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​Exploring Cuba’s Natural Side

By Brian Hutchinson

A classic car cruises the streets of Havana. © Brian J. Hutchinson

In June 2016, I was fortunate to lead a group of Oceanic Society travelers on a weeklong expedition to Cuba, the first such trip offered by Oceanic Society. Created in partnership with SEE Turtles, Cuba Marine Research & Conservation Program, and Altruvistas, our trip was designed not only to explore Cuba’s fascinating history and culture, but also to see and experience Cuba’s impressive natural diversity—which is some of the best in the Caribbean.

The focus and highlight of our trip was a visit to Cuba’s westernmost point, where in Guanahacabibes National Park our partners from inSTEC and University of Havana have been monitoring nesting green and loggerhead sea turtles for more than 15 years. The park is also home endemic birds, like the bee hummingbird (the world’s smallest bird), Cuban pygmy owl, and Cuban trogon, reptiles such as the Cuban boa and Cuban slider, and beautiful, protected coral reefs—all of which we were lucky to see.

Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución) in Havana. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Our adventure began with a day and a half in beautiful Havana, giving us time for a fascinating walking tour of Old Havana (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), a visit to Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolución), a tour of the National Museum of Natural History, and some fantastic meals at the iconic La Bodeguita del Medio (made famous by Ernest Hemingway) and at two beautiful paladares (privately-run restaurants serving homemade food).

The dramatically beautiful Viñales Valley. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Morning mist in the town of Viñales. © Brian J. Hutchinson

From Havana we headed off to the breathtaking Viñales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Viñales is known for its natural beauty, with dramatic limestone outcrops (mogotes) set amid a verdant valley, and it didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed an evening get together (and impromptu salsa dancing) with the local community association in Viñales, we took a walking tour through the valley, stopping at a traditional tobacco farm, and doing some “light” birding (we saw the endemic Cuban trogon and Cuban tody), and we visited the Mural de la Prehistoria.

A farmer bundles drying tobacco in Viñales. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Our next stop was the westernmost point of Cuba, the rugged and wild Guanahacabibes Peninsula, where we spent three days snorkeling and diving, hiking, and relaxing by the beach. The highlight of the experience was the opportunity to visit the sea turtle nesting beach at night, guided by our friend and colleague Dr. Julia Azanza-Ricardo, who leads the turtle monitoring project there. On our second night, after sunset, we made our way to the nesting beach, a 1 km long stretch of soft white sand mixed with large white chunks of washed up coral. Keeping our fingers crossed and expecting that we would have to wait a while for a turtle to come ashore (if one came ashore at all), we were amazed when no less than five minutes after our arrival a female green turtle hauled out onto the beach about 10 meters away! We waited quietly and patiently while she attempted, and abandoned, two nests before finally completing her egg chamber. We gathered around and quietly watched as she deposited 135 eggs into the nest, dutifully hand-counted by a member of our group.

Our group and the turtle researchers pose with a nesting green turtle.

From our base at the Villa Maria La Gorda Hotel and International Dive Center, we also enjoyed boat-based snorkel excursions (and scuba diving for a few of the group) to a few of the nearly 40 dive sites nearby. Snorkeling highlights included large tube and barrel sponges, sea fans, stony corals, barracuda, several species of butterflyfish, French angelfish, lots of parrotfishes and blue tangs, flamingo tongues, (invasive, yet beautiful) lionfish, and much more. We spent afternoons on the beach, watching the sunset and chatting with a Mojito, Daiquiri, or Rum Collins in hand.

A cenote on the shore of Guanahacabibes National Park. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Sunset from the beach at Villa Maria la Gorda Hotel. © Brian J. Hutchinson

After our stay in Guanahacabibes we returned to Havana for a final chance to enjoy that incredible city. We took advantage of the opportunity to admire, and go for a ride in, classic cars from the 1950s, to watch a performance at the famous jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo, to enjoy a private concert from Grupo Mezcla in the band leader’s home, and to tour an interesting rum museum.

Cruising through Havana in a 1956 Ford. © Brian J. Hutchinson

It was an incredible, and eye opening trip. We felt privileged to visit Cuba at a time when it’s still not easy for Americans to get there, and to learn about their way of life directly from the people we met along the way, including scientists, government officials, farmers, community representatives, park rangers, musicians, and others. We were also extremely fortunate to see a nesting green turtle and seven endemic bird species (out of 40 bird species overall), to snorkel healthy coral reefs, and to enjoy beautiful rural landscapes. It was challenging at times too. Traveling in Cuba requires patience, flexibility, and an openness to experience, more so than in some other destinations. Fortunately our group was up to the challenge, and as a result these moments made the trip even more memorable.

Personally, I can’t wait to get back to Cuba. We’ll be offering this incredible trip again next July, and I hope you can join us! You can find more information about our Cuba expedition here.

A final group photo on the steps of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

Author

Brian Hutchinson is Oceanic Society's director of outreach, co-founder of the State of the World's Sea Turtles Program, and program officer of the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Brian holds a B.A. in zoology from Connecticut College, and has been working to advance global marine conservation for more than a decade.