CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF CUBA:
Zegrahm and Noble Caledonia April 17-30, 2018
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Today was a busy day as people arrived in Havana from all over the world. We enjoyed a great welcome dinner at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel and then headed to bed, excited for our circumnavigation to begin.
Wednesday, April 18
Havana / Viñales
Our first full day in Cuba took us out of Havana to provide a wonderful introduction to the island’s spectacular landscapes. Most of us opted for the excursion to Pinar del Rio and the Viñales Valley. This region has some of the most dramatic landscapes in Cuba, with towering limestone outcrops looming over fertile valleys. This is the heart of Cuba’s tobacco farming region, which is an essential part of the country’s economy. We visited an organic tobacco farm, where we had the opportunity to buy cigars, and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the family run Agro Ecologico Restaurant.
A second group explored Las Terrazas, in the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario. This area was cleared of its original forest for coffee plantations in the 19th century, but in recent decades there has been a concerted effort to replant native trees, and now a well- developed second-growth forest flourishes in the reserve. For the birders in the group,this was our first chance to see some of Cuba’s amazing birdlife, and everyone was excited to see our first endemic Cuban species, the beautiful Cuban emerald hummingbird. We also enjoyed a visit to the studio of artist Lester Campa, many of whose strikingly original paintings convey a message of environmental conservation.
Thursday, April 19
Havana / Embark Hebridean Sky
Today was our day to sample the flavors of Havana. Cuba’s capital city is filled with the energy and friendliness of the Cuban people and is an endlessly fascinating blend of the old and new, combining the imposing monuments of the colonial past and the bold icons of the communist present. A walking tour of Old Havana took us through the great squares of this UNESCO World Heritage site, including the Plaza de la Cathedral where the massive church is constructed of limestone embedded with the shapes of fossil coral. Then we all piled into a series of Havana’s famous classic convertibles and set off for a driving tour in a procession of hot pink, cherry red, aqua blue, and royal purple land yachts. The drive ended at the sprawling Revolution Square, presided over by the soaring Independence Tower and the imposing face of Che Guevara outlined on the Ministry of Economic Development. After a great lunch, we continued to the National Museum of Fine Arts, where we were given a guided tour of this impressive collection that expresses the vibrant and colorful imagination of Cuban artists. Finally, we boarded our buses for the last time and arrived at the port and the Hebridean Sky, where we completed the embarkation-day whirlwind of orientations, lifeboat drill, introductions, and briefings.
Friday, April 20
Varadero / Matanzas
Today began with Zodiac and snorkel briefings, followed by the excited hubbub as everyone selected their masks and fins for the snorkeling adventures ahead. Then about half of us headed off to explore Matanzas, Cuba’s “City of Bridges,” known for the 17 bridges that cross the three rivers of the town. Here we explored the Matanzas Museum and a wonderful art gallery where many purchases of small paintings and sculptures by local artists were made. A highlight of the day was our lunch at the Chiquirrin Restaurant, where the irrepressible owner serenaded us with traditional Cuban songs, and provided great food.
The second group piled into a convoy of little Suzuki jeeps to explore the dirt tracks of the countryside, including an impressive quarry where towering pillars of gray and tan limestone remained from the excavations. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch at the rustic Las Arboritas restaurant beside the Rio Canimar, and then made a stop at the Playa del Coral, where some of us jumped in for a quick snorkel before we all returned to the ship in time to make ourselves beautiful for the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.
Saturday, April 21
The small Cayo Guillermo provided a splendid morning both above and below the waves. Snorkelers focused their activities around the coral islet of Media Luna, where sea whips, sea fans, and abundant fish provided a fantastic introduction to the rich coral reefs of Cuba. A glass-bottom boat was available both as a platform for the snorkelers and an observation point for those who preferred to stay dry while viewing the wonders of the reef. The nearby beach of Playa Pilar—considered the finest in Cuba—was an irresistible attraction for many, who relaxed and swam in the azure waters. Meanwhile, the birders set off to see what they could find, rather apprehensive because extensive damage to the native vegetation from last fall’s Hurricane Irma was still evident. It turned out that both the vegetation and the birds are recovering well, and the group tallied a total of 47 species in just a few hours, including a lovely flock of flamingos, and our first glimpse of the endemic—and adorable—Cuban tody.
The day’s excitement was far from over, however. During pre-dawn maneuvering, the Hebridean Sky ran aground on an uncharted sandbank deposited by Hurricane Irma. After some skillful maneuvering of lifeboats and Zodiacs, the ship floated free to the applause of observers lining the rails. After that excitement, our first lectures by Brad Climpson on Cuba’s coral reefs and by Pepper Trail on the bird life of Cuba provided a calming—and informative—afternoon.
Sunday, April 22
Antilla / Cayo Saetia
This morning found us anchored in the harbor of Antilla on Cuba’s northeastern coast. Here we had to make some difficult choices. One group set off for the nearby town of Banes, where they toured the Indocuban Bani Museum at the most important pre-Columbian archaeological site in Cuba. This was followed by a wonderful visit to a local farm, where the farmer, Nene, still energetic in his 70s, proudly showed us his avocado and banana trees, beans, and pineapple, giving us an authentic view of rural life.
A second group boarded a catamaran in Antilla, and set sail for the island of Cayo Saetia. The cruise itself was wonderfully pleasant and relaxing, but was only the first of our activities. Arriving at Cayo Saetia, some of us disembarked to tour the island in memorably ramshackle Soviet-era vehicles, which were our platform for viewing the exotic wildlife introduced to the island, including water buffalo, blackbuck antelope, wild boar, and one lonely camel. Others headed for the landing site’s small but lovely beach for some relaxing swimming, while a second group of more adventurous snorkelers continued in the catamaran to a deeper snorkeling site, where highlights included amazing close views of a school of halfbeaks near the surface. All the Cayo Saetia groups gathered back together for a delicious buffet lunch before boarding the catamaran for the trip back—under sail—to Antilla and the Hebridean Sky. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a lecture by Ximena Escovar-Fadul on The Nature Conservancy’s marine conservation program in Cuba.
Monday, April 23
Santiago de Cuba
We enjoyed an unforgettable full day exploring the vibrant, unspoiled—and hot!—city of Santiago de Cuba, the original capital of Cuba and the fountainhead of its revolutionary history. What better place to start than the Moncado Barracks, where Fidel Castro led an assault on the government garrison in 1953, setting the Cuban Revolution in motion. The history museum here provides vivid testimony to the sufferings endured by the revolutionaries. Santiago also played a crucial role in the Cuban-Spanish-American War, and we visited San Juan Hill where the defeat of the Spanish by American troops, led by Teddy Roosevelt, contributed to Spain’s surrender in 1898. Further insights into Cuba’s history were gained at the First Governor’s House, the oldest surviving colonial house in Cuba, and at the Emilio Barcardi Moreau Museum, where paintings by famous Cuban artists shared space with exhibits illuminated the prehistory of Cuba, the colonial period, and the early independence struggles led by Jose Marti. The final stop on our tour was the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, site of Fidel Castro’s grave—marked by a single massive boulder—as well as the memorial to Jose Marti and many other martyrs of Cuba’s long struggles for independence. The solemn changing of the guard at Castro’s tomb was a dramatic finale to our immersion in Santiago’s history.
However, that was not the end of our explorations. Santiago is also famous for its restaurants and music, and after a quick return to the ship to freshen up, many of us returned to sample the city’s night life. The high spirits of those who returned, just in time for our 10 PM departure, testified to the charm and energy of Cuba’s second city.
Tuesday, April 24
Today was a classic day at sea, with a luxurious sleep-in followed by a rich offering of lectures and special activities. Conditions were perfect as we sailed west, the sapphire-blue Caribbean enlivened by patches of orange sargasso weed and volleys of flying fish. In the morning, we were treated to lectures by Jack Grove on the natural history of Cuba’s marine environment and by Pepper Trail on his unique work as a forensic ornithologist. After lunch and a break for sun-bathing or napping, our Cuban guides offered a spirited lesson on the Cuban game of dominoes. An ice cream social followed, leading into a lecture by Colin Munro on the biology of marine invertebrates. As if that wasn’t sweet enough, dinner was followed by a decadent array of chocolate desserts and a screening of the wonderful documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which chronicles the world’s rediscovery of traditional Cuban music.
Wednesday, April 25
Trinidad / Guanayara National Park
This morning we docked in the village of Casilda at a small picturesque harbor with a colorful collection of small fishing boats, before setting off on the day’s adventures. The nearby town of Trinidad was the destination for many. A UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautifully-preserved colonial churches, municipal buildings, and cobblestone streets, it rewards strollers with art galleries, craft markets, and music-filled cafes. Other groups set off to the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, home of Topes de Collantes National Park. The bus ride to the visitor center at an elevation of 2,600 feet offered sweeping views of the mountains and back down to the coast. At the visitor center, we received an orientation to the park, and then a band of hikers set off in a pair of Russian trucks for the Guanayara section of the park, where we hiked down through native forest along a stream that cascaded over a series of lovely waterfalls. One waterfall plunged into a deep pool that provided a refreshing dip for the cold-tolerant members of the group. The hike rewarded us with great birds, including wonderful looks at Cuban trogon, Cuban tody, and even the nest of a Cuban emerald hummingbird. We arrived for our excellent lunch at the Casa La Gallega restaurant just as a thunderstorm broke over our heads. The second group remained in the Topes de Collantes area, where they toured a coffee farm, complete with coffee tasting—and a lucky view of a Cuban trogon—before continuing to a local art gallery with an excellent display of color photography.
After their mountain adventures, everyone had the opportunity to spend a bit of time enjoying the charms of Trinidad before returning to the ship.
Thursday, April 26
Cienfuegos / Bahia de Giron / Zapata National Park
At dawn we piloted through a narrow and picturesque channel, accompanied by flocks of pelicans, to dock alongside at Cienfuegos. This charming city was founded by French settlers from Louisiana, and the architecture and ambiance have a distinctly different feel from other cities in Cuba. One group spent the day exploring the city, while others set out for the Bahia de Giron (Bay of Pigs) and Zapata National Park. The snorkelers found excellent conditions at Punta Pedez, with rare elkhorn coral, beautiful soft corals, sea fans and sea whips, and many species of damselfish. The birders visited Zapata National Park, where local guide extraordinaire Orlando showed us Cuban parrots, Cuban trogons (everyone got great looks through Pepper’s scope), and led us to the roosting trees of two endemic owls—the Cuban pygmy-owl and the bare-shanked screech owl. The screech-owl, with its huge dark eyes and fuzzy face, was a particular favorite. Lunch was followed by a great introduction to the ecology of the national park by its director, Dr. Frank Medina. Both the snorkelers and the birders also visited the Bay of Pigs Museum in the town of Giron, where the story of that ill-fated invasion was told in dramatic photos. A crowning highlight of the day for both groups was the sighting of the bee hummingbird—a Cuban endemic and the smallest living bird in the world—at the Jardin de Zunzun (the local name for the bird), where several of the tiny birds zipped around and through the bright red blooms of their favorite tree. Truly an incredible sight.
Friday, April 27
Today was an “expedition day,” with Michael Moore, Nadia Eckhardt, and the expedition team putting together a memorable set of activities at a site that a ship of our size had never visited before. Cayo Largo is a small island between the Cuban mainland and the Island of Youth that has been developed as a resort. After the odd government-required ritual of having all of our temperatures taken as we landed on the dock, we admired the huge tarpon swimming around the marina (attracted by a diet of bread and other food provided by the resort). Then, many of us boarded a catamaran and headed off to snorkel over a reef formed of massive hard corals with many sea fans and sponges, as well as damselfish, snappers, and small parrotfish.
Others toured the island’s health clinic, where our Cuban guides explained the country’s admirable health system. Nearby was a turtle conservation center, where thousands of green sea turtle eggs are hatched each year, relocated from nests at risk due to resort activities. The director, Gustavo, is a passionate conservationist who has dedicated his life to preserving these marvelous and endangered turtles.
Another group enjoyed a relaxing morning at the lovely beach. A torrential rainfall in the afternoon didn’t discourage a dedicated contingent of snorkelers—and provided a memorable Zodiac ride back to the ship for everyone.
Saturday, April 28
Isla de la Juventud
Today we joined a select group of travelers who have explored Cuba’s little-visited Isla de la Juventud, the Isle of Youth (known until 1978 as the Isle of Pines). We disembarked at Siguanea, in the southwest corner of the island, and then set off by bus and a variety of taxis to the capital of the island, Nueva Gerona, in the northeast. There we enjoyed a walking tour of the city, with highlights including the music school and the cathedral, before sitting down to a fabulous lunch at the Tu Isla restaurant, complete with the best mojitos ever.
In the afternoon we drove out of the town to tour the Presidio Modelo prison, a truly overwhelming complex where political prisoners were held in the early days of the revolution. Fidel called this the best school possible, as revolutionaries from around Cuba met, compared strategies, and forged alliances that would prove crucial in the years ahead. The site is dominated by huge circular prison buildings, which have now fallen into ruin with roofs open to the sky, and the endless ranks of cells exposed like an abandoned beehive. The scale of the prison makes it seem like a movie set and made an impression that we will never forget.
Sunday, April 29
Maria la Gorda
This morning provided a variety of activities that added up to a perfect celebration of Cuba’s natural environments. Guanacahabibes Peninsula Biosphere Reserve protects a wealth of both marine and terrestrial habitats at the western end of Cuba. Our operations allowed two groups of snorkelers to take a local boat to a terrific reef site, where fantastic visibility allowed great views of barracuda, stingray, spiny lobsters, and the best staghorn corals of the trip. Meanwhile, the birders set off with veteran local park naturalist Ozmundo to explore the area’s semideciduous forest, which grows out of a maze of jagged limestone and fossilized coral. Luckily, excellent trails provided easy access, and we were rewarded with several endemic species that we had not yet encountered, including the yellow-headed warbler, Cuban vireo, and Cuban bullfinch—as well as fantastic looks at Cuban trogon, Cuban tody, and other species.
By late morning, all groups gathered together at Maria la Gorda’s beautiful beach. What a perfect, relaxing end to the trip! Some swam, some enjoyed conversation—and a variety of beverages—on the shaded terrace, and almost everyone watched the antics of a trio of highly entertaining West Indian woodpeckers endlessly squabbling over a hole in a coconut palm on the beach. Reluctantly, but with wonderful memories, we returned to the Hebridean Sky in time to set sail for Havana to complete our circumnavigation of Cuba. In the afternoon, we attended our final lecture of the voyage, The Nature Conservancy in Cuba: Ensuring a Resilient Future through Nature-based Solutions, by Ximena Escovar-Fadul, a great overview of the challenges and opportunities for Cuban conservation. As the sun set over the Caribbean, we enjoyed the captain’s farewell cocktails on the Lido Deck, and toasted an unforgettable voyage.
Monday, April 30
Havana / Disembark
We had the magnificent old stone fort of Morro Castle to port as we sailed into Havana Harbor this morning. Once docked, those with early flights departed for the airport while the rest of us relaxed aboard the Hebridean Sky until our inevitable departures. Rather than goodbye, let’s say hasta luego (see you later) to all. We look forward to meeting again on another Zegrahm adventure.