A Cuba COVID Tour

A Cuba COVID Tour—or learn how to go with the flow!

December 9 – 22, 2020

The intrepidly adventurous Soledad, of the Friendship Association, offered me the opportunity to accompany her and Joni Ellis, of Optics for the Tropics, on a two week tour in Cuba. It was a rather dicey time with COVID surging in the U.S., though it was at a low rate in Cuba, the Jose Marti Airport having recently re-opened to traffic. Soledad and Joni had tasks to take care of in the country, delivering promised goods to friends, bringing newly published books, and doing cultural presentations of books and a mural.

I figured that the most vulnerable we would be to the virus would be in the two major airports of Miami and Havana, followed by a much lesser risk in the smaller towns and countryside—certainly safer than our own country.

We had ourselves tested for the coronavirus just before leaving the country, so we knew we were exiting free of disease. We arrived in airport donning our masks and face shields and were set to go!

Day 1. After making the short hour long flight from Miami to Havana, we endured our first COVID test, received directions (and admonishments) to quarantine until the results were back, followed by the anticipated combing through of our luggage by customs personnel. Our time in customs was relatively short compared to the three hour trial by the wife of our chauffer, who arrived from Argentina two weeks later. It’s a stressful time because you never know what items might be considered inadmissible to the country and be taken away.

Soby, our chauffer and friend who has been driving for the Friendship Association for several years, met us and transported us to our B&B in downtown Havana opposite the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest stone fort in the Americas. Our rooms had excellent views of the fort from our balconies. We did have to trudge up two flights of stairs to our rooms—though it felt like more than that. The compensation was the great view.

Aware that we had tested negative for COVID in the U.S. just a couple days prior, we did go downstairs to eat lunch at 5 Esquinas Retaurant, a favorite of Soledad. The streets of Havana were sparsely occupied due to the lack of tourists, at least as compared to pre-COVID. Many hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants were closed. COVID has been devastating for the Cuban economy, as with economies everywhere. However, for us, the lack of tourists allowed us to witness a different atmosphere, and one which I welcomed.

Day 2. Today we spent entirely in our apartment. Health officials came by to check that we were dutifully quarantining, again giving us a list of rules regarding masks, distance, etc. Everyone wore a mask, including those walking on the streets, and no one complained. The government is very serious about enforcement of rules with a steep fine for first offense and eventual jailing if there is continued non-compliance. This day our meals were delivered to us in our apartment.

Day 3. We piled onto the Transtour bus and left for our first stop which was to be in the province of Nahasa, putting our lives into the hands of our accomplished drivers Soby and Ronald. Accompanying us was Julio Larramandi, acclaimed photographer of large nature and architecture books, and Maikel Cañizares with his two sons, 13 and 10. Maikal is a biologist and ornithologist, specializing in the ecology of birds in the forests, with emphasis on the conservation and management of the Cuban parrot. Besides being a warm, funny, personable guy, he was an indispensable informative guide during our walks. His sons Sebastian and Lucas were also quite knowledgeable and also spoke good English.

While in the bus, we received a call from the ministry of health doctor, checking to see where we were. Soledad advised him we had been given prior permission to continue our quarantine in Baracoa, and that’s where we were going. During our lunch stop on the road I strolled through the nearby neighborhood, observing modest houses, Brahma cattle, cattle egrets, vultures, horses by the road grazing, along with a few unidentified birds.

This was a long day. Our day’s destination was south of Camaguey, in the province of Nahasa, at the Sierra del Chorrillo Protected Resources Area—a conservation site. We arrived after dark at La Rancho Belén, traveling much of the final distance on a dirt, pot-holed, bumpy road, hoping we were indeed on the right path! Maikel had been to the center before but not for some time. Even before arriving at the lodge, he somehow spotted an owl in the trees along the road, which we stopped to see, although it eluded my vision.

Following a “welcome drink”, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of vegetables, rice, soup, chicken, and salad, along with our own wine. After dinner we walked a little way down the road on an “owl prowl”. Thanks to Maikel’s direction, we spotted a Bare Legged Owl (aka Cuban Screech Owl) and a Cuban Pigmy Owl, both endemic to Cuba.

While riding the bus, we watched two videos of Maikel’s, one showing the rescue of two parakeet babies. Men who had been poachers cared for them, learned the value of a biodiversity of birds, and were the ones to release them, thus turning from poachers into conservationists. The other video showed rock climbers (day job window washers) locating parrot nests higher up on the ledges, beyond the reach of poachers.

Unlike in other countries, where habitat loss is a major reason for decline in bird populations, here in Cuba a decline in population is more likely due to poaching.

Among the fauna, the 127 species of birds that live in this protected area stand out, of which 50 percent are endemic to Cuba—for example the loggerhead dove, the Palm Crow and the Giant Kingbird, as well as the Cuban Parrot (Cotorra) and the Cuban Parakeet (Catey).

Day 4. After breakfast, we took a beautiful guided walk with Maikal down the tree-covered road leading to the main “highway”. With the naked eye and binoculars we observed and identified: the ubiquitous turkey vulture, the diurnal Cuban Pigmy Owl, the beautiful national bird—the Trojan/Tocorroro; the Cuban Crow, a Little Blue Heron, the Giant King Bird, Northern Mockingbird, West Indian Woodpecker, Red-tailed Hawk, and the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Besides being an ornithologist Maikal is a wonderful photographer. We were in awe of the photos in which he captured the birds.

We also visited the stables which hold a number of purebred horses, including the Morgan and watched one of the stable hands putting a gorgeous Morgan through his paces. Soledad related that sperm from these horses has been sold for large sums in the past—though don’t know if that’s current.

Leaving the Belén ranch at 10 a.m., we began another very long driving day. Having two drivers made it much easier for both of them. Their competent driving was very much appreciated as it must be a very stressful, intense job, given the condition of much of the road. We stopped in Santiago to drop off Julio, who was working there.

This long drive also offered the opportunity to watch the movie “The Big Year”—a comedy about birdwatching, which Maikal had downloaded on his computer and we viewed on the bus TV.

We made a stop in Holguin to retrieve the handmade books of poetry, which were bound for Baracoa.

Twice we had stops at “Points of Control” where we were required to disembark from the bus and have our temperatures checked at the roadside. All businesses and B&Bs required hand disinfecting at the door with either hand sanitizer or a diluted chlorox solution. We were also required to step on a bleach-soaked towel in a tray to eliminate any organisms on the bottom of our shoes. Of course, masks were required everywhere except when eating and drinking, though we noticed in the more rural areas people were more lax about wearing them. If a person was found to be COVID-positive, an ambulance would take them to a nearby hospital.

It wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that we stopped for dinner at a favorite restaurant on the beach, south of Guantánamo. The owners have also become friends of Soledad, who seems to be known and loved wherever we go!

After following La Farola, a very scenic, zigzagging highway through the mountains, we arrived about 1:15 a.m. in Baracoa. Here Sole and Joni bedded at Yolanda’s—the mother of Soby—with whom over years they have established a close relationship. I stayed at Yolandita’s B&B a few doors down. Yolandita had fallen and broken her hip and was in the hospital, so her spouse Raymond was my host, with whom I had one interesting conversation about Cuba—though it didn’t occur that night!

Day 5. Today, doing our quarantine, was a food day! We sat around Yolanda’s house, eating, sitting, browsing books, chatting, exercising on her patio, feeding the turtles, and my reading Borbon’s La Virtud de Silencio. We had our first drink of Cancháncara, this version made with honey, freshly squeezed lime juice, rum, sparkling water, and ice. I enjoyed it as much or more than a mojito.

Yolanda’s helper Kiko preparing our cancháncara

For dinner we had freshly harvested tetí. This is a fish larva 2 cm long unique to eastern Cuba that arrives from the sea in the form of a bag and is harvested from rivers in Baracoa. They are captured at night,

attracted by lights, using very fine nets. Along with the tetí we dined on black bean soup, tostones, salad, rice, with flan and ice cream for desert.

Day 6. We slept in this morning and waited for the arrival of yet another doctor to check on us. She (the doctor) told Sole we needed 5 days of quarantine here in Baracoa. An argument apparently ensued with Sole telling her we were supposed to be released from quarantine after 5 days of arriving in Havana and that’s what we were adhering to, this being 5 days! This doctor said she was just doing her job. She was quite young and the daughter-in-law-to- be of Raymond, my host. The COVID results from our test in Havana came back today Negative. To date the information available is there are 9 COVID cases in Baracoa.

This morning I spent some time talking with my host; rather, his talking to me. It turned out we were within a few months of being the same age—although I thought he looked older than me! He related how when Fidel took power the businesses were nationalized, including businesses owned by his family. When I asked him that in spite of the loss of family businesses, he still supported what Fidel was doing, he responded yes, because they understood the reasons. . .and others who didn’t agree with Fidel’s actions, left the country. Raymond’s father had been director of aviation in Baracoa and described how in its heyday, Baracoa was a big flight center. He showed me the huge book he was reading on the history of aviation in Cuba. He was doing more reading now as his TV wasn’t working. I would often see him sitting in his chair staring at the empty screen. He explained he was in the process of trying to get someone to look at it for repair as he could not afford a new one. When we left, I left him some dollars to help for repair, for which he was very grateful.

In the afternoon we all got on to the gua gua and drove to the Office of Humboldt Park, dropping off 500 books, in Spanish and English of “Secrets of the Park”. Soledad is encouraging the administration to have these books available in the park, where they could ask for donations from visitors and thus make a bit of money. These books, published by Ediciones Mundiales (Friendship Association), cannot be sold, only donated.

From the office we took a walk to the Paradise Cave Archaeological Museum, which came about as a result of assistance by the Friendship Association with the Baracoan archaeologists. We entered the cave and climbed the ladders for the most impressive views, then walked back to our domicile.

Dinner tonight at another favorite restaurant, El Guajiro.

Day 7. Excited today to visit the easternmost point in Cuba, the Point of Maisi, over 600 miles from Havana. Driving across the Yumuri River, we stopped at a campesino’s home to view the famed palomita snail and purchase local jewelry.

Arriving at the Punta de Maisi, the first place in all of Cuba that is touched by the sun’s rays every morning,

we took off our shoes and climbed the 144 steps of the Faro (lighthouse) for expanded views from the top. According to the lighthouse workers, on clear days it is possible to see the Haitian hills, located 77 kilometers (about 47 miles) away. This point is a big migration area for both birds and sea creatures. There is a species of kingbird which migrates in large numbers by the point. The local people are known to smear a type of homemade paste on branches of trees, on which the birds get stuck, and they’re then killed for food—hundreds a day. Maikal believes those killed here are not in significant enough numbers to affect their population overall.

This point is also a major crossing of ships going to and from the Panama Canal.

I noted a large of garbage on the beach, apparently brought up from the sea. Our lighthouse guide said this is very little compared to the way it piles up later in the year. There have been efforts to clean this

beach, and I assume others; however, the point was made that when people are living on a subsistence level, cleaning up the beach is not a priority!

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at the lighthouse restaurant, after which we returned to Baracoa. It was time for Sole and Sebastian to present the book of poetry, Antes del silencio, to Rafael Mosqueda, the book’s author. The Friendship Association had sponsored a smaller book with a painting on the cover by Luis Rodriguez (known as NOA) as well as a larger version in the form of a handmade book, designed by Sebastian (Maikal’s son). We were unable to have the planned-for presentation before a large group due to COVID restrictions. However, as soon as we left town, that restriction was lifted!

Day 8. Today was the day to go to Humboldt National Park! After Yolanda’s breakfast, we proceeded by gua-gua to pick up the biologist Nardis (one of the authors of Secrets of the Park), and accompanied by biologist Ernesto. At the park we walked the Sendero de Recreo (Recreation Path)—about 3 miles although it felt longer as it was very steep and slippery in places. On the way back we had to cross three rivers, where the boys took the opportunity to swim.

We observed the clay soil of the area where only acid-loving plants can grow and saw cashew trees planted by the park group. Although Maikal looked, he could not find the smallest frog. However, we did see the Cuban Tody, as well as a hawk.

A local guide “Indio” accompanied us and helped me cross the rivers. His mother Maria cooked our lunch and introduced us to calalú, along with rice, chicken, salad, tostados, black bean soup, the famed Baracoan cucurucho for dessert, along with fruit, and coffee from Nardis’ finca.

María, our cook & Indio, our guide (her son)

Fortunately, we arrived back in Baracoa at Yolanda’s house just in the nick of time for the arrival of “the Ghostbusters”—the ministry of health personnel who came garbed in biohazard white to test us again for COVID. Soledad and I were tested; however, for some obscure reason, Joni was supposed to be tested by someone else, who didn’t show up until the next day.

I walked down to the malecó alone at dusk for a stroll. The return trip was in the dark. With my lousy sense of direction, I got lost but was able to phone Soledad. Yolanda and Joni found me! Interesting that when I asked people for directions to Calle Cespedes, they didn’t know where it was as they tend to not actually use the street names as directions for locating people. They rely on knowing people’s names and where they live.

There were now 12 COVID cases in Baracoa.

We went out for dinner to El Buen Sabor, where I ate calalú natural. Abel the painter joined us for dinner as did Elexsis and his wife.

Day 9. This morning Joni and I took a walk up the steps of the Hotel Castillo and along the Malecón. The Castillo is closed to visitors and guests now, and it has served as a refuge for the citizens during a past hurricane when a tsunami was expected. Though the tsunami never arrived, the Baracoans did evacuate to the Castillo.

We said our goodbyes to our hosts and friends and headed south for a stop in Guantánamo. Not far from the city, we came upon group of about 30 flamingos plus a few other birds. Of course, we had to stop, watch, and take photos!

Arriving in Guantánamo, we stopped at UNEAC (The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) for the presentation of the new abstract mural dealing with freeing caged birds. The two artists who painted the mural were in attendance, along with other people of importance. In a surprise move to Soledad, they presented her with a belated 80th birthday cake and gifts.

After a late lunch in Guantánamo, we were on the road bound for Santiago. We arrived in Santiago about 7 p.m. After settling into our rooms at the B&B of Corona 365, Sole and I shared rum drinks and retired early.

Day 10. Our day trip was a journey to Gran Piedra National Park, about an hour’s drive on another steep, twisty road. By 11 a.m. we were climbing the steps leading to the Great Rock, which took only about 25 minutes. We enjoyed the view quite a while before walking back down on the other side. This path lead to a coffee museum located in a renovated coffee plantation of the 1800s. Usually we would be served coffee here and be able to purchase bags; however, there was none available—somehow related to the COVID situation. As I had been reading La Virtud de Silencio which deals with the large coffee plantation Angerona, it was enlightening to now be able to visualize how Angerona must have appeared. One difference between Angerona and this plantation was that the slave barracks were separate for men and for women, whereas at Angerona there were accommodations for couples, which were encouraged.

On the site of this museum Maikal pointed out the Great Lizard Cuckoo and a few other species of birds. He was invaluable.

There were no restaurants open in this out-of-the-way location; however, Soby discovered a woman, “La Negrita” who would make us lunch. She usually made her living carrying Cuban handicrafts up to the top of La Piedra to sell, and she has been doing that for years. COVID has also impacted that source of income. La Negrita (as she preferred to be called) had killed a duck for us and served a meal of duck, rice, black beans, and fried smashed plaintains, followed by coffee. Her house was a very modest campesino dwelling; however, she had a TV, phone, a variety of shoes, and was apparently quite comfortable.

Back on the bus to arrive at the B&B about 5 p.m., where we had our drinks of rum, lime, honey, and sparkling water (Cancháncara). Despite it being early, I opted to remain in my room for the evening rather than go to dinner with the others. Soledad later told me I hadn’t missed anything!

Day 11. Ten hour drive today with one lunch stop for Cuban “pizza”. Arrived at Las Lomas de Bacao Ecological Reserve at 6 p.m. Lomas de Banao ecological reserve was the winner of the Provincial First Prize on Environment in 2010, and its results boosting ecotourism are considered outstanding. This protected area is distinguished by its values concerning flora and fauna, with 23 per cent endemic species, and nearly 800 varieties of plants.

After our Welcome Drink we saw a Bare-Legged Owl. Maikal gave us a power point presentation on the park and to bed.

Day 12. We took an early morning (7 a.m.) walk on a trail near the ecological reserve, ending at a pretty waterfall. Our bird-watching yielded the following: West Indian Woodpecker, Red-Legged Thrush, Western

Spindalis, Green Woodpecker, Black Throated Blue Warbler. One sighting we did not enjoy nor appreciate was the caged roosters which are used by the workmen for cockfights. This does seem contrary to the mission of an ecological station.

After a lunch stop we arrived Havana about 5 p.m., where we bid adieu to Maikal, Sebastian, and Lucas, a treasure of a trio.

Dinner at 5 Esquinas with archaeologist Roger and his wife, Mark Antonio (archaeologist) and his wife and child, and others.

Day 13. Short walk in Havana with Sole; otherwise, waited in our apartment for Sole to go with Soby to collect his wife from the airport. Around noon we left by bus for Artemisa to the home of Reinaldo Barbón, geologist, Angerona docent, and the author of La Virtud de Silencio, another publishing feat by Ediciones Mundiales (aka the Friendship Association). Barbón’s son cooked our lunch of duck, trout, rice, salad.

We drove to Angerona for presentation to Borbón of his book, with its graphic designer Camilo and photographer Ira in attendance. We also planted two trees, a coffee tree and a palm to add to the various trees which members of the Friendship Association have planted over the years.

Our last dinner tonight at 5 Esquinas.

Day 14. Leave 8:30 a.m. for Havana Airport for our 12N flight. Arrived in Miami 1 pm. Rental car to St Augustine – home by 8.

* * *

What stands out about the trip:

• The diligence, most of the time, regarding protection against COVID and enforcement of rules, especially as compared to the U.S.

• The lack of tourists on the streets, contributing to a more aesthetically pleasing environment

• The generosity of the people in opening up their homes to us

• Above all, the beautiful scenery and varied ecosystems

• The joy in spotting fauna, specifically birds, with the guidance of someone who knows (thank you, Maikal!)

• Great food!

• The significant work which the Friendship Association, specifically Soledad, does for the Cuban people

• Not knowing where one is going or how things may change still result in a rewarding trip

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