HAVANA, Cuba – “You must unplug America and plug in Cuba,” advised the guide who met us on arrival at the airport here. “Relax and be flexible” was the implication.
We’d been practicing already: The plane carrying us on the short hop over from Miami took off six hours late.
Ours was a contingent of mostly Minnesotans who, over the next 12 days, would survey birds in national parks and protected areas in the western half of Cuba. Our leaders were Carrol Henderson, who heads up the Non-game Wildlife Program for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and his Costa Rican-born wife, Ethelle.
Ethelle has a special connection to Cuba because her grandfather, Leonardo Gonzalez, fought alongside José Marti during the war of independence against Spain in the 1890s.
While the U.S. embargo of Cuba remains in place, Americans have been able to visit the island nation legally for about two years. The U.S. Treasury Department allows licensed operators to conduct tours that provide an educational or cultural experience, rather than typical “fun in the sun” activities.
“Americans are intrigued by the Cuban mystique, and it’s a great time to see the country, before tourism really takes off,” Henderson said. “With the work that’s going on to improve the cruise terminal in the harbor, it won’t be too long until Havana is swamped by worldwide visitors coming on giant cruise ships.”
And the appeal of birding there?
“While you can only see about half the species in Cuba as, for example, in Costa Rica, there are more endemics (native birds found nowhere else) here than in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands combined,” he noted.
Of the 26 Cuban endemics, we were able to see 23, including the Big Three: the Cuban tody, Cuban trogon and Bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird. And as we learned about these birds and many others in the days ahead, including the threats they face, there was an added bonus. After a long and morale-sapping winter back home, it was fun to encounter American robins, catbirds, Baltimore orioles and several of “our” warblers headed our way.
Although Cuba has been off-limits to American birdwatchers until recently, many ornithologists and biologists have been working diligently to study and protect its wildlife, to the point that more than 20 percent of the country is protected land.
One such area we visited was the huge Zapata Swamp adjacent to the Bay of Pigs. It is the third-largest wetland in the hemisphere, after the Pantanal in Argentina and the Florida Everglades.
As is the case with the other protected areas, Zapata Swamp is not only an important site for Cuban birds, but it is also of critical importance to migrants.
Our lead birding guide for the trip was taking vacation time from his regular job as a government biologist. Federal employees make a monthly wage of about $25, which means the tips he can earn from groups like ours are important supplemental income.
The three greatest successes of the Revolution, so the old Cuban saying goes, are health, education and sports. The three greatest failures: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Already, tourism has become so important that it now accounts for 40 percent of the Cuban economy and we encountered tour buses everywhere as we criss-crossed the country. Canadians were particularly in evidence at the beach resorts in the northern Cays.
The island nation that once supplied the world with sugar no longer produces enough for its own people.
In fact, Cuba has to import much of what it consumes, making food very expensive and at times in short supply. There was little evidence of modern agricultural practices and it was startling to see oxen being used to plow fields. In fact, besides cigars, one of Cuba’s most successful exports is people, the health care professionals it provides to Venezuela in exchange for gasoline.
Some entrepreneurship is allowed, and many Cubans seem to be pursuing it with vigor. For example, we dined one night in a restaurant in a private home. This was a very upscale establishment with menu offerings we had seen nowhere else. And there was no evidence that anyone actually lived on the premises.
Much of Havana resembles a crumbling ruin, although extensive renovation is occurring in the old section of the city, where walking tours are very popular. We went on such a tour and visited the old squares that dot the quarter, one of which is dominated by the magnificent 18th-century Havana Cathedral.
There were talented musicians playing everywhere we dined, all with CDs to sell. Conversely, blaring from the bars and cafes catering to the younger crowd was the throbbing beat of Reggaeton, a musical phenomenon that one of our guides blamed on Puerto Rico but which seems to have its roots in Panama.
The trip was a wonderful mix of infusions, and at one point we were watching a Cuban tody flit around just outside the caves that served as Che Guevara’s headquarters during the 1962 Missile Crisis.
(The tour of the Bay of Pigs Museum, including exhibits of captured American weapons and some steamy rhetoric, made at least one Yankee imperialist feel a little self-conscious.)
It was a special treat to be invited to the home of our birding guide for coffee and to meet his wife and daughter. We also visited Orlando Garrido in his home in Havana, where the noted ornithologist signed our copies of his Birds of Cuba.
Transportation clearly is a huge problem for many Cubans, as evidenced by the hundreds of hitchhikers on the highways, many of them waving currency at passing motorists. And the variety of vehicles used to get around was mind-boggling, from horse-drawn contraptions, to motorized bicycles and carts to cars that had been gutted in order to carry more passengers.
And then there are those 1950s American cars, thousands and thousands of them all across the country, in daily use for more than 50 years with no spare parts available from the original manufacturers. Ingenious mechanics have kept them on the road with Russian or Japanese engines and a host of other modifications.
In what seemed like no time at all, we were boarding our return flight to Miami—only three hours late this time—headed for home. Home, where things take place on schedule (relatively), there are no power outages (mostly) and various commodities that one tends to take for granted, like toilet paper, are in plentiful supply.
We’re still shaking our heads about a country that shouldn’t be able to function at all, but somehow does, thanks to its resilient and opportunistic people. We may “unplug” Cuba, but we’ll never forget.
If you want to go
The Hendersons already have a long waiting list for their 2015 Cuba trip. However, if you’d like to take a tour, try International Expeditions at ietravel.com/north-america-caribbean/cuba.
Roger Bergerson is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.