Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 12. A few travel tips.

I can thoroughly recommend Cuba as a holiday destination, it's currently being heavily promoted by travel writers and holiday companies recommending you go now before it changes.
I totally concur, however if you are just going to go and stay in a hotel and not get out and about it's a long way to travel from the UK and to be honest you might just as go somewhere else.
The attraction of Cuba at the moment is that the majority of the island is stuck in a time warp.
Communism clearly doesn't work in many ways. Yes, education is free, literacy is virtually 100%, healthcare is excellent and nearly everyone has a job. The bad news is that pay levels are incredibly low and even if you have money there are shortages on so many things. Walk in to a supermarket and the shelves are very,very limited in choice and often things are out of stock as well.
It's hardly surprising that the range of food on offer at Casas and restaurants is a bit limited, however, that doesn't mean that the food is bad. Far from it, we ate well.
Freshly prepared grilled prawns
or Lobster

Lobster dinner    Cuba
The cost for shellfish $12-15, fried chicken or pork  $8-12 but that includes a starter ( soup perhaps) and a desert ( often fruit)
Breakfast everywhere we went was excellent and very substantial. I think everyone we stayed with charged $5 per person but once eaten you didn't need lunch! 
BreakfastFruit , bread,jam, cakes, omelette, fruit juice, coffee etc.
Only once was I tempted to snack, an irresistible opportunity for a Pizza at $2.50.
<untitled> 2016-02-11The Casa's all varied in their appearances.
Hostal Aurora     Cuba
From city centre to beach
Casa El Varadero     Cuba
From simple to quite grand, like the courtyard dining area at this one.
Casa Particular
But one thing they all had in common was they were spotlessly clean.
Typical Casa Particular
And with a charm of their own.
Typical Casa Particular

Of course you can opt for a package holiday deal but the experience is far less enriching.

To get around you have to consider various options.
We went with the hire car option and it is far from cheap.
My Chinese Geely 1.5L cost approximately £45 a day with petrol on top. 94 octane petrol cost roughly the same as the UK in February, $1.20 a litre. Other fuels used on older non hire car vehicles cost substantially less but you can't buy them for modern cars.
I was told the buses are very cheap in deed, a few C.U.C's will take you a long distance but you need to book as they are usually full, sometimes they also run pretty late.
Trains are a no go as they are totally unreliable.
For the most flexibility, a hire car is ideal but not totally necessary as an alternative is to use a taxi which are also easy to arrange and probably cheaper too.
Driving as already described is a joy really. Very little traffic out of town, bicycles,pedestrian,horse drawn, and motors in towns but the pace is slow due to the variety of obstacles you need to pass. 
Local transport
Sometimes the vehicles are huge although this local "bus" was the single exception rather than the norm.

Public transport in the extreme
Sugar cane transporters were often a lorry and trailer combination but passing them wasn't a problem on the open road.
Yes, keep an eye out for potholes and another major hazard you occasionally come across are railway crossings which are unmanned and without barriers. There are always markers as you approach along with a big white cross, sometimes though they are not too big and not very white. You need to pay attention !
Unmanned crossing
Not everyone will have the time to spare that I did. I would recommend that you are not over ambitious in your attempts to see too much of the island but for those who feel they have to you can get internal flights from one end to the other then work your way back to your departure airport. Certainly a time saver and there are quite a lot of domestic airports. Just make sure you have enough allowance to carry your luggage, it might be less than on an international flight.

Money is another consideration. Cuba is very much a cash society. Credit cards are not accepted widely as yet, you also pay charges which on small amounts make it a poor option.
We took a large wad of UK pounds changing them as we went along at either banks or cadeca, money exchanges. The rate varied while we were there but the Cuban Convertible Peso( CUC), the tourist one is directly linked to the U.S. dollar . The local peso works out at 25 to the CUC but you usually only get 23 or 24 if you exchange a CUC at a bank and to be honest you don't need them. Most shops and bars want to get their hands on CUC's in preference.
ATM's are limited to some of the bigger towns. We used one just the once. They are of course convenient if you don't have to queue but  you pay 3% on withdrawal plus a UK bank fee might apply too.  Using a bank can be a lengthy business. You need to wait outside before the man on the door lets you in, maybe wait for your turn at the counter, then go through the necessary bureaucracy. At one bank the individual £ notes had their unique numbers noted, all 40 of them! Took ages.
In today's modern world everyone needs access to mobile phones and the internet.
We couldn't use our phone as it wouldn't dial out but it would receive text messages. WiFi is available in most bigger towns, usually around the town square. It's not free, we paid $3 for our one hour scratch cards purchased at the providers office near the square. You don't need to use the hour in one go either 

So, food, transport, accommodation, money,WiFi. What else is there to consider?
Cerveza Fuerte
Excellent beer at $1-2 per can
Delicious rum cocktails at $2-2.50 or bring home a bottle. A litre of 47% Havana Club white rum cost me around £4. At home it's £19 for a litre of Bacardi and that's not as strong either.

The birdwatching is as I have demonstrated, excellent but for the petrol heads or just for the nostalgia, there are other things to look at.
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
Some real beauties.
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
This one was getting a thorough clean at the local car wash.
Beautifully maintained
Lovingly looked after
Beautifully maintained
Even I had to admire it, and cars don't hold much attraction to me either.
Beautifully maintained

No, Cuba is unique. The people are lovely and I always felt totally safe even when carrying some extremely expensive photo equipment.
If anyone needs help in their planning don't hesitate to ask. I have to admit that if we had our time again we would have planned it differently, probably made the tour in reverse. In addition, now that we have seen a huge part of the island the necessity to tour isn't quite as great. For me, next time it will involve flying to Havana for a look around then heading back to Playa Larga, probably by taxi.
Yes, I could manage that in a couple of weeks.... and so could you.
Hope you are inspired.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 11 And then the cupboard was bare!

On leaving La Boca we hadn't gone more than a few hundred metres when I spotted a Great Blue Heron complete with a bill full with a fish. Unfortunately I hadn't got my camera ready and by the time I'd dug it out of the case the bird had flown. 
Fortunately not far !
Great Blue Heron       Cuba
It was my only real photo opportunity of the trip for this species as with so many others, it was so disappointing the lack water birds but you can't have everything. Just another mile or so down the road and we spotted a couple of juvenile Reddish Egrets. Only my second sighting of them too.
Reddish Egret    Cuba
Maybe I should have checked out those lagoons earlier in the day after all. Ah well, too late now!
We had a big drive on the cards today, by far the longest of our trip. We were heading to Los Tunas which was over 400kms away. Not too much time to hang around but half way along the route I had to stop when I spotted an Eastern Meadowlark up on the wires.
Eastern Meadowlark    Cuba
I'm not too keen on birds on the wire so when I saw some more sat on a wooden fence I had to stop again. They were not willing to let me get near them though and flew in to a nearby field.
Eastern Meadowlark    Cuba
This was open country now, ranching country. Another great spot was a White-collared Swift which flew over the road in front of us. I decided not to bother seeing if I could get a shot and drove on eventually getting to Los Tunas at around 4.30pm. We had pre booked and paid for our hotel here, just one night as a stop over but the catch was it was for the following day!!!. It took us ages to find the place, Google maps had put it somewhere totally different to where it actually was. When we finally found it it was all to no avail. We assumed they would let us bring forward our booking  but they were fully booked. We'd forgotten it was a Friday night so they were very busy. I made the mistake of cancelling our booking, we wouldn't be here the following night but since I had paid for it I might just as easily left it open in case we decided to head back ! Instead we left Los Tunas and headed south to Bayamo which was nearly 200kms more added to the journey. We made it just as it was getting dark, a huge relief because driving at night is not recommended. Our relief soon turned to dismay though. Our first Casa enquiry drew a blank but the owner kindly rang as many Casa's as she had numbers for all of which were also fully booked. Things were looking distinctly grim!
Call after call, I had left Claire sat in the car out of sight of the Casa and I was starting to worry that she would be worried as to where I had disappeared to! Suddenly the Casa owner beamed, she had found us a room. The owner came on his bicycle to collect us, he explained it wasn't a Casa but we couldn't care. The room was more than acceptable but the owner was taking a big chance. The fines for taking in illegal customers are huge. However, we weren't going to tell anyone, I had imagined sleeping in the car so we were very grateful and headed out for a restaurant meal and a few beers.It appeared there was a music festival in Bayamo the following day , we could have stayed but instead headed to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second city where we had asked the person we stayed with to phone ahead to make sure we had a room. Thankfully no problem, we now had two nights instead of the original one.
Arriving early we went for a walk down to the harbour. I didn't have my big camera so the identity of the Tern amongst the Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls will always remain a mystery.It's right at the back of the shot! Smaller than the Royal Terns too.
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
Sunday was Valentine's Day and we had already booked a table at our Casa which also has the topped ranked restaurant in Santiago according to Trip Advisor. In the morning we headed out to the nearest beach resort which also happened to be the place from which Fidel Casto launched his first disastrous attempt at revolution.
Far from disastrous for me though. Claire enjoyed a bit of sun and I had my camera out for the first time in 48 hours. I had been suffering withdrawal symptoms but got an immediate fix with the first bird I spotted on a Palm tree in the car park.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker    Cuba
The bird stayed firmly in the shaded half of the tree trunk but was still in reasonable light. I spent ages before wandering off until I found a Spotted Sandpiper, and trip first.
Spotted Sandpiper     Cuba
Returning to the beach to find Claire at the appointed time, she was happy where she was so i went and had another shot at the Sapsucker.
It hadn't gone very far , in fact I'm not sure it had moved at all. There were so many holes to investigate in the tree trunk.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker     Cuba
The interesting thing though was the changing background as the tree swayed considerably in the wind.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker    Cuba
My fix complete we headed back to town and had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in a Santiago pub. Just like Dublin on a Sunday afternoon, complete with live music. Superb!
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
They certainly know how to enjoy themselves. The locals buy an iced beer dispenser to sit on their table which saves having to go back to the bar too often!
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
A great afternoon and a great evening meal was enjoyed later. Not a bad day at all.
Next stop was as far east as you can go really. Baracoa is nearer to Haiti than Havana. On the way you pass through Guantanamo and as you leave town you can stop at a viewing station to see the infamous American camp way in the distance. I decided not to use a big lens on this shot, might have got me in trouble!
Guantanamo Bay       Cuba
We arrived in Baracoa to rain. We were also bumped at our pre booked Casa too. We had confirmed our long standing booking three days previously but on arrival we were told he was full so would we mind staying with his brother in his Casa across the street We agreed to do so but our room, although well appointed, was tiny. To make matters worse as we went out for a walk I saw new arrivals across the street walking in to our intended Casa.
Even in the sunshine which briefly came through, Baracoa looked miserable.
Baracoa       Cuba
To cap it off we had a bad dinner experience thanks to a loud mouthed ignorant local.We decided to leave the following day, our intended walk in the forests would probably be hampered by floods and mud following the torrential rain that had apparently been falling there for the previous three days.
So it was onwards again. The scenery was interesting but the road was appalling. 64kms of badly pot-holed track which took 2 hours and full concentration to cover before getting back on a proper road for the remaining 180kms. We decided we would return to our initial hotel in Holguin. They had a swimming pool, sun beds and lots of grounds to bird in.
Once again we were thwarted. They were fully booked for the rest of the week but one of their staff was most helpful though and managed to find us a room in a Casa in Gibara our intended destination for the last three nights. We were now booked in to two different spots but for a total of six nights instead of the planned three.
On arrival Gibara looked really nice compared to Baracoa. Our new Casa was probably the most basic we stayed in but the owners were lovely and the food good.
The first morning I was out in the car and it wasn't long before I got my first new tick, the endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher.
Cuban Gnatcatcher   endemic to Cuba
I was delighted with that especially being an endemic to add to the list. I now had 15 of the 21 that are listed.
Cuban Gnatcatcher   endemic to Cuba
That however was really as good as it got. During the day the wind came up and it remained pretty strong and blustery for the next 6 days until we left. The birds just appeared to have vanished, taking cover in the windy conditions. I searched but to no avail.
Only one new species was added, apparently not confirmed as being in Cuba until as recently as 1990 but now rapidly expanding in numbers.
Collared Dove     Cuba
The Collared Dove isn't exactly a high to end on but it did get me in to the 90's for species seen. Not the biggest of lists but reasonable enough. I had managed record shots of 74 of them so I was happy enough.
One last photo buzz remained though. In the high winds and waves a pair of Brown Pelican fished just off the promenade. A little too distant for the best of shots but a challenge to capture. 
Brown Pelican     Cuba
Not the most elegant of divers
Brown Pelican     Cuba
but it must be effective!
Brown Pelican     Cuba
So that was it, trip over. We left Gibara and returned to the Mirador de Maybe for our third time to pass the final few hours before our flights home. I wandered the grounds but didn't really get any photos worth keeping. The bird were there though. Shame we hadn't managed to get those extra nights there.
Ah well, although the trip had fizzled out in some respects we still had had a good holiday. Driving nearly 4000kms we had seen much of Cuba's varied scenery and a lot more than those who confine their trips to an all inclusive holiday resort.
I hope you are inspired to take a look for yourselves!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 10. The journey continues East.

We left Playa Larga with mixed emotions, leaving behind something we had enjoyed but in front a new adventure beckoned.
We didn't have a huge journey ahead, we were heading to La Boca, described as a half forgotten fishing village in our travel guide, but it's within only a few kilometres of Trinidad, a tourist hotspot and World Heritage Site, and the mountains of the Topes de Collantes. An ideal spot for a 4 night stop over.
With plenty of time to complete the half day journey we took the scenic route and along the way we diverted to visit the Botanical gardens near Cienfuegos. Claire is passionate about her garden so it's only fair that her holiday wishes are looked after too. Besides gardens attract birds! We paid the $2 entry fee and were surprised when we had to produce our passports too. Most strange.
Anyway, the gardens were disappointing. Nearly all trees and no flowers and shrubs worth talking about. A metre long grey snake slithered across the road as we drove towards the visitor centre virtually guaranteeing that there was no way Claire would go off road once we parked up! Birds were few and far between, brief sightings of only 4 or 5 species all previously seen including the apparently ever present Cuban Pewee.
Cuban Pewee          Cuba
In fairness though it was the best shot of one I took during our holiday and curiously, although I didn't realise then, the last sighting of one too.
We had pre-booked all our accommodation either directly in the case of Playa Larga or using local Casa Particular agencies based in Cuba for most of the others. As it's hard to pay monies in advance, most reservations are held on trust but you are asked to reconfirm your booking a few days before arriving. Most Casa owners are more than happy to do this for you.
The pre booked Casa in La Boca was the first time we had had a problem. They denied all knowledge of the booking despite the fact that confirmations had been emailed to me and with a copy to the Casa. Anyway, the agency was locally based at Playa Larga and the owner came and apologised personally and arranged alternative accommodation for us. 
For the first time though I hadn't a clue what to expect. Everywhere else had been carefully selected to include good Trip Advisor reports on location, general standards and especially food ! The ability to communicate in English was an added bonus. Our Casa in La Boca was certainly a bit different. An old colonial style house with a grand porch overlooking the grounds of another Casa. I noticed a flowering bush right in front of us had a regular visitor...a Cuban Emerald! 
<untitled> 102016-02-12
Excellent, I could jump up from my rocking chair in the porch and nip over to try and capture the bird on camera.
Just along the road was the rather disappointing beach at the mouth of a river. 
La Boca    Cuba
Still, the fishing boats were moored here and they played host to a Little Blue Heron and always had Brown Pelicans hanging around too.
Brown Pelican    Cuba
The Pelicans were very confiding, so much so you could see the fishermen trying to beat them away from their boats as they would no doubt try and steal the fish before they were landed! Suited me though!
Brown Pelican    Cuba
A distant fly past by a Belted Kingfisher was one of the few sightings of Kingfisher I had during the trip.
Belted Kingfisher       Cuba
I was surprised to find that there is only one species of Kingfisher found in Cuba and that wasn't nearly as common as you would imagine it to be considering some of the terrain I visited.
There are only two species of Hummingbird that are permanent residents too, another disappointing fact about Cuba's species list. The Cuban Emerald is reasonably common though and great fun to try and photograph. When all else failed I got my fix photographing the one that frequented our Casa.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
The same difficulties as with photographing the Bee Hummingbirds when it comes to motion blur.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
Catch the wing right and it's not a problem. The lighting was much better here too, direct sunlight all day.
A trip to Trinidad lasted a few hours but not really my kind of place. Too many tourists but at least we found an ATM and a WiFi hotspot to catch up with the news from the past 10 or so days.
A drive to Playa Ancon revealed a decent stretch of beach but behind the peninsular holding the couple of hotels that are there   the lagoons were virtually bereft of birds. ( Seen distantly in the background on this shot)
Trinidad and Playa Ancon    Cuba
A few distant Caspian Terns roosting and that was that. I decided not to bother returning at first light, besides, a problem I had with the car was that it was locked up in the Casa grounds during the night so getting it out wasn't easy and I'd decided not to park it in the street although it would probably have come to no harm.
On our second day we headed up to the mountains and a walk in the forest. 
<untitled> 62016-02-11
We had the place entirely to ourselves and very scenic it was too !
<untitled> 42016-02-11
Photography was difficult though as birds were all high up in the canopy with the exception of an Ovenbird which disappeared all too quickly. On the roadside back to the car though I spotted Trogan,Tody and Parrot within the space of 50 metres. Not a bad little list of endemics!
On our return drive I stopped to take a scenic photo and the timing was perfect. A raptor appeared over the top of  the trees being mobbed by some crows. It landed in a nearby tree. I quickly grabbed my birding camera to get a distant shot.
Red-tailed Hawk    Cuba
I contemplated swopping lenses to get a bit more reach and was glad I hadn't as it took off and I would have missed the shot as it flew over.
Red-tailed Hawk    Cuba
No need to confirm the ID on this one, an obviously Red-tailed Hawk! It had been a pleasant trip out.
The Cuban Emerald certainly held my attention though, over two days I had a few sessions and I was very happy with what I got.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
The sun continued to help me in my quest
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
Lots of different poses as the bird appeared to hover longer than the Bee Hummingbird.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
The nature of the bush helped too.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
The branches being close knit meant the Emerald couldn't disappear inside.
Cuban Emerald    Cuba
Satisfied that I wouldn't get much better I was happy to move on a day early when the subject came up in conversation. It wasn't that we were unhappy where we were, we just decided we could use an extra day somewhere else to better advantage.
We gave notice we were going to leave to the Casa owner who didn't have a problem, he had got an extra 3 nights out of us after all.
Would we live to regret the move ? Time would tell.