The map above shows an overview of our route around Cuba. We flew with Iberia Airlines from Gatwick to Madrid and then on to Havana at a cost of £484 per person.
Havana - 2 days/3 nights essentially non-birding with a couple of hours spent in the botanical gardens
Vinales - 2 days/3 nights birding La Guira NP and Vinales NP
Playa Larga - 4 days/5 nights birding La Turba, Soplillar, Palpite and Bermejas
Cayo Guillermo - 3 days/4 nights birding Cayo Paredon Grande, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo
I had intended a whistle stop drive down to Najasa from Cayo Guillermo but in the end I was feeling rough on the day I was supposed to go and 9 hours driving for 3 species didn't appeal either!
We opted for the full Cuban experience of staying in Casa Particulares (homestays) booked though Airbnb or Homestay.com except for our last stop on Cayo Guillermo where we booked into an all-inclusive resort. That's not something we normally do but the absence of any casas nearer than the town of Moron and having non-birders with me meant this was a good option.
Our casa in the middle of Havana - a whole apartment to ourselves
Casa Maricela y Gilbe, Vinales - by far the best casa we stayed at with wonderful hosts and food
Our 1st casa in Playa Larga - nice house by the beach
Our 2nd casa in Playa Larga - OK, nothing more
Our hotel on Cayo Guillermo was Villa Cojimar booked via Travel Republic. We got an upgrade to their superior area which was nice and quiet. The other side was loud and noisy and full of rude drunken Russians!
We hired a car (Peugeot 3008) for the whole trip apart from when we were in Havana. This was expensive at £1020 for 13 days excluding insurance and airport pick-up fee. Petrol prices were cheaper than in the UK, about 20% cheaper. Availability of fuel off the main highway shouldn't be taken for granted! We also had to pay the insurance, extra driver fee, airport fee and damage deposit in cash rather than by card which left us a bit short on cash.
Despite fears over confusing the dual currency system we only ever dealt with Cuban Convertible Pesos (know as CUCs). Getting money changed was a problem though with banks seemingly unable to do it. We took cash to change as we weren't confident that bank machines would work. The only places we found to change cash was the main airport in Havana and the small airport on Cayo Coco.
Pros and Cons
The main problems we encountered during the trip were:
- the complete absence of grocery shops
- the dodgy availability of fuel once off the main highway
- unorganised mayhem on garage forecourts!
- variable quaility of road surfaces, even on the main highway
- long driving distances (although, of course, we knew this in advance)
- having to pay insurance and a deposit in cash at the car rental desk which left us short
- difficulty in changing money except at airports where there are big queues
Some useful GPS co-ordinates in the order I visited them (I used the maps.me app on my iPhone which was extremely useful as you can download maps before you go for offline use)
Quinta de los Molino Botanical Gardens, Havana 23.131398 82.378524
Embalse Nina Bonita 23.038573 82.496399
Cueva de los Portales 22.66782 83.477561
Start of track to bird at La Guira NP 22.653338 83.445164
Start of trail to bird at Vinales NP 22.559624 83.833328
Pines for Olive-capped Warbler at Valle de Silencio 22.630903 83.690779
Pines for Olive-capped Warbler at lake just outside Vinales 22.596811 83.671178
Roadside site for Cuban Grassquit (I dipped) 22.638722 83.382554
Another roadside site for Cuban Grassquit (I dipped again!) 22.640499 83.377329
Bee Hummingbird house in Palpite (house is painted green) 22.326186 83.183416
Pools and trees at Crocodile Farm (good for migrants) 22.367757 81.164747
Good stretch of road for Red-shouldered Blackbird 22.387687 81.159948
Cueva de los Peces (confiding Blue-headed Quail Doves around restaurant!) 22.166731 81.136759
Pool in woods at Bermejas where Key West Quail Doves drink 22.149562 80.957052
Soplillar Dry Forest 22.276009 81.127938
Soplillar Savannah Woodland (good for Fernandina's Flicker) 22.273693 81.082552
La Turba Marsh entrance track 22.433181 81.143312
Zapata Wren spot at La Turba 22.436031 81.177215
Angel's house (bird guide in Playa Larga) 22.286287 81.205071
Scrub at Cayo Paredon Grande lighthouse 22.481034 78.165902
Sandy grack to bird at Cayo Paredon Grande 22.481886 78.162946
Zapata Sparrow site on Cayo Romano 22.413296 78.197183
Spot for West Indian Whistling Duck 22.534446 78.354622
Playa Colorada (good wader beach) 22.524625 78.337296
Cueva del Jabali 22.544637 78.407000
Lagoon for waders/herons on Cayo Guillermo 22.576178 78.647214
I tend to do most of my birding myself. On this trip I booked a couple of guides:
Angel in Playa Larga (email@example.com). I was supposed to have 2 mornings with Angel but he failed to turn up on the first morning. I tracked him down and eventually got 2 mornings with him but not the ones I'd arranged with him by email. He is a man of relatively few words but does have a load of nest sites and he got me Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, Fernandina's Flicker, Cuban Nightjar etc. He charges 25 CUC for a short morning (c6.30 - c11.00)
Odey Martinez on the Cayos (firstname.lastname@example.org). Again I was supposed to have 2 mornings with Odey but this got condensed into 1 as he had a tour group arriving and was unable to do my 2nd morning. We dashed around and got all my targets in 1 morning though. He got me Bahama Mockingbird, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Oriente Warbler, Thick-billed Vireo and West Indian Whistling Duck but I reckon I'd have found these myself without too many problems. He's a sociable and knowledgable guy and charges 40 CUC for a full half day.
In summary - the guides were good when you got hold of them but there seems to be a rather slack attitude to keeping to arrangements made in advance. Neither guide had their own transport.