Cuba Photo Trip Review – Part Four: Jardines del Rey
This is the last of four articles on my travels in Cuba in November 2011. You can read my thoughts on Havana in part one here, the swamps of Cienaga de Zapata National Park in part two here and my time exploring the south coast and southern cayos in part three here.
My favourite images from the trip have now been collected and published in my new book “Cuba: Town & Country” which is now available in various print formats and also as an e-book for iPad or iPhone.
Water, water everywhere…
20 miles off the northern, Atlantic-facing edge of Cuba lie the “Jardines del Rey” or “Gardens of the Kings”, a long archipelago created from a coral reef system that stretches for over 120 miles along the boundaries of Ciego de Avila and Camaguey provinces. The islands (cayos) are accessed by huge causeways built by the Cuban government to open up these astounding locations as lucrative tourism destinations. If you want to see them before they become vast tracts of tarmac (like Varadero) then best visit soon!
The last part of my journey through Cuba took me to three of the westerly cayos of Las Brujas, Ensenachos and Santa Maria. They are accessed by the awesome “El Pedraplén” a 48 kilometre causeway that heads straight out into the sea near the small town of Caibarien.
After 30 surreal minutes of driving across open sea, small mangrove-smothered islands start to appear, growing in number and connecting until finally you find youself on the main body of Cayo Las Brujas. There is a small airport here and a petrol station, but little else aside from the small boutique resort of Villa Las Brujas, our base for the next 4 nights.
One thing you won’t find out here is many Cubans. There is a security checkpoint as you drive onto El Pedraplén where you have to show your passport and pay a toll fee. The only Cubans allowed onto the archipelago are those who work in the hotel complexes. So as much as it’s a beautiful area, it’s definitely not an authentic Cuban experience.
Villa Las Brujas, it turns out, is a wonderful location for wildlife photography, especially for bird life. Within 5 minutes of checking in we had our first sighting of a Cuban Green Woodpecker. Alas, no camera to hand! The hunt for another view would occupy me greatly over the next few days.
The tree-lined path to the beach proved an especially productive area for bird photography early in the morning before anyone else was awake. I had sightings here of Greater Antillean Grackle, Crescent-Eyed Pewee, Western Spindalis, Canada Warbler and La Sagra’s Flycatcher amongst others. My favourite subject though was a curious and gorgeous Red-Legged Thrush who hopped along the walkways next to me quite happily.
On our third morning, after some mild panic that I wouldn’t get a decent sighting, I finally found my elusive Cuban Green Woodpecker breakfasting on berries in the top of a small tree and was able to get a few clear frames of this wonderfully colourful endemic species.
The immediate resort area had been so productive I hadn’t ventured out across the rest of the islands so the next morning I shook off my lethargy, set a 5.30am alarm and ventured out by car to the mangrove areas towards Cayo Ensenachos.
The shallow lagoons are serene in the quiet of dawn. With little other traffic around and wide gravel areas at the side of the road I was able to use the car as an effective hide to photograph a number of wading birds including Little Blue Heron and Tricoloured Heron. I also investigated a small dirt side-road next to the airport which led a half a mile or so to another wide lagoon area well away from any human habitation or activity. Some quiet observation soon revealed quite a lot of activity, including this Great White Egret enjoying the warming early rays of sun.
The highlight of the morning occurred when I spotted a pair of large birds on a patch of waste ground near the water’s edge. Raptors for sure, but what species? They weren’t the Cuban Black Hawks I’d seen the day before and weren’t quite large enough to be Turkey Vultures. Then I recognised them as Crested Caracara enjoying an early fish breakfast and was able to shoot the following sequence of images, which are probably my favourite set of the whole trip.
Cuba has a huge amount to offer visitors, whether you are a serious birder, a wildlife photographer or just someone looking for an eco-tourism destination accessible enough to do as a self-drive. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all of the articles in this series and it’s helped inspire you to visit Cuba and see its beautiful habitats and wildlife for yourself.