Saturday, 10 December 2016

Visiting a Cuban Crocodile Farm!

As I held the baby crocodile in my arms and stared into its bright liquid eyes I was amazed at how small, scaly and...soft he was. I never knew crocodiles were this cuddly. Their skin, though it looks hard and jagged with scales, is actually smooth and dry to the touch.

We had stopped off on the way back from our snorkelling expedition in la cueva de los peces where we'd swum in a real mangrove swamp surrounded by tropical fish. The Cuban Crocodile Farm was one of the 2 or 3 things in the area that our guidebook said were worth a visit and so we jumped in a taxi and headed straight there.

The crocs are all in chicken wire pens with a distinctly green pool of water to cool off in and a sheet of corrugated iron propped up to provide shade. It was HOT... hence the shirt I'm wearing to cover my arms and neck; when you're so white you're practically transparent, protection comes before posing for pictures anyday.

The enclosures gradually got bigger as we made our way through the farm passing swamps full of butterflies and crabs picking through the mud in their burrows.

We reached the last enclosure to find an absolute monster of a croc snoozing in the shade:

The Guamá Crocodile Farm was definitely something I'm glad we visited; even if only to hold the baby crocodile, but the "educational" side of the tour was definitely a let down. After paying a few dollars we were pointed in the direction of the crocodile enclosures and left to get on with it. There was a room full of memorabilia such as model eggs and stuffed crocs but you couldn't get in and had to peer through the barred window.

It was something of a last minute decision to head there in the hottest part of the day and if I have any advice for you it's to not do what we did! Crocs overheat easily and are very inactive at this time as they need to stay still to keep cool so most of what we saw were piles of sleeping crocodiles. I think a visit would be much more comfortable and exciting in the early morning when the crocs are basking to warm up.

Have you ever been to a crocodile farm? How did you find it? Comment below!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Cuban Wildlife: A Jungle Expedition!

Ever since I was little I've been obsessed with wildlife; binge watching David Attenborough, going on woodland walks with my butterfly net or filling the boot of my dad's car with seaweed and shells. For years I was convinced I was going to be "an explorer" or failing that a biologist who would be lucky enough to go on field work around the world searching for strange animals and plants... but then life happened. I grew up and went to uni to study History and Spanish, two subjects I am incredibly passionate about and wouldn't have changed for the world, and the little naturalist part of me just got quieter and quieter fading into the background as exams, friendships, year abroads and job hunting took over.

This summer though something happened that re-awakened my inner wildlife lover in all her over-excited, jumping up and down, slightly nerdy, wonderfully happy glory. We went to Cuba. CUBA!!! A real caribbean island just crawling with crocodiles, bugs, frogs, birds and butterflies and surrounded by warm seas full to bursting with tropical fish. It was a childhood dream come true. After a lovely couple of days in Viñales we moved on down the coast to an area known as Playa Larga where we got up early one morning to bump down the road in a rickety old car and begin our Cuban jungle expedition!

There had been a storm the night before and clouds of mosquitoes were billowing through the trees in the sunlight. I had taken no chances and was drenched in repellent and wearing trousers tucked into socks and long sleeves...all to no avail as we'd find out later. We had been chatting to our guide for literally less than 10 minutes when he brought out a small gadget that played bird calls into the air and one of my favourite creatures of the whole trip appeared. The tiny Cuban Tody, (pictured above and below) also known as "fluffy butt" for a while as we forgot his real name, flitted around on his thorny branch then disappeared into the forest.

While we walked slowly through the trees we came across some beehives being attacked by crabs. Crabs are EVERYWHERE in Cuba; they dig burrows and live almost like rabbits along roadsides and in muddy banks.


Cicadas were whirring from the branches above us and we also spotted a strange corridor of mud running up a tree trunk to end in a football sized termite's nest.

After a short while we reached a hole in the ground between 2 great rocks and followed our guide down a ladder tacked together from bits of dead wood to stand in a real life bat cave.

An incredibly clear underground lake filled one corner of the cave while the air was filled with the squeaking and shuffling of hundreds of Cuban fruit bats that flew around our heads and clung to the ceiling in the pitch dark.


The flash from my camera lit up the cave walls and our guide spotted a baby Cuban Screech Owl crouching on a ledge:

I felt a bit sorry for him actually... his poor nocturnal eyes being blinded by the bright light! As we scrambled back up out of the cave our guide casually pointed out the body of a huge python that he explained had its head inside the cave stretched out in the dark with its mouth open to catch unwary bats.

Over the next hour or so we saw hermit crabs, countless lizards, woodpeckers, chocolate orchids and turtles.

Jungle expeditions are not quite as glamorous as I'd imagined when I was little...mosquitoes and stifling heat lead to some sweaty not so comfy situations...(we had not been swimming before this photo...)

We came upon a swampy area criss crossed with wooden walk ways and our guide suddenly pointed excitedly into the tree tops and hopped up onto a root for a better look. He had seen a "colibrí" or hummingbird; two of them sitting on a twig and preening each other, something you don't see everyday he explained. I can't describe to you how much I wanted to see a hummingbird! While the others carried on walking I was really reluctant to leave in case they reappeared and just as I was about to go I spotted a tiny flash of shining green amongst the leaves.

I only managed a few shots before he whizzed away but I was so happy that I finally saw one! Later in the market in Trinidad I bought a little wooden colibrí to hang in my window at home. We made our way back to the waiting taxi and were met with a lovely sight; Cuba's national bird the Cuban Trogon was peering down at us.
This trip was one of the highlights of the whole holiday for me; my childhood dream of exploring a tropical jungle came true! We headed back to our casa for a rest in our gloriously air conditioned room where we compared mosquito bites (the little whiny blood sucking bastards!) and later headed out onto the verandah to watch the sunset and sip mojitos.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Best View in Cuba: Los Jazmínes

One of the things that you really can't miss when visiting Viñales is what my Lonely Planet Guide calls "the best view in Cuba!". Hotel Los Jazmines is a strawberry pink villa nestled into a hillside that looks out across a brilliant green chequer board of coffee and sugar plantations splashed with the deep rusty red of the Cuban soil. The best times to soak in the view are in the early morning when the mist creeps back as the sun rises and at sunset when the sky is streaked fiery orange behind the mountains. 

We set off on the short and winding walk up the hill hopeful but without holding our breath- that afternoon we'd had a rainstorm and the sky was still full of fat grey clouds. The spectacular sunset we had been promised looked like a no show...

On the journey we came across oxen trudging through fields dragging a plough, a troup of teenagers playing with a horse and everlasting vintage cars that would whoooosh past so that we had to hold on to our hats.

As we got higher and higher the scenery started to unfold beneath us:

After a bit on confusion we found the right track and then the hotel appeared:

The sky had been white with cloud and the air was still heavy with the rain that would fall throughout the night; we sat on the terrace under the canopy and waited. As we watched, the setting sun burned a hole in the clouds and the sky was set alight.

By the time the clouds cleared enough for a truly spectacular view the sun had already sunk too far below the skyline and the light was fading. For a few brief moments though Viñales had been lit up in all its glory and we were glad we took our guidebook's advice and bothered to hike up and find the best view in Cuba!