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A rustic hacienda used by the park service in Topes de Collantes. (Photograph by Jeanine Barone)

Cuba’s Green Revolution

The Escambray Mountains have long held appeal – to radicals. It was from here that Che Guevara led his guerrilla war against Batista, and later on, where anti-Castro counter-insurgents staged their revolutionary front. But this rugged landscape has another selling point: pristine natural beauty.

A pioneer at the forefront of Cuba’s emerging eco-tourism industry, International Expeditions has me prowling around with a band of like-minded adventurers who are determined to find hideouts – not for revolutionaries, but for birds. Here’s a look at the greener side of this island nation — especially the western half, with its protected forests, parks, and gardens.

The Escambray mountain chain (Cuba’s second largest) snuggles Topes de Collantes, a vast park that provides vital habitat for birds. And, at 2,600 feet, our accommodation, Los Helechos, offers front- and back-door access to this pristine landscape.

While others in the group hurry to the showers as soon as we arrive, I race after Tony, a serious birder who’s equipped with his trusty Nikon spotter scope and Birds of the West Indies field guide. I get a rapid-fire introduction to Cuban ornithology, as Tony points out a red-throated parrot, red-legged thrush, Cuban oriole and more than a handful of others. Impressive, and this is just a short walk from the lobby.

Topes de Collantes is divided into several mini parks, including Codina Park, a longtime destination for our guide, Oneido. The next morning along one of this park’s short trails, we’re on the hunt for the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird.

We hear the low-decibel whirring of the Cuban emerald hummingbird’s wings, but not the elusive bee. Hoping to attract a Cuban trogon, the country’s national bird, he mimics its call: toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro. Judging from the bird’s blue, red, and white hues — the colors of the national flag — it was a shoo-in (“All it needs is the star on its head,” Oneida quips.)

Large swaths of this more-than-one-million-acre area – which stands out as Cuba’s best bird-watching venue – are protected from development. Orlando, a local naturalist, orients us to a section of the swamp that’s just off a road more than an hour from his home in Yaguaramas.

We have barely disembarked the bus when we spot a pair of bee hummingbirds — almost indistinguishable from their insect namesake — hovering over delicate cream-colored Moringa blossoms. Most of us – well, all except for Tony and Orlando – are so captivated with this discovery that we almost miss a mourning dove, great egret, and La Sagra’s flycatcher. And this isn’t even the most protected part of the swamp!

Before sunrise the next day, I’m walking a limestone-laden trail with Frank Medina, the park’s director, who is armed with a digital bird-calling device. The trail is thick with mahogany and gumbo-limbo trees and roots and stems curling below our feet. “The forest is waking,” he says.

All of the sudden, Frank trots ahead, following the jhhhorr, jhhhorr of the Cuban green woodpecker. He stops and gazes upward. I follow his line of vision, but see only dense tree cover. “There!” he says, pointing. It’s a yellow-headed warbler. Nearby, light filters through the canopy to reveal a small plump mass with brown and white spots on its breast. “It’s calling,” he says. We all stand in silence, taking in the pygmy owl’s high-pitched tweets.

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Octopus orchids at Soroa Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Jeanine Barone)

Home to 700 types of orchids with specimens from all around the world, this garden owes its life to Tomás Felipe Camacho, a well-to-do lawyer and naturalist who dedicated his garden to his daughter in the early 1940s after she died in childbirth.

Always extraordinary in their complexity, orchids present some surprises here when it comes to fragrance (cinnamon, lemon) and shape (octopus, frog).

A mere 60 miles from Havana in the lush Sierra del Rosario mountains, Soroa is also brimming with birds, both inside the gates and along the periphery where a steep road is lined with ornamental white shell ginger, royal palms, and philodendrons.

Taking an early morning walk with Aliett Cecilia, a botanist who’s worked at the garden for 13 years, Tony and I manage to spy a Cuban screech owl nesting inside an old utility pole, a tiny yellow-faced grassquit flitting above our heads, and a dozen other species.

There will be difficult choices this morning: concentrate on recording new bird sightings or focus on the plant life. I know what Tony will choose. I, on the other hand, will multitask.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel