A Taste of Cuba – The Birds and the Beaches

“We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool”

Getting to Varadero

The bus transfer from Havana to Varadero, where we were to spend the next 11 days in an “All-Inclusive” resort, was uneventful and quite pleasant as it provided a glimpse of the Cuban countryside. Cubans have clearly cottoned on to the opportunities (and hard cash) that tourism brings, which was brought home when we stopped for a refreshment break at a roadside café, where a local band immediately started playing and made it obvious they were looking for some reward. Well, good for them – nothing like a money-making opportunity in a communist state!

The road was not very busy and in good condition and we noticed that there were fewer of the “classics” to be seen and more ordinary cars once we had left Havana.

Along the way I kept a look out for any birds and soon realised that the Turkey Vulture was one of the most common birds, perhaps because they are so obvious due to their large size and habit of flying around in flocks. Apart from them, I spotted a Shiny Cowbird in farmland and a Double-crested Cormorant in the water on the bay side of the Varadero peninsula.

Varadero lies east of Havana
Varadero lies east of Havana
The Varadero peninsula is like a long finger jutting out from the northern shores of Cuba
The Varadero peninsula is like a long finger jutting out from the northern shores of Cuba

Hotel Sol Palmeras

Our hotel was just one of many big resort hotels strung out along the narrow Varadero peninsula, all of them appearing to be full of tourists from Europe and Canada enjoying the fine warm weather.

The entrance road to Sol Palmeras Hotel winds through lush tropical gardens
The entrance road to Sol Palmeras Hotel winds through lush tropical gardens
The hotel was opened by Fidel Castro himself back in 1990
The hotel was opened by Fidel Castro himself back in 1990

We soon got into the swing of things at the hotel, revelling in the “all-inclusive” deal as part of our Virgin Holidays package – we had no experience of this so thought we would end up paying over the top for extras such as special coffees, al a carte meals and beach activities but were very happy to find that ‘all-inclusive’ meant exactly that – great value for money!

We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool before girding our loins for the evening meal in the main buffet restaurant or one of the 5 themed ala carte restaurants.

The pool area set amongst the palms
The pool area set amongst the palms
Pool area at Sol Palmeras hotel
Pool area at Sol Palmeras hotel
Gerda and the Leonards enjoying our favourite casual restaurant down near the beach
Gerda and the Leonards enjoying our favourite casual restaurant down near the beach
The more formal poolside restaurant served some good Cuban food and local bands added to the vibe
The more formal poolside restaurant served some good Cuban food and local bands added to the vibe

The only stress was beating the Europeans to the best beach loungers in the morning! As in Havana, we found that staff and residents were amazed when they heard we were from South Africa.

The Beach

Suffice to say the beach met all our expectations and the photos say it better than I can

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The beach at Varadero

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We particularly enjoyed the gentle sea which was ideal for just swimming and lazing in the water or the more energetic rides in the paddle boats

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The Leonards launch a paddle boat

Sunset was a magic time on the beach

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The Birds

I had arranged beforehand for a local bird guide to take me to some nearby birding spots, which I did halfway through our stay at the resort – the trip is deserving of a separate post which will follow this one.

What I can mention in this post are some of the interesting birds I found without too much trouble in the hotel gardens, often by standing on the room balcony which overlooked the lush tropical gardens or wandering through the pathways that meandered past the chalets forming part of the complex and the occasional bird spotted from the beach.

View from the balcony of our room
View from the balcony of our room

90 Percent of what I saw were ‘lifers’ for me so each bird was a real thrill, but none more so than the tiny Cuban Emerald, a species of Hummingbird, which I first spotted feeding on top of a tree with bright red berries and later saw a few times perched on branches in the gardens. The pictures of Hummingbirds in books have always fascinated me but I never imagined seeing them ”live” so this was special.

Others that I came across in the gardens were (with apologies for photo quality – I didn’t have my usual telephoto lens with me) :

Palm Warbler – feeding on the ground

 

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler

Summer Tanager – an all-red bird active in the upper canopy of the trees

Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager

Gray Kingbird – seen frequently, once with a small lizard prey

Gray Kingbird
Gray Kingbird

 

Greater Antillean Grackle (now there’s an impressive name) – in the gardens and often scrounging scraps at the outdoor restaurant – reminiscent of our starlings. The unusual feature of this bird is its V-shaped tail, which may be unique to this species, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned jet plane when in flight

Greater Antillean Grackle joining us at lunch
Greater Antillean Grackle joining us at lunch
The V-shaped tail is really unusual
The V-shaped tail is really unusual

Cuban Green Woodpecker – an attractive bird which was busy at a nest hole in a Cocos palm

Cuban Green Woodpecker
Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cape May Warbler – one of many Warblers seen on the trip, all of which seem to be varying combinations of black, brown and yellow – this one had black streaks on a yellow breast, distinctive brown cheeks and a yellow rump.

Royal Tern – flying low over the shallow turquoise sea, diving occasionally for food. This was a particularly beautiful sight early one morning as the sun was coming up

Brown Pelican –  also flying low over the sea

Muscovy Duck – seen on the golf course of an adjoining resort

The ‘Puppy-dog Lizard’ which we saw in Havana was also to be found in the gardens – quite habituated to people

The well-named "Puppy-dog Lizard
The well-named “Puppy-dog Lizard” with its cute curly tail

Time to Leave

On the way to the airport I took some photos of ‘plain and ordinary’ Cuban scenes as we passed by

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We were sad to leave Cuba after a most memorable trip, our minds full of all the interesting people, places and experiences

 

4 thoughts on “A Taste of Cuba – The Birds and the Beaches”

  1. It’s always a big thrill for me to read your blog posts Don. They are so interesting and entertaining. Your pictures are amazing. Thank you.

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