At the headquarters of the National Park (NP), the NP officer speaks good English, and explains that one needs a guide to enter the park – two options, Las Salinas, where there are mangroves, salt water lagoons which provide a habitat for numerous migratory birds, including flamingos. In season there are tens of thousands of them, but we are late; most have gone and there are only a small number of young ones still resident here. We may get lucky. So we book a tour at 3.00 pm, and for the next morning one to Santo Tomas on the other side of the NP – 6 am start – UGH.
In the meantime we take off to see another recommended place on the other side of the bay: Cueva de los Peces – Cave of the fish; a lagoon created by tectonic movements full of tropical fish. We don’t have our snorkel and mask, and in truth, it doesn’t look THAT fabulous from the outside. There are a few people snorkeling, a man dives down and his form becomes a blurry blob of white under the water.
Our friend and hostess Ailin tells us later that they do take scuba divers in, but there have been several instances where they haven’t come back out – no clothes, nada. I must say scuba speleology has never much appealed to me, probably for that very reason.
On the opposite side of the road there is a small rocky ledge where one can go into the water – here the sea is the most incredible azure colour, the water crystal clear.
The ever entrepreneurial Cubanos have put out lounge chairs under thatched umbrellas, for rent for 5 CUC per day. We plonk ourselves down and it’s into the water for me. Just near the shore, some locals are feeding bread to the fish, and one man kindly offers me his mask to have a look. A profusion of yellow and black banded fish circle me, some even seeing if I’m good to eat.
After a drink of juice straight from a coconut, we spoon out the flesh, and leave the shell nearby to attract the local birds; a deep dark blue-black colour with tails that fan vertically, they peck away while I photograph them.
We ask for advice from Edgar regarding lunch, and he takes us to a place he recommends; great food, great service and heart. We pull up outside yet another un-fancy house, but when we follow the corridor to the back, it’s jumping. There is just one table left, and Don Alex, our host, chef and maitre d’ greets us warmly in English and explains this is his family restaurant. Wife in the kitchen, daughter serving and son slicing and dicing. Don Alex himself is cooking like a fury over a charcoal barbecue, serving up marlin steaks, shrimp – anything you want. We are brought a couple of salsas (sauces) to dip bread into, and a delicious taster of warm creole crab dip, all decoratively served. And a local campesino allows me graciously to take his photo.
Truly worth the visit, however the food is too plentiful to finish, and we discovered we are booked in for dinner as well, so we cancel dinner in favour of a toasted sandwich at the Casa.
Due to our feasting over lunch, we are a little late for our expedition to Las Salinas, but no worries. Our young guide squeezes into the car and off we go, onto a long 21 k drive along a dirt road straight through the forest. her English is good, and we manage to have a conversation about life in Cuba. Though educated, she doesn’t get paid much by the National Parks, and subsidises with tips from tourists. Her dream is to move to USA where she believes she will be able to make more money.. Sigh – I fear her dream will actually be a nightmare: in Cuba, she is guaranteed a roof over her head, ration cards for food staples and she has a job, plus free education and medical for her baby. In USA, she’ll be lucky to earn US$5.00 per hour, live in a slum and have to pay full freight for everything she wants. I’m not sure she’s convinced.
We travel on and the low forest gives way to lower scrub, and eventually to shallow salt water lagoons, some of which are dry after the long summer. We manage to locate some flamingos, but they are so far away that we can only see blobs of pink somethings in the distance. With strong binoculars you see them well enough, but they defeat my camera; even with full zoom I only get pink blurry blobs.
On the way back we get out of the car to see if we can spot some other birds; our guide has an app that on her phone which makes bird calls, with a Spanish and English voice pronouncing the various names. I realise she is making the bird sounds in order to provoke the birds into coming closer to check out the competition, and in this way we manage to spot a few yellow headed warblers.
After staring at leaves, branches and more leaves, trying to spot elusive birds, we are again beset by mosquitoes – even Edgar swats away frantically trying to get them off him. Now I know why in 30 deg C our guide is wearing a long sleeved sweater, long pants and shoes and socks.
She recommends to us a house where the owners put out feeders for the birds in their garden, and attract the bee humming birds which are only found in Cuba, and measure only 4 cm. While the gallant Edgar drives her the extra 10k home to her sick baby, we delight in the couple’s garden where we not only spot the bee humming birds, but also a couple of local woodpeckers, and the Tocororo, the Cuban national bird. Oh, and we are introduced to a baby alligator, a turtle, some unidentified long-tailed rodent the size of a cat, and their dog. The couple are understandably proud of their garden, and happily entertain us with bird spotting. Mira Mira Mira he exclaims, but by the time I mira, the little buggers zoom off again. I think I’ll stick to David Attenborough.
A toasted sandwich, a dip in the bay and we skip the mosquito feast by retiring early for our sparrow fart start tomorrow morning. Our hostesses forewarn that tomorrow’s expedition into the Cienega de Zapata, the UNESCO biosphere, will include feasting mosquitoes, so S decides she’ll take a rain check and lie in till we come back.