29. - 30.10.2016: Playa Girón

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Saturday, 29.10.2016: Viñales to Playa Girón, 330km - cloudy, rain, sunny in Playa Girón, 28°C

We forced ourselves out of bed at 7am and had pancakes and fruit for breakfast. We packed the rest of our things and made a drink for the journey. Our taxi arrived on time at 8-30am and it was a large old timer. There were already 4 others inside and we picked up two more!

It was quite hot but we had the front seats so it wasn't too bad. We drove back to Havana for 2 hours through the rain. We stopped at a rest stop on the outskirts of the city. We were told we had to change vehicles here but there was a lot of confusion. We had two English, two Dutch and two French with us but only the two English were going to Playa Girón. The others were going to Cienfuegos and Trinidad and we had to keep asking to make sure we got on the right vehicle.

We eventually found out we had to get onto a large green truck with a seat for four people behind the driver and sideways facing benches in the back. There were 13 of us to get on board, six going to Playa Girón. We had not realised we were getting a cattle truck for a taxi but this seemed to be the norm.

Next problem - our luggage had to go on the roof and it had already rained. We handed up our one bag and took our rucksacks inside with us. At least they had a tarp to tie over the top but we had no illusions that everything would stay dry on top. We needed our electronics and papers inside with us and managed to get the forward facing seats behind the driver. We squashed our rucksacks by our feet - there wasn't much room! Unfortunately I was squashed next to a large man who was sweating profusely! Yuk!

We drove for another 2 hours through pouring rain wondering how the luggage was doing on the roof. The truck only had one windscreen wiper for the drivers side that didn't work fast enough for the amount of rain. We couldn't see properly and we were sitting directly behind the driver! We had a short 15 minute break and then drove south towards the coast. Four Dutch women, one of whom spoke fluent Spanish, got out at Playa Larga and we finally got to Playa Girón at 3-30pm.

Playa Giron is quite famous because in April 1961 it was one of two landing sites for seaborne forces of about 1,500 armed Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the failed American CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow the new government of Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro. Our reason for coming here wasn't for the history but because it is part of the Cienega de Zapata - one of Cuba's most diverse ecosystems.

Our journey had taken us 2 hours longer than we had expected and we apologised to our hosts, Coralia and Carlos, who gave us a warm welcome despite the fact that we were hot and sweaty and felt absolutely filthy. We should have accepted the offer from the taxi driver who had driven us from Havana to Viñales. It would have cost us 40 CUC each and only 5 CUC each more for a far more comfortable journey. Lesson learned!

We were taken to our room that had two double beds, an en suite bathroom, air con and a fan. Everything was very clean and we even had a fridge! Coralia made us fresh Guava juice and a fruit salad that included oranges for the first time! Carlos is a bird watching guide for the area and he offered us a 2.5 hour tour tomorrow morning for 15 CUC per person including transport and entrance fees. Carlos also showed us photos of the birds we would see and even had the names in English! Wow, perfect! Exactly what we wanted and the reason we had come here.

We asked for a soup for an early evening meal and then went for a short walk to the beach and around the small town. We picked up a bottle of water so we have enough for our cups of tea and went to bed really early for us - 9-45pm!

Sunday, 30.10.2016: Playa Girón - foggy in the morning, then sunny, rain in the afternoon, 99% humidity, 28°C

The alarm went off at 7am. We had had 9 hours sleep but still felt really tired. We just got up and went straight to breakfast. There was masses of food on the table - all for us. Bread rolls, sliced bread, fruit salad, small hot cakes that were really yummy, slices of cheese and ham, papaya juice, coffee and hot water but no black tea so I fetched our tea bags so we could have a cuppa.

There was so much food we hardly put a dent in it. I made us some bread rolls for lunch and took the rest of the pancakes aswell! We packed a rucksack and left with Carlos at 8-30am for our bird watching tour.

We drove in Carlos' Jeep, built in 1950 and obviously well looked after, for about 20 minutes through the fog before pulling off to park. We walked to three different areas - a little side path from the main road, the natural reserve, and a private finca owned by friends of Carlos.

The tour was over 3 hours and we had a great time. The fog lifted and we quietly followed Carlos who had a little recorder with bird song on it. It was quite loud but it brought the birds closer to us. There were lots of birds to see including 9 out of the 11 endemic species to Cuba that we would be able to see in this area. There are 25 endemic birds in total which meant we managed to see about a third of them in the three hours we were here! (See photos for all the names).

We also saw the following birds but didn't manage to get a photo of:
Carpintero Chorroso - Fernandina's Flicker (endemic to Cuba)
Totí - Cuban Blackbird (endemic to Cuba)
Blue-headed Quail-Dove (endemic to Cuba)
Bijirita Comun - Palm Warbler
Bijirita Trepadora - Black-and-White Warbler

We walked across the road to the natural reserve and sweated buckets. We were wearing long trousers and long sleeved shirts because we knew there would be a lot of mosquitos. José from our Casa in Havana had also given us some deet spray to use for this tour and despite not liking to use the stuff we had no choice. There were so many mozzies that Kirsten had to spray her hands several times so she could stand long enough to take photos. I was standing behind her and trying to bat them away from her even though I had my own mosquito cloud to fight!

Whilst there we went in search of the endemic Bare-legged Owls who live in the dead palm trees. Carlos would walk up to one and knock on it or scratch the bark of the tree hoping to get one to pop up to the top so we could see it. It seemed that no one was home! Each time Kirsten would get ready, camera on and poised for a photo but then we had to walk to the next place where they might be. After about the 7th tree she didn't bother and just waited. Consequently she wasn't ready when we found the tenth tree occupied!! The owl only popped up for a few seconds and then disappeared again. So Carlos had to knock and scratch again so she could get photos of the owl!

Then we drove to a finca and were able to see the Zunzuncito - a bee hummingbird that is the smallest bird in the world at only 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) long. The male has a beautiful blue colouring on its back and head and the female is plain brown (as usual in the world of birds!) It's a wonder Kirsten managed to get photos because they don't stay still long enough and they're so tiny it's not easy to see them let alone take photos! We also saw the Zunzun which is another hummingbird but larger - about 3.5 inches long!

Fantastic bird watching morning with Carlos

The tour was very interesting and we thoroughly enjoyed it despite having to endure the huge amount of mosquitos and the 100% humidity! After the tour, Carlos drove us to the Viazul bus office so we could book tickets for the journey to Cienfuegos the next morning.

We got back just before noon and Kirsten wrote down all the names of the birds from Carlos' bird book. We washed some clothes and hung them out to dry and at 5-30pm we walked into town. There is a large hotel right on the beach but the restaurant wouldn't open until 7pm. So we found a shop and bought two tubs of ice cream and sat eating them on two plastic chairs near to the tourist stalls selling various items.

It was still very hot and we tried sitting outside our room at a table with chairs for guests. Then Coralia told us we have air con in our room - we hadn't even seen it! It certainly helped a lot! Later on Kirsten was still hungry so I told her we had one pack of nuts and raisins left. I hadn't even finished the sentence when she shouted - Gimme!!