The 12th Nature Tourism Event in Cuba (TURNAT) took place on Sept. 24, 2019, in Playa Larga on the Zapata Peninsula, about two hours south of Varadero. It was a telling location to showcase real hands-on, or better yet, “feet-on-the-ground, eyes-on-the-beauty, and finger-on-the-camera-shutter” experiences in Zapata, as well as to the east in Cienfuegos and Topes de Collantes.
I couldn’t help thinking of the nearby Varadero tourists who may have been totally oblivious about the world of Cuban wonder so close by, that may have made their vacation experience move the needle from excellent, to exceptional, and onto astounding! In the context of travelers looking to understand a destination and to get involved with the land (the terroir of valleys, mountains, rivers, history, flora, fauna, people, culture, and food), the other side of Cuba is literally a breath of fresh air away.
Mayra Álvarez García, Cuba’s vice minister of tourism, opened this year’s TURNAT by noting that Cuba represents one of the most important nature sites in the Caribbean, and that the focus on nature improves the quality of the tourism experience, in general.
Dr. Ana Báez, president of Tourism Conservation Consultants of Costa Rica, emphasized the need for all countries in the region to “open their arms, heart, and mind” to nature tourism, and discover how it responds to the happiness of visitors and locals alike.
And then, it was time to show the local and international event participants — including travel agents, tour operators, tourism attractions, and travel media — just what “connecting with the land” entailed.
We were divided into eight groups, each with a specific itinerary to follow. In our small group of 12, our very personable guide, Mario Gregori Fernandez, provided great insight into “the other side of Cuba.” Here are 10 meaningful ways your clients can get involved.
1. People. Whether it was the rainforest coffeemaker, a national park guide or ranger, or our own tour guide, each person we met had a story to tell. Mario explained that when he used to lead caving and spelunking tours, “I thought I was in paradise and I fell in love with my country.” He carried this forward when he became a guide with Ecotour and was introduced to bird watching. “I realized that I was living in a very special place, a beautiful place,” he said. He suggested that when tourists get involved with nature, “they discover Cuba for the first time,” even if they have visited the country many times before. “And when I show them nature, it’s my expression of love for my country.”
2. Looking for trogons. Leaving our hotel in Playa Giron, we looped around the infamous Bay of Pigs to La Salina, where we drove through Parque Nacional on the Zapata Peninsula, and along the narrow, gravel causeway through the mangroves, looking for birds! While the colorful, endemic Cuban Tody eluded us, we saw blue, red, and White Cuban Trogons (the national bird that displays the colors of the Cuban flag). Other sightings included Pink Flamingoes, Black-Necked Stilts, White Ibis, Yellow (Mangrove) Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Kingfishers, and Caracaras.
The Cuban Trogon, the national bird of Cuba. Photo: Shutterstock.com
3. Activities from quiet to energetic to adrenaline. One of the TURNAT groups unloaded their sea kayaks along the Zapata Peninsula, while other groups took in visits to an agricultural farm, the Cuban Parrot Biological Station, the Zaza Wildlife Refuge; and went scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, sport fishing, canyoning, hiking, trekking, and spelunking.
4. The Last Supper, Cuban style. Our group headed to the small charcoal producer’s shack along the Soplillar Trail where, on Dec. 24, 1959, Fidel Castro came upon a very poor family of nine living in a small thatched hut. He shared food with them. Before he departed, he opened a bag full of rifles and told them they had to learn to use them. Less than two years later, the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in this area. The plate from which Castro ate, as well as photos of his interaction with the community, are displayed at this stirring memorial.
5. A taste of crocodile. In Playa Larga, one of our lunch dishes had a distinct bite to it. It was crocodile! Actually, the flavor was far from snappy — somewhere between fish and chicken — and nicely complemented with steamed rice, fresh avocado, shrimp, potato, okra, celery, and tomato.
6. Farming and bees. Along the country roads, you can see fields of corn, bananas, sweet potato, mango, lemon, lime, papaya, sugar cane, and pineapple. A few small roadside stands sell fruits and vegetables, as well as honey from local apiaries, and cheese, courtesy of the cows and goats you see in the fields and stopping traffic on the roads.
At La Casa del Zunzuncito (a great onomatopoeic word that refers to the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird), we saw a tiny blue female posing and preening in the branches of a tree, in between sips of sugar water from the hummingbird feeder.
7. Mountains, coffee and chocolate. Topes de Collantes is the nature reserve that lies 800 meters (2,625 feet) above sea level in the Escambray Mountains. You leave your coach and board trucks to travel the rough, steep roads. In Guanayara Park, single-tree bridges (hold onto the rope!) help visitors traverse rushing streams as the hiking trails lead to cave passageways, sometimes full of slippery rocks that, in turn, lead to spectacular small hidden waterfalls. At the coffee kitchen, you can enjoy a traditional brew made from freshly picked and roasted Robusta or Arabica coffee beans; and then you can see how cacao plants are processed, before tasting a fingerful of ultra-sweet, creamy, chocolate, straight out of the bowl!
8. More waterfall bliss. We followed the trail, named Centinelas del Rio Melodioso (Guardians of the Melodious River), to see swimming holes and waterfalls with names such as El Venao (the Deer), El Rocio (Dew) and El Nicho (the Niche). At Sendero Reino de Las Aguas (Kingdom of the Waters Trail), it was even more waterfall bliss, as we encountered Los Enamorados (the Lovers), Los Desparramaderos (the Spill), and Poceta de Cristal (the Glass Pot) — each one more amazing than the last.
9. Ziplining along. After a night at the hotel Los Hellechos (the Ferns), we had a fun and breathtaking “zip” through the canopy, with the fifth and last zipline spectacularly ending inside a cave passageway.
Ziplining into a natural cavern makes for an exciting adventure. Photo: Steve Gillick
10. Getting involved. The Theatre of Elements Community Project showcases local farmers of all ages performing as mimes, actors, musicians, singers, dancers, and artists. An art gallery featured the works of Nelson Domingas, who explained that his nature-inspired paintings “go to the roots of feelings that come out when you see a cloud or a person’s face”; and the New-Age-style “Playback Theatre” celebrated how the energy of river water and sea water can “take all the bad things away.” Each member of the audience was then presented with a quartz stone “for good energy.”
So, the lesson in all this is not to let those dedicated all-inclusive clients fool you by telling you that all they want to do is spend time on a beach while in Cuba. A few questions about their willingness to connect with the land may very well result in you contacting a company such as Ecotour, to send your clients off on an extraordinary nature adventure, to discover “the other side of Cuba.”