* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the reserve entrance lives a caretaker along with cattle, a pig, turkey and chickens. The toilet facilities are indeed extremely basic.
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!
With boat access one has greater chances of seeing the flamingo nesting site along with crocodiles and manatees.
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.
The afternoon was clear and sunny although windy, especially on the the platform.
Watching the flamingos walk, feed and fly brought great to joy, particularly to Rocío. She had persevered to get here and was duly rewarded.
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.
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.
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.