What a thrill to spend these past three weeks on the beautiful island of Cuba. I can’t say enough about the fantastic country, its friendly people and of course the many great wildlife photography opportunities.
I am very happy to have had the experience of travelling around this country before it changes. In some ways the country seems to have been locked for the past half-century in time – its people patiently waiting. Waiting with a beautiful smile on their face to be given a chance for something more.
I hope that as changes come the country retains its authenticity and the so very many amazing things about Cuba and its people remain unchanged.
The streets of Cuba and its beautiful peopleare very photogenic!
Street party in Havana
Making new amigos…
My journey started in the capital city of Havana where I spent a day getting organised and taking in a few of the sights. I was eager to get into the field though so before long I headed for the forest. My first destination was just a short drive west from Havana to the area of Soroa. With lots of target birds on the list it was easy to start looking for subjects. Among the first birds to pose for me were the fantastic Red-legged Thrush and the national bird of Cuba the “Tocororo” or Cuban Trogon.
From Soroa I continued further west into the tobacco growing region of the country. I knew that there were a few endemic species that could only be found in this area so I targeted them specifically. With the help of a very useful guide on where to find birds in Cuba it wasn’t long before I had the Cuban Solitaire and Olive-capped Warbler in my viewfinder.
Cuban Pygmy Owl
One of the fantastic aspects of travelling around Cuba is that there is a lack of official hotels to stay in. This creates opportunities for locals to open up their homes to tourists in their “Casa Particulares”. Staying with families in their own homes is such a refreshing and unique way to travel. You get to learn so much more about your surroundings and meet some fantastic people along the way. During this second stop on the trip I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Pedro who had been rolling cigars for 50 years. He patiently showed me how he makes them and explained the process to me before lighting one of his freshly rolled cigars for me to smoke. It was great!
Master cigar roller Pedro
The third stop on this trip was perhaps the most important for birds. Driving back east past Havana I reached the Zapata peninsula where I would spend the next 5 days. This area is especially rich in endemic bird species and is an absolute must for any birder or photographer visiting Cuba. I divided my time between two towns – Playa Giron and Playa Larga. The main site at Playa Giron was a forest reserve known as Bermejas. This site is run by a local man named Olando who knows where to find all of the targets. He has even set up a feeding station for what was probably the most difficult endemic bird to locate in days past – the Blue-headed Quail Dove.
Blue-headed Quail Dove
Great Lizard Cuckoo
Moving back to Playa Larga the list was starting to get shorter. Key target species here included the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow as well as Fernandina’s Flicker and Cuban Parrot.
At this point in the trip things were going really well. The weather had been great and the birds were cooperating. It seemed like a good time to put the camera away for a few days and do something a normal tourist would do. I headed for the town of Trinidad for a few days of exploring and a bit of beach time. Sometimes you need to take a break from the birds!
Life could be worse…
Recharged from a few days off it was time to hit the road again and I travelled further east to an area known as Najasa. There was really only two main targets for this area – the Cuban Palm Crow and the Great Kingbird. With the help of a few local kids I tracked down a good spot for the crows right away. The kids stood by patiently watching and listing off other birds as they flew by. It was so cool to see young people that were actually knowledgeable about the natural world. How many bird species do you think the average North American 10 year old can name?? The next day I hiked in to the forest and tracked down the Kingbird and then set off for a long drive to my final location.
Cuban Palm Crow
If you know me you know that I am most definitely NOT an all-inclusive resort type of guy. I just don’t get it! In Cuba however I needed to visit one area on the northern coast to find a few species. In this area there were no hotels or Casa Particulares so I had no choice but to stay at an all-inclusive resort. It was weird…
To be honest I would take a Casa Particular over the resort every single day of the week. With that said it was a beautiful area and there were some STUNNING beaches nearby. So I soaked up some sun and made sure to find the birds I was after when the light was good. Life could be worse…
Cuban Black Hawk
With the birds from Cayo Coco and Guillermo officially checked off the list there was nothing more to do except light up yet another cigar (I lost track of how many I smoked in 3 weeks) and drive back to Havana.
The end of a tough day in the field…
My trip to Cuba was for me a great success. I managed to photograph just about everything I was after and in the process really absorb some of the Cuban culture. For all the tobacco and sugar that is exported from Cuba, and for all the beautiful beaches that tourists visit each year, I can honestly say that the true treasure of this country are its exuberantly warm and friendly people. Even with some considerable obstacles in their way they remain some of the coolest and nicest people I have met anywhere in my travels.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Cuba? How will the country change after the reign of the Castro brothers? Will the USA easing up on its embargos and travel bans flood the country with US dollars? How will these things affect the next generation of bird loving Cuban kids? Only time will tell but I sure am glad that I got to visit before the country changes too much. It is pretty great just the way it is.
Contemplating life on the streets of Cuba