Exploring Cuba’s Wilds
I’ve done my fair share of travelling and to a variety of places before I started this blog. So I decided to start reminiscing about my past travels and thought I’d start with Cuba. Three years ago in the middle of a cold Canadian winter two friends and I hopped on a plane headed for Cuba in search of sun, warmth, wildlife and wild spaces. Being my first all-inclusive resort vacation in a tropical locale I was excited and had no idea what to expect.
We flew into Havana and were welcomed by men with giant machine guns as we descended the plane’s steps to the hot tarmac. Don’t worry they weren’t looking for us, it was normal. After customs it was off to our resort in Varadero. Let’s just say the resort left a lot to be desired. Not on the beach that flanks the peninsula of Varadero on both sides. And honestly, I’ve stayed in better hostel dorm rooms. But with that said I looked on the bright side and decided to make the most of my Cuba adventure.
We explored both sides of the peninsula, with a manicured beach on the north side where one day during our stay they had it closed off due to man-of-war being on site and washing up, and a completely different ecosystem on the other side with a sandbar and mangrove swamp-like feel. Here we encountered a variety of birds like sand pipers, amphibians and lizards, a variety of crab species and even a small puffer fish once we got our feet wet. One evening while we were exploring the area I caught sight of a woman standing in the shallows on the other side of the beach hitting herself with something. Then I realized what it was, it was a dead chicken, she then started rubbing herself with it. Strange to say the least, it felt like I was spying on something private, like a ritual, and I quickly turned away.
Throughout our stay we would explore the grounds of our resort and the surrounding area for whatever wildlife we could spot. There were plenty of zippy little lizards, from anoles to geckos, as well as toads and tree frogs. We also took advantage of a few different tours. One took us first to Coral Beach, a beautiful beach with lots of coral. Here my one friend Chris went snorkeling while Rachel and I went for a walk along the beach. Among the plethora of sea shells we found numerous bones from sea turtles. We even found an intact skeleton with a skull of what was probably a hawksbill sea turtle. The second stop on the tour was to the Saturn Caves. It was like a hidden gem in the middle of the rainforest. It was absolutely gorgeous with its large cave mouth open, almost saying “voila”. Down the steps into the cave you can see a pool of crystal blue water. Here they went snorkeling while I explored the lush rainforest that surrounded it, and found a few different butterfly species and of course more lizards.
With a few fellow travellers from our resort we took a double-decker bus tour that took us out to the end of the Varadero peninsula and back. The tour showcased some fantastic coastal landscapes. We also stopped at the Plaza America, a large shopping center on the beach, where we ate on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as brown pelicans flew by. After hanging out here for a while we parted ways from our resort friends and headed to Varahicacos Ecological Reserve. This reserve covers 30% of the peninsula and is home to a variety of species of wildlife as well as shallow caves which were quite interesting. Here we also came across a huge termite mound that was hanging from a tall tree. It was crazy and cool but I certainly didn’t want to stand below it.
In between tours we explored the city. We visited the markets where my friends picked up some really unique wood carvings of a shark and scorpion and I purchased an embroidered bag and some beautiful jewellery. Throughout the island we met so many kind and friendly locals and many were driving classic cars from the 1950’s. It almost felt like we were stepping back in time. One night, with our love for dancing we decided to go to a local discotheque. It was awesome! First there were two Cuban comedians and even though none of us spoke Spanish we mostly got the gist. They must have done well because the crowd was roaring. Then the music started and everyone was up, moving and grooving. I must admit I felt extremely overdressed with my tank top and long skirt – I’m not sure I’ve seen that much exposed skin at a club before. But one thing I noticed was the atmosphere, it was electric!
Another attraction we visited was the Varadero Park Zoo (Parque Josone). There was a pretty, small lake, picturesque paths, and a variety of animals from ostrich to flamingos, numerous duck species – of which we found a nest with eggs tucked in the hallow of a tree, and camels. We even got to feed and pet the camels. Though this was a stark contrast to the zoos I’m used to visiting it was still nice and charming.
Another tour we took was on a catamaran out into the ocean where we stopped for snorkeling in the clear blue water where you could see tons of different colourful tropical fish, or simple lounge on the open netting over the action. The catamaran took us over to Playa Cayo Blanco, a pristine island off the coast of Varadero’s tip. Here after we ate on the beach we went off exploring -surprise – the clean white sandy beach and into some mangroves. The water is ankle-deep pretty far out and there’s various coral reefs and we even saw needlenose fish in the shallows. Rachel found two sand dollars, one dead and one alive. It was a great tour with beautiful scenery. That night, back at the resort, Rachel decided to check out the dead sand dollar that she took from the beach, but sadly it had broken in two, through strangely enough there were around 20 tiny hermit crabs living in it. So with quick hands we gathered them all up and promptly released them back onto the local beach. I couldn’t believe it, who would have known that these wee little crabs were inhabiting a dead sand dollar, I guess there are stranger homes.
One day we decided to venture out on our own and rented a car. We headed south towards the Bay of Pigs, on the south side of the island. At one of our many stops along the way we came across a Crocodile Farm that we stopped to check out. A nice gentleman who worked there gave us a guided tour, not sure if this is usual or he was just excited that someone was there. He told us about the farm and its crocodiles that ranged in age from six months to 41 years old. At the end of the tour we had the opportunity to hold a young Cuban crocodile. I’ve worked with baby alligators and camian before but this was my first croc and boy was I excited especially since the Cuban crocodile is critically endangered. The guide then recommended we go to the restaurant where we could eat crocodile, if we so wished. Something about holding an animal and then thinking of eating its brethren that turned us all off. No thanks!
Off to our next destination, the Zapata National Park, the largest wetland reserve in the Caribbean and home to the smallest species of bird in the world, the bee humming-bird. Though we didn’t see the endemic humming-bird we did see a wide variety of birds from vultures to egrets, as well as more lizards, termites, another termite mound and even a snake. There were so many different ecosystems from beach to rainforest, and swamps to a large grotto where we saw more tropical fish. We stopped in a few different places within the park and its astounding scenery was well worth the visit. Along one of the swampy areas we even found a skeleton with the skull of a crocodile.
Cuba was a wild ride where I was able to experience a variety of different tours, ecosystems and encounter Cuba’s wildlife in its wild spaces.
Have you explored Cuba and its wilds?
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