Monday, 19 April 2004

CUBA 2004: Western Cuba (06-19 April)

Introduction: In October 2003 I started making enquiries about a family holiday to Cuba the following Easter. I found VoyagerCuba to be most helpful and they were able to book flights, accommodation at a range of places and a hire car. Although one of the top birding sites Zapata Swamp didn’t greatly appeal to Megan or the kids and VoyagerCuba had n accommodation their either. We settled for a 13 night itinerary flying out from Gatwick with Cubana and staying in Havana and four other places further west.

Mid March: I received an email to say that Cubana had significantly overbooked our flights. Options were to go as planned and face a scrum at the airport and the possibility of not getting on the flight or to go on a new flight two days later and return three days later with £400 compensation and the extra night in Havana free. VoyagerCuba were able to do this keeping the main/non-Havana part of our trip unchanged. This seemed the better option although it meant travelling out on Megan’s birthday. We’d also not appreciated that the new flight was only to Paris from where it was Cubana’s normal packed service via Holguin.

Monday 05 April. We left Gatwick at 12:05 and arrived at Havana two stops later at 22:20 local time. The flight from Paris was completely full and rather cramped although we’d probably chosen the better option (and the rest of the family appreciated their £100 compensation). Immigration and Customs was slow and much to her annoyance Megan had two oranges and three apples confiscated, a sort of negative birthday present! By the time we had cleared the airport and been driven to the Seville Hotel it was gone midnight.

Tuesday 06 April. We had breakfast and a short wander around Havana to see the sea and buy some food (easier said than done as very little choice) before returning to the hotel. I saw 6 Brown Pelicans, 15 Laughing Gulls, 2 Red-legged Thrushes, Palm Warbler and 4 Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds (my first new bird, but something I never saw again). Picking up our hire car was a very long process, despite it being booked, and took the rest of the morning although fortunately we just managed to do so before they closed for lunch. We drove to Soroa, about 90 km west of Havana, taking about 90 minutes. We stopped on the edge of town to buy some oranges from a lady selling them by the road and soon after joined an almost deserted motorway. In Soroa we turned up into the wooded hills to Villa Soroa, our very pleasant accommodation for the next three nights. While the others enjoyed the Villa Soroa and its swimming pool I saw a daylight Cuban Pygmy Owl, 2 Cuban Emeralds, 2 Cuban Trogons, 6 West Indian and a male Cuban Green Woodpeckers, 2 Cuban Pewees, 10 more Red-legged Thrushes, Black-whiskered Vireo, 3 Cuban Blackbirds and 3 Cuban Orioles (lumped into Greater Antillean Oriole at the time of our visit). Most were new and the Trogon, perhaps the world’s best, my most wanted bird.
Josh and Megan in a busy Havana street, not that many of the shops had much in them
Havana backstreets

our accommodation at Soroa
the swimming pool
Brooke Bond Tropical Birds #26
Wednesday 07 April. We spent all day around Soroa, visiting the Orquideario and climbing up to the mirador (me more than once) and in the pool (not me). The dry forest here was full of birds and during the day I saw White-crowned Pigeon, Ruddy Quail-Dove, 4 Great Lizard Cuckoos, 6 Cuban Emeralds, 11 Cuban Trogons, 13 Cuban Todies (automatic bird of the trip), 4 West Indian and male Cuban Green Woodpeckers, Cuban Pewee, 4 La Sagra Flycatchers, 5 Grey and a Loggerhead Kingbird, 3 Northern Mockingbirds, a superb Cuban Solitaire (eventually seen singing from the Mirador), 15 Red-legged Thrushes, 3 Black-whiskered Vireos, male Black-throated Blue, 2 Black-throated Green, Black & White and 5 Yellow-headed Warblers, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, 3 American Redstarts, 4 Cuban Blackbirds, 30 Greater Antillean Grackles, Cuban Oriole, Western Spindalis, 4 Red-legged Honeyeater and 4 Yellow-faced Grassquits. I had hoped we might find Bee Hummingbird in the Orchid Gardens but no luck.
Cuban Trogon at Soroa, one of 11 seen today
Cuban Tody at Soroa
waterfall at Soroa

in the Orquideario

climbing to the mirador

Thursday 08 April. Another day based at Soroa although we visited La Terrazas in the morning, seeing Red-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks and 3 Cuban Bullfinches on the way. Around Soroa I walked up to the mirador twice and birded along the road seeing a very similar selection of species to previous days. Highlights were 5 Ruddy Quail Doves (most early morning), Great Lizard Cuckoo, 5 Cuban Trogons, 5 Cuban Todies, 5 West Indian and 2 Cuban Green Woodpeckers, 20 Red-legged Thrushes, 7 Black-whiskered Vireos and 4 Yellow-headed Warblers while Cuban Solitaire was heard.
friendly lizard, possibly Brown Anole?
me and Josh
Friday 09 April. A final walk up to the mirador before breakfast repeated recent favourites with 4 Ruddy Quail Doves, 3 Cuban Trogons, Cuban Tody, Ovenbird, American Redstart and Cuban Solitaire heard. It was a 230km drive to our next destination, Maria La Gorda. It was on the peninsula de Guanahacabibes and about as far west as one could go in Cuba. We set off and had been going 20 minutes or so when we realised we’d not emptied one of the wardrobes at Villa Soroa. We returned just as the cleaning lady was taking our left clothes to reception. Continuing on our journey we stopped at a very busy Pinar del Rio where Megan was able to do some limited shopping. Further on we topped up with petrol as there were limited places allowed to sell it to foreigners. Approaching Maria La Gorda, at km 27, we saw two very smart Blue-headed Quail-Doves and heard a Cuban Trogon. We arrived at Maria La Gorda mid/late afternoon, checked into our cabins and wandered along the sandy beach. Few birds seemed in evidence although we did see 2 Killdeer, Blackpoll and 2 Yellow-headed Warblers and American Redstart.
Maria La Gorda, we had two cabins set back from the beach
Maria La Gorda beach
Saturday 10 April. All day at Maria La Gorda with a bit of paddling, swimming and snorkelling just offshore. I was at a severe disadvantage for the last two, being a poor swimmer and my beard not being an effective seal for a face mask. Birds seen around Maria La Gorda included 2 Magnificent Frigatebirds, 6 Zenaida Doves, 2 Cuban Parrots, Cuban Pygmy Owl, 8 Cuban Emeralds, 2 Cuban Crows, Cuban Vireo, 2 Palm and 12 Yellow-headed Warblers, American Redstart, 4 Cuban Bullfinches and 12 Cuban Orioles. Best bird was seen from our veranda, a Bee Hummingbird that appeared briefly on some nearby flowers. I staked them out periodically for the rest of our stay but never saw it again. Frustrating.
away from the beach at Maria La Gorda
Cuban Rock Iguana at Maria La Gorda

Josh and Megan snorkelling
I hadn't really got the idea

Easter Sunday 11 April. Another day at Maria La Gorda including a trip on a dive boat out towards a reef for snorkeling. It wasn’t a great success. I couldn’t swim well enough to join in, they didn’t have flippers small enough for Josh and if he wore socks in them the weight dragged him down, Megan couldn’t see very well without her glasses so it was only Nessa who made the most from it. Around Maria La Gorda, including along a track running inland, I saw 3 Key West and 3 Blue-headed Quail-Doves (excellent views of all apart from of the latter which was a decent flight view), Great Lizard Cuckoo, 10 Antillean Palm Swifts, 8 Cuban Emeralds, an excellent Cuban Trogon with another heard, 7 Cuban Vireos, 4 Palm, male albilora Yellow-throated, Black & White and 14 Yellow-headed Warblers, Ovenbird, 3 American Redstarts, 5 Cuban Bullfinches, 2 Indigo Buntings and 4 Western Spindalis. A sneaky Cuban Pygmy Owl calling soon after dawn remained unseen despite some effort to track it down.
Maria La Gorda dive boat

Monday 12 April. On our final morning at Maria La Gorda before leaving I saw a Giant Kingbird along the inland track. It was unexpected although there have been sightings of this scarce species here before (and since) and by now I was very familiar with Grey and Loggerhead Kingbirds which I’d seen several of virtually every day we’d been on Cuba (5 and 6 respectively today). Also Blue-headed Quail-Dove, White-eyed Vireo, 3 Cuban Orioles and 3 Indigo Buntings. Our departure from Maria La Gorda coincided with a mass migration to the sea of red crabs (red morph of the Land or Zombie Crab Gecarcinus ruricola). We saw thousands on a short section of the road and it was impossible not to continue without squashing many which was upsetting. Josh jumped out to take a photo of the crabs. Nessa couldn’t as she was sitting in the middle of the back seat as we were giving a lift to one of the hotel workers who was heading home. The photos didn’t come out well and I’ve inadvertently lost them anyway. Once clear of the Zombie Crabs we continued on to Vinales, 160 km away, arriving late afternoon at La Ermita, sat on the top of a rounded hill. It looked rather better from the outside than it was having a rather run down feel and very dodgy air-con and despite being on a hill was very humid. On the journey we saw 3 Neotropic Cormorants, juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron, 2 Snail Kites and at La Ermita at dusk 2 Antillean Nighthawks.
leaving Maria La Gorda
Vinales Valley

Tuesday 13 April. A day in the Vinales Valley including a tour of Cueva del Indio and the rather brash Mural de la Prehistoria. Later I birded along a decent track towards a large lake hoping for Olive-capped Warbler, my most likely new bird. They were common, I saw 26! Also seen were Little Blue Heron, Osprey, what looked like a Gundlach’s Hawk over La Ermita, 8 Hudsonian Whimbrel, 30 Antillean Palm Swifts, singles of both woodpeckers, 6 American Kestrels, 4 Cuban Pewees, 7 Palm, a female Black-throated Blue and 3 Yellow-headed Warblers, 5 American Redstarts and 12 Yellow-faced Grassquits. A better night with the air-con off and windows open although a few mosquitoes then invited themselves in.
Vinales Valley
Cueva del Indio entrance
inside Cueva del Indio

Murals de la Prehistoria

Mogotes in the Vinales Valley

La Ermita

a more humble abode

view from La Ermita
Wednesday 14 April. We visited Cayo Jutias, about 60km away on the north coast. Not for the first time we gave a local woman a lift part of the way – Josh not being keen as he had to sit next to her. In some towns there seemed to be an official organising lifts and flagging vehicles. At Cayo Jutias I hoped there might be some migrants although quite by surprise the best birds seen were on the way 6km east of Santa Lucia where a flock of 12 Cuban Grassquits were by the road. They were much smarted than expected and not something I’d anticipated seeing so a double bonus. Cayo Jutias was reached by a causeway passing through mangroves which were hard to see into. The Cayo itself was hard to move around on but despite this a good selection of migrants were seen – a Solitary Sandpiper, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (and a tideline corpse), 12 Yellow, 2 Palm, a yellow-lored dominica Yellow-throated, 2 Black & White and 2 Parula Warblers,2 Northern Waterthrushes, 4 Yellowthroats, 6 American Redstarts. 15 Blue Grosbeaks, 60 Indigo Buntings and a male Baltimore Oriole. Also seen were 6 Double-crested Cormorants, single Green and Little Blue Herons, 2 Common Black Hawks, Great Lizard Cuckoo, 2 Cuban Emeralds and a Cuban Green Woodpecker. Back at La Ermita a superb male Ruby-throated Hummingbird was feeding on flowers by the entrance. A scarce migrant in Cuba but not the hummer I was hoping for improved views of. Seven Olive-capped Warblers were also seen and later 3 Antillian Nighthawks as we walked to a hotel worker’s house for a Cuban meal. It was a novel experience if not a lot cheaper than one in the hotel would have been.
Western Cuba
Western Cuba with thumb-print
causeway to Cayo Jutias

Thursday 15 April. We left La Ermita and drove to La Guira National Park where we visited Cueva de los Portales. The caves and very basic breeze block building with the bed where Che Guevara’s hid out during the Cuban Missile Crisis were not very impressive. The surrounding forest was nice and held a few birds including a very vocal Cuban Solitaire which remained hidden. Cuban Trogons were more obvious, we saw 6, and also a Ruddy Quail-Dove, 2 Cuban Emeralds, 2 West Indian Woodpeckers, 4 Cuban Pewees, an identifiable Cuban Martin (what was to be my last new bird), 6 Red-legged Thrushes, Olive-capped and 4 Yellow-headed Warblers, male Yellowthroat, 8 Cuban Bullfinches, 8 Cuban Blackbirds, 8 Western Spindalis and 5 Red-legged Honeyeaters. We continued to Hotel Mirador in San Diego de los Banos. It was the first place we’d stayed where we were the only foreigners so a bit off the tourist track, something the children were a bit nervous about. That the only occupant of a small swimming pool was a presumed pet eight-foot alligator rather reinforced that feeling. We wandered around the town and found a small bakers that opened at 09:00 the following morning but not much else.

Cueva de los Portales

Che's bed is here 
Hotel Mirador's paddling pool was almost as appealing

Friday 16 April. Megan and I went to the bakers straight after breakfast. There were 12-15 locals standing around in a rather haphazard fashion when we arrived a few minutes before it was due to open. The shop opened promptly and customers were served for 5-10 minutes, each knowing where they were in the queue, until all the bread was sold. Most but not all of those ahead of us were fortunate and we would have felt really guilty if we’d denied a loaf to a local. Shopping in Cuba was quite unlike anything we were used to. We packed up and drove back to La Guira where we visited the Sculpture Park and a forest trail nearby, effectively providing my last birding of the trip. I saw American Purple Galinule, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Ruddy Quail-Dove, 4 Cuban Emeralds, Cuban Trogon (with several others heard), 2 Cuban Todies, West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Pewee, 2 La Sagra Flycatchers, 10 Grey and a Loggerhead Kingbird, Grey Catbird, nice views of a Cuban Solitaire (with several others heard), 10 Red-legged Thrushes, 6 Black-whiskered Vireos, Olive-capped and male Black & White Warbler, Yellowthroat, 8 Cuban Bullfinches, 6 Western Spindalis and 6 Yellow-faced Grassquits. We drove back into Havana dropped the car off (much easier than picking it up) and returned to Hotel Sevilla for three nights.

La Guira Sculpture Park

San Diego de los Banos
returning to Havana

Saturday 17-Monday 19 April. We had three whole days wandering around Havana, visiting museums and galleries and even a department store where we had to queue to enter then found most of the shelves bare. I saw just 13 species during this time, the pick being a Brown Pelican, 2 American Kestrels, 22 Laughing Gulls, 9 Royal Terns, 3 Antillean Palm Swifts, 8 Cuban Martins, Northern Nockingbird, 2 Red-legged Thrushes, and 6 Greater Antillean Grackles.

inside Hotel Sevilla

Hotel Sevilla view

West along the Malecon
East along the Malecon
Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo del Morro from Castillo de San Salvador

Christ of Havana

Capitolio Nacional de la Habana

Gran Teatro de La Havana from Capitolio Nacional

Fabrica de Tabacos Partgas

Jardin Diana de Gales (Princess Diana Memorial Garden)
Convento de San Francisco de Asis

Museo de la Revolucion
La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada de La Habana

Plaza de la Catedral

Paseo de Marti

one of our rather nice rooms at Hotel Sevilla

Tuesday 20 April. Our Cubana flight was due to leave at 22:30 the previous evening but it was delayed until the early hours. We came back by Holguin and Paris and were very pleased to finally get home. It had been an enjoyable and very memorable trip, at a time of great change in Cuba.

[blogged during lockdown April 2020]