Wherever you go in Cuba, there is music, from soft flamenco guitars to the folk strains of Guantanamera to the infectious Latin Jazz booming from the doors of local bars. Music is like the air in Cuba. You breathe it in and it breathes life into everything around you. It starts like a soft flute and gentle son guitar rhythm, but it builds up inside you and sticks with you until you can’t get out of your head.
Cuba: complicated and beautiful, from the first sight of its deep blue-green waters, to the simultaneous decay and rebirth of Habana Vieja(Old Havana), to the nascent tourist economy at Playa Larga, where crumbling gun turrets still stand as a reminder of the nearby Bay of Pigs invasion.
New Jersey Audubon’s maiden voyage to Cuba spanned ten days in January, hundreds of miles of mountains, mangroves, forests, seas and cities, and 150 birds including 29 Cuban endemics. But the numbers don’t tell the story; this journey was a fascinating look inside what for most Americans remains a deeply mysterious country.
After landing in Havana on a clear and sunny January afternoon, our group moved west for an hour into the foothills of the Sierra de la Rosario Mountains. Along the way we had our first look at the retro cars, buildings with varying needs of paint and repair, and roadside homages to La Revolucion, now almost 60 years in the making. The highway soon turned to one lane in each direction, and America Kestrels took perches along the telephone wires and palms in such numbers you would have thought they were Mourning Doves.
From the patio of our hotel, nestled in a wooded hillside, we were treated to close views of Red-legged Thrushes, West-Indian Woodpeckers and the Cuban Emerald hummingbird. After a vegetarian dinner that rivaled the best in the states, we walked a mountain trail with constellations burning brightly above us in the absence of city lights. We caught the reflection of a Barn Owl, and soon after the golden-yellow eyes of a Stygian Owl were staring us in the face. We watched as it burst from its woodland perch, prey still soft in its clutches, glowing against the starry sky until it was swallowed in darkness. We had startling views of a Cuban Pygmy-Owl and a Bare-legged Owl later on this trip, but the Stygian against the night sky is the one we will long remember.
The next morning, I awoke to a Cuban Blackbird singing thirds up a scale, and I fell in love with the music of Cuban birds. The steady maraca beat of a feisty and brilliant Cuban Tody found near a cave that doubled as the entrance to a night club. The whistle of a Cuban Black Hawk going back and forth with the perfect imitation of our guide. The ringing wine-glass sound of a Cuban Solitaire. The cacophonic rattle of a Great Lizard Cuckoo, as lovingly bizarre as its name and its big red eye. Most of us stayed after the trip for the Havana International Jazz Festival. These birds would have fit right in.
Moving through the Cuban countryside, we were struck by how much of Cuban agriculture is still tended by hand. Farmers tilling fields and carrying goods with horses and oxen, machetes doing the work of machines, hands gently nurturing community gardens of lettuce, corn and beans sprouting from deep loamy soil. People cutting grass on roadsides to feed their horses.
And the waves of sugar cane and tobacco, Cuba’s blessing and curse for 500 years, still covering vast stretches of landscape despite undeniable changes in consumption and global demand.
Out of the mountains and into the seaside towns of Playa Larga and Cayo Coco, the beat of Cuba’s tourist economy hummed steadily. Cayo Coco has become an international vacation destination, with big tourist hotels backed by European investors in partnership with the government. In Playa Larga, locals are fast turning a sleepy seaside town into a bustling shore destination, as old homes become renovated and reborn as casas particulares, private homes now serving as B&Bs.
Playa Larga was home base for a visit to the village of Bermejas, where a local resident delighted in showing us his backyard habitat, which regularly draws in Bee Hummingbirds (the world’s smallest bird), Cuban Emeralds, Cuban Orioles and during our visit a hungry Black-throated Blue Warbler. The renowned Zapata Swamp was also nearby, where we had a stunningly easy time locating a singing Zapata Wren and a group of Zapata Sparrows pecking about the leaves. Then it was on to Las Salinas Wildlife Refuge, which was like Brigantine in New Jersey, only in one long straight line. The mangroves were alive with the pink of American Flamingoes and Roseate Spoonbills. A Reddish Egret and a Tri-colored Heron danced for us and a Magnificent Frigatebird circled overhead. This is where many of us had our first good view of the endemic Cuban Black Hawk, dark and dangerous with its contrasting yellow beak and talons and a band of white showing from its dark tail.
We ended our tour with four days in a residential neighborhood a few miles west of Habana vieja, called Vedado,at a casathat married old-world charm with modern convenience. This is the new Cuba, brought up to date by hard-working people bound to succeed despite a myriad of complications and obstacles. Kids played basketball at a park down the street, some wearing NBA jerseys. Old Chevys still churned away, as did some aging Russian Ladas, but newer Kias and Hyundais are signs of the future. They have good air conditioning but somehow lack the charm.
Cuba left its mark on us, and it was bittersweet to leave this remarkable place with its warm and genuine people, its stunning beauty and its ongoing struggle between old and new. The relationship between America and Cuba is complicated, but Cubans have big hearts and embraced this group of Americans who came there wanting to see birds but who left with so much more.
This story appeared in edited form in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of New Jersey Audubon Magazine. Sincere thanks to my friends at Audubon for their support and their organization of this unforgettable journey.