Thursday, 25 February 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 3 . The Northern Keys, Guillermo,Cayo and Romano

Breakfast over, and what a breakfast for the money which was typical of all the Casas we were to stay in, we headed out towards the causeway crossing over to the Keys. Stopping at the first T-junction just out of town to ask for directions, the ladies we asked took it as an invite to give them a lift which is common practice in Cuba. Few have transport of their own so hitching is a way of sharing the few vehicles on the road. Very social too if you speak the language but regrettably we don't. No reason not to offer a lift though and it became common practice in the coming weeks!
Onwards we went, all four of us. Two ladies in the back, one cradling my 600mm lens, camera attached must have wondered what on earth she was holding. They are not a usual sight in Cuba, even in the well birdied spots. We dropped them off just short of the checkpoint that gives access to and charges a small fee for using the crossing. Spotting my big lens now lying across the back seat the duty policeman mentioned it to another and disappeared off with our passports telling us to park up in the meantime. 15 minutes later he returned and gave us the all clear to proceed. 
Driving on the causeway was an impressive sight !
Cuba 2016
A stunning day and lots of birds in and around the water nearest to the mainland. Brown Pelican,Royal Tern,Laughing Gull, Double-crested Cormorants. At last BIRDS!
I knew there would be plenty more so unfair on Claire to make her sit in the car whilst I started snapping. Instead I suggested she drive( we also had paid an extra $30 to include her on the insurance) whilst I would sit in the back seat camera at the ready, both windows open, just in case an exceptional opportunity arose.
It didn't !
The further from the mainland the less birds. The checkpoint is 30 kms from Moron, the causeway a total of about 20kms so by the time we reached Cayo Coco we had driven 50 kms. Ultimately we were heading to Playa Pilar ( so named after Ernest Hemmingway's boat as this was his favoured fishing spot) but hopefully there would be places along the way where we would find a place for Claire to relax, me to start shooting.
The road across the keys was disappointing to say the least. Easy driving yes, but boring too. Nearly 50 kms more of hedgerow and no view beyond except in one or two spots.
Cuba 2016
At last we arrived in Cayo Guillermo and at last something to feed the addiction. A few distant Greater Flamingos.
Greater Flamingo    Cuba
Particularly stunning when they open their wings I had seen some before but not for a few years.
Onwards through Guillermo the roads were more open but it was also apparent that this has become a construction zone. We passed the small car park for the restaurant at Playa Pilar but just beyond we were forced to turn back as a vast area is currently being bulldozed ready for building to commence.
I'm pretty sure anyone who has visited as lately as early 2015 might be quite shocked at the change. Certainly there was no mention in the October edition of Lonely Planet. An area of outstanding natural beauty is being desecrated to accommodate the anticipated demand for hotel rooms.
We returned to the car park and proceeded by foot along a very pretty walkway over the sand dunes and towards the beach. There were only a handful of cars in the car park but to my horror the beach was packed!
Cuba 2016
Taken at the quiet end, you can see the distant construction/destruction in the distance.
Where had all these people come from? There's a pick up /drop off bus service that covers all the hotels and its the only opportunity to escape the all inclusive hotel compounds as from what I  could see there was little else on offer in terms of land based attractions as we were miles from anywhere out here.
The sea is indeed superb.
Cuba 2016
Shallow, calm, safe and big enough to accommodate more folk than the little strip of sand described as Cuba, if not the West Indies best. ( Shame about the seaweed then)
This kind of beach is not for me so having our own transport I thought we find somewhere to ourselves.
Driving back towards Cayo Coco I spotted something on a dead tree.
Northern Mockingbird   Cuba
Not a clue what it was at the time having never knowingly seen one I snapped away. The Northern Mockingbird turned out to be one of the most frequently seen species, they are abundant in number.
I was only out of the car a short while but I was being attacked by mosquitos so I didn't hang around too long. It was strong daylight, out in the open and there was a breeze but Cuban mosquitos although malaria free seem to favour all time of day, all sorts of weather.
Driving on we turned in to the obviously closed Parque Natural el Baga. Apparently it might well be reopened but in the meantime it's in a sorry looking state. 
Cuba 2016

Still, atop a nearby tree a handsome American Kestrel !
American Kestrel      Cuba
Snap! Snap! Snap!
Bite!Bite! Bite!
The mosquitos around there were savages. A relief to get in the car, unfortunately transporting some with me. Speeding off with all windows open I hoped the wind drag would suck them all out of our vehicle.
Next stop was Sitio la Guira,  a kind of tourist small farm attraction with 4 cabins and a restaurant bar. An ideal coffee stop opportunity. We were the only visitors, the few staff outnumbered us and the singer and guitar player lost interest in us some time after it was obvious that we had no interest in them. I hate that one on one serenade business ! 
I had seen a few small birds flitting about but didn't pursue them. Offered a tour we declined on the grounds of the heat and the mosquitos. Ah well, we'd bought a coffee but they need more to justify their existence I guess.
Maybe we passed a couple of side road opportunities that would have given access to a bit of beach rather than the entrance to a hotel compound but we carried on and headed back towards Cayo Romano. By now the heat was incredible, the surrounds although open , less than inspiring.
Apparently Romano was badly hit by a hurricane and as yet not recovered. The only sign of previous habitation we found was a derelict building and wrecked ship.
Cuba 2016
I wondered if there was somewhere Claire could sit in the sun so I drove off the road and in to the one bit of flat off road area next to it. Another American Kestrel was showing well ( you can see it on the boat flag pole if you look!) but the star attraction was a Common Blackhawk which flew in and landed very close by despite my very obvious presence standing in the open. Too close really, I had to back off in to the grass to get the bird properly framed.
Common Black-hawk    Cuba
I soon realised I had fallen in to a trap. The Hawk was working in tandem with the mozzies. I looked down and my bare legs were absolutely covered in the blood sucking little demons. Splattering my blood and as many of their bodies that I could I jumped in the car and drove off, again hoping to rid ourselves of the unwelcome passengers as we went.
We decided this was hopeless. We never got to the top end of Cayo Romano which I later read is good for bird watching ( or was as it's also being developed) instead we headed back towards the causeway. Driving back to Moron I started to feel distinctly strange. A tightening of the chest, tingling arms. I started to ponder the possibility of an impending heart attack. Those were the symptoms I have read about. 
Surely not?
No, not me, it never happens to you does it?
The arms were tingling from the bites, my legs were itching too. Must be the mosquitos surely?
I didn't bother stopping on the causeway, I just wanted to get back to our Casa whilst I was capable which fortunately I was. When I got back and took off my clothes, my armpits and large areas of my chest, my inner thighs and groin all bright red. I was obviously suffering a reaction to all the mosquito bites! As she suffers from hay fever Claire always carries some antihistamine tablets so I swallowed a couple of those and lay down for an hour or so. I soon recovered sufficiently to enjoy the remaining evening's meal and drinks but the Keys had left us distinctly unimpressed!

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