Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel February 24, 2017

A tropical rainforest in the Escambrey Mountains (photo by Betsy Herbert 2017)

A tropical rainforest in the Escambrey Mountains (photo by Betsy Herbert 2017)

Turkey vultures soar above in clear blue skies as I write from a hotel lobby on one of the 2,500 islands in the Jardines del Rey Archipelago off the north coast of Cuba. It’s day 13 of a 16-day tour focused on Cuba’s natural areas.

Our small group has been waiting here four hours to check in. Hotels in Cuba — even those billed as “four star” — seem completely overwhelmed by the booming influx of tourists from all over the world. Plumbing often leaks, Wi-Fi is sporadic at best, lights flicker, toilet seats are commonly missing, and towel racks dangle from the walls. But never mind, the music is infectious, the beer and rum flow freely, and the Cuban people are relaxed and friendly.

Our tour started in Havana on Feb. 8. A day later we headed out in our slick new bus, imported from China, toward Viñales National Park to the east of Havana in the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. Limestone peaks called mojotes, resemble giant softballs, laced with fissures and punctured with caves. During the day, we spot the brilliant red, white and blue Cuban trogan, the country’s national bird. Later, we wait at the mouth of a huge cave to watch thousands of bats emerge at twilight.

Next, we set out for the Sierra del Rosario Mountains, site of Cuba’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. While much of Cuba’s native mahogany and cedar forests were cut down for timber after the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, the biggest hit to Cuba’s forests — which originally covered 90 percent of the island — came centuries later as millions of acres were cleared for sugar plantations before the Cuban revolution in 1958.

After the revolution, the Cuban government began reforesting some of the sugar plantations with native trees. We traveled to one of the these restored areas near the town of Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains.

We continued to the south coast of Cuba to the Parque Natural Ciénaga de Zapata, commonly known as the Zapata Swamp. Resplendent mangrove forests contain this 91,000 acre salt marsh, one of the most important flyways for migratory birds in the Caribbean. Along the way, we stopped to visit a breeding center for the endangered Cuban parrot. Near the swamp, we were thrilled to spot the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest hummer.

We turned north again near the old city of Cienfuego to the Escambrey Mountains, a tropical rainforest with a hodgepodge of endemic and introduced tree species including pines, eucalyptus, Australian tree ferns, mangoes, karobs, and the ubiquitous royal palm. Piling into a six-wheel drive Russian truck painted in camouflage, we slowly made our way up the slippery, steep dirt road, passing through small farms and shade-grown coffee plantations.

Nearing the end of our trip, we drove across a long causeway on the north coast to the islands of the Jardines del Rey Archipelago, designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We sailed by catamaran through lagoons formed by native mangrove forests. The water is shallow and clear. Snorkeling off the boat, we observed a staggering variety of tropical fish and corals. Our captain explained how these lagoons, protected by surrounding mangrove forests are ideal places to moor boats during hurricanes.

Edwin Ruiz Rojas, an ornithologist, works for the Cuban government agency that protects natural areas (photo by Betsy Herbert, 2017)

Edwin Ruiz Rojas, an ornithologist, works for the Cuban government agency that protects natural areas (photo by Betsy Herbert, 2017)

On our final visit to the natural areas of Cuba, early this morning we joined local guide Edwin Ruiz Rojas, an ornithologist who works for the Cuban government agency that protects natural areas. We hiked along two paths at the Cayo de Santa Maria, one of the many small islands in the archipelago. The desert landscape was striking contrast to the rainforests on the mainland. Fifteen-foot agaves in full bloom shaded crevices where tarantulas and boas hide during the day. Bats on the island serve as pollinators to the eight species of cacti.

Tomorrow, we’ll again be immersed in the music and culture of Havana, a great way to end our trip.