A Crazy Adventure Seeing Flamingos at Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve, Camagüey Province, Cuba

* See bottom of post for a video of the day

Camagüey Province’s Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve (Refugio de Fauna Río Máximo) contains not only Cuba’s but the Western Hemisphere’s largest flamingo nesting site. After not getting to Cayo Sabinal, Rocío was determined to see the flamingos at Río Máximo.

Flamingos at Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve

Flamingos at Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve

In Camagüey City we asked people and agencies how to get the reserve. No one seemed to know. State tour company Ecotur hadn’t organised tours there for two years due to the track there requiring a truck and the lack of on site hygiene facilities. An official tourist guide, who also didn’t know the way, recommended we hire a large US car (with driver) that had been converted to diesel to maximise our chances of reaching the reserve. In the city centre while looking for such car, we met an old man who reckoned he knew a way there. Then we met a younger guy who was willing to take us and had a friend with a car.

Instead of a hulking diesel-fueled US classic we had the opposite: a small Soviet petrol sedan! But our Lada had character, including huge windscreen cracks and no internal rear door handles. Time for another crazy Cuban adventure.

The Lada engine with MADE IN USSR in Russian circled

The Lada’s engine; circled is the Russian phrase “MADE IN USSR” (СДЕЛАНО В СССР)

From the old man we had an idea of the reserve’s location but only an idea. On the way we consulted more people. Nobody knew clearly how to get there. Consumption of Bucanero beers complemented the adventure. Lonely Planet’s 2015 Cuba guide’s Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve details were accurate although non-specific, unlike their Reserva Ecológica Limones Tuabaquey directions. A police officer stopped our journey and greeted us in a friendly manner. His motorcycle tank had no petrol and he asked the driver for two litres.

We drove east along Circuito Norte, passing rice drying on the road. Based on hunch, hearsay and hope, we turned north. Bumping up and down in the Lada on the terrible but dry track, we eventually hit the jackpot. Not far from the village of Mola we saw a sign. We had found the reserve or at least its administration buildings.

Maps.Me screenshot; the bottom circle indicates the main road turnoff, the blue dot shows the reserve administration and the top circle the actual reserve entrance gate

Maps.Me screenshot; the bottom circle indicates the Circuito Norte turnoff, the blue dot shows the reserve administration and the top circle the actual reserve entrance gate

With the Cubans standing outside the Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve entrance

With the Cuban driver and friend standing outside the Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve administration

The director greeted us and after a chat got around to reserve entry prices. Entry for foreigners was 5 CUC, the equivalent of US$5 – great value. In true Cuban fashion there was a twist: the photo fee was 50 CUC and video fee 200 CUC. Trust a totalitarian state to have such seemingly illogical pricing.

Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve's pricelist including the very expensive photography fees

Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve’s price-list included very expensive photography fees

Only a few visitors reach the reserve each month and many of those are scientists. Recent visitors included a foreign tourist couple who argued fiercely with the director about the photography fees, ending up not entering.

The Soviet Lada car at Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve entrance

The Soviet Lada car at Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve administration

All Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve visitors are accompanied by a staff member so the director joined Rocío and I in the back of the Lada. The actual reserve wasn’t for several more kilometres.

Cattle on the road as viewed through the Lada's cracked windscreen

Cattle on the road to the reserve as viewed through the Lada’s cracked windscreen

At the reserve entrance lives a caretaker along with cattle, a pig, turkey and chickens. The toilet facilities are indeed extremely basic.

Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve sign

Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve sign (Refugio de Fauna “Río Máximo”)

On foot, the accessible reserve consists of mudflats with a viewing platform. Rocío, the director and I squelched in the mud walking the platform, the director best prepared with her gumboots. Near the mangroves in the distance were flamingos!

Rocío and the director walking through the mud to the reserve's viewing platform

Rocío and the director leaving tracks in the mud walking to the viewing platform

With boat access one has greater chances of seeing the flamingo nesting site along with crocodiles and manatees.

Rocío making a shadow on the mudflats

Rocío making a shadow on the mudflats

We focused on the flamingos and they stood out like flamingos. When I first saw my photos on the computer I was surprised at how much other bird life was around the flamingos. With hindsight, we would have brought a pair of binoculars.

Other waterfowl and a few flamingos

A few flamingos and lots of other waterfowl amongst the mangroves

The afternoon was clear and sunny although windy, especially on the the platform.

Flamingos flying

Flamingos flying

Watching the flamingos walk, feed and fly brought great to joy, particularly to Rocío. She had persevered to get here and was duly rewarded.

Flamingos bunched up

Flamingos bunched up, beaks in the water feeding

Most of the flamingos wore their classic orange-pink colours although we also observed the odd juvenile grey flamingo. Flamingos colours come from the food they eat.

Flamingo's feeding including a grey-coloured juvenile

Flamingo’s feeding including a grey-coloured juvenile

A broader view of the wetlands

A broader view of the wetlands with flamingos in the distance

Flamingos flying

Flamingos flying; note the black feathers not visible when their wings are folded

The afternoon was getting late and we still had to return to Camagüey City so farewelled the flamingos and again greeted the Lada. We dropped off the director and repeated the bumps of the goat track-like road. Thankfully the rain had stayed away.

Back in the Lada returning to Camagüey City

Back in the Lada returning from the wildlife reserve

Cubans sweeping up rice from the road

Workers sweeping up rice from the road before darkness arrives

Footage from the day including the flamingos and rocking in the Soviet Lada:

The driver and friend cost 60 CUC plus a 10 CUC tip (total: US$70) for their vehicle, driving and assistance on this amazing day. Visiting and seeing the flamingos at Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve was Rocío’s biggest highlight of our whole Cuba trip.

One thought on “A Crazy Adventure Seeing Flamingos at Río Máximo Wildlife Reserve, Camagüey Province, Cuba

  1. Pingback: World Heritage Listed Camagüey, Cuba's Third City | Where is Joe.in?

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