available. I pigged out on guava juice and guava jam, which I love. There was evening “entertainment” which was very loud and lasted into the night.
Up early for a hike parallel to the beach. Some saw Gundlach's Hawk on the trail. Back to the hotel for lunch and then some of us went on a tour of Trinidad. Our Cuban guide, Dani, took us to a bar which specializes in mojitos, the national drink of Cuba. It is made with rum, mineral water, sugar and mint. Very tasty. We had fun walking around the well-preserved colonial town with lots of street markets selling wooden items, handmade linens and maracas, of course. One of our group bought a beautiful handmade tablecloth and 6 napkins for $20.00. Back to the hotel, where the others had been out searching for more birds. Successfully finding the Red-shouldered Blackbird
Eight-thirty departure for Cayo las Brujas. Picked up two Cuban biologists, Edwin and Angel, at the hotel where we had lunch in Remedios. Tables were beautifully set with dark blue tablecloths and napkins and flatware. Took pictures around the square and more old cars.
Then we drove the newly opened causeway linking the mainland to Cuba's northern archipelago, the setting for Hemingway's Islands in the Stream. The causeway spans approximately 50 kilometers and goes over several cayos (keys) to reach Cayo Santa Maria. The modern cabins of Villas las Brujas were spread out along a cliff with balconies overlooking the beautiful blue water. There was a tranquil swimming beach adjacent to the restaurant area.
We birded the area around the cabanas after arriving and found some
interesting warblers: Black-throated Green, Yellow-throated Warbler,
Waterthrush, Yellowthroat and American Redstarts. We also had
looks at Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Bullfinch and Western Spindalis.
Here we again encountered the “chicken, fish, pork or beefsteak” for lunch and dinner, served with rice and french fries. I must say, there was plenty of food and ice cream for desert. One strange thing was the bread in baskets before each meal. It was sliced bread and toasted, sometimes very hard not just crisp. Most of our salads were shredded cabbage with cucumbers and sometimes sliced tomatoes.
Mardi Gras evening, I gave out nice beads to all our group and had
beads for workers at the hotel. Even though we had to explain
Mardi Gras was all about, I kept getting request for more beads.
We had a fun evening with me at the head of the table as the “Queen” of
the Cuban Mardi Gras. The beads were quite a hit with the Cuban
and other requests continued during our stay there. I will
always be known as “The Bead Lady” at Villas las Brujas. I
even got accused of having a wooden leg full of beads. No, only a
We drove further out on the island of Santa Maria the next morning and encountered lots of waterbirds. We know that our spoonbills are really beautiful but put them with flamingos and you really have a sight to behold. There were also ducks, shorebirds and Osprey.
There was much trepidation from our leaders as they had not gotten the necessary permission to bird in a key area of the island. It was finally gotten the evening before and we were able to visit a very good birding area. This resulted in a few birds being sighted that John had never seen in this area before, including several transient sparrows. It was fun to see Wilson's Warbler, some folks saw Thick-billed Vireo and we got very good looks at several Key West Quail-Doves.
The day we were to leave for Santa Clara, word was out that a VIP would be coming and part of our group had to vacate their rooms early so they could be prepared for the arrivals. We heard the plane come in and saw the two helicopters but never did get a glimpse of the VIP who we found out was Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother and probably next in line for the Presidency of Cuba.
After lunch, it was a two-hour drive to Santa Clara, dropping off Edwin and Angel along the way. We spent the night at los Caneyes, Cuban-Amerindian styled cabanas. It was Valentine's day and many people were there for a party and dance with music into the night.
Part of the group had opted to go back to Zapata Swamp the next morning, leaving at 5 a.m. (By the way, this group saw the Fernindina's Flicker on their second try.) The rest of the group set out for Havana with a stop at the Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution memorial in Santa Clara. We had lunch at the El Mira cafe in Old Havana, which was exceptionally good grilled shrimp. We stayed at the beautiful Hostal del Tejadillo, with some of our rooms overlooking an open atrium. We took a short tour of Old Havana, seeing the la Bodeguita Del Medio where Hemingway drank his mojitos and the hotel where he stayed in Old Havana. We walked the busy outdoor Havana Market, where art work and hand-crafted items were for sale. Cuba is fairly crime free and it was very safe to stroll around the market on my own, running into some of the group from time to time.
The original area of present day Havana, known as Old Havana, and in particular its famed historic center, declared a Heritage Site for Humanity by UNESCO in 1982, is made up of numerous buildings, plazas, churches, parks and streets. This old city center recounts the story of a culture that was formed by a unique mix of Spanish, African and American (in the true sense of the work), and its special charm makes it the most popular spot for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the Cuban capital every year.
We had rain on our last evening but generally we had good weather. We drove to the old fort of El Morro, the 15th century fortress overlooking the city. Our dinner of lobster, shrimp and fish was very good. After dinner, we went into Castillo de San Carlos de La Cabaña for the ceremony of the guard. This lighting of the canon every evening at 9 p.m. to announce the closing of the walled city has been in practice for many years. Inside the fort we toured the revolutionary office of Che Guevara, a Cuban National hero, where many of his possessions were on display, including his binoculars and camera, plus early pictures.
Some people were leaving early on Saturday morning, so we had some of our “goodbyes” before everyone went off to bed. A few of us did an early morning tour of Old Havana Saturday morning. How different it was from Friday afternoon when the music and atmosphere were so festive. Saturday morning, the city was just waking up and it was very quiet. Our group left for the airport at 12:30 and headed back to Montego Bay and our flight to Miami.
We had absolutely no trouble returning to the U.S. through
The Customs agent asked me what I was doing in Cuba and before I could
answer he said “license?” I said “Yes” and he motioned me
One of our group was asked to show his license by a different customs
We saw lots of people riding bicycles and motor scooters. Horse drawn carriages and carts, even a cart being pulled by two oxen. Everyone we encountered was very nice and many people spoke English. The literacy rate is around 98% and they have excellent medical care. The conversion to the U.S. dollar in the 1990's has jump-started the economy after the disintegration of the USSR when Cuba lost 85% of its foreign trade. Tourism has become their major economic focus. There were many tourists in Old Havana but it has been noticeably down since September 11. We saw lots of sugar cane fields, the main crop, and of course the Cuban cigar is still very much in demand, as is Cuban rum.
Most of the average Cuban housing that we saw would be classified as substandard here in the states. The average Cuban income is 200 peso/month which equals approximately $8.00. Cuban pesos are mainly used by Cubans to buy groceries and other essentials by a ration card, public transportation and any medications that might be available. The national currency is the U.S. dollar and all services for foreigners are charged in dollars. Credit cards and travelers' checks are accepted except those issued on U. S. banks, so U.S. citizens must bring cash to Cuba. Visitors legally traveling to Cuba may bring back to the U.S. $100 of Cuban-made products but educational materials, including books, music CD's artwork and handicrafts are allowed without limitations.
Northeast trade winds temper the heat in Cuba. In Havana, in winter, day temperatures can range from the low 60's to 80 degrees F. Evening temperatures can reach the 40's in higher elevations and on the coast. Rainfall is mostly in the summer and autumn with hurricanes coming in August - October. The best time for a visit is during the cooler dry season (November to April).
It is difficult to describe all the interesting sights and sounds of Cuba in just a few pages but hopefully you have been able to read between the lines to see what a tremendous birding experience this trip was for me. I hope to return to Cuba for more birding and exploring of Old Havana and hopefully, relations between our countries will open up opportunities for more people to experience the country, without losing the charm of Cuba.
Cuban Trip List
Life Birds in bold
E = Endemics
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Gundlach's Hawk (E)
Cuban Crab Hawk
American Kestrel - (White-breasted, Red- breasted and North American migrant)
Northern Bobwhite (h)
Zapata Rail (E)
Herring Gull (?)
Key West Quail-Dove
Cuban Parakeet (E)
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (h)
Cuban Screech-Owl (E)
Cuban Pygmy-Owl (E)
Antillean Palm Swift
Bee Hummingbird (E)
Cuban Tody (E)
West Indian Woodpecker
Cuban Green Woodpecker (E)
Fernandina's Flicker (E)
La Sagra's Flycatcher
Zapata Wren (E)
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-headed Warbler (E)
Cuban Grassquit (E)
Cuban Blackbird (E)
Greater Antillean Grackle