(click on pictures to enlarge)
Torch Ginger Lily
The majority of tourists to Cuba spend the best part of their time at a beach resort and so did I, many years ago. One of the reasons I went on this trip was because there was an opportunity to explore Cuba’s wilderness.
Alturas de Banao Reserva Ecologica
From Havana, we made our way south through Cienfuegos and Trinidad by coach. Our guide Onelio had been specially requested by our Canadian contact and I could see why. He had a broad knowledge of Cuba’s history, economy, and politics and he held forth on all our journeys, educating us along the way in a most entertaining manner. Many of our days were spent trekking along forest paths looking for endemic Cuban birds, and examining the Cuban flora with guides local to the area. Our evenings were spent back on the beach when possible, swimming and quenching our thirst!
Our first excursion was to the Ecological Reserve at Alturas de Banao in the south. A beautiful area of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. This area has a variety of plant species and the birders amongst us also got their fill of endemic Cuban birds.
Image: Larry Monczka
Image: Bernie Solymar
I got an appreciation of how difficult it is to photograph birds.By the time I even spotted them, they would be flying away never mind being able to zoom in and actually photograph them. Now I understand the truth to the saying “the bird has flown” as you have to concentrate, be watchful and quick. Luckily, there were a number of excellent photographers on the trip so thanks to them for the more difficult pictures.
On another excursion, we took former Russian army trucks to Topes de Collantes in the Escambray mountains where the slopes are covered with ancient tree ferns, bamboo and eucalyptus.
Tree Ferns and Bamboo, Topes de Collantes
I had never seen such magnificent tree ferns ever before never mind hundreds of bromeliads hanging off the trees, exotic flowers, and trees of medicinal, cosmetic or culinary value.
The ‘lipstick’ tree or achiote (Bixa Orellana) produces a prickly fruit filled with little red seeds like pomegranate seeds.
Make-up for Mary
The colour from the seeds is used as a natural lipstick and to produce the spice annatto which is slightly peppery and also used to impart colour to food including cheese, butter, and snack foods. Interestingly, the FDA considers the colour derived from it to be exempt of certification so it has high commercial value in the U.S.
Bay of Pigs, Ibis in Mangrove Swamp
Still in the south, we travelled west to the Zapata Peninsula and the Bay of Pigs, a swampy area of mangrove trees. Apparently, the inhospitable flat terrain was one of the many reasons that the US invasion failed in 1961 since it provided no cover for the invading troops. The area we saw, Las Salinas, is filled with ibis, heron, flamingos and egrets as well as other birds, a birder’s paradise.
The Cuban crocodile inhabits this area but is a critically endangered species and we only saw it on a breeding farm. The crocodiles, though not very large, have long tails and can jump high distances making them dangerous to humans as they tend to be very aggressive. Hard to believe as the ones we saw on the farm were lying basking and lazing in the sun with their mouths open hoping that the keeper would throw them a fish.
We also saw a rat-like animal endemic to the Caribbean Islands called a Jutia (Capromys pilorides). I was told that they are hunted for food in Cuba and cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.
Thankfully, we weren’t given this delicacy to try out. Instead, while walking back to the lodge for lunch on one of the reserves, we came upon a pig being roasted outdoors on an open fire.
You can guess what we had for lunch and it was super delicious served with rice and beans. Thank goodness there were no vegetarians among us as they would have had a hard time. Although our choices for meals in general, were pork, chicken, fish or beef which I’m sure are not easily available for the locals, there wasn’t a wide variety of vegetables. Onelio actually gave a sigh of relief when he found out that none of us was vegetarian. In my next post, I will talk more about crops and farming but for now and in conclusion, I’m going to confess to you about my moment of shame!
Plaza Mayor, Trinidad
In between our nature excursions, there was very little time to visit Trinidad which is a beautiful town. Onelio left us at the Plaza Mayor with instructions that we should meet at a specific spot about 45 minutes later.
I had been in Trinidad with Loris many years previously and I guess I was a bit distracted seeing the town looking so prosperous and unlike what I remembered and of course I thought of being there with Loris and must have been preoccupied. Anyhow, well before the appointed time, I made my way to the meeting spot to find neither the bus nor anyone from our group there. Obviously, I had gotten confused as to the meeting point.
To cut a long story short, I hurried and then actually ran around the streets trying to find the bus. Stupidly, I had left my backpack containing the sheet of paper with Onelio’s mobile number on the bus. After 40 minutes or so of frenetic searching, I realized that my efforts were futile. Finally, I went into the upscale Hotel La Ronda and asked the receptionist to call the hotel we were staying in and get them to locate Onelio which they couldn’t do as they didn’t have his number. We told them where we were calling from. Luckily, Onelio did call the hotel, got the message and found me just as I was preparing to take a cab back. He had never ever ‘lost’ a member of his group and was as relieved to see me as I was to see him. There were strong hugs all around including the staff of La Ronda. My poor fellow travellers welcomed me back on the bus without a word of complaint even though I had ruined their evening. The plan was to return to Trinidad after dinner and take in an evening of music for which there was no longer enough time. I must say that during all my running around in the streets, I never felt nervous about being robbed or meeting with any violence. It seems to me that Cuba is still a safe place unlike many other Caribbean islands. Anyhow, I’m using this opportunity to thank everyone in our group for their tolerance and good humour. The Prosecco is on me when we have a reunion!