Trip report: Cuba from a First-Timer's Point of View
Stefanie Plein, educational travel consultant, recently traveled for the first time to Cuba on “Birding in Cuba: Discover the Island’s Endemic & Native Species”. As Holbrook’s program in association with Road Scholar, the journey began in Havana, Cuba’s capital and then on to the western town of Viñales, before continuing to coastal regions like Zapata Peninsula and Cayo Coco, ending in the central city of Camagüey. Here are some highlights from her trip.
What was special about the program?
I’ve heard it said that guides can make or break a program and after this trip I can see why. From the national guide, to our birding guide, to the driver and local guides, all were exceptional and added richness and ease to the program.
Sandor (national guide): Sandor was very experienced (7 years) and had the best English out of anyone I met in Cuba. He was attentive to group needs and excellent with people. He knew a lot about Cuban culture and history. He was patient with participants who had mobility issues and handled all unforeseen incidents professionally and with care. After checking in at the hotel each evening Sandor would wait in the lobby to take care of any issues participants had.
Dr. Hiram Gonzalez (ornithologist): We saw 130 out of 398 total species with 23 (out of 26) of those being endemics. Hiram did an excellent job of making sure every participant saw the birds.
Liber (driver): Sandor mentioned multiple times how great of a driver Liber was. Liber’s father was a driver. He navigated us through narrow streets with ease. At Playa Larga he drove the group to the front for every meal so they didn’t have to do the five minute walk to the restaurant. He had a stool for getting participants on and off the bus and was very attentive with helping participants on and off every time. He also stayed with the bus when we went off to bird. We felt safe leaving valuables on the bus because we knew he was with it.
What are some examples of the birding experiences you had/species you encountered?
Visiting Nils Navaro—an outstanding wildlife illustrator and photographer—in his home was definitely a highlight, along with seeing the Bee Hummingbird up-close in Zapata Peninsula.
Bee Hummingbird in Zapata Peninsula, the world’s smallest bird
Cuban Trogon, Cuba’s national bird
Birders, as seen from above
Dr. Hiram Gonzalez, helping us spot hard-find-species
Cuban Screech Owl
Checking out local flora
Flamingo in Zapata Peninsula
What recommendations do you have for first-time travelers to Cuba?
My packing recommendations include walking poles (for those with mobility issues), sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, and a sun shirt if you’re particularly sensitive), a good pair of all-terrain walking shoes and no need to bring a reusable water bottle as bottled water was provided throughout the trip.
Bring Cash. The U.S. dollar is not accepted in Cuba; so you’ll need to exchange dollars into Cuban pesos (CUC), which is easy enough to do. There are exchange locations at the international airport and at hotels. Rather than exchanging all of your money at once upon arrival in Cuba, it’s a good idea to exchange money "as you go"--based on your personal needs.
Be flexible. Due to Cuba’s infrastructure and other circumstances unique to the country, plans may change unexpectedly. Being prepared to go with the flow will help you better enjoy the experience.
Safety has been a concern for some, in regards to Cuba travel; did you experience any concerns while there?
I felt extremely safe at all times in Cuba. The Cuban people are incredibly friendly. In my opinion, the sense of belonging is essential to the Cuban character, and I believe it is one of the reasons why the crime is rate is low throughout the country.
What was your overall impression of Cuba?
The warmth of the people, the vibrant energy of their culture, and the immense natural beauty, provided for an unmatched experience. The lack of internet was a welcome reprieve from my busy life. As you sit down for a drink or quick bite to eat, no one has their head stuck in their phones. Everyone is sitting back, enjoying the live music, chatting with their friends or loved ones, or simply watching the world go by. I really enjoyed connecting to the people and place without the constant distraction of my phone.