Cuba: Another World, Just Offshore

May 2, 2019

For a traveler, simply to say the word “Cuba” sets off a little shiver of excitement. Few other place names unleash such a jumble of associations, opinions, and questions in American minds. For most of the past 50 years, Cuba has been difficult or impossible for Americans to visit, and all the more tantalizing for that. 

Graceful and passionate dancers welcome us to the port town of Antilla.
Credit Pepper Trail

Thanks to a loosening of restrictions by President Obama in 2015 (and despite their partial re-imposition by President Trump), it is now relatively easy to arrange travel to Cuba. In the spring of 2018, I was lucky to serve as a naturalist on a small expedition cruise ship that circumnavigated the entire island, providing a fascinating glimpse of the life — and wildlife — of Cuba.

First Impressions – Havana

Strolling down one of Old Havana’s elegant colonial boulevards, you pass through crowds of tourists conversing in English, French, Japanese, German, Russian, and is that Swedish? The tropical sun beats down on your stylish new straw fedora, and perhaps it’s time to step into the shade of a wood-paneled bar for a cool mojito. You’ll pay for your drink (and everything else) with CUC, the “Cuban Convertible Pesos” you received when you exchanged dollars at the airport.

A couple of blocks away, it’s a different world. You’re still within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Havana, but not a tourist in sight. Here, the grand old buildings are falling to pieces. Instead of upscale boutiques and restaurants, they are filled with Cuban families who have jury-rigged electricity and plumbing and subdivided the former mansions into mazes of apartments. 

Colorful buildings loom high over the street of Old Havana.
Credit Pepper Trail

They pay their bills with barter or with CUP, the Cuban National Peso, the only currency available to ordinary Cubans. Each CUP is worth about 5% of a CUC — and definitely not convertible into any other currency. This unique two-tiered currency system is one of the many ways that the Cuban government maintains its tight control. As with other oppressive policies, the crippling effects of the continuing American trade embargo provides the regime with a ready justification.

Across the city is the Havana waterfront, where the U.S. Embassy faces a potent symbol of the refusal of these two countries to communicate: a dense forest of bare flagpoles. Under President George W. Bush, “messages to the Cuban people” were broadcast from a large electronic billboard on the building, which was then officially the United States Interest Section (the embassy having been closed following the Cuban Revolution). In response, the Cuban government put up the poles and raised large black flags to block what they considered to be American propaganda. The broadcasts stopped after the embassy was officially re-opened by President Obama in 2015, and the black flags came down. But mistrust and misunderstanding between the U.S. and Cuban governments remains strong, with the modest improvements begun under Obama now frozen by the Trump Administration.

All these contradictions and complexities exist side by side on an island whose extraordinary cultural and natural riches are unrivalled in the Caribbean. Without a doubt, Cuba is one of the world’s most compelling travel destinations.

The Nature of Cuba

Cuba is as fascinating for its nature as for its history, culture, and politics. Cuba is by far the largest island in the Caribbean, with an area of over 40,000 square miles, and its biodiversity is unrivaled in the region, including many endemic species — organisms found nowhere else in the world. 

The endemic - and adorable - Cuban Tody.
Credit Pepper Trail

For example, there are over 3000 species of plants, 130 species of reptiles, 30 species of birds, and 20 species of mammals found only in Cuba. Compared to almost every other island in the Caribbean, Cuba also has an admirable record of conservation, with an extensive system of nature reserves. Truly, the island is a naturalist’s paradise.

It must be confessed that Cuba’s biodiversity is not always obvious. Many of the endemic reptiles are small Anolis lizards, which are amazingly diverse in Cuba, but difficult for non-specialists to tell apart. Most of the endemic mammals are bats (I’ll get to an adorable exception later). But the endemic birds are much easier to observe, and many are spectacular. As a lifelong birder, I was especially excited about the chance to see the world’s smallest bird: the Bee Hummingbird, found only in Cuba. This incredibly tiny hummingbird weighs less than 2 grams. That’s less than a dime, and about half the weight of our Rufous Hummingbird, the smallest bird most residents of the “mythical state of Jefferson” are likely to ever see.

So, let’s begin our expedition! And the place to begin is, of course, Havana.

Classic Cars and Che Guevara

Havana dominates the political, economic, and cultural life of Cuba. Its rapidly growing population of over 2 million is almost 20% of the whole country. Here the history — and sometimes bewildering present-day contradictions — of Cuba are on full display. I’ve already described the colonial district of Old Havana, a tourist mecca that also contains dire poverty. For a more contemporary gathering place, let’s climb in a lovingly maintained 1950s American convertible, and head for the Plaza de la Revolución.

Havana’s famous “classic cars” are a tourist magnet, and no visit is complete without taking a ride in one. These cars are an example of the Cuban people’s ability to make a virtue of the necessities imposed by the American embargo. Since imports of new American cars ended in 1961, there was no choice but to keep what they had running…and running…and running. When the Cuban government began encouraging tourism from Europe and Canada in the 1990s, it didn’t take long for enterprising residents of Havana to realize that tourists would pay handsomely for the nostalgic thrill of a classic car ride. My choice was a cherry red 1954 Buick Skylark convertible. I’m not a “car guy,” but — wow!

Our destination, the Plaza of the Revolution, is a huge open square where Independence Day rallies and other great gatherings are held. There are actually three national holidays associated with revolutions in Cuba. Independence Day, October 10, celebrates the beginning of Cuba’s struggle for independence from its colonial master, Spain, in 1868. National Revolutionary Day, July 26, commemorates the attack on military barracks in the city of Santiago de Cuba in 1953. This unsuccessful attack, led by Fidel Castro, is considered the beginning of the revolutionary struggle against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Finally, Victory Day is January 2, and celebrates the triumph of Fidel’s revolution on that day in 1959.

On one side, the Plaza of the Revolution is dominated by a towering white obelisk, with a massive statue at its base. Like many foreign tourists, I made the assumption that the statue must depict Fidel Castro. But no, our guide corrected us — that is our Cuban national hero, José Martí. To which, in one voice, we all responded — “Who?” We learned that Martí was a 19th-century journalist, political theorist, and poet who galvanized the independence struggle against Spain, and much later provided inspiration to Castro’s revolutionaries. We were to encounter memorials to him everywhere on our travels around Cuba.

On the opposite side of the Plaza of the Revolution are several large government buildings, whose bland facades are enlivened by huge renderings of the faces of revolutionary leaders. Again, these do not include Fidel, but one of them is instantly recognizable: Che Guevara. Guevara was an Argentine, but met Fidel and Raul Castro in Mexico City, and returned with them to Cuba in 1956 to fight against the Batista regime. 

'Che' Guevara's face aside the Ministry of the Interior building, Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba. Under the image his motto 'Hasta la victoria siempre' (Until everlasting victory always).
Credit featurepics.

Che was an important military commander in the revolution, and remained in Cuba as a central figure in the new Communist government until 1965, when he left to promote revolutions in Africa and Latin America (he was captured and executed in Bolivia in 1967). One can only imagine what Che would think of the carefree tourists who now cluster in the Plaza de la Revolución and take selfies with his iconic image in the background.

All Aboard

After a couple of very full days in Havana and its surroundings, we set sail on our 120-passenger expedition ship, the Hebridean Sky, to experience the rest of Cuba. 

120-passenger expedition ship, the Hebridean Sky
Credit Pepper Trail

Though our itinerary was of course controlled by the Cuban authorities, this vessel allowed us — and our wonderful Cuban guides, David, Rigo, and Abel — unusual mobility and freedom. It was also the ideal platform for snorkeling on Cuba’s reefs, the best in the Caribbean. As my duties generally kept me onshore leading the birders, I didn’t have many opportunities to experience the reefs, but every day the snorkelers came back aboard with glowing reports.

We sailed east from Havana on our clockwise circumnavigation of the island. Our first stop along the north coast was Cayo Guillermo, an area of beautiful beaches, lagoons, and mangroves that was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. 

Hurricane Irma reportedly caused thousands of deaths of American Flamingos in Cuba.
Credit Pepper Trail

We had been warned that the region’s famous population of flamingos had deserted the area following the hurricane, but were delighted to find that at least small numbers had returned, along with an abundance of shorebirds, many of which were preparing to migrate to their nesting grounds in the Arctic.

We also explored an area of coastal forest, where we spotted our first endemic birds, the lovely Cuban Emerald hummingbird and the adorable Cuban Tody. The todies are a family of five similar species found only in the islands of the Caribbean. They look a bit like a cross between a hummingbird and a tiny kingfisher (to which they are distantly related), and make their living darting out from perches in the forest undergrowth to snap up insects with their long, flat beaks.

Despite some lingering hurricane damage, the coastal forest and mangroves of Cayo Guillermo were largely intact. Our travels confirmed that Cuba’s natural environment is in far better shape than elsewhere in the Caribbean. The country’s economic isolation has limited resort developments, especially away from Havana, and the Cuban government has a good record of promoting conservation areas and sustainable agriculture. It will be interesting to see if these environmental protections will be able to withstand development pressures as Cuba opens up to the world.

Second City: Santiago

Our next major port of call was the city of Santiago, considered the cultural capital of Cuba. Santiago is located at the southeastern corner of the island, not far west of the American base at Guantanamo, which we passed in the night (and gave a wide berth). Santiago is closer to Haiti than it is to Havana, and gives full expression to the African influences that form such a rich and distinctive element of Cuban music and culture.

Santiago is also rich in the history of Cuba’s revolutionary struggles, first against the Spanish and then against the Batista regime. If you’re like me, the only thing you may vaguely remember about the Spanish-American War is the Battle of San Juan Hill. 

The Battle of San Juan Hill (July 1, 1898) was a decisive battle of the Spanish–American War.
Credit Pepper Trail

San Juan Hill is on the outskirts of Santiago, and the battle was the bloodiest of that war — which in Cuba is understandably known as the Cuban-Spanish-American War. It was here that young colonel Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders volunteers in the face of withering fire from the Spanish defenders, and achieved fame that would ultimately propel him to the presidency.

And it was in Santiago that Fidel Castro led his first military action against the Batista government. On the 26th of July, 1953, a small group of guerillas led by Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in an attempt to seize weapons from the arsenal. The attack was a disaster, with many of the guerillas killed and most of the leaders captured, including Fidel and his brother Raul, who were both given long prison sentences. Despite its failure, Fidel considered that this action was the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and after he gained power in 1959 ordered that the barracks be converted to a school and revolutionary history museum.

Santiago is also home to Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, the most important in Cuba. By far the largest and most impressive tomb is the resting place of Cuban national hero José Martí, who was killed in battle against Spanish forces in 1895. 

The changing of the guard in front of the tomb of national hero Juan Marti in Santiago de Cuba.
Credit Pepper Trail

The tomb looms at the end of a colonnade of palms, and an honor guard performs an elaborate goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony there every half hour, leading us to assume at first that this must be the tomb of Fidel. But no — Fidel’s gravesite is nearby, but easily overlooked, as it is marked only by a large boulder with a simple bronze plaque reading “Fidel.” Cuban visitors are well aware of the location, however, as shown by the pile of fresh bouquets.

Our full day spent steeped in the great events of Cuban history was all very well, but as twilight fell, it was time to go out on the town. There were mojitos, and delicious ropas viejo and picadillo, and there was music, there was dancing, and yes, I even puffed on a premium Cuban cigar. Objectively speaking, I found it vile — but subjectively speaking, it was an unforgettable part of a wonderful night.

Into the Mountains:

Guanayara National Park

What better way to clear the head after a night of rum and cigars than a brisk hike? Well, not everyone agreed with that, but at our next port, the small town of Casilda, a hardy group of passengers and myself boarded a bus and headed for the Sierra del Escambray mountain range. The air at 2600 feet was delightfully cool compared to the sweltering lowlands, and we enjoyed a beautiful (and thoughtfully downhill) hike through tropical forest following a cascading stream with waterfalls and aquamarine pools. The Guanayara National Park is rich with birds, and we got wonderful looks at Cuba’s lovely national bird, the Cuban Trogon, whose blue, red, and white plumage matches the Cuban flag. 

National bird, the Cuban Trogon
Credit Pepper Trail

In the rock grottos surrounding a waterfall, we even spotted a wild hutia. The large rodents, which look rather like exceptionally cute rats, are found only on the Caribbean islands, and Cuba is home to nine endemic species. Later, at the visitor center, we got a close look at a tame one. Its owner seemed very fond of it, but our guide informed us that it would likely eventually end up in the cooking pot.

Trinidad de Cuba

On our return from the mountains, we enjoyed a visit to the colonial town of Trinidad. With cobblestone streets, a lovely town square, and beautifully preserved pastel houses draped with vibrant bougainvillea, Trinidad richly deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Classic Cuba: a street musician in the colonial town of Trinidad.
Credit Pepper Trail

While others cooled off with a Cristal beer or mojito, I made a beeline for the heladeria, and enjoyed a coconut ice cream as I listened to a street musician playing a soulful bolero on his guitar. Ah, Cuba!

The Bay of Pigs and Zapata National Park

For Americans of a certain age, like myself, our first memory associated with Cuba is the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not far behind…the Bay of Pigs. Our next port of call was the town of Giron, and its Museo de la Intervención provided us with the Cuban perspective on that disastrous CIA-backed invasion by anti-Castro forces. After three days of battle around Giron in April 1961, the invading forces — mostly poorly trained young men from Cuban exile families — were completely defeated.

Fidel personally took a leading role in repelling the attack, and photographs of him in battle gear are everywhere in the museum. This was, in fact, the only place in Cuba where we saw the kind of heroic depictions of Fidel that I’d actually expected to see all over the island. The failure of the invasion, and America’s undeniable involvement, drove Cuba closer to the Soviet Union, ultimately contributing to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963.

This history was all very well, but I confess I had a hard time focusing. Giron is also the gateway to Zapata National Park, Cuba’s most famous area for birds—and one of the best places to see the Bee Hummingbird. I made sure that the first stop after the Museo de la Intervención was the Jardín de Zun-zun—the “Garden of the Bee Hummingbird,” which goes by the wonderfully onomatopoeic name of zunzun in Cuba. The garden was really just the back yard of a modest house, where hummingbird feeders were set up around a tree covered with small orange trumpet-shaped flowers — the exact right size for the beak of the smallest bird in the world. We were shepherded in by groups of 10, and all of us got to see the incredibly tiny hummingbirds zipping among the flowers and chasing each other with typical hummingbird feistiness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, though they be but little, they are fierce!

The keen birders were also able to venture deeper into the national park, and we were rewarded with thrilling views of Cuban Parrots, Great Lizard-Cuckoos, and not one but two species of endemic owls, the Cuban Pygmy Owl and the adorable Bare-legged Owl, which reminded me of the Ewoks from Star Wars.

The Isle of Youth

After Giron, we left the “mainland” of Cuba behind, and set sail for the Isle of Pines, the large circular island tucked beneath Cuba’s outstretched western arm. At least it used to be called the Isle of Pines, for its once-abundant pine forests. In 1978, Fidel re-named it Isla de Juventud, the Isle of Youth. He dreamed of establishing schools on the island for youth from around the world, who would return to their own countries to spread his socialist vision. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 plunged Cuba into a deep economic crisis, euphemistically referred to as the “Special Period.” This brought an end to Castro’s internationalist dreams, and the schools on the Isle of Youth were abandoned.

The Isle of Youth is home to one of the most extraordinary — and historically significant — sites in Cuba, the Presidio Modelo, a “model prison” built on a so-called panopticon design. Built in the 1920s and closed in 1967, the main prison buildings are now falling into ruin, and walking into one of the huge structures feels like entering a vast post-apocalyptic movie set.

The huge “panopticon” prison where Fidel and other revolutionaries were held on the Isle of Youth. Note the tour bus for scale.
Credit Pepper Trail

A panopticon prison consists of a huge circular building with a single guard tower in the center, reachable only by a tunnel. The tiny cells had no doors. Thus, all the prisoners could be in view at once from the tower, but would not know if they were under observation by the hidden guard. The English social theorist Jeremy Bentham, who conceived the design, described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind…a mill for grinding rogues honest.” It is as chilling an example of “social architecture” as you can find.

Presidio Modelo, far from the Cuban mainland, was where the dictator Fulgencio Batista sent political prisoners. However, his goal of suppressing revolutionary ideas backfired spectacularly. Fidel and Raul Castro, along with other leaders of the attack on the Moncada Barracks, were imprisoned at Presidio Modelo from 1953–1955, and Castro put those years to good use. Within the circular prison walls, he set up the “Abel Santamaría Ideological Academy” to indoctrinate fellow prisoners, wrote his manifesto “History Will Absolve Me,” and founded the 26th of July Movement. The rest, as they say, is history.

Last Stop – María la Gorda

After the Isle of Youth, our final port of call was the beautiful beach resort of María la Gorda and the adjacent Guanacahabibes Peninsula Biosphere Reserve at the western tip of Cuba. The snorkelers hopped into the ship’s zodiacs and set out for one of the best reefs in the Caribbean, where they had close encounters with barracuda, stingrays, spiny lobsters, and great forests of staghorn coral. The beach-lovers finally got the opportunity for a lazy day of sunbathing and swimming — a rarity on our very packed itinerary! And the naturalists had a last hike into the Cuban wilds.

The Guanacahabibes Peninsula is composed of highly eroded limestone, and it would have been almost impossible to walk off-trail across the jagged spikes and spines of rock. Fortunately, the reserve has an excellent trail system, and we had great views of our now-familiar favorites, the Cuban Trogon and Cuban Tody, as well as our first looks at rarer endemic birds, the Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban Vireo. The forest was also full of bright red land crabs, which raised their impressive claws pugnaciously as we passed. The scenic highlight of the hike was a lovely cenote — an azure pool in the fossilized reef along the shore. The pool was connected to the sea through fissures in the limestone, and reef fish swam in its salty depths, while a lens of fresh water floated above. Truly a remarkable sight!

That afternoon, the Hebridean Sky weighed anchor and set sail for Havana and the end of our voyage. We sailed through the night, and passed the Spanish El Morro Fortress and into Havana harbor just as the sun rose. The pilot managed to maneuver us in next to a 2000-passenger cruise shop at the dock—a behemoth that is only considered “mid-sized” in the world of leisure cruising. As I watched the passengers streaming off the vessel for their one day in Cuba, it was impossible not to wonder what the future will hold for this unique island.

There is so much to admire in Cuba — its vibrant and distinctive culture, its egalitarian educational and medical systems, its record of environmental protection. There is also poverty, lack of free expression, and pervasive government control. As it opens to the world, will Cuba be able to preserve its culture and its environment while allowing its energetic and inventive people more opportunities?

Challenging though these transitions will be, I am confident that Cuba will navigate them successfully. Everywhere we visited on our voyage, we were met with friendliness, hospitality — and fierce pride. Cubans long for more freedom, but their pride in their country and their culture is unshakable. Old Havana and a few coastal resorts may become tourist enclaves, but the traveler venturing beyond will find Cuba, the real Cuba, waiting — with music, a smile, and a cigar.