Cuba Birding Tour Overview
This exciting Cuba Birding tour take you to one of the worlds top birding destination which is also the home of the world’s smallest bird! With six terrestrial ecoregions; dry forests, pine forests, moist forests, wetlands, cactus scrub and Greater Antilles mangroves, it’s an absolute birder’s paradise. Cuba boasts 28 endemics, 18 Globally Threatened species and several Caribbean specialities among its total list of almost 400.
Full Itinerary – Cuba Birding Tour
Arrival in Havana and travel to San Diego de los Baños
Welcome to Cuba!
You are in a truly unique place; Cuba has a vibrant culture deeply rooted in its history, an eclectic mix of Spanish, African and indigenous influences. The country’s music, dance, art and architecture all reflect this multicultural richness. This tropical island country is located where the northern Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Ocean meet. Cuba is located east of the Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), south of both the American state of Florida and the Bahamas, west of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic), and north of both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
You will experience so many different facets of Cuban life during your trip; from a feeling of having stepped back in time with colourful 1950s American cars everywhere, to music and dance being a constant companion in the streets, to enjoying a hand-rolled cigar and rum cocktail, to casual chats with the warm and friendly locals, to the blossoming foodie scene and so much more.
You will arrive from your international destination via the José Martí International Airport, which lies south of Havana’s city centre. You will be met by your guide and we will pack our luggage in our comfortable airconditioned vehicle. We could already tick our first species of the trip here at the airport and surrounds; look out for Turkey Vulture, Antillean Palm Swift, Killdeer, Cuban Martin, Northern Mockingbird, Cuban Blackbird (known as “el Toti” by the locals), Red-legged Thrush, Smooth-billed Ani and many others.
Just over two million people live in the capital city Havana, a colonial town that celebrated its 500-year birthday in 2019. The city you will see today is the result of a unique combination of a melting pot of events from three continents and five centuries! Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana (declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982), Vedado and the newer suburban districts. The city is noted for its history, culture, architecture and monuments. Some of the must-see attractions include El Capitolio (Surely Havana’s most impressive building), the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón (Havana’s main cemetery and a national monument), the Malecón (a quintessentially Cuban 7 kilometre (4 mile) long sea drive) and Plaza de la Catedral (with its stunning Cuban baroque architecture).
We will drive westward for about 2 hours as we make our way to San Diego de los Baños , a small settlement at the foot of Sierra del Rosario, in the Pinar del Rio province. We will pass through lush and picturesque landscapes. This part of Cuba is known for its rolling hills, tobacco fields, and green countryside. We will try to make time for some roadside stops at interesting habitats. We could pick up Snail Kite, American White and Brown Pelican, Brown Booby, Green and Little Blue Heron, Great, Snowy and Western Cattle Egret, American White and Glossy Ibis, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked and Ruddy Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Pied-billed and Least Grebe, Laughing Gull, Black-necked Stilt, Least Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Greater Antillean Grackle, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Tree and Cave Swallow, introduced Tricoloured Munia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Palm Warbler and many others.
The town of San Diego de los Baños is known for its natural beauty, particularly its hot springs and surrounding landscapes. The hot springs here are believed to have therapeutic properties due to their high mineral content. Some people visit for health and wellness purposes to enjoy the healing effects of the hot springs. The town has a relaxed and authentic Cuban atmosphere. The town’s bird list is quite good, so we will look for species such as White-crowned Pigeon, Great Lizard Cuckoo, endemic Cuban Oriole, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Emerald, Black-whiskered Vireo, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Near Threatened Cuban Bullfinch, endemic Yellow-headed Warbler and Indigo Bunting to add to our growing list.
We will check in to the Hotel El Mirador, a historical hotel that has hosted notable figures like Ernest Hemingway. At dinner we will get our first taste of the local food. Cuban cuisine is a delightful blend of Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, which makes it distinct from other Latin American cuisines. The fusion of these culinary traditions has created a diverse and flavourful food culture. Enjoy!
After dinner we will get a good night’s sleep. Rest up, tomorrow we start birding properly!
La Güira National Park and Cueva los Portales
We will have an early start today with breakfast in the hotel.
The first morning’s birding will be in La Güira National Park. The park consists of 54,000 acres of mountain wilderness in the Sierra de los Órganos mountains. The park is characterised by lush forests, rugged terrain, and limestone formations known as mogotes. The park had been the estate of a wealthy landowner and politician, José Manuel Cortina, who traded precious woods and was forced into exile in 1959 and his properties confiscated.
The first stop will be at Hacienda Cortina (actually doubling as the entrance gate to the park these days) just a few kilometres from the hotel. This area used to be the formal gardens of a large house and it attracts many birds, making it an excellent introduction to Cuba’s fantastic birdlife. Here is a good selection of species to become familiar with such as Red-legged Thrush, Western Spindalis, Northern Parula, Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Loggerhead Kingbird and La Sagra’s Flycatcher as well as some of the commoner endemics such as Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Vireo, beautiful Cuban Tody and Cuba’s National Bird, the Cuban Trogon.
The next stop is a short drive away into the spectacular limestone formations up to Cueva los Portales. This is one of the most beautiful places in Cuba, and certainly one of the least visited. A river cuts through a mountain, forming three joined caves. Che Guevara lived in the cave in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis! Here the targets will be the endemic and Near Threatened Cuban Solitaire with it’s absolutely astonishing song and the near-endemic Olive-capped Warbler, both of which are usually readily found. Other species to look out for here include the Near Threatened Cuban Amazon, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Emerald, Black-throated Blue Warbler, striking Summer Tanager, Belted Kingfisher and many others.
We could also see some bats in the cave system, including the likes of Brazilian Free-tailed Bat and Jamaican Fruit-eating Bat.
After our exciting day we will return to our hotel. We will get together for dinner and to update our lists, and then head off to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Drive to Cayo Coco
We again start our day with breakfast at the hotel, after which we head out for a day of driving.
We are heading east in order to reach the offshore key, Cayo Coco, which is reached via a man-made causeway. Although the drive takes all day, we will stop regularly to stretch our legs and for bathroom breaks. We will, of course, also stop if we see interesting birds along the way. You certainly will no be bored when driving along the Cuban countryside! Enjoy the beautiful natural landscapes, the colonial-era colourful buildings in towns and the many roadside stalls and markets.
Another sure sight along the roads today will be the amazing collection of old American cars in Cuba, often referred to as “Yank Tanks” or “Almendrones.” These vintage automobiles, primarily from the 1940s and 1950s, have become iconic symbols of the country. They are a result of the political and economic situation that unfolded in the country in the mid-20th century. Prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cuba had a thriving automobile industry, and American cars were imported in significant numbers. Following the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent embargo imposed by the United States in 1960, the import of new American cars to Cuba was halted. This led to the preservation and continued use of existing American cars, many of which were well-maintained and kept in excellent condition. The presence of these old American cars in Cuba is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the Cuban people. They have managed to keep these vintage automobiles not only running but also thriving as a unique aspect of Cuban culture and tourism.
The stop for lunch will give an opportunity to do a little birding and a good number of waterbirds can be seen as we cross the causeway. The causeway linking the key to the mainland is 27 kilometres (17 miles) long and runs across Bahía de Perros (The Bay of Dogs). It took 16 months to build and required 3 million cubic metres (110 million cubic feet) of stone. Species to look out for here (depending on the time of the year) include Crested Caracara, American Flamingo, Tricoloured Heron, Reddish Egret, Northern Shoveler, White-cheeked Pintail, Red-breasted Merganser, Neotropic Cormorant, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Skimmer, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Herring and Ring-billed Gull, Semipalmated and Western Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover, Royal and Sandwich Tern, Willet, American Avocet, Ruddy Turnstone, Greater Yellowlegs, Sanderling, Purple Martin, Cedar Waxwing and many others.
The beautiful island of Caya Coco is known for its all-inclusive resorts along some truly stunning beaches. It lies within the Ciego de Ávila Province and is part of a chain of islands called Jardines del Rey (King’s Gardens). The key has a surface area of 370 km2 and is named after the American White Ibis, locally called coco (coconut) birds. Cayo Coco and the neighboring Cayo Guillermo provided settings for Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea.
We will check into our comfortable beachfront hotel and settle in. This is our home for two nights. We will get together for dinner and some socialising before heading to bed after a long day on the road.
Cueva Jabali and Cayo Guillermo
We will enjoy some breakfast and then head out on our day’s excursion.
The first birding stop will be just a short drive from the hotel to Cueva Jabali. Walking along the very quiet roadside, the birding here is in coastal woodland. There are many species of warbler and a particular target is the local varonai race of the endemic and Near-Threatened Zapata Sparrow. Just behind the cave, a local bird guide has set up a drinking centre for birds as it gets very dry on the key. A wide variety of species are drawn in, including Key West Quail-Dove, colourful Painted Bunting, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Grey Catbird, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Ovenbird and many warblers such as Black-throated Blue, Hooded, Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green and Myrtle Warbler, American Redstart, as well as the Oriente Warbler, the eastern representative of the genus Teretistris, which is endemic to Cuba.
In the afternoon there is a longer drive to neighbouring Cayo Guillermo. The island is a popular tourist destination. One of the country’s best beaches, the Playa Pilar (Pilar Beach) is located at the western end of the key. This beach is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, the cabin cruiser Pilar. The island provides the setting for the climax of Hemingway’s last novel Islands in the Stream. Our specific target here is Bahama Mockingbird, as this is the only place in Cuba to see it. The bonus is spectacular numbers of waterbirds on coastal lagoons and tidal areas. You can expect to see many species of waders from the tiny Least Sandpipers to Willet and much in between. There are also several duck species and close-up views of the blindingly pink American Flamingos! Clapper Rail is (almost) guaranteed here and there may also be Sora. There are many terns and gulls, Crested Caracaras and a variety of herons and egrets, including the white morph of Great Blue Heron.
Today we might also see some other animals, like the endemic Cubitas Anole and the Cuban Brown Anole, both lizards in the Dactyloidae family.
After our exciting day we will return to the hotel to freshen up. Then we have dinner together while we update our lists and maybe show off our best photographs of the trip so far. Thereafter we head to our rooms for a good night’s rest.
Cayo Paredon Grande and drive to La Belen
We will start with another scrumptious breakfast and then head out.
For the morning birding session there is a drive out eastwards to tiny Cayo Paredon Grande. The island is well known for fly fishing and its lighthouse, Faro Paredon. Its construction began in 1857 and ended in 1859. This 40 metre (130 feet) high lighthouse is still in use today. We are here to find the very localised cubensis subspecies of Thick-billed Vireo, cute and endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher and with a bit of luck, the very secretive Mangrove Cuckoo. The beach can have Piping Plover (Near Threatened) and an assortment of other waders, including Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Common Gallinule, Short-billed Dowitcher, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and many more. There are other wader stops along the way back and Near Threatened Cuban Black Hawks are often very close alongside the road.
After lunch back at the hotel we drive further southeast (for about 3 to 4 hours) to the reserve at La Belen, south of Najasa. We will drive through the city of Camagüey, famous for its maze-like, old town being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Watch out for the endemic Cuban Palm Crow during the last part of our drive today.
Our accommodation is in the centre of La Belen reserve at a handsome country ranch, the Finca La Belen. There might be time for a late afternoon birding walk after checking in.
We will have dinner and update our trip lists. Then we are off to bed for a good night’s sleep; tomorrow we go searching for some very special birds.
We start our day with breakfast and coffee or tea, and then set off.
After waking to the loud and raucous calls of Cuban Crows, this is a full day’s birding around the reserve. Apart from the fantastic birding, there is also a petrified forest to explore, as well as horseback riding and chance to see some exotic African mammals that roam the zoo area.
The morning walk along the reserve trails will target the endemics such as Endangered Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Palm Crow (if we didn’t see it yesterday), Cuban Pygmy Owl and Endangered Giant Kingbird. Other specialities here are Plain and Scaly-naped Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Cuban Amazon, Cuban Parakeet (Vulnerable), Northen Bobwhite, Limpkin and, with luck, an Endangered and endemic Gundlach’s Hawk soaring overhead.
The afternoon session will be a walk to one of two lakes with a variety of water birds, including Anhinga, Masked Duck, West Indian Whistling Duck, Great Blue Heron, Northern Jacana and many others.
We will return to the finca, have dinner and socialise into the evening, hopefully having ticked some more great birds.
Drive to Playa Larga
Today we start with an early breakfast before we set off.
It is quite a long drive to Playa Larga in the famous Zapata Swamp, heading westwards.
On our drive today (and on most drives in Cuba) we will see verdant tobacco plantations. Cuba is, of course, famous for its cigars. The country’s combination of fertile soil, ample rainfall, and the right temperature creates ideal conditions for growing flavorful and aromatic tobacco. Cuban cigar makers, known as torcedores, use traditional methods that have been refined over generations. These methods involve hand-rolling cigars with meticulous care and attention to detail. Cuba is home to some of the most famous cigar brands in the world, including Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, and Partagás. These brands have a long history of producing high-quality cigars and are well-known internationally. Cohiba’s Behike line is particularly exclusive and was introduced to commemorate Cohiba’s 40th anniversary in 2006. What makes the Cohiba Behike cigars so special is the use of rare and aged tobacco, as well as the unique presentation. Some of these cigars can cost up to $600 each!
There will be a lunch stop along the way and one or more birding stops on the way in through the swamp. We could add several birds to our trip lists, including Wood Stork, Red-shouldered Blackbird, Spotted and Black Rail, Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Cape May and Prairie Warbler, and many more.
Playa Larga is situated within the Zapata Peninsula, known for its extensive wetlands and diverse ecosystems. Playa Larga boasts beautiful sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters along the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos). The Bay of Pigs is known for the failed invasion attempt by US-backed Cuban exiles in 1961. The Giron Museum in nearby Playa Girón provides insight into the historical events of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
After a long driving day we will check in to our comfortable hotel to enjoy dinner and some relaxation time.
Zapata Swamp and surrounds
Over the next three days we are going to see some great birds in the Zapata Swamp and surrounds. It is known for its incredible biodiversity; it is home to over 900 plant species, 175 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles, and 12 species of mammals. The area is also rich in amphibians and fish. The swamp is both a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Ramsar Wetland of Importance.
Each day will be an early start and a late afternoon session with plenty of time to relax in the heat of the day. The accommodation is right on the beach, so enjoy!
There are numerous places to go birding across this huge (over 4,520 square kilometers/1,748 square miles) area and your local guide will decide on the best place to go for specific sessions. There are many of Cuba’s endemic species here and Bee Hummingbird (the world’s smallest bird) is a popular target species. At Bermejas it is possible to see them feeding along a track and, with some patience and luck, to see the male’s astonishing display flight. Just across the road, we have a chance to see two endemic quail-doves, the gorgeous and Endangered Blue-headed Quail-Dove and equally enchanting Vulnerable Grey-fronted Quail-Dove. You will see these down to just a few metres, so bring your camera! This area has good numbers of Cuban Parakeet and you will see parties of them screeching overhead, usually while standing at the roadside!
Also look out for the endemic and Critically Endangered Cuban Crocodile which is restricted to the Zapata Swamp and are being reintroduced to the nearby Lanier Swamp on the Isle of Youth.
There will be a pre-dawn start one morning to find the endemic Cuban Nightjar before it roosts for the day. This will then lead on to a search for the rare, elusive and Endangered Zapata Wren at either La Turba or Santo Tomas. This last site involves an hour or so in a punt along the Zanja la Cocodrila, a man-made canal. La Turba is also a great place to find the endemic and Near Threatened Zapata Sparrow, this time the nominate subspecies and also the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird.
Walks in the coastal woodlands in the afternoons will give the opportunity to see Cuban Pygmy Owl, Fernandina’s Flicker, Cuban Grassquit, Cuban Green Woodpecker and the endemic Yellow-headed Warbler, the western counterpart of the Oriente Warbler in the east, both now in an endemic family.
Your local guide will also scratch the bark of dead palm trees which are the roost sites of another endemic owl, Bare-legged Owl. The rather sleepy owl will usually appear at the top of the tree to find out what all the noise is about!
Back at the hotel, there is often a pre-roost gathering of Cuban Amazons in the trees. There may be up to 50 or 60 birds screeching and nattering to each other before flying off to roost. Once it is properly dark your local guide will search the larger trees in the hotel grounds for a Stygian Owl and he may also have a daytime roost for this large and imposing species.
We will return to our accommodation each evening to freshen up and on the last night here we will get together for our official Nature Travel Birding farewell dinner after an incredible Cuba birding tour. We will socialise into the evening, having made friends for life, and then head to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Morning birding or sightseeing, then drive to Havana. End of tour and Departure
We will start our day with breakfast and then do some more birding in the swamp for species we might have missed on the previous days. If we have seen everything on our target lists, we could go do some sightseeing instead!
We then depart for Havana, a drive to the northwest of about 3 hours.
We will say our goodbyes at the José Martí international Airport, from where everyone will depart on their homeward or onward flights.
To go birding in Cuba with us, contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org