Birdwatching in Viñales, 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 before ending up for a two-night stay in Havana – an addition which has been made in response to previous clients' expressions of interest in spending a little time in this fascinating old city. The area around the small town of Viñales in the west of Cuba is renowned for its beautiful scenery, while Cayo Coco 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.
We move on to the Bay of Pigs 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.
At the end of what is very much a birding holiday, we spend a couple of nights in Havana to enjoy the fascinating culture of this incredible island with its communist regime and its generous, warm-hearted people.
- Cuba: Birdwatching and Cuban experience
- Fully guided group tour with specialist British and Cuban guides
- Departure: 06 March 2017
- Nights: 15
- Fully inclusive cost: £3,545
- Single room supplement: £200
- Deposit: £500 pp
- Meal Basis: Full Board
- Activity level: Easy
- Tour leader: Andy Mitchell
- Maximum Group Size: 15
- Travel: Virgin Atlantic
- Departs: London Gatwick
- Included in cost: International airfares and taxes, tourist card, full board accommodation, transport, entrances, UK and local guides.
- Not included in cost: Cuba departure tax (US$25), travel insurance, drinks and items of a personal nature.
- Cuba 2017 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 Los Jazmines in the incredibly beautiful Viñales valley in Pinar del Rio province. This is a drive of around two hours to the west which means that we will arrive in time for a late dinner.
The view from your balcony when you get up is probably one of the best in Cuba - absolutely stunning. After breakfast this morning we'll follow a footpath through the limestone knolls or "mogotes" down in the beautiful Viñales valley where we'll find plenty of the endemic woodland birds such as Cuban Vireo, Cuban Grassquit, Green Woodpecker and Cuban Tody as well as mixed flocks of warblers. This area also has good numbers of the Cuban Solitaire with its strange, haunting, flute-like song. The afternoon will be local birding near the hotel or a visit to the town. Dinner and overnight at Hotel Los Jazmines.
We set off after breakfast to drive to La Güira National Park. First of all we will visit some limestone caves and then take a walk up a track in the pine forests for a variety of birds, including the Olive-capped Warbler which is very much a pine forest specialist. We then drop down near the town of San Diego de los Baños to find the beautiful little finch, Cuban Grassquit. After lunch at our hotel we'll either do some local birding or visit the town. Dinner and overnight at Mirador de San Diego de los Baños.
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.
The day will be spent at Cayo Coco. First thing, we will search for the endemic Cuban Sparrow and then 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 then drive to our next stop at the La Belén reserve in the Sierra de Najasa. Be prepared to rough it a little here! Our accommodation is in rustic cabins right in the heart of the reserve – and thereï¿½s a swimming pool outside your door!
We make an early start to see some of Cuba's rarest species such as Giant Kingbird, Plain Pigeon, Cuban Palm Crow and Cuban Parakeet. After a leisurely lunch (and swim) in the hot hours there will be another birdwatching walk with the possibility of seeing one of Cuba's rarest species, Gundlach's Hawk, which regularly nests inside the reserve. Overnight at La Belén.
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 10 - 12
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.
For those who wish there is the opportunity for some early morning birding around the hotel in Zapata before we leave for Havana arriving in time for lunch after which, having checked in to our hotel, we'll take on a short coach tour of the more modern parts of the city to set the scene for the next days' exploration. Dinner in a local restaurant and overnight Hotel Presidente.
A day for exploring the sights and sounds of Old Havana. There is a huge amount to see but we don't want to wear you out! There will be frequent stops and we'd love to know if there is anything in particular that you would like to see. After lunch at La Mina in Arms Square, the afternoon can be spent at your leisure and we will reconvene for dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight Hotel Presidente.
We've got this morning for some more gentle sightseeing - or just relaxing around the hotel. After an early lunch, we'll head off to the airport in plenty of time for our 2110 hours flight which gets in to London at 0950 hours the next day.
Please note that the itinerary can be changed without notice at the sole discretion of Island Holidays or your tour leader.