Birdwatching in a
by Julie Vassilatos
Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
After several days in Havana, a friend and I booked a birdwatching trip and a few days’ stay in the Pinar del Río region in the western part of Cuba.
Cuba is a worldwide destination for serious birdwatchers. There are 362 bird species on the island, 27 of which are endemic. It’s easy to find birding tours that last weeks or even a month, so I was happy to find one that was slated for three hours and included transportation to the tour site from Havana, plus a meal at an organic farm afterward. We also had planned a horseback ride for the following day.
We rode from the city in an ordinary small SUV that was absolutely the lap of luxury in Cuba—air-conditioned!—passing several cars broken down at the side of the highway, midcentury classic American cars or little Soviet Ladas dating from the ’70s and ’80s, and a few plodding, ramshackle buses filled to overflowing, passengers and possessions alike leaning out the windows. I had read how hard this two hour drive into the mountains could be, how long it could take, how many vehicles could be required as one after another broke down and passengers waited for another vehicle with another driver to carry them further. Our driver was friendly but not chatty and dispensed with my questions in as few words as possible.
Who were all those people at the side of the road in random spots?
They are waiting for rides.
How long do they wait?
A long time.
Do you ever stop to pick them up?
He didn’t like coming to the city very much. He shared his love for Viñales, the region’s main town and his home, and visibly relaxed the further we got into the countryside.
Our journey concluded without event—no stalls, no breakdowns—and we pulled up to a charming hotel. This was, of course, not where we would be staying; in fact we could not, because we were from the U.S. It is illegal for Americans to “support the Cuban military” by staying in government-run hotels, which is to say all of them. Visitors from the U.S. depend on the private, side-hustle tourist economy and stay in people’s homes.
We met our guide Francisco here, and the driver then drove the three of us down a winding road until Francisco said, “Stop here!” And we stepped out into the quiet of the pines. Francisco led us off the road, through a gate, and down a rocky path, springing almost noiselessly through the terrain. Small and energetic, he would tell us excitedly in good English about the bird he just heard and that would soon come into view. When he spotted one, he would point, and inevitably we wouldn’t see the shining quarry. He then would scoot right next to us, line up our sightlines with his, almost cheek to cheek, adjust our binoculars, and point his outstretched arm toward the bird. Still no luck. Look! Look! His whisper grew impatient. And also: Quiet! Quiet! And finally, we’d see the bird as it would take to flight and soar out of the tree.
We checked off endemic and rare bird after bird from a list we hadn’t even known about: the Cuban trogon, absurdly bright blue, white, and red—a national bird the colors of the Cuban flag; the Cuban green woodpecker, about ten inches high with a shock of red on its head; the solitaire, the grasquit, and the vireo, all endemic songbirds; the pygmy owl; the twenty-inch-long, carnivorous, great lizard cuckoo; and many others. The Cuban emerald hummingbird posed for us for nearly five minutes in the lowest branch of a pine that was overhanging our path through a meadow. We saw its tiny silhouette clearly for our entire approach; when we drew close we could see its glossy jewel coat gleaming against a spectacular sapphire sky.
Francisco was annoyed by another birding group we passed, whose non-Cuban guide was using not only recorded bird calls to beckon birds but laser pointers to sight them. Our guide felt that this was very bad practice and harmful to the birds; loyally, we felt the same.
He brought us off the path in an effort to find the prize bird of the afternoon—the Cuban tody. Maybe an hour passed clambering over rocks, ascending, descending, backtracking, maybe more. No tody. Our guide headed for one more spot where he felt sure we’d find a tody, and we exited the pines. By this point we were hot, altogether done with birding, and ready for a cool drink and lunch. I was thoroughly over the allure of a tody. But still Francisco persisted. We passed through meadows and walked along the borders of farmers’ fields.
Francisco paused at a field so weedy it scarcely looked like a farm plot, and he explained to us the Cuban farming practice illustrated here: the small, deceptively unkempt field was planted in both beans and corn right on top of each other. The corn would come up and draw the birds and pests away from the beans, which would grow up and mature safely under the protection of the corn. He said: This is how we do it here, we work with nature, we don’t use pesticides.
And this is the case not just for Pinar del Río, an isolated mountain region; it is the case for the whole country. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was unable to support or trade with Cuba any longer. Having lost its source of almost everything, the island nation with few of its own resources was plunged into catastrophic poverty almost overnight. Cubans call this—strangely to my ears—the Special Period. Both petroleum and chemical pesticides, greatly relied upon for Cuba’s then Soviet-style, large-scale farming, became scarce. Whatever pesticide supply remained eventually ran out. And by 1993, the agriculture industry was in crisis, with no fuel to spare for tractors and no weed killer or pesticides at all. And it was at this moment that a group of Revolution-devoted Australian communists, the Solidarity Brigadiers, who had been making annual pilgrimages to their favorite revolutionary republic for several years, decided to teach Cuban farmers permaculture, organic farming, and a return to smaller scale, ancient methods. Over decades, farms got smaller and became sustainable; urban rooftops began to be places of cultivation. By now growers have become expert in warding off crop hazards of all kinds without chemicals. Many rural Cubans grow fruit trees and their own coffee plants, and many are small-scale beekeepers who have figured out how to stave off disease and mite infestations in their hives without chemicals of any kind.
This is, to be sure, not an easy and definitely not an efficient way to farm. But now, everything grown in Cuba is organic by default.
Before I knew any of this, I asked different folks about Cuban bees. I put it in my limited Spanish: Were bees in Cuba also suffering the mass die-offs that we had in the U.S.? The looks of horror this question generated made me wonder if I had somehow accidentally asked if they typically preferred an ax or a gun when they committed a murder. After loud protestations to the contrary, they would turn the question back on me. Are you telling me your BEES are DYING? By which point I would want to rewind the whole conversation a few minutes and forget I ever asked. The shame I felt was as great as if I personally destroyed bee colonies for sport.
Here we were, just ninety miles from the U.S., amidst ancient farming methods, zero pesticides, and not a single collapsed beehive anywhere. I felt like we were on another planet.
We heard similar explanations of farming methods when we visited coffee, tobacco, and honey producers in the region. Coffee beans, grown mainly on small farms, mature in the shade of taller trees. Without fuel for tractors, farmers use animal power. You will absolutely see ox-driven ploughs on tobacco farms today. Farmers are proud of their highly prized, low-tech, slow-processed tobacco leaves. And Cuban honey is now the purest in the world.
On our bird walk I was just beginning to get a sense of what an alternate reality Cuban agriculture is. We walked on, past the farm plots and into another meadow ringed by low brush. And finally our guide heard the sound he had been waiting for all afternoon—the song of the Cuban tody—a tiny long-beaked bird shining like a Christmas ornament, glossy grass-green back, shimmering fuchsia throat, blazing white belly. This bird was impossible to miss in the scrub despite its size. It looked like an electric light. The tody thoughtfully held its pose for several minutes for us to ogle it. Finally, Francisco was satisfied and so were we. I had never seen anything quite so gorgeous as this tody.
Now it was time for our lunch at an “organic farm” or, more accurately, lunch at a farm. A large table was spread on an outdoor covered patio; Francisco joined us along with farm workers and friends from nearby. We had no idea how to fit into this gathering socially, but the fact was, we were there to eat, and that was easy. Here, like everywhere, the food was simple and delicious, with slow-cooked meats in abundance and tiny little tasty red beans, presumably the type we saw growing in the field. For dessert we were introduced to the “ice cream fruit,” the cherimoya: leathern, green, scaly on the outside, and—dissonantly—creamy, smooth, and sweet on the inside. Our hosts knew we had never seen or tasted anything like this and watched us with smiles as we scooped out the soft flesh with spoons.
Just beyond the low patio wall strolled turkeys, chickens, and roosters, hopping into trees or settling comfortably in the shade. Here and elsewhere in Pinar del Río chickens and farm dogs wandered sociably. These country dogs were different from their disconsolate city counterparts. They were friendly, active, waggy, free roaming. On our horseback ride through tobacco farmland the next day, an occasional farm dog would join us and follow along for a while, then veer off to return to its fields and visit the oxen and then run off to find some goats.
The farmlands around Viñales were a peaceable kingdom, and as we rode through the valley we could see why our birdwatching tour driver preferred it here. It seemed more restful than any other place in the world. On our return leg of the horseback ride we stopped at a farm to learn about tobacco processing. We had dawdled too long swimming in a lake, and now it was gathering dark. The farm had no electricity. In the dusk we were led into a corrugated tin-roofed hut where, illumined by someone’s cell phone flashlight, a young farmer explained to us how leaves were harvested and dried, and an old farmer demonstrated rolling a cigar. From somewhere in this darkness came the improbable peeps of tiny chicks. Beyond the ring of cell phone light, not a foot away from me, was a mother hen guarding her new chicks—huddled in the corner beneath my bench and completely invisible. The farmers knew she was there and were happy to offer her shelter. She did not bother their tobacco drying operation.
We returned to our horses in the pitch dark. When we had all mounted with the difficulty you might expect, the horses knew exactly what to do and where to go, and they formed their line, clip-clopping quietly. The wrangler, a soft-spoken man who had told us all kinds of local plant lore on the way there, now rode up and down the line, whispering to his horses, calling them by name. There was not a single electric light to be seen, and though the sky was brilliant with stars, we could see only a few feet in any direction. It would have been easy for me to panic. I had to make a conscious decision not to think about, say, a cougar jumping at my horse from out of the brush (I would only see his glinting eyes, just before he sprang). Because I knew this: never again in my life would I find myself riding a mild, calm horse through a pitch-dark night in a rural farm valley ringed by peaks, soundless except for the occasional cricket song, hooves on sandy soil, and a Cuban cowboy whispering to his horses. I let the cool and the peace of this darkness in this valley wash over me and embrace me.
The peace I felt here was unquestionably born of poverty and want. There is no denying this fact. Cuban organic agriculture exists as it does solely because of economic and social collapse: it is a postapocalyptic solution. But it is a solution that has showered benefits on the land, the plants, the insects, and the animals, and, one suspects, the people too. The little mountain valleys of Pinar del Río lack most of what we count on every day, and contain answers for much of what we lack.