Birdwatching in La Güira National Park, Cayo Coco, Camagüey and Zapata
Fascinating as one of the last remaining communist regimes, Cuba is also probably the best birding destination in the Caribbean in spring. It was Island Holidays who first introduced Cuba to the British birding agenda, pioneering in the very early 1990s where most leading companies now follow.
Our tour visits a variety of habitats but the pace is gentle and you can appreciate both the birds and the countryside. In Andy Mitchell we have unquestionably the leading British authority on Cuba and its birds, and his experience and contacts mean that you will see most of Cuba's endemics, many Caribbean specialities and North American migrants, as well as getting a flavour of the Cuban way of life. Birds which we would expect to see include most of the endemics such as Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Tody, Zapata Wren, Fernandina's Flicker and the Bee Hummingbird - the smallest bird in the world.
To get the best out of our stay, we visit four very different places, using good quality, comfortable accommodation. We start at San Diego de los Banos, about 2½ hours west of Havana close to La Güira National Park before moving on to Cayo Coco which gives us a taste of coast and lagoons. Our third stop is in southern central Cuba south of the old colonial city of Camagüey. Very little of this savannah habitat is left in Cuba as much of it was cleared in the early 20th century for food production, and the abundance here of some of Cuba's rarer bird species shows what has been lost.
Our final base is at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Larga) where we stay in the amazing Ciénaga de Zapata or Zapata Swamp. This is a huge nature reserve and one of the wonders of the Caribbean. There is a fascinating series of habitats in this area where swamp meets woodland meets coast, and we will concentrate on finding the special birds - both resident and migratory.
Before flying home we have a morning exploring old Havana to enjoy the fascinating culture of this incredible island with its communist regime and its generous, warm-hearted people. For those who so wish we can arrange an extended stay in Havana, with or without a local guide according to preference.
- Cuba: Birdwatching and Cuban experience
- Fully guided group tour with specialist British and Cuban guides
- Departure: 22 February 2018
- Nights: 12
- Fully inclusive cost: £3,645
- Single room supplement: £145
- Deposit: £750 pp
- Meal Basis: Full Board
- Activity level: Easy
- Tour leader: Andy Mitchell
- Maximum Group Size: 12
- Travel: Virgin Atlantic
- Departs: London Gatwick
- Included in cost: International airfares and taxes, tourist card, full board accommodation, transport, entrances, tips, UK and local guides.
- Not included in cost: Cuba departure tax (US$25), travel insurance, drinks and items of a personal nature.
- Cuba 2018 detailed itinerary
Your tour leader
For 16 years Andy Mitchell was a career civil servant in his home town of Derby and then Leeds before realising that the outdoor life was calling him. He moved from Leeds to North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney for a year's training and ended up staying for nearly five years, as well as falling in love with Orkney. A spell of various expeditions abroad and jobs in conservation followed which gave him a breadth of knowledge and experience. He then joined the RSPB working on research into Song Thrush declines before moving back to Orkney to manage the reserves on Egilsay and Rousay. After ten years with RSPB he left to set up his own business advising on wildlife tourism and doing environmental assessment work based at his home on South Ronaldsay. Birds are his main passion - not in the sense of having to see every species but as conservation indicators. His other interests are all things Cuban, beekeeping, music (he's learning to play the fiddle) and seeing the delight on people's faces when they see those special wildlife moments.
Our Virgin Atlantic flight leaves London Gatwick at 1210 hours, arriving in Havana at 1705 hours local time. On arrival, we board the air-conditioned bus for the drive to our first base, the Hotel Mirador in San Diego de los Baños. This is a drive of around 2½ hours to the west which means that we will arrive in time for a late dinner.
We set off after breakfast to drive to La Güira National Park, just a few kilometres away. First of all we will visit some limestone caves, (where Ché Guevara had his headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis) to find the Cuban Solitaire. We will also find a wide variety of other birds here, many of them endemics. We then drop down near the town of San Diego de los Baños to Hacienda Cortina to find Olive-capped Warbler and possibly Giant Kingbird. and possibly Giant Kingbird find the beautiful little finch, the Cuban Grassquit. After lunch at our hotel we'll lookf for the endemic Cuban Grassquit and Cuban Green Woodpecker. San Diego de los Baños is a spa town and the spa itself is just outside your hotel and provides sulphur baths and sulphur mud treatments. Dinner and overnight at Hotel Mirador.
Today we drive east to Cayo Coco. This will take most of the day but we will make stops along the way, especially at a reservoir close to Havana, which can be rewarding for waterfowl. We will be staying at Hotel Sol Cayo Coco for the next three nights.
The day will be spent on Cayo Coco. First thing, we will visit Cueva de Jabalï¿½ not far from our hotel for the endemic Cuban Sparrow and wealth of other species such as Key West Quail-dove, Zenaida Dove, Cuban Tody and Grey Catbird which come to drink and bathe in some water baths put out by the local guides. Then we will look in the coastal scrub and lagoons for a wide variety of both resident and migratory birds. We should see Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Crested Caracara and Clapper Rail as well as several different species of waders and gulls. In the afternoon, we will drive over to Cayo Guillermo to try for the Bahama Mockingbird and some more wader-watching in the shallow blue waters.
An early start to drive out to Cayo Paredon Grande, a remote island on the Atlantic coast. We park near the lighthouse at the very tip and search for the specialities here - the endemic Oriente Warbler and Cuban Gnatcatcher. This is also the only place to see the endemic race of Thick-billed Vireo and can be a good spot for migration. After lunch in the hotel we either spend the afternoon at leisure or a do little birdwatching close to the hotel.
Our air-conditioned coach will take us to Camagüey in time for lunch. We'll then take a tour of the city by bicitaxi stopping at various important locations for the history of this vibrant city. We'll spend the next two nights at Hotel Camagüey on the edge of the city.
We will make a very early start for the reserve at La Belen, about 45 minutes drive away. This is a very special place with many birds to see; the raucous Cuban Crow and itï¿½s quieter (and rarer) cousin, Cuban Palm Crow, Giant Kingbird, Cuban Parrot, Cuban Parakeet and many more. Weï¿½ll eat a packed lunch at the reserve and return to our hotel in time for dinner and overnight at Hotel Camagüey.
It's time to leave Camagüey and drive to our next destination in Zapata and our cabins at Playa Larga. We'll arrive in the afternoon and have a chance to settle in and perhaps have a swim in the famous Bay of Pigs – you are just yards from the warm Caribbean Sea. The Zapata Swamp is the richest bird area in Cuba and we'll start to find out why as we go out, close to the hotel, to enjoy that active feeding time in the late afternoon/early evening. After dinner, we can walk out into the grounds of the hotel to look for Stygian Owl and Cuban Nightjar.
Days 9 – 11
With four nights at Playa Larga, we'll spend each day exploring the different places and habitats within this fascinating area. Tropical birdwatching is best done at the very beginning of the day and at the end. The birds are most active at these times, when it is cooler. Although this means early starts, we will return to the hotel at Playa Larga in the middle of the day for relaxing, swimming, siesta. Now doesn't that sound good?
Our experienced local guide will know every inch of the coastal woodlands, swamp and other habitats. He will also have tracked down certain difficult species for us to see as they begin to pair up for the breeding season and we will follow his advice on where to go on each day. Trips will certainly include walking into the dry woods near the tiny village of Bermejas. Flocks of warblers move through the trees and the woodland trails have the endangered Blue-headed and Grey-headed Quail-doves. Dead palm trunks may have owls or woodpeckers nesting in them. Cuban Trogons are calling all around and this is one of the best places to find the endemic and endangered Fernandina's Flicker.
We'll spend another day in the dry woodlands, this time around the villages of Soplillar, La Majagua and Los Sábalos. As well as looking for Quail-doves again (there are four species in Cuba) we should see flocks of noisy Cuban Parrot as well as Bee Hummingbird - the smallest bird in the world - and both the Cuban Screech Owl and the Cuban Pygmy Owl. At this time of year, we could see almost any migrant passerine on the Cuban list! Warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes are all mixed in with the resident species and the main arrival from the south, Black-whiskered Vireo.
For a very special place and special bird, we shall start early and drive into the Zapata Swamp. After a walk along a track (where we may find the Cuban Sparrow), we shall look for the Zapata Wren which only occurs in this swamp. It may take some time to see the bird as they are uncommon across a huge area although we will hear their beautiful fluty song in the still morning air. The Zapata Rail is also in this area but we will be very lucky to see one. We could also see Spotted Rail and Sora.
On another morning, we will drive to Las Salinas - the salt pans. All along the coral road are wader pools and we'll make frequent stops. As well as waders, we should see Double-crested Cormorant, Common Black Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill and at the end of the road, huge numbers of Rosy Flamingo - a really spectacular sight.
We'll leave Playa Larga after breakfast and drive to Havana where we'll have a walking tour of the old city before a late lunch and departure for the airport to check in for our 2010 flight to London Gatwick which arrives at 0950 hours the next day.
NOTE: If you would like to spend more time in Havana a longer stay can be arranged with or without a local guide as you prefer. Please let us know so that we can ensure accommodation which is in high demand in Havana.
Please note that the itinerary can be changed without notice at the sole discretion of Island Holidays or your tour leader.