Cuba is a country full of history, wonderful beaches, extremely friendly people and of course with endemic birds any birder would wish to see! but also with unique politics!
I had the pleasure to visiting this interesting country between May 15-24th 2018 on a family holiday. We did all of the planning on our own using recommendations given to us by other friends whom I am thankful for sharing their experience. Blogs and traveling sources such as Loney planet were of great help. eBird was extremely helpful when I planned the birding sites, but also helped on getting an idea where my targets were most likely seen at, for the bird Field guide I used “Birds of the west Indies” by Raffaele, Wiley, Garrido, Keith and Raffaele. 2003 Princeton university press.
A bit of an old book now but I combined Avibase and eBird for updated taxonomy.
For maps and navigation I used an app called Maps.me, you can download the entire map of a country so you can use offline, notice that the internet in Cuba is from the stone age (will detail later) so using google maps is almost impossible. Like Google maps you can put markers, use it as a GPS, search for places etc.
The following trip report will be (as usual) written in English hoping to help a larger audience, however I also hope to help Costa Ricans who are planning a similar trip get their ideas to put a trip together, I wish I could had found a report as detailed as I am hoping this one to be. This was not a 100% birding trip due to our son’s age, but I did my efforts to get as many as I could. So if you are a birder the most helpful information will be between May 15th to the 20th, the rest is mostly beach and city traveling.
Did I mention Cuba is also well known for their old cars?
We used Copa Airlines and found tickets for us$553 round trip for the 2 of us and our baby son (he was on our lap) with a connection flight in Panama each way (1hr30min approx). The flight to Panama took about 1hr and from Panama to Cuba 2hr10min (Costa Rica to Panama and then Cuba).
NOTICE that Cuba requires a travelers visa, we bought ours in the Cuban embassy for us$15 per person. You can buy it from Copa Airlines at their booth at the CR airport for us$60pp if I am not wrong. You can also buy it in Panama at the Copa Airlines desk for cheaper I believe. In CR Cubana de aviación (Cuban airlines) sells it for $25. Make it simple, just buy it at the embassy if you want to save $ or just do it in Copa Airlines desk (airport) if you can not make a trip to San Jose just for it.
A Travelers insurance is mandatory. We bought from INS in Quepos (A Costa Rican insurance company). Us$50 per adult.
Getting out of the Cuban airport was no so bad. It is a small airport (yes! Even smaller than San Jose CR). Once outside, as usual there are many taxis who are offering their service, we, however never felt harassed by them, instead they made a respectful approach and kindly offered their service. We stood aside, saw the panorama and picked a driver/taxi of our preference. Our driver, a man named Alex, good driver and quite talkative, during our 20 min ride to our hotel in Havana gave us some friendly info about the country. Cellphone 53479157. Again, too many drivers, I did manage to get a drivers contact (although I did not use his service), he drives a toyota Hiace with rooms for 12 people: Delfin Cordero phone 52822134 email email@example.com A private trip to places like Varadero cost approximately 150 cuc for a private ride ($180 approximately, find out about the exchange) for a family of 5, but a taxi for 2 should be between 90-100 CUC ($105 us$).
Cuba uses 2 currencies; the one used by the locals called CUP or Moneda nacional, which is about 23CUP to 1 CUC, and the other Currency is the CUC or moneda convertible, which is what tourists use, 1CUC = $0.70 or 1 Euro. I DO NOT recommend to use US dollars, use Euros instead as they have more acquisitive power. In Cuba you will find CADECAS, which is the place you can change currency, they as almost everything in Cuba belong to the government so the exchange is official.
We booked a room in Habana very near Viazul as we had a bus ticket to Playa Larga the next day. In Cuba you can stay at hotels, all run by the government but also you can rent rooms at private homes for a much better fee. We used VRBO (how was life before VRBO!?) and got a room for 25 CUC / $30 for the night! The rooms was very nice, very clean with TV hot shower and full A/C. Our hosts Miss Onelia, mr Carlos and daughter Sandra were super friendly and accommodating, we felt like at home thanks to their help. Onelia Rodriguez and Sandra Negrin. firstname.lastname@example.org On this night we ate dinner at Habitania, which is walking distance from Viazul, I consider this the best dinner I had in Cuba! MAP HERE.
One of the 2 species of hummingbirds in Cuba, Cuban emerald is the most common of them, this was seen at the garden of our VRBO in La Havana.
Red legged thrush! why can’t our thrushes be this pretty?
Highlights of the day were Red-legged thrush (very common in Cuba), Cuban emerald.
May 16th. After a delicious breakfast made by Miss Onelia we walked to Viazul as we had a bus to catch at 7:00am. They’d requested to be there one hour before. Our destination was Playa Larga where the Zapata Marsh is at.
The Viazul office.
VIAZUL: This is a bus company that offers transportation to most famous destinations (To Costa Rican readers: our Tracopa of 1990s!) the transportation in Cuba is a bit rustic as you must know, you can go by private taxi if you can afford it, or if you go to the office of Viazul there are taxis who offer a shared ride, we met other tourists who asked us if we were willing to take a taxi and divide the cost; we already had our Viazul tickets so we did not shared a taxi.
When you book a bus ticket through Viazul website and plan to go to Playa Larga it is hard to understand their website, there is a ride that goes from Havana and ends in Trinidad and does some stops to drop people off. The options that you have to buy on this ride do not mention Playa Larga, you must buy tickets to Playa Giron which pases by Playa Larga and simply get off in Playa Larga, cost is us$13 pp. The ride took about 2hr45min with a 10min stop at a restaurant called Pio Cua, south of Australia, yes! Australia! where I managed to see the following birds:
Little Blue Heron
*Greater Antillean Grackle
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
We finally arrived to Playa Larga at 9:45am, we took a “taxi-bike” ride to our Airbnb which was fun and cost us 2 cuc (little more than $2).
Here in Cuba there are plenty of Bike-taxis, with room for 2 and even luggage! the cheapest way to get around.
We were now established and went on a recon walk into the small village to buy groceries and here is where the first difficulty was faced; we were told that the cuban stores were not as supplied as those of other countries, but I never thought that this was that extreme! We had difficulties finding even the most basic things, no beans, no meat, no eggs! We really had to improvise using what we could, yes! There are some restaurants with excellent seafood as well as typical Cuban food but even there sometimes somethings from the menu were unavailable, not a problem if you are adults only but when traveling with a small child it makes things very, very hard.
We ended having lunch at a place called Chuchi el pescador. One of the best places we were told. Later on the day we figured that if you walk towards the local clinic/hospital there are many more options. Our walk produced 5 new birds; where the highlight was Cuban oriole, Cuban black-hawk, and west Indian woodpecker.
West indian woodpecker
Here is where I want to advise you to bring as much as you could from your country in terms of food and snacks, items of personal use e.g batteries, face tissues, PLENTY of insect repellent (Dont you dare to come to Playa Larga without it!) medicines, sunblock, cereal bars, basically anything you might need.
During our walk in town, I met a man who figured I was looking for birds and recommended to go to a place for the bee hummingbird, or as it is called in Cuba; Zumzumbito, so glad he mentioned that as I knew there was a spot for that but did not know where exactly, a Taxi charged us 12cuc for round trip and waiting time. This place is located in the town of Pálpite, about 15minutes north of Playa Larga and it is well known, see the map here (22.326217,-81.183535 coordinates), mr Bernabe and Mrs Juana keep their garden with feeders, so getting the smallest bird of the world here is quite easy indeed.
Bernabe’s contact. No reservation is needed, just walk in, there is no official fee but he does expect a tip to pay for the sugar etc.
Yes, there is a better photo!
Bernabe is quite familiar with the local birds, clearly he is used to receive birders and photographers.
Back in Playa larga, at dusk I got Antilleant nighthawk, and thanks to the recommendation of a local expert guide, Angel Martinez I got one of the owls I had wished to see the most; Stygian owl! Here the maps to the precise location on which I saw it: https://goo.gl/maps/RojQ3DjRxJK2.
Part 1: Introduction, logistics, recommendations, playa Larga, stygian owl and bee hummingbird
Part 2: Birding Playa Larga with bird guide Angel Martinez