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July 2001

by Ellen Paul

The Society of Caribbean Ornithology meeting took us to Topes de Collante, Cuba in July 2001. Having been to Cuba 18 months earlier, and having had the benefit, in the  interim, of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba to study, we were reasonably certain that we wouldn’t find anything we hadn’t already found in Zapata, La Guira, and Sierra del Rosario, and indeed, that proved to be the case.

Topes de Collante is a national park about 340 km east of Havana, in the Sierra del Escambray mountains. The park itself is very degraded habitat – much livestock grazing, shade coffee, pine plantations, some second growth, but still reasonably birdy. It is also 15 km north of the lovely town of Trinidad and contrary to what all the tour books and trip reports say, the road down to Trinidad is neither dangerous nor in bad condition. It is a winding mountain road, but no worse than any other, and it is quite wide, with the pavement in good condition. Coming up the other way, from Santa Clara, is fine, too. The views are really pretty nice on both roads.

One thing all the books have right is the description of the Kurhotel – the main hotel in Topes de Collante. It is an ugly, depressing hulk. Built in the 30s as a tuberculosis hospital, it is now a “health resort” with accupuncture, massage, physiotherapy, and both alternative and traditional medicines offered. Some of our group had massages and reported them to be highly satisfactory. The hotel is dingy and dim – as though light bulbs over 40 watts had been banned. There is one elevator. Therefore, your health improves as you climb up and down the stairs. You learn quickly to take everything you need when you leave your room.

Other quirks – some outlets are 110, some 220 – and not all of them are labeled. You take your chances when you plug something into an unlabeled outlet. There is international phone service from a pay phone in the lobby – you buy a phone card from the desk. They also have e-mail access  at $3.00 per message, incoming or outgoing. You send/receive from a computer in the office. Remember – you didn’t go there for the food. Anejo ron (aged rum) will make up for the food, but the beer (Cristal) has nothing to recommend it except that it is cold. The staffers speak virtually no English but the hotel does have two translators on staff.

The Kurhotel also has some “villas” a short way down the hill. These are 2-bedroom cabanas that are actually quite nice. For instance, the minibars were actually stocked with cold drinks, unlike the empty minibars in the main hotel.

The other hotel for foreigners is a few blocks down the hill – Los Helechos. It is much smaller and from the outside, it looked much nicer.

Forgot the gift shops. If you want to shop, take a taxi to Trinidad. The cost, round-trip, is about $25.

BIRDING – as I said, you will get all this and more in Zapata.  On advantage is that the weather is cooler and very pleasant,  with rather dramatic thunderstorms in the afternoon. When you walk out the front door of the hotel, turn left, walk down the hill past the villas on the right, past a ruined building, and walk straight down the hill. You will get to the trail that goes to a waterfall (2.4 km; they have trail maps at the hotel). Immediately past the ruined building is a small path to your left – there is a Cuban Pygmy Owl stake-out here. Walk past a few houses to the end of the path (overlooking the valley) and look for the owl in the surrounding trees (the earlier the better).

Down the main trail, good patches of forest are found here (mostly shade-coffee), with Cuban Trogons, Cuban Todies, Great Lizard Cuckoos, Cuban Emeralds, Red-legged Thrushes, occasional Cuban Amazons flying by (they are most conspicuous and audible in the early morning; many people saw them from the hotel windows). We also had Cuban Martin, Cuban Bullfinch, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Antillean Nighthawk, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Black-cowled Oriole, Stripe-headed Tanager, Green Woodpecker, White-collared Swift, Black-whiskered Vireo, Loggerhead Kingbird, West Indian Woodpecker, Little Blue Heron, American Kestrel, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Cuban Pewee, Smooth-billed Ani, and Northern Flicker.

The trail is a bit muddy and slippery, and is all uphill coming back. You can actually continue beyond the waterfall, and make a very large loop through the park – we estimated that it is at least 10 km. For birding purposes the first 2km are very productive, and once you get past a large rock overhang, the trail becomes very steep and if wet, slippery. Also, if it is a public holiday or weekend, non-birders will start to use the trail to see the waterfalls about mid-morning.

Much is made in the guide books of the large TV tower behind the Kurhotel. Yes, it is ugly, but who cares if there is a Stygian Owl using it as a perch from which to snag moths? You can look for it around 10pm on the way to the pool for the live music.

The hotel also has guides to take you through the park on a variety of trails. They take you to the trailheads in vehicles. They are just getting started in this venture, and really don’t have a good handle on how long the trails are. Well – they do now. One group went off on a trail that was supposed to be about 5 km and turned out to be at least twice that. They also really don’t know much about the difficulty of the trails. None proved to be difficult, but what they described as mostly flat, was entirely up and down.

The real problem with these trails is that the substrate is mostly clay, and mostly wet, and mostly covered with algae. Thus, it is very slippery walking most of the way. Sneakers will not suffice. Boots are really necessary, and be prepared to have your pants dyed with the clay. The trails are not improved in any way. No steps carved into even the steepest, most slippery parts, no hand-holds. No trail markers anywhere, and in some cases, the trails were grown over and without a guide, you wouldn’t have a clue where to go. At the ends of the trails, they pick you up and bring you pack to the hotel. There are restaurants at the ends of the trails, so you may get lunch before returning to the hotel. In terms of choosing a trail, note that the habitat is fairly uniform throughout the park.

One group had a Cuban Pygmy Owl on its hike.

Other – Trinidad is good for the non-birding spouse. It is a world heritage site, it is lovely. There is a small craft market, and several touristy gift shops, with the standard key chains, Fidel figurines, Che t-shirts, and so on. The ceramist is definitely worth a visit – just ask the taxi driver to take you there – it is called Santander Ceramics. Obviously, don’t buy black coral – it is illegal to import it into the US and just plain wrong. There are places to buy rum and cigars – prices are fairly standard throughout Cuba – so there is no significant advantage to buying it here and schlepping it back to Havana with you.


THE U.S. EMBARGO – On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. The vote on the "Flake amendment" was 240 to 186. This amendment to the 2002 Treasury appropriations bill would prohibit the expenditure of any funds for enforcement of the travel ban. Unfortunately, the House also rejected, 227 to 221, an amendment to repeal the embargo.

I don't know if the Senate will be considering a similar measure. The Washington Post reported on July 27 that Democrats who hold the majority in the Senate said they
will follow up on a vote by the Republican-led House of Representatives to repeal the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, and are pushing other  measures to relax the trade embargo such as easing restrictions on sales of food and medicine.
"I think we will prevail on this issue this year, and whether he signs it or  not, that's up to President Bush," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota  Democrat who has pushed to ease the standoff with the island nation 90  miles off Florida.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said it was  important to make "this incremental move" to lift the travel ban, and that  he expected the Senate to act on it. "I just sense that there is a growing  momentum behind taking small actions like this," Daschle told reporters.
Few expect a broad rollback of sanctions to clear Congress this year, and such a move likely would meet a swift veto by Bush, analysts and lawmakers said.
While backers of full repeal picked up a few votes in the House over last year, the measure failed on Wednesday 227-201.
The White House immediately said it would not accept any easing of sanctions which the influential Cuban exile community says must stay in place to punish Fidel Castro's government.
"The president thinks it's important to send a strong message against oppression in Cuba, and that is not a measure that the president would support," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of Wednesday's House action.
But with growing sentiment in Congress to offer Americans a chance to see Cuba for themselves and perhaps exert some influence during the aging Castro's remaining time in power, analysts said Bush's position might be hard to maintain. He may be forced to agree to a fairly small step, such as lifting travel restrictions or easing restrictions on food and medicine sales to Cuba, they said.
Even Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, a staunch supporter of the trade sanctions, said the Senate may have to bow to reality and agree with the House to lift at least the travel ban portion of the sanctions. "What I've always opposed is just lifting the sanctions. People are traveling there now," Lott told Reuters.
Polls show support for an end to the travel ban, with some of the strongest support from a few conservative Republicans who argue the ban infringes on the rights of U.S. citizens.
"Americans should be free to travel wherever they want," conservative Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who sponsored the travel ban repeal in the House, said during the floor debate on Wednesday.

Despite the fact that we were traveling legally under the general license provisions, we were hassled by U.S. Customs in Nassau, where the poorly-trained Customs official refused to believe that under the general license, the traveler is not issued any paperwork by the Treasury Dept. Another meeting participant was hassled for two hours in Toronto.

Also, if you are a U.S. citizen or person subject to the authority of the U.S. (e.g., citizenship pending or green card holder) who has traveled to Cuba under a general or specific license and you had trouble with U.S. Customs when re-entering the U.S., please write to me and let me know what happened. Be sure to tell me where you re-entered the U.S. I'll be collecting this information and passing it along to the Office of Foreign Asset Control, U.S. Customs, and the many Congressmen who have spoken in favor of lifting the travel restrictions. Obviously, I'll remove any identifying information before forwarding it. I will also be sending it to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, which has a project to foster scientific exchange with Cuba.

Ellen Paul

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