Cuba is one of the last communist countries in the world which has caused many diplomatic issues with the United States leading to an embargo. Americans and American companies were not allowed on the island and the lack of capitalism had meant a lack of large developments. Because of this there is large amounts of land undisturbed and thriving with the local wildlife. Communism in Cuba had caused large amounts of conservation and land preservation to occur to protect the rare animals and habitats of Cuba. Recently the embargo had been lifted which may lead to large companies coming into the country which will radically change the landscape.
Once we landed in Cuba we found the place we are staying up be right on the beach. A refreshing change to google maps showing me the address to be in the middle of a field. Once we got to where we stayed I decided to go for a walk up the beach where I found countless anemones. Walking down the other way I found the entrance to a forest littered with garbage. Unfortunately many areas in Cuba around the roads are filled with garbage as locals simply throw their trash outside their car windows. Upon entering the forest I was excited to see if I could find any reptiles particularly lizards. The forest was a buzz with bird calls and movement of many birds out of the corner of my eye. One in particular which I'm fairly sure is Cuba's national bird was the Cuban Tody which was also one of the first birds we spotted in on the trip. As I progressed through the forest I found no lizards until I came across a large palm tree. At the base of the palm tree were a bunch of fallen leaves which offered cover for many anole species. The first species I spotted was sitting on the tip of one of the fallen leaves and sported a white stripe running down its back much like the female Jamaican anoles I had seen in Bermuda years before. I heard the sound of something moving in a nearby bush. I looked to find a bright green anole which I later found to be a Cuban Green Anole. It ran up the palm tree where I noticed two more species of anole; a Cuba Brown Anole and a Cuban Blue Anole. In less then a day I had already seen four lifers.
The first full day in Cuba and I started it off early by heading to the spot I had seen the anoles the day prior. I spotted a few Cuban Brown Anoles and a few more Cuban Green Anoles. Next we had breakfast and headed to the currency exchange followed by a walk to the Zapata parks office, there we found out about a hike to see many of Cuba's endemic wildlife. We then walked around the forested area across the street where we stumbled upon garbage along the edge of the street which still contained life as I spotted a Cuban Brown Curlytail down a path into the forest we came across more anoles and I almost stepped on another lifer; the Cuban Ameiva. We headed back to where we were staying where we had refreshments and I went snorkelling. After one more hike it was dinner and then a night hike where I spotted a crab and a stray dog. The area of Cuba we were in was riddled with stray dogs, some with injuries while others looked sick. In Cuba they took the role that raccoons had taken in mainland North America having spotted one rummaging through the trash one night. According to a local the dog population was once much worst as one lady up the beach never had hers fixed and often times people would catch the dogs, throw them into bags and feed them to the crocodiles.
After an early morning we met at the Zapata park office where we had heard there was a tour of the park. Once we got there and after a hamburger actually containing ham and beef so rare it could still possess a pulse, we headed out with a driver and a guide to the park. We were expecting a large hike but found that instead it was a drive along a road with stops to see various wildlife such as Termite mounds, Yellow-Bellied Sap Suckers which the German birders were ecstatic about along with a large quantity of water and shore birds in the salt marshes such as Flamingos, Ibises and a series of different herons. We talked to the guide and managed to organize a night hike to try and see some snakes. Sure enough the guide referred us to one old man who spoke as much English as Manuel from Faulty Towers. We somehow managed to communicate and later that night we headed on a night hike with the guide and the driver who spoke even less English... what could possibly go wrong? Within minutes of the hike we came across the first snake; a large Trope. The guide said it was a Cuban Boa although they are often referred to as dwarf boas, tropes are not a species of boa but like boas hunt through constriction. Tropes are an interesting snake unlike any other in biology and behaviour. They are some of the only snakes to be able to change colour doing so from light to dark depending on available sunlight. We searched for them in a series of fields dominated by a monoculture of large palm trees. The snakes would wait curled around the base of the palm tree waiting for their prey; the Cuban Treefrogs which would come down before being consumed by the snake. In totally we found nine of these Tropes along with countless Cuban Treefrogs. We also came across a pond filled with Cuban Treefrog tadpoles and small temporary pond with two Zapata Toads singing which the guide described as "bufe frogs". Despite language barriers it was a fantastic guided hike with countless lifers, species I would otherwise have gone my entire life without seeing.
Going on the theme of herpetology one species I really wanted to photograph in the wild was the Cuban Crocodile which apparently are found in a very isolated area of Zapata swamp where tours cannot go. Instead despite rain we headed to the nearby crocodile farm where we saw not only Cuban Crocodiles but also a Cuban Iguana and Cuban Sliders, another species I wanted to see in the wild. Although the animals were not wild it was still a great experience to see such rare herptiles in their native country. Because of the rain it was a rather lazy day full of relaxing. Once the rain stopped I went out to see what washed up on shore, I found half of an eel and a nudibranch sea slug, I threw both back into the water as the slug was still barely alive. Neither seemed to wash back up from what I could tell. On my walk I managed to walk all the way to Zapata national park where I got covered in insect bites but saw plenty of bird life. Finally I ended the day by finding a tick embedded right above my knee.
With the presence of good weather we headed out to Los Peces, a spot known for its snorkelling. There I saw tons of fish and coral such as the Sargent major fish, comb jellyfish and plenty of parrot fish among many others. Afterwards I met up with my father at the restaurant there which served crocodile meat they got from the crocodile farm so that it comes from a renewably sourced. After we got back to where we were staying I went on a hike through the forest where I came across a river, hearing that Cuban Sliders often frequent rivers I walked along the river bank. There was a path where one could find piles of wood every so often. As I progressed down the path, moved into a forest before stopping, there I photographed a bunch of bird life such as the Cuban Tody and some yellow headed birds. On the way back I came across a local who didn't speak a single word of English. I pulled up a photo from my iPod of a Cuban slider and tried to ask if they were around through a series of hand gestures. He seemed to understand and replied with hand gestures and spoke Spanish where the only word I recognized was ci. He made it sound like he knew where I could find the turtles and brought me out of the forest to a road which his house was on. We came up to his house where he pulled a Cuban Slider out of a bucket. The turtle could only have been wild caught and had apparently the man had gotten it when it was small and had kept it for nine years. Because of Cuba's communist government there is limited internet and a very limited knowledge of the outside world such as how to properly look after pets. As a result the turtle lives in a tiny water bucket outside without any area for it to bask. It is also man handled regularly and kids will often put sticks in its mouth knowing it will snap the stick. Due to the language barrier I could do nothing to help the poor animal but only hope that one day it will be released back into the wild or get a better enclosure to live in.
Usually with places on the beach one would expect to find lizards either on the ceiling at night or under the bed. I was initially disappointed by the lack of lizards but not disappointed with how clean the rooms were kept. This morning after a run in with an old Aztec curse I noticed some ants attracted to a rapper I had thrown out prior. And sure enough as I was putting my shoes on I was delighted to find a small gecko by my door attracted to the ants I presume. I turned to look towards my camera and sure enough it was on the other side of the room so I lunged for the lizard and it scurried under the door. Opening the door I saw it and cupped my hand over it so it was not to escape. I later identified it as an Ashy Sphaero and got some photos of it on my bed before releasing it. It was by far the smallest gecko I had ever seen and a great lifer before breakfast. Other then the gecko this day was pretty uneventful due to sudden ailments. There is a reason one is not suppose to have drinks containing ice cubes when in many Latin American countries.
The last full day in Cuba. Today my father and I headed into town to see whether there were any guided tours into the forests that day and to get a crocodile tooth necklace for my little cousin. On the way we say a large Cuban iguana by broken up concrete slabs which apparently the locals know, he just lives there. Once we got to the parks office we found that there were no tours so we made our own strait into the woods to where the map said there was a wetland. We walked along the end of the wetland where we saw a large likely highly venomous centipede and a hermit crab out of its shell. My father complained about the humidity so we made our own way out, stopped for refreshments and headed back to where we were staying. I then went on a hike to try and see if I can find a wild Cuban Slider where I encounter the man who had one as a pet. I soon found myself in a mangrove swamp with high amounts of humidity and a large swarm of mosquitos. Clearly this was not an environment meant for people but I flipped enough logs and in the water logged soil I found another lifer; a little Greenhouse Frog. I got my photos and hurried back where I had a pop and a cigar. Cuba was a fantastic trip where I saw plenty of lifers each and every day.