By Pat Bartlett.
Pat Bartlett is a writer/naturalist who lives in Florida. She has finches on her screened- in back porch that somehow turned into a flight cage. There are ten allegedly squirrel-proof feeders in her front yard that are regular stops for a variety of birds and a large number of very fat squirrels. She has two house rabbits, Anise and Timmy Tickletoes, and is the author of How to Train Your Rabbit.
I visited Cuba as part of an organized birding tour in late 2017, hoping to see at least some of the 25 endemics and perhaps many of the 325 other bird species found there. We visited two of the national parks, both on the southern side of the island. To the east was Topes de Collates; and to the west, Peninsula de Zapata National Park. The trip to Cuba was itself eye-opening.
Remarkable in many aspects, Cuba is a great place for birding. The island has large national parks and “wild” areas, and the travel restrictions – at least as of this writing – are not onerous. The country itself is a study in contrasts–its haves and have-nots, its proud I’ve-been-here-a-lot-longer-than-you cities and large wilderness areas, and its twin world of pricing, the one for visitors, the other for locals.
In many ways time has slowed in Cuba. There are 1950s cars still on the road and in use. Don’t look too closely, or you’ll see a lot of Bond-o in those car bodies. When Russia cut off its aid in the 1990s, the government could no longer supply the security it had promised its residents. With no supplier on hand to replace the flow of oil, food, machinery and consumer goods, complex poverty issues became the norm. Cuba has not yet solved those problems.
Cuba has three sources of income– the mining of iron, its manufacture into steel, and tourism. The government recognizes the value of tourism and has invested heavily in it. The government owns the resort hotels and the affiliated dining areas, the transportation lines, and many of the souvenir shops. The government hires and trains the tourism workforce. The income from these businesses accrues to the Government. While small privately owned souvenir shops are permitted, along with B&Bs (called casa particulares) and small restaurants, they must share their revenue with the government. Farmers must contribute 90% of their crop to the government. Horses and cows belong to the government.
Because most food items are imported, food supplies are limited literally to what’s available. We stopped at a pizza place in downtown Havana, and the menu on the wall was quite appealing. But you don’t order pizza #3– you ask what they have available. In this case, they had cheese and ham. We had a cheese-with-processed-ham pizza. It was about as good as you’d expect.
In the past year, new Russian and Chinese cars have appeared on the roads. But, for the average citizen, transportation is wherever he or she can find it. People get around by walking or by taking a bus. Rural folks get where they need to go by horseback or in a horse/mule/ox-drawn wagon. No one is surprised by the sight of a homemade wagon along a paved roadway or in downtown Havana.
Because the government is the primary employer, the government sets wages. Salaries are about $25/month. Doctors make $25. Plumbers make $25. Sanitation workers make $25. Because no one makes a lot of money, everyone is thereby equal — this is Communism. There are two big pluses to living in Cuba — free medical care and a free education.
People work where the government says there is a job. Some jobs are more desirable than others. Those chosen as guides are well-trained. They learn multiple languages (German, French and English are the top three). They learn about their specialty, which may be Cuban art or Cuban birds. Guides are tested on their knowledge, and their scores determine their professional future.
Topes de Collantes is a mountainous park near the town of Trinidad. It offers hiking trails; the hotel provides a well-stocked dining room, a small bar, and a swimming pool. Buses and Russian troop carriers take groups to park sites, such as a coffee plantation, a farmland turned botanical park, large waterfalls, and an art museum. “Topes” is where we saw the Cuban pygmy owl,
The Península de Zapata is part of a nature reserve called the Zapata Swamp, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve site. It has beaches, swamps and forests. The main beach was a staging area for the Cuban military during the 1961 US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion. Birding areas include the salt flats, Las Salinas; a rocky hillside outcropping called Enigma de las Rochas, and Las Bermejas There’s a nearby crocodile farm. Inland, rocky limestone outcroppings contain cenotes with swimming platforms, garfish and crocodiles.
At week’s end, we began the seven-hour bus trip back to Havana, arriving in time for a relaxing day at the botanical garden, the Jardin Botanico Nacional. The garden is about a 30-minute taxi ride from Havana, and that distance from Havana’s mainstream traffic makes it standard operating procedure to ask the taxi driver to wait or return at a specific time. The garden has large greenhouses; inside, tiered plantings feature hundreds of chubby succulents in shades of red, pink and green, reposing like jewels on both sides of a wide graveled walkway. Beyond the greenhouses are open grassy expanses, with areas dedicated to different countries. The largest area features plants from Cuba; beyond Cuba and on the left are plants from Madagascar, and ahead to the right is South America. Beyond that, Africa and Japan await. Open buses take visitors around the botanico, and the multilingual bus drivers give a basic orientation as to what is where. The botanico is 1600 acres so it’s impossible to view the whole place in a single day.
There are few visitors to the Jardin, and the bird population reflects that stillness. We tried balancing birding with looking at plants (we were in a famous garden after all!), but within minutes I felt like one of those drinking birds that swings down to put his beak in a glass of water and then stands upright only to swing downwards again. I leaned against a tree, making sure it had no spines, took a deep breath and tried again. Decision-making was pretty easy: That day I was rewarded with kestrels, the Cuban green woodpecker, many red-legged thrushes, an emerald hummingbird, the great lizard cuckoo, and the Cuban pewee. There are supposed to be 20,000 varieties of plants at the Jardin and looking back I suspect I missed most of them.
Havana itself is studded by small parks that may boast a local band (with CDs for sale) or a craftsman plaiting animal figures from strips of palm leaves. Alfresco dancing is the norm, and no partner is needed. Caged birds (mostly Cuban bullfinches and mockingbirds) are brought to parks by their owners, and the cages are suspended from the trees or from lampposts. House sparrows and mockingbirds flit in and out, and curly tailed lizards skitter about each other across a sun-warmed patch of sidewalk. Schools bring their kindergarten-aged kids to the parks during the lunch hour. The children sit in small groups, play hand games and then eat their sack lunches.
Life in Cuba is more casual and more relaxed than the US, and the Cubans I met were emotionally warm and friendly toward visitors. The island is beautiful, from the new architecture to the old, and the tropical climate encourages lush plant growth and exotic bird and mammal species. The island’s close proximity to the US makes a three- or four- day trip quite do-able (you do need a valid passport and a visa– you order the visa through your booking airline and pick it up when you check in for your flight).