Cuba Photo Trip Review – Part Three: South Coast & Cayos
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.
Where the mountains meet the sea
If I’m honest, large parts of central Cuba aren’t all that scenic. From Havana, the Autopista (motorway) rolls for many miles across flat terrain, with little in the way of interesting views. Turning off towards the coastal town of Cienfuegos things start to get a bit more interesting but you’ll find your view often obscured by the fields of tall sugarcane on each side that provide one of Cuba’s chief export products.
Leaving Cienfuegos, the road begins to follow the coast en route to Trinidad and ahead looms a dramatic change in topography, the Sierra del Escambray mountains. They dominate the next 50 miles of coastline, with the western end partly designated as the Topes de Collantes National Park. More on this area in a bit!
I have a controversial revelation about our first port of call: All guide books sing the praises of the “charming little town ” of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage area no less. Personally I couldn’t abide the place, undoubtedly my least favourite in Cuba, with the hassle afforded to Westerners exceeding what I had experienced even in Havana. Perhaps I had enjoyed the rural quiet of a few days in the Zapata Swamp too much and was under-prepared for a return to touristy areas, but I found it all incredibly tiresome and within a couple of hours of arrving promptly got the hell out of town as fast as possible. Fortunately salvation was at hand nearby in a charming casa particular in the little fishing village of La Boca.
La Boca gave us the perfect base to explore the Ancon Peninsula and take a trip to one of the offshore cayos dotted in the Bahia de Casilda. This is of course Cuba’s Caribbean Sea coastline, a different experience to the Atlantic coast in the north. The cayos, tiny outposts of sand and rock surrounded by lovely coral reefs, are the last refuge for one of of Cuba’s most endangered reptiles, the Cuban Iguana (Cyclura nubila) . The Marlin Marina at the end of the Ancon peninsula was the starting point the next day to head out on a catamaran in perfect conditions for Cayo Blanco, a small rocky island lying about 5 miles offshore.
On arriving at Cayo Blanco the first wildlife in evidence were Caribbean Hermit Crabs.. lots of them! The few hundred I saw were nothing though.. for in this area every March a truly astonishing wildlife spectacle takes place as millions of land crabs pour out of the coastal forests for the sea, covering every inch of the land with a moving blanket of the small crustaceans and causing chaos on the coastal roads.
There was also plenty of coastal bird life to be seen, with a female Magnificent Frigatebird gliding overhead and a number of large Double-Crested Cormorants dotted around rocky outcrops in the bay.
I was beginning to fear that that I would miss out on a sighting of the iguanas but a pair of adults eventually appeared from the tangled vegetation of the island’s interior onto the edge of the beach. They are quite a large species but quite cautious of humans, I carefully tested their “circle of fear” and they weren’t comfortable with being approached closer than about 25 feet so I maintained a respectful distance to ensure they would tolerate me.
These iguanas are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Redlist and these uninhabited cayos provide a refuge, but they are land iguanas, they don’t swim so ultimately they will need to recover numbers on the mainland for the population to grow. It’s always an absolute privilege to spend time observing threatened species in the wild, I often feel a palpable sense of what it would mean to lose the animal I see in front of me from our planet and the Cuban Iguana is definitely a species I hope can be helped to recover.
On arriving back on the mainland some local fisherman were landing their day’s catch, their rather shabby boat made a bit of a contrast next to our immaculate catamaran!
The next day it was time to pack up and head north over the Escambray mountains towards the Atlantic coast. I’d been advised not to drive the mountain road, but as long as you have a reliable car then you should! It is very steep and bumpy in places so expect to do parts in 1st gear and watch out for lorries on the tight switchback turns but it’s a fascinating area and the route north through Jibacoa and on to Manicaragua feels like the “real Cuba” with no tourist trappings whatsoever. Coming across some local cowboys and their herd blocking the road gave me one last photo opportunity before we left the region for the north coast.