Author: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
We fancied another visit to the New World and debated the relative merits of Mexico and Cuba, possibly buying an all-inclusive holiday and using it as a bus, with accommodation at the beginning and end (we don’t really fancy the AI concept). After a bit of research, Cuba with its wealth of endemic and near-endemic bird species won out, even though certain costs (especially car rental) seemed rather high and the chance of seeing any mammals rather low.
A visit to Havana was on our agenda and so we ended up flying Air France rather than all-inclusive, because there seemed little financial benefit in using the package approach and as CC’s eldest, Alex had been touring Latin America for six months, Havana seemed a good place to meet up with him. Most of the package flights end up at different airports.
21st April 2011
I remember why I don't like Air France.
At about the time we should have been getting through immigration in Havana, we were hoping we’d packed some spare socks and undies in our hand luggage (hereafter known as our sole possessions) in a cheap hotel well outside Paris. The first bit, Birmingham to Paris was ok. Flights on time and so were we. We even saw the Eiffel Tower as we swung around on the approach to CDG.
We were seated - middle two of a group of four with 30 minutes to go before scheduled departure - and that's when things started to go wrong. The chap in front of us who kept bouncing up and down and shouting "Marchez! Marchez!" to his buddies behind us was getting on our nerves quite severely, but that was soon forgotten when we passed departure time and then listened to announcements about a problem with the toilets, having to take the bags out and finally 'everybody of'f'. Oddly the announcements in three different languages gave different times for the delays. English was the longest.
We had another sandwich and another cup of coffee in Terminal 2 and after about 90 minutes went to find out how things were getting on. They'd moved our plane from G91 to G81 and there were lots of people milling around but not much information. We were promised an update "in 10 minutes" and ten minutes later overheard another passenger being told that there would be news "in about 15 minutes". About an hour later they admitted defeat and told us all that they would get us all hotel rooms.
Another hour later we had a voucher and found our way to the shuttle bus stop that was purest chaos. It must have been designed for an English airport because the bus stops were on the left hand side, so each time a shuttle arrived people had to cross in front of the traffic to get on. We waited about an hour before a bus arrived with enough space for us to board. Twenty minutes later we were at the Roissy B&B, about 8 hours after landing.
We can't blame Air France for their technical fault. That can happen to anyone. Their communications were woeful, though. There were lots of angry customers and many more unhappy ones. The announcements were not frequent enough and badly planned - they really need to work out how to get peoples' attention - and the organisation was appalling. Nobody knew how to get hotel and meal vouchers and the mayhem at the bus-stop could have been avoided with just one sensible person stationed there and explaining what to do. It was amazing that nobody was run over. I couldn't get away with comms like that in my role.
So there we were in a cheap airport hotel. We should have been in Havana. Our luggage was at the airport. Julie's phone thought that it in Brussels and after the farce with the on-line seat booking process (complete failure) at 02:00 and 04:45 on Tuesday morning, an 05:20 start this morning and a long and pointless day today, we were due up early the next day as well, to be back at CDG at 07:00. Good job we don't go on holiday to chill out. I wondered if Alex's flight from Panama City had been on time.
22nd April 2011
“Make sure you are back at the airport by 7 o’clock” Air France reminded several times after sending us all off to our various disappointing overnight stays. So we did, as had the 300 or so other people already in the queue before us. Air France didn’t bother turning up until 07:15 and none of us felt any better for that. The folk at the front of the queue were processed first, but AF soon realised that they were too slow, so they began to filter people off from the back of the queue, proving that they didn’t value fairness, at least for those of us in cattle class.
Once through security we had another long wait until it was obvious that a 10 o’clock start was unlikely. We were seated at 09:45 but so many people take so long to get themselves sorted out, as if being on a plane was a sudden surprise, that by 10:10 there were still passengers dithering about, when the first of a series of announcements about the need to balance the fuel, bureaucratic arguments with French and then Cuban air traffic control, the necessity of rebooting the whole plane to resolve another technical fault (who knew you could reboot a passenger jet aircraft?) and finally the need to refuel because so much had been wasted keeping the air-con on came over the PA. At 11:30, almost 22 hours later than intended, the plane started heading for the runway.
“Hell is other people” is seldom more apt than on a long-haul flight. We were surrounded by whisky swigging (straight from the bottle) eastern Europeans including the dreadful wailing woman who we had avoided on the previous day. Best not to dwell on it for too long, apart from to note that the instruction ‘sit down and put your seatbelt on’ is too difficult for some people.
Our first Cuban birds were Turkey Vultures at the airport, which were pretty much everywhere. Immigration was ok, although the bags took too long to arrive and be aware that technology is viewed with suspicion. CC had two netbooks in his hand luggage, one a replacement for Alex who had had his stolen in Brazil, and Julie’s. The official was not happy about this and it was helpful that Julie was on hand with her good Spanish to explain things. We found and queued for the ATM and took out some cash then located a taxi for CUC25 to the Hotel Inglaterra. Our attempts to get a message through to Alex had failed but he was waiting in the lobby anyway, having spent a few dollars on getting on the internet to check arrivals.
We stowed our bags in our room (fading Victorian grandeur and not much in the way of windows, but ok for the price) and went out to see as much of Havana as we could in the few hours of daylight left.
We managed two new birds during the afternoon and evening, Antillean Palm Swift and Cuban Martin and had a fairish meal and some ok beer at the micro brewery on a corner of Plaza Vieja.
23rd April 2011
The cost of car rental in Cuba is ridiculous. We had managed to arrange a reduced rate, saving about £100 on the best quote we’d seen via some contacts but we were still waiting at the hotel for our renter to arrive at 10 a.m., one hour after we had agreed. We gave up and started talking to the Cubacar rep in the hotel and 60minutes later we were off on the long drive to Cayo Coco.
Driving in Cuba was pretty much as expected. Not a lot off traffic. Not a lot of discipline. Several police checkpoints. We stopped a couple of times to refuel the car and ourselves and dawdled across the long causeway from the mainland, picking up a few more species on the way and we arrived at the inexpensive Jardin Los Cocos Motel just after sunset. The Lonely Planet guide is a bit sniffy about this place, calling it a place for Cuban workers with musty rooms, but we were quite taken with it and it was an excellent alternative to one of the local all-inclusive places. Dinner at the motel was fine and there was a Grey Kingbird catching flies around the light outside our room.
24th April 2011
CC was out and about at first light and was soon joined by JD and new species were coming thick and fast, with the highlights being the sought-after Oriente Warbler and Cuba’s common Hummingbird, the Cuban Emerald.
There are a number of species found on the Cayos that are difficult or impossible to see anywhere else in Cuba and we should have had a plan, but didn’t. Our first port of call was the pretty and remote feeling Playa Prohibida, where we stopped for a drink whilst keeping an eye on a few coastal birds. Alexi decided to sunbathe on the beach whilst we went off to explore some more, but quickly changed his mind when a squall washed all his sun cream off. The bar owner showed us some Yellow-faced Grassquits behind the buildings and told us that the rarer Cuban Grassquit is also sometimes seen there.
We drove the short-distance to the Jabadi Cave where a short walk on the forest trail that starts near this odd cavern with a nightclub yielded our first exquisite and tiny Cuban Tody and an impressive Great Lizard Cuckoo.
Driving down a rough sandy track we came across a pretty juvenile Cuban Rock Iguana and also a young Cuban Black Hawk, which was not an easy bird to identify despite close views.
Continuing west we crossed over to Cayo Guillermo, completely forgetting to look properly for Bahaman Mockingbird here but noting as we drove past a mockingbird “by that orange ribbon” and stopped for a late lunch at Playa del Pinar. Lonely Planet lists this as one of the ten best beaches in the Caribbean so Alex decided to risk getting the last bus home to get some beach time whilst we went in search of more birds.
The causeway looked to have possibilities and at our first stop we picked up a few Least Sandpipers and an Anhinga as well as adding a couple more heron /egret species. We’d discussed an early start to spend an hour at Cayo Paredon so after deciding that there wasn’t much going on on the lagoon, set off east towards Cayo Romano.
The short bridge from Cayo Coco to Cayo Romano came down some time ago and has been replaced by a remarkable looking temporary structure that seemed to be defying laws of both physics and design. We couldn’t resist driving over, with the excitement of being on a narrow and uneven structure with no safety barriers being enhanced by the presence of a deep trench partway across that was easily wide enough to take a car tyre in the event of an error of judgement.
On the other side, the road to Cayo Paredon was blocked because the island is a protected area. We couldn’t be bothered to negotiate for a permit so chose instead a bit of a lie in tomorrow.
Dinner was taken at the uniquely situated La Silla on the causeway, where CC had a large piece of a fish that we were told was called Pargo which was one of the tastiest fish he’d ever had. Total bird species seen - 53, of which 30 were species we hadn’t seen before.
25th April 2011
JD and CC were out and about shortly after sunrise. From trip reports we’d read we understood that there was a lake on Cayo Coco, west of the causeway, where we thought we might find some water birds. Having parked the car we set off down the rural track with plenty of birds in the surrounding trees and bushes, including more Oriente Warblers and Cuban Bullfinches. After less than a mile we reached the lake which was completely dry. We didn’t hang around for long because there were lots of biting flies and mosquitoes. Back at the parking area the custodian of the reserve had arisen and got us to sign the visitors book and pay a small conservation charge. There was a pretty American Kestrel, the first of many, atop a mast and a pair of Killdeers, also the first of many, were making a fuss in the pasture near the car parking area.
Back to the motel to join Alex for breakfast and then we packed the car, getting excellent views of the attractive but common West Indian Woodpecker just before we left.
Time to move on, with a bit of uncertainty. The hills east of the small town of Najasa in Camaguey province are home to a number of very rare birds and trip reports say that Pedro Regalado is the man to help you find them. Internet in Cuba is expensive and uncommon and we had failed to make contact with Pedro beforehand but we knew how to find his house and also the location of Rancho Belen, where we hoped to stay for a couple of nights. After checking out of the hotel we called in at La Silla for some photos. There’s a little watch tower at the restaurant, with a small room at the bottom with some bird pictures and notes that faces the wrong way and from this tower we saw three Clapper Rails and an Iguana.
Continuing across the causeway we paid the 2 CUC toll after stopping to photograph a large raft of cormorants and gulls on the lagoon. We stopped for lunch (pork, rice and beans) at a roadside place somewhere between Florida and Camaguey where they were quite surprised to see tourists and a little bemused to be paid in convertible Pesos, but we didn’t have any national money.
The drive to Najasa is a long one and some sections are on pretty rough road. On the approach to the town there are numerous monuments to heroes of the revolution and we noted one for Pedro with a picture of a Giant Kingbird, of which he is probably the world’s foremost authority. Quite a distance further we reached Pedro’s place to be told that he had moved - to the house by the roadside sign! The entrance to Rancho Belen was visible from where we had stopped to enquire so we went to ask if they had rooms before arranging guiding.
I’d read that the welcome at the ranch is not always warm and the custodians at the gate were at least a little suspicious but after a check of our passports the gate was unlocked and we drove the 3 kms to reception where we were given a couple of nice rooms overlooking a shady courtyard. They also said that they would arrange for Camillo to meet us early the next day for a 4-5 hour birding walk. There was time for a bit of self-guiding and a short stroll near the ranch, which is a working concern with perhaps 150 horses, four zebras and some realistic cowboys resulted in some good local specialities including Cuban Parrot, Cuban Parakeet and Cuban Crow.
Dinner was in the pleasant ‘rustique’ restaurant and consisted of three courses of mainly of home produced ingredients. The soup was particularly good but would have made a reasonable meal on its own, without the two huge courses that followed. The restaurant is open on all sides in one way or another and during dessert we were joined by a nice bright green leaf insect.
26th April 2011
Breakfast was a formidable meal that was too much for most of us and Camillo was waiting and ready to get started. He knows the area like the back of his hand and he asked us what bird we would like to see so we opted for Giant Kingbird. We were looking at a pair within five minutes of setting off and there followed a three hour stroll through some beautiful and species rich scenery with incredible numbers of woodpeckers. Highlights for us included an Eastern Meadowlark, Palm Crow and a Cuban Pygmy Owl.
Camillo is an excellent guide, taciturn and observant. A little knowledge of Spanish would be helpful if you decide to take on his services but he knows the English names of all the birds and his interest extends to the plants and insects of the area as well.
Lunch was way too big, with three courses again and the heat of the afternoon was so intense that after a short walk that didn’t result in anything new we found a shady spot by the swimming pool, did a few widths and had a few drinks whilst watching a pair of Cuban Orioles nest-building. As the afternoon drew on and the temperature fell a little, we first spent some time around the gardens looking for butterflies and later had a stroll to the trees where we’d seen parrots and parakeets the previous day but with less luck.
Dinner came around too soon and was yet another mountain of home-produced food. If you visit Cuba to watch birds, Rancho Belen should be on your list, but don’t go for the three meal package unless you’re really hungry. Breakfast and dinner will be plenty for most people. Bring your own toilet paper too. There seemed to be a shortage.
27th April 2011
One night at Rancho Belen is probably enough if you aim to be on the road around lunchtime and might mean that you can find somewhere to stop overnight on the long drive west. After a brief pause to photograph Smooth-billed Anis at the Rancho Belen car park and to grab a couple of snaps of working life on the ranch we were on our way.
It took an hour to cover the first 34 kms on some awful, pot-holed road and 6 hours 30 to reach Playa Larga, including a couple of stops. We had contacted Orestes Martinez, renowned as “El Chino de Zapata” to guide us in the Bay of Pigs area and were going to stay at his casa particular but only had his contact details on-line and we had not had any internet access since France, so we ended up in the pleasant enough Hotel Playa Larga. Not much in the way of birding today. We got on line at the hotel (10 CUCs an hour and really, really slow) and with the help of reception got through to Chino and arranged to meet the following morning.
CC and JD went for a late afternoon drive and followed the coast road for a while before taking the turn off for the village of Soplillar. Just west of the village we saw a small owl shoot across the road in front of us so we stopped and soon got some more decent views and reasonable photos of a Cuban Pygmy Owl. Further along we stopped at what looked a likely area and quickly realised that there was an Antillean Nighthawk overhead. This species has the local name Querequete, from its frequent call that might be rendered ‘kerickety’ in English. It turned out to be common in the area and was seen and heard over the hotel from perhaps 6 p.m. From time to time the patrolling overhead was interrupted by near vertical dives. The bird pulled up quickly as it neared the ground, creating a surprisingly loud booming sound with its wings as it did so.
Dinner was at the tolerable Dive Centre restaurant just up the road form the hotel, where we had seen a number of Shiny Cowbirds associating with House Sparrows and Grackles just before sunset.
28th April 2011
Chino found us as we were finishing breakfast and shortly afterwards was leading us ‘off piste’ into the humid forest somewhere near Soplillar. There were mosquitoes aplenty and they didn’t seem much deterred by the repellent we were using but there were also lots of birds. First of note was a pair of Grey-headed Quail Doves, then Chino enticed a pair of Cuban Screech Owls into view, closely followed by a couple of Cuban Pygmy Owls and finally, and best of all, a roosting Stygian Owl. Blue Headed Quail Dove was next along with a couple more sightings of Grey-headed. Chino knows how to find the local target species. He did disappoint us a little by telling us that his site for Zapata Sparrow and Zapata Wren had been recently burned and that we had very little chance of seeing either species. The burning might have been deliberate as part of an anti-government campaign. We chatted generally about birding in Cuba and he asked if we’d seen Bahama Mockingbird on Cayo Guillermo. When we said we’d missed it he produced a piece of orange ribbon from his pocket and told us that he uses them to mark Mockingbird sites when he goes there!
We’d pretty much run out of money so before we said goodbye to Chino he showed us the way to the bank in Playa Larga where we were able to take a few hundred CUCs out on our cards. The Playa Larga Hotel takes cards for payment as well but were not able to provide exchange facilities whilst we were there.
Chino recommended a visit to nearby Cueva de los Peces for the afternoon, so we followed his suggestion and found a fascinating salt water pool with numerous exotic fish, fed by a cave that links with the sea. We hadn’t taken swimming costumes or towels but thought that the pool looked good for a swim and decided that we might return the next day. The simple restaurant overlooking the pool served up a delicious plate of shrimps.
Next we drove down the attractive coast of the Bay of Pigs with frequent glimpses of a glittering sea to Playa Giron, perhaps best known as a key site in the attempt to force regime change in the notorious invasion of 1961. Large signs along the roadside proclaim this victory over imperialism.
The area has abundant land crabs of varying sizes and from time to time these venture out onto the road en masse. It’s nearly impossible to avoid running some of them over, although this is not really advisable in a normal car because these things have hard shells and we saw one rental car at the side of the road having it’s wheel changed. In places the road surface was mostly red from the fluids left by hundreds of crabs crushed by passing trucks.
On arrival in Playa Larga we’d spotted a Paladar (private restaurant) called Chuchi’s and we went to check whether they had any tables available before heading back to the hotel for drinks and ablutions. Chuchi’s turned out to be a pretty good choice and the mint in the mojitos couldn’t have been fresher because it was picked from the garden whilst the drinks were being prepared.
On the walk back to the hotel we were pleased to find our own Stygian Owl in the trees near the roundabout.
29th April 2011
Another morning with Chino who we picked up at his home after breakfast at the hotel. Our main target today was Bee Hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird and another species exclusive to Cuba.
Crabs were out in force this morning so it was a slow drive to our first stop where we were soon wandering again through trackless forest because Chino had heard the call of a Key West Quail Dove. After much searching and imitating of the call he found it at the top of a tall tree and we managed pretty good telescope views and even a couple of photographs of this very attractive bird.
Somehow Chino found his way back to the forest trails and after a few halts to admire a large and apparently edible land crab found by JD and a number of colourful butterflies, led us at quite a pace to a dead tree with white branches stretching up towards the blue sky. “Set the ‘scope up here.” he told and within a few minutes a tiny, iridescent bird flew in and perched in full view at the top of the tree. At only 2½” long the scope was essential to get a decent look at the bird, which was briefly joined by another male as we watched it, oblivious to the dozens of biting flies and bugs in the area.
Pausing to admire yet another stunning Cuban Trogon and the incredible nest of a Bee Hummingbird, we made fairly quick time back to the car as the day got hotter and hotter. Chino had one more treat for us - another bird that is endangered and becoming increasingly difficult to see, Fernandina’s Flicker. Another Cuban endemic, this rare woodpecker is at home in open forest and savannah edges with plenty of palm trees, a habitat that is itself at risk. We drove to such an area, parked near to the charcoal burners dwellings and set off. With little shade and the sun getting high in the sky, this was a scorching place. Cuban Martins glided around, reminding us of old world Bee-Eaters and making us realise that the bird we’d seen in Havana had not been this species. Three commoner woodpecker species made their presence felt and then Chino stopped to listen and declared that he had heard a Fernandina’s Flicker call, so we upped the pace in the direction it had come from. The telescope was heavy in the intense heat but it turned out that it was worth bringing it because without it the views of this striking woodpecker, flying between several dead palm trees a hundred metres away would have been disappointing, but with it we got a satisfying view.
After arranging the next morning’s guiding we dropped Chino off at his house and said goodbye and went straight back to the hotel to find Alex and to get a cold drink or three. The lure of the pool full of tropical fish proved too much, so we changed into our swimming clothes, packed some towels and something to change into and headed back to the Cueva del Peces.
The water was a lovely temperature, though a little murky in patches and the location in the forest made it inevitable that there were lots of leaves and dead bugs, but the swimming was a pleasure and we slipped through the narrow gap under the tumbledown bridge and swam up the channel where it was easy to believe that you were miles away from anyone else. There’s nowhere much to get changed after the swim other than the rather spartan toilet block, so we made do with this and when we dressed headed back to the poolside café for another delicious late lunch.
Petrol had run quite low and there’s none in Playa Larga so it was a drive back to the motorway, followed by a stop at the odd tourist centre at Guama, with its reconstructed Indian village and possible zoo. We weren’t interested in the attractions but we did spend an amusing hour in the bar overlooking the water, identifying the various herons and listening to the incredible drivel spouted by some fellow English language speaking tourists.
We pretty much spent the late afternoon under a sunshade by the beach, enjoying the mojitos that one of the hotel’s barmen was particularly skilled at mixing and trying to guess what the thrush-like birds that kept flying by in small numbers might be. We were definitely beginning to get a taste for mojitos. We had a few spots of warm rain that looked like they might degenerate into a torrential downpour but which moved off west and fell on the Zapata Swamp instead.
JD had spotted another Paladar, right opposite the entrance to the hotel so this is where we went for dinner and a really good one it was. Everything seemed to be home produced, right down to the salsa picante that came in recycled moisturising cream bottles (we worked this out because we found the same bottles on sale in the airport duty free on the way home). Avoiding the numerous crabs out for an evening promenade we ended up back in the hotel bar where we chatted again to some anglers from Perthshire and Stirlingshire who where back for their third or fourth visit whilst making sure that the mojito expert didn’t lose his skill for lack of practice. Fishermen quite often make good wildlife spotters and they were telling us that they had seen a couple of cranes out on the Salinas. We were initially sceptical but their descriptions were good and when we showed them the illustrations of Sandhill Cranes in the field guide they agreed that those were what they’d been seeing.
Just before bedtime we remembered that we had nowhere to sleep the next night and we didn’t want to end up driving round looking for somewhere with time running out so we bought some more expensive time on the internet and booked a couple of nights in the Hotel Deauville on the Malecon, hoping that it wasn’t too far out of the centre.
30th April 2011
The hire car needed to be back in Havana for 5 p.m. to avoid an extra day’s charge but we reckoned we only needed a couple of hours to go back there so JD and CC were back at Chino’s place after breakfast where we picked up his brother Angel, another well known birding guide in the area. Angel was going to take us to the Salinas in search of various water birds.
The first bit of road and track was a bit bumpy but after we’d spoken to the guard at the entrance to the reserve and admired the cheerful-looking Cuban Parrot that was occupying the top of the tree over his hut, the roads into the Salinas were not too bad, though there was ample evidence of yesterday’s rain in the form of numerous apparently bottomless puddles.
A wader that Angel thought might have been a Solitary Sandpiper flushed from the side of the track and Red-legged Thrushes kept trying to trick us into thinking they were something more exciting as we drove on through low, dense forest for a few miles to a viewing platform that overlooked several water filled Salinas. This was birding at its best. There were hundreds of birds and the most immediately obvious were a complete surprise. Over 30 American White Pelicans in a couple of groups were close to the platform. Garrido and Kirkonnell describes this species as an ‘extremely rare vagrant’ with only eight records in the 19th and 20th centuries. Angel said that they were being seen more frequently nowadays but he was still pleased to see them.
Stacks of herons, ibises and egrets, dozens of cormorants, loads of Black-necked Stilts and fantastic Roseate Spoonbills. Least Terns and the occasional Gull-billed Terns wheeled overhead. Waders came and went - Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper. A Belted Kingfisher took off from the far side of the pond and fled the scene. In the distance, flocks of Greater Flamingos. We could have stopped there for hours, despite the strength of the sun and the lack of shade. Activity was constant and it was hard to know which way to turn.
Angel had more to show us, so we carried on, flushing numerous Least Sandpiper from the trackside as we drove. Close up views of the flamingos were obtained, using the car as a hide and at a pull in further out we found a Wilson’s Plover, the only one of the trip.
Returning through the forest Angel thought he saw a Northern Waterthrush fly up from the roadside and a little further on where we had stopped to watch a Northern Flicker we got a proper view of a Waterthrush and were able to confirm its identity.
We had enough time for one more site and Angel directed us down a number of lanes and side tracks to a spot where we could leave the car in some shade and then set of through the trees, past trogons and flycatchers and several doves. He came to a small clearing and asked us to find the bird. JD spotted it first, though it took some time and helped CC to separate it from various bits of branches that were lying around. A Cuban Nightjar (formerly Greater Antillean Nightjar) was lying out in the sun amongst the fallen leaves with it’s eyes tightly shut.
There was not much chance that it could get any better and we had a 12 o’clock checkout deadline to beat so we dropped Angel back at home, said goodbye to El Chino again and went to finish packing.
The drive back to Havana was uneventful and by 4 p.m. we were checking in to the Deauville which turned out to have a rather splendid position overlooking the Malecon. It was only a few minutes drive back to Hotel Inglaterra where we were astonished to find a convenient parking space so that we could go to find the rental company rep. However we hadn’t even closed the doors before a tough-looking policeman came over and signalled to us to clear off. JD managed to convince him that we were only going to be there for a couple of minutes whilst we handed the keys over but we were surprised when he agreed to this. In the short time it took her to get the rep the same constable moved on about half a dozen other cars.
Car returned and the 2nd penalty of the day avoided, we set off to see some more of Old Havana. CC & JD at least were in a better mood to enjoy it than on the day of our arrival. We worked up a bit of a thirst and stopped in at a harbour-side bar for a drink or two, confirming that the terns and gulls in the harbour were Royal and Laughing respectively. Plaza del Armas was charming in the late afternoon sun with some guys playing West African music on koras and continuing down O’Reilly we decided that the Restaurante La Domenica looked a bit too pricey, but they were setting up for live music and so we checked the menu and were delighted to see that the meals were very reasonably priced. We booked a table for later that evening.
Next we wandered down to the Capitol building and from there negotiated briefly for a ride back to the hotel in one of the aging American cars left over from the pre-revolutionary period that are now used as taxis. At well over 50 years old, these cars now run on diesel engines from tractors and have been patched and restored and painted over and over again. The interior is seldom as exotic as the exterior but they’re inexpensive and uniquely Habanero.
Having shaved, if necessary, showered, changed and taken a few sunset photos from our 7th floor balcony (the Deauville might have some of the best views in the city) we got another old car back into the old city and spent about 10 minutes getting change because the driver couldn’t change a 10 CUC note and then it was straight to La Domenica where we had an excellent Italian meal al fresco in a delightful setting, with a competent band (yes, we bought the CD) and additional entertainment from a gentleman on the street who knew and danced to every tune that was played and who had some terrific moves. He didn’t hassle anybody or ask for money and seemed to genuinely there for the music.
We had an early start planned for the next day so after a quick mojito we went to find a cab back to the hotel. A chap shouted ‘taxi’ as we were walking towards the Malecon so we followed him to the most beaten up Lada you have ever seen. As I settled in to the passenger seat I could see the night sky and street lights through most of the ‘welded’ seams and as the engine struggled into life at the third attempt I thought “We’re all going to die.”. Alex has been hounded by the musical genre called reggaeton for much of his time in Latin America and has quickly grown to loathe it. It’s not hard to dislike and it probably has it’s roots in Cuba. Before the driver joined the traffic on the Malecon he hit the on button on his stereo and “music” blasted out at a volume that would have blown the windows out, if there had been any. He turned to Alex and said with a grin and in an exaggerated Jamaican accent “RRReggaeton!”. Alex just about managed a forced smile.
1st May 2011
Early. Very early. Still dark when we left the hotel and agreed a 10 CUC price for two bike-taxis to get us as near as possible to Plaza de la Revolution. Being pedalled through the back streets of Havana in the dark of an hour before dawn seemed odd. There were lots of people about - some of them coming back from the ‘discotheque’, some of them starting or ending their working days and as we got closer and closer to the square, many heading in the same direction, with banners and placards - because this was May Day - and in Havana Easter passes with little or no effect but May Day is BIG.
When the crowds started to get to dense our ‘drivers’ stopped and we had an unpleasant moment when they demanded twice as much money as they had asked when they solicited our business - it was 10 CUCs per bike, they explained. We paid up and decided that we would stick to cars from then on - 20 CUCs for a 3 CUC taxi ride.
We soon forgot the annoyance when we joined the crowds - there were thousands of people all heading in the same direction and at every junction thousands more converging from every side street. It felt as though the entire population of the city was there although we read later that the turn out had been relatively small, with some May Day marches exceeding two million individuals.
The atmosphere within the march was convivial - many nations, especially those of Latin America - were well represented and large groups of Cuban workers in various uniforms marched together under their banners. As we got close to Plaza de la Revolution we were glad of the bottles of water we’d brought and astonished by the number of people present. JD and CC have been to Barcelona’s Piromusical many times and an audience of ¼ million for that is not unusual, but this was in a different class.
Once through Plaza de la Revolution, the crowd started to disperse and Alex remembered that we were staying at the Deauville on a bed and breakfast basis, so there was really only one thing to do. Breakfast started at about 7:30 and we were back not long after that and the dining room was already packed - mostly with people who like us had been out early for the march. The food wasn’t bad, with plenty of choice and freshly prepared omelettes or scrambled eggs and by the time we’d finished the queue to get in was almost as big as the May Day march - mainly consisting of bewildered tourists who couldn’t comprehend why so many people had been up and about so early.
Full of energy as ever, Alex went up to his room for a rest and maybe a session in and around the hotel’s roof-top pool. As we were running short of readies again JD and CC went for a (still quite) early morning wander around Havana Vieja and finally found a functional ATM. After a coffee or two on Plaza de las Armas we found a cab and asked him to take us to the National Cemetery. Cemeteries are often full of surprises and the first surprise here was the charge of 5 CUCs each to get in - but we’d made the slight effort to get there so we parted with the money and got a map and a guide leaflet to help us find our way around.
In international terms, the most famous monument is the one to Jose Raul Capablanca, one of the greatest chess players the world has known and his simple grave was the first one we looked for. Then we drifted back and forth, looking at various important structures or interments with a story. There are commemorative sculptures to Cuban heroes of times gone by, pyramids, androgynous angels (very strange) and more. Driving around Cuba you see various references to General Maximo Gomez and the great man lies here, beneath an austere monolith. We tried in vain to ignore the symbolism of the vultures soaring over and hoping around the graves and the mockingbirds atop crosses and secular monuments alike.
Graveyards are thirsty work, so we tried the café opposite the entrance for a cheeseburger (yellow bread, which we decided included the cheese element) and some fizzy pop, then went back to the hotel to see if Alex wanted to join us for the afternoon. He didn‘t, having discovered the wonders of Julie‘s Kindle.
From the balcony we spotted a large three-masted boat out to sea and apparently heading inland. It looked slightly unusual so we set the scope up and could see that the decks were lined with uniformed sailors and more impressively there were many more sailors standing on all the spars and atop the masts. It looked to be heading for the narrow entrance to Havana harbour but then veered westward and along the coast. Time to head out again, so we grabbed a cab to take us to Havana Vieja and as we made our way along the Malecon, there was the boat again, still festooned with sailors and clearly heading for the harbour. Our taxi driver told us that it was a Mexican naval training vessel paying a courtesy call and then almost crashed the car when he saw the masts and spars. “Are those people?” he exclaimed and we told him they were and that we’d been watching them when they were much further out. We all decided to find a suitable place to get a better look.
Down the road there were Cuban Marines and a military band along with several military and civic dignitary types, with a small crowd forming so that’s where we stopped. The vessel, The Cuauhtémoc, was being brought slowly alongside by tugs to the tune of La Bamba and as she got closer the she alternated tunes with the ceremonial band, to the delight of the ever growing crowd and the annoyance of a few motorists unlucky enough to get caught up in the excitement. After a bit of a struggle to get the gang-plank down, salutes were exchanged and the Cuban VIPs all filed onto the boat and the marine band and honour guard marched off.
By now we’d forgotten why we’d come this way so we followed a street that looked like it would end up in the centre and reached the pretty Plaza de San Francisco and then just followed our instincts for a while. Down one street we heard a familiar and appealing sound. The gralla is a musical instrument particularly associated with Catalunya and its unusual tones can often be heard at Casteller performances (if you’ve no idea what I’m on about, you should definitely Google Castellers) so we’re very familiar with it from our numerous visits to festivals in Barcelona and Tarragona - and we heard one just around the corner. Instead of Catalan gegants or a tower of people we found a colourful and exotically made-up troupe of - well, harlequins and clowns, I suppose, on stilts. They certainly brightened the street up.
It was at this point that we remembered why we sometimes don’t like people very much. There were two young women on the same corner, clearly tourists, though we don’t know where from. They attempted to steal the scene, insisting that they each be photographed in turn with the troupe, and getting the people on stilts to take pictures of them and generally getting in everybody’s way when the rest of us were trying to get photos. It was difficult to get an image without having them in it - but when the performers produced a velvet bag that they waved at people for a few coins, the women were suddenly not interested and disappeared quickly. They really didn’t look hard up, so perhaps they objected to giving handouts and thought the troubadours should really get a proper job.
Thirsty again we sat down for some drinks outside a café on Plaza de la Catedral and waited for far too long, so we left without even ordering and after a long and increasingly dry walk found ourselves outside the Cafeteria del Prado 12, which is right at the seawards end of Prado. Here we ordered soft drinks and mojitos and these mojitos were the best that we had the whole time we were in Cuba. The menu looked good too, so we walked up the Malecon as the sun got lower in the sky.
There’s a rock platform washed by the waves on the seaward side of the Malecon and as the day drew to a close, lots of Cubans were down on the rocks or in the pools nearby swimming, sunbathing in one case sitting with their backs to the rather lively waves and waiting until a big wave came along and drenched them in salt water.
We woke Alex up and got ready for the evening. We headed straight back to Cafeteria del Prado, which had been quite quiet when we left it 90 minutes earlier but was now really busy, with all the outside tables full. Fortunately there was one free table inside, right next to the band who were just setting up, so we settled down there and ordered our mojitos. The food lived up to expectations as did the mojitos, though our enjoyment of them was somewhat curtailed because they ran out of limes halfway through the second round. No matter, though, we found something else to drink and the band were good, so we bought their CD as well.
2nd May 2011
Time to move on and after breakfast we checked out and went up a floor to the car rental desk where we had arranged for a car the previous day. He’s forgotten that we’d specified a manual transmission so had to arrange for us to be chauffeured to a different office because he only had automatics available.
Paperwork completed we were on the road a little later than hoped and only got lost about one and a half times on the way to the main road heading west. Our destination for the next couple of days was Pinar del Rio province and in particular the small town of San Diego de los Banos. The drive wasn’t too bad and we arrived early in the afternoon and booked into the Hotel Mirador, which seems to be the popular option. We enquired about the possibility of guided birding (there is a well known local guide who can be contacted through reception)
Our first intention was to go to the La Guira National Park, aka the Hacienda Cortina, but before we set off, as the day was at its warmest, we gave in to temptation, found a shady place to sit and ordered some cold drinks.
We started talking to a gentleman who turned out to be a Cuban teacher and after a long chat, when he found out that we were heading up to the park he offered to show us around and tell us something of the history, an offer that we gladly accepted.
La Guira was only a few minutes in the car but it felt like nowhere else in Cuba. Originally the home of a rich merchant who had tried to introduce elements of cultures from around the world to the grounds of his retreat, the park has an eerie and other worldly air, having been allowed to slowly crumble and to be taken back by nature. The buildings are ruins, the lake has silted up and the statues are decaying - and overall the impression is rather appealing. The location is hilly and the trees that have matured mean that there are surprises around every corner. And there are birds there too. The remains of the lake had herons and egrets and too our delight a pair of Least Grebes and there was an Osprey overhead and numerous small birds in the trees.
After an hour or so of looking around what were once ornamental gardens (and which are now undergoing an element of restoration, which will need to be handled carefully if the atmosphere of the place is to be retained) we drove up to the top end of the park, where there is a restaurant overlooking a pleasant view. Just behind the restaurant is an area of dense foliage and small trees and here we found, amongst others, our only Black-faced Grassquits and Red-legged Honeycreepers of the holiday. This latter species, the male of which is a spectacular purplish-blue bird had been rather common when we visited Costa Rica but it is much scarcer in Cuba and sought after by most birding visitors.
Thoroughly parched, we invited our volunteer guide back for drinks and were pleased when he agreed, so we returned to our shady spot as the afternoon wore on. The barman who made us our mojotos had seen our binoculars and told us that a pair of Baltimore Orioles visited the hotel grounds every evening at about 18:30 (and also each morning at 11:00). He was not far wrong and before 18:45 we heard one calling from the top of a nearby tree. A few minutes later both birds had flown into the top of one of the hotels fine palms. They seemed a bit perturbed this evening and after several forays between the two trees they flew off and did not return, but this was yet another species in the bag for the trip.
Our guide told us that the hotel sometimes has live music if there are enough guests and shortly later he greeted a friend who was carrying a pink double bass, who told us that he and his band were performing that night, which pleased us considerably. Music in the open air restaurant sounded like a great idea and the one thing we were not keen on about the hotel, which was generally rather good, was the loud music (often reggaeton - oh no!) coming from the pool area. We didn’t know what time the pool music would finish but felt that it would have to quieten down if there was music in the restaurant.
After a couple of mojitos and Cuba Libres we asked our guide if he and his family (wife and 9 year-old daughter) would like to join us for dinner. After a quick call home, he agreed to this, so CC went with him to pick them up in the car. On the way we bumped into the bull fiddle player who was looking a bit despondent - apparently the other guests had said they didn’t want a band tonight. He was in the process of stowing his instrument somewhere safe so we asked him if he needed a lift home, which he accepted. On reflection we made a mistake here - in fact probably missed an opportunity - we should have offered to pay for the band. We were already over budget for the holiday, mostly because of the silly price of the hire car, so a bit more would not have made much difference. We failed miserably to rise to the occasion, though and only thought of it later.
Dinner was fun with guests, although the youngster was a little disappointed that there were no shrimps on the menu. We enjoyed a few bottles of wine and some rambling conversation that pointed out some of the similarities and differences between life in Cuba and life in England. It’s certainly easier to get to work in the UK if you have any distance to travel than it is in rural Cuba.
3rd May 2011
Breakfast in the hotel was in the indoor restaurant and included some decent scrambled eggs. An osprey flew by as we were eating. The receptionist had been able to get in touch with Cesar the day before, as he had returned from Havana and he was ready and waiting for us, so we set of straight away, heading for the famous Portales cave which was as we had been told several times “the cave home of Che Guevara at time of missile crisis”. As well as being a sight of special historical and cultural significance, this is also a location where you have a chance of finding another of Cuba’s more difficult birds, the Cuban Solitaire.
The drive was pleasant and easy, being almost entirely rural with the only settlement of note being the village that everyone seemed to refer to in English as “Horseshoe Crossroads” which has a certain rather rakish ring to it.
The vicinity of the cave, which is open at both ends so presumably a section of an old cave system that has partially collapsed is verdant and full of life and we had only been out of the car for a few seconds when we heard the first few mournful notes of a Solitaire, though this bird was clearly some distance away and completely inaccessible on a forested hillside. However we felt optimistic so continued onwards.
The cave and the crystal clear stream in their lush forest setting make for a fascinating environment and it is interesting to be able to wander around at the scene of famous historical events. Much of the simple infrastructure that was present during Che Guevara’s occupation is still in place, including his bed and the table where he held meetings. In the cave roof in several places were the nests of - well, what else but Cave Swallows.
Out in the open we soon heard the song of another Cuban Solitaire, but this one was much closer and we quickly found the bird itself in a nearby tree. We were able to get a really good look at it and then located a second bird nearby. Mission accomplished, we returned to the cave where Cesar showed us a few amusing limestone formations including one in the shape of a frog and another that, with a bit of imagination at least, looked rather like Guevara’s profile.
Next target bird for the day was the elusive Cuban Grassquit and Cesar had a place for them. We headed back towards San Diego de los Banos and stopped alongside a farm. We had a look around several fields and flushed a few Yellow-faced Grassquits (these are the commonest Grassquits in Cuba) but no sign of any Cuban. After admiring some local butterflies Cesar decided to walk a little further and a few minutes later, which was quite a long time in the now searing sunshine he finally found a pair for us and these pretty little birds showed up rather well, despite being inside a thick hedge until they flew off across the field and out of sight.
Cesar had at least one more local speciality to show us but he could see that the heat was getting to us and suggested that we return to the hotel, relax a bit and he would come back for us at about 4 p.m. We’d finished our drinking water so we were happy to agree to this.
Relaxing, as in sitting around not doing very much is not really one of our strong points and after cooling down and re-hydrating we were ready for the off again. Our map showed a large reservoir not far away so we set of in the car to look for it. According to the map, the Carretara Central actually crossed this reservoir and as this was the major road in the region, after the autopista, we thought this would be easy to find. We took a right turn onto what we thought was the right road but after a short distance it became very narrow and overgrown and looked like it was seldom used by traffic. We decided to turn around at the first opportunity and try a different approach but we emerged from the forest into a more open area and continued for a little while until we came to a lake that was rapidly drying out. Apart from an alarming number of dead chickens in the outflow from the reservoir, there were a few birds around the edges. At first nothing new was obvious until we noticed a small wader quite nearby that looked a little different. After prolonged scrutiny and intense study of the field guide we worked out that this was a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, a new species for us.
Later that day we found out that the road we had used had indeed been the CC but an engineering oversight meant that when the reservoir was full, the road was completely submerged and unusable, so it had fallen into neglect. In UK terms this was pretty much the equivalent of allowing the A1 to flood and just ignoring it.
Next we drove a short distance east along the motorway to see whether there were any places where we could get a close look at the flooded rice fields that lie alongside it. We didn’t find anywhere obvious in the short time we had available but we were rewarded by seeing the second Snail Kite of the trip and therefore our second ever. Nice bird.
Back to the hotel and within minutes back out with Cesar. He told us that we weren’t going far and gave us the option to walk, but we selected air conditioning. Several minutes of bumpy roads and tracks later we parked in some shade because it was still really warm and sunny and started to walk. Olive-capped Warbler is a much prettier bird than its name suggests and it is a near endemic that is described as common and very local in the field guide. It is only found in pine trees and it was to a stand of pines that Cesar led us. We found our first Olive-capped Warbler within seconds and it put on a good display for us as Cesar impersonated its call, flying between the trees and making sure that we weren’t rivals.
Cesar had found us all the birds that we wanted to see, so we said our goodbyes and returned to the hotel to get ready for dinner. It was not quite as lively as the previous night, but the food was fine and the wine not bad too.
4th May 2011
Our time in Cuba was nearly at an end and we felt that we had seen much of what San Diego had to offer, so it was time to move on to somewhere new for our final night.
Shortly after breakfast and a session photographing bugs, lizards and amphibians found around the hotel we left San Diego bound for Vinales, via La Guira for a second look at the Least Grebes, for our final night in Cuba. The scenery around Vinales was fantastic, our choice of a place to stay less so. The swimming pool was dry, the water was off for the rooms when we arrived (fixed later), the claim that ’we accept all credit cards’ (apart from the obvious) blatantly untrue and most frustratingly, when we went to use the internet to reserve our seats for the flight back to Paris, having confirmed on arrival that we would be able to get online we were told that they had no cards left! This made our decision to use what might be the most expensive place in town, the Rancho San Vicente seem rather pointless. The setting is lovely but the service very average. Probably better to use one of the many Casas Particulares in the region. On the subject of internet connection we asked again about cards quite early the following morning and were sold one straight away, by a different member of staff. It might be uncharitable, but we were somewhat surprised that their delivery of new cards had been so prompt.
The drive to Vinales had been pleasant, with quiet roads everywhere apart from good old Horseshoe Crossroads which was bustling and lively. The forested hills before Vinales were pretty and the view from the small visitors centre a few miles before the town spectacular. Anywhere else in the world, someone would have put a café here and blocked the view to all but paying customers.
The main road goes straight through the town before swinging north through the towering limestone hills and Rancho San Vicente was easily found a few miles further on. After settling in we debated what to do next and first chose to pop into town for a look around. We parked near a café on the corner opposite the plaza in front of the church where a large and noisy group of school children were gathered. As we sat outside the café with our drinks the crowd got larger and larger until there were hundreds of children of all ages, all tidily dressed in pristine uniforms milling around. We later discovered that they were all waiting to see a baseball player, because the night before, the Pinar del Rio side had won one of the main competitions in this sport.
Next we chose to drive a little more, to the north coast at Puerto Esperanza. This took us through more attractive areas of rural Cuba, with plenty of triangular shaped barns, many made of palm leaves, that we later found out were places for drying tobacco.
There’s not much at Puerto Esperanza, though it is rather nicely located but within seconds of parking we were approached by a lady who asked if we were looking for somewhere to eat. As it happened, we were. We would have liked somewhere on the shoreline, but there was nowhere suitable and so she told us to follow her (she on her bicycle, we in the car) and she took us down a few unpaved streets to her house and restaurant.
She promised us that she cooked the best lobster in Cuba. She might be right. Maribel has a single table in her garden and we sat there whilst other members of her family continued with building a wall to provide more shelter (in our minimal experience, Puerto Esperanza is quite a windy place). Virtually everything that she served, including the mango juice and the after ‘dinner’ cigars was their own produce, or at least in the case of the lobster - a huge one - caught by them. The meal was spectacular, with everything incredibly fresh and the lobster served in a delicious sauce. We can’t say whether Maribel serves the best lobster in the country, but it was easily the best that we tasted whilst we in Cuba and definitely worth the effort of the short drive. Anyone staying in Vinales or nearby with their own transport would be well advised to seek her out. Even if she isn’t waiting at the end of the road (literally - just drive as far as you can) just ask any local how to find here place - it’s a couple of blocks back on the west side of the road and with her exuberant personality everyone local is sure to know her.
Vinales has a couple of caves to visit and we could tell from the tourist literature that one of them, Cueva del Indio included a short underground boat trip, so this was our next destination. We parked across the road, paid a small parking fee, made friends with a dog and then headed for the cave. As limestone marvels goes, it is not one of the great caves of the world, but it’s not bad and any boat trip on a natural underground river has got to be worth considering.
There’s a café at one end of the cave (it seems that tours enter at both ends - probably depends upon where the boat is - and this does have quite a location, sitting as it does in what is almost a deep crater in the hillside which is filled with lush vegetation. It was here that we got our best photo of a Cuban Emerald hummingbird. Whilst we were having a drink, a buffalo that seemed to be employed as a tourist attraction for rides and photographs was allowed down to the river where it seemed to be having rather a good time wallowing in the water and actually submerging itself for quite long periods.
It was now less than thirty hours before our flight back to Paris, so within the Air France parameters for reserving seats, so we returned to the hotel to get on line, were told there were no cards, advised to try the office in town (they surely must have know it was closed) and generally got into quite a bad mood, which is why we won’t recommend Rancho San Vicente. If some of the staff (and I’m sure there are some good ones) cared a little more then the place would be much better. Our mood was improved a little when we found a Plain Pigeon in one of the trees on the way to our chalet.
There was a little pizza shack on the way into Vinales that we’d noticed a couple of times. After Maribel’s lavish feast we were far from starving but felt that we should eat something, so this is were we ended up. It was pretty good, really. The pizzas were a bit different to what we’re used to but tasty nonetheless and the place was frequented by both locals and tourists so had a mildly authentic feel to it. There are plenty of independent places to eat in Vinales itself that looked like they might be good but this was a decent choice and probably cheaper than many.
As CC had been driving we finished off at the hotel bar so that he could have a mojito or two. The leaf bug that was attracted to the lights was the most interesting company in there.
5th May 2011
JD and CC had an evening flight from Havana back to Paris. Alex was due to head back to Panama City and then on to Mexico the day after so we allowed ourselves a bit of a lie-in as we were in no particular hurry and got up and about in time for breakfast. During breakfast, which was fine we bumped into the only other birdwatchers that we met on the whole trip, a couple of English people who were on an organised tour. They had been fitting birding around the tour, which was not specialising in wildlife but had seen a few nice species.
After check-out and booking a couple of almost adjacent aisle seats we popped back into Vinales for a final look around and to look at a few souvenir shops (JD’s nephew Jamie will be delighted with his maracas, his mum and dad probably less so. )
Our route back to Havana was along the slow road, pretty much following the north coast. We reckoned that we would have plenty of time to follow this, maybe stop for a meal somewhere and see a few of the towns on the way and still be back in Havana before 5 p.m., when the car was due back. Just as we were coming through the gap in the hills north-east of the town we noticed a small accipiter-type hawk overhead, which must have been a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The journey back to Havana was straightforward enough and the countryside was mostly pleasant, although there were few places where we wanted to linger. The last section before Havana was on the motorway again and we stopped at a service station (6 Vias) by a large lake not far west of the city. There were birds on the lake and after a while we located a flock of Pied-billed Grebes - our first of the holiday and a species we’d expected to see more frequently, although we hadn’t been looking at reservoirs particularly diligently.
Our first attempt at finding the centre of Havana from the west side was a dismal failure, although we got quite close and followed much of the route that we’d used in the opposite direction a few days earlier. Admitting defeat we followed main roads south of the city and then used the drove down the roads that we’d had more look on when coming from Playa Larga, which was much more successful. We knew the approximate whereabouts of the car rental place but we were more than peckish so we parked up and found a place to eat where the food was a bit disappointing but filling enough.
The restaurant turned out to be 50 metres from the car rental office so it we had no route finding issues here and returned the car with about 50 minutes to spare. After handing over the paperwork the chap at the desk asked us where we were headed next and we told him it was the airport. He asked us how much fuel was left (the system in Cuba is that you pay for a full tank of fuel on collection and try to return it empty, which is of course almost impossible) and when we told him, he offered to drive us there. He also agreed to take Alex to his hotel first as it was nearby, so he saved us the price of two taxis. Presumably he was picking up a customer at the airport but this was still a generous gesture that he didn’t have to make and he declined any compensation.
So we finished packing our bags in the car hire car park, said goodbye to Alex (at least until early June) outside his hotel and got to the airport with a few hours to spare and a ten hour flight to look forward to before a four hour wait in Paris.
Check-in was efficient but we’d forgotten that there was a 25CUC pp exit visa to pay on the way out of Cuba, so we had to find an ATM, which was working, fortunately. Once through security we did a bit of shopping, found a café to dawdle at, did a bit more shopping and worked out that we had enough money left over for some final mojitos.
The barman at the Havana Club bar in departures must have the patience of a saint. For a start he probably makes 100 mojitos on every shift, and very good ones they are. But much worse he has to put up with some incredibly rude and/or stupid people. We sat at the bar to enjoy our drinks and after a little while a man came to stand beside us. When the barman came to serve him he pointed at the rum bottles on display and shouted “Ron! One!”. The barman got a glass and he shouted again - “No! Ron! One!”. Cottoning on, the barman pulled a bottle of the 3-year old Havana Club out of a cupboard and showed him it. “Yes! Ron! One!” and produced a wad of $US from his wallet. The barman wrote ‘28’ on a piece of paper and showed it to him (this is the same Havana Club that costs about 4CUCs in the Duty Free Shop 50 yards away). The customer then shouted “Piwo! One!” which completely perplexed the poor barman. At the third attempt CC stepped in and said “Beer” (he didn’t need to shout, but with hindsight it would have been cooler and more polite to say cerveza) and the barman smiled and produced a can of Cristal from a fridge. The customer, who had handed over $30 then thrust his hand, palm up into the barman’s face, expecting change. The barman shot him a look of contempt and shouted “Ron! One!” and pointed to the piece of paper with 28 on it, then shouted “Beer! One!” and put two fingers up, brandished the $30 and put it into the till. Barman 1 - tourist 0.
The bar kept us entertained for an hour and a couple of rounds. About half the customers were idiots - probably more but we didn’t hear all that they had to say. One young Englishman didn’t want the rum that he was served, insisting that he should have “the normal one”, though he didn’t seem to know what that was. Presumably he’d been drinking the same stuff for two weeks in his A/I resort and expected that everybody in Cuba would know what he’d been up to. Or is that uncharitable? Who cares?
6th May 2011
The flight home was much less of an ordeal than the flight out. Everything was on time and the people we were sitting near were mostly well behaved and quiet. Nobody was swigging spirits straight from the bottle. We were caught out a little at Paris Charles de Gaulle because the duty free Havana Club we’d bought (one bottle) meant that we were required to go through security and check one of our hand luggage bags in as hold luggage with the rum inside, which required a march of about two miles to get us back to about 50 yards from where we started. We were briefly entertained by the antics of a group of pensioners from goodness knows where who seemed to speak perfectly good English but had not understood the multi-lingual signs over the queues stating ‘EU Passports only” and were baffled when the poor border control person turned them back, whereupon they all waddled of to another queue collectively repeating what sounded like “hoogle” to each other. Where they aliens, perhaps? We’ll probably never know.
Four hours in the airport and then another in the plane and we were back in England and two hours later, back home in Shrewsbury. Hoogle.
Cuba Bird list - what we saw
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Cuban Black Hawk
Eurasian Collared Dove
Common Ground Dove
Key West Quail-Dove
Great Lizard Cuckoo
Cuban Screech Owl
Cuban Pygmy Owl
Antillean Palm Swift