Tag Archives: Explorer Journal

Our Day with Mario in Zapata National Park, Cuba

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues in Zapata National Park, Cuba…

Our new host, Dayami, used to work for Zapata National Park until her and her husband opened their casa to visitors. Now it’s full time at home. I pulled out my map and showed her where we planned to explore and hike in the park, and asked about transport. Little did I know this plan wasn’t possible without an official guide, and she didn’t think there would be any guides available during our stay. An official guide was needed not just to enter the park lands but to veer us away from the military stationed around Zapata. Really? This pretty important point was unfortunately not made clear during the planning stage by any of our hosts or contacts or research. Now our team was on the cusp but not allowed to enter. How could we come all this way but not complete my so-carefully outlined itinerary? It’s in these moments we’d learn about Cuban openhandedness. There is no lack of generosity in Cuba. Dayami seeing my stricken face immediately began to brainstorm possibilities and a friend she could call to get us in the door and satisfying our scientific goals.

Zapata National Park, Cuba Julia Thomsen, Copyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Dayami Hostal in Playa Larga, Cuba

Unfortunately the friend she had in mind to guide us was already booked for the week by a Chinese couple interested in birds. Did they know the migrating bird season had come and gone? Maybe we should switch itineraries. Not to be deterred, we walked through town to the park’s visitor office, a small understated cement block building you could walk right passed if you weren’t paying attention. We hoped to turn our luck.

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Zapata National Park Visitor Center, Playa Larga, Cuba

Inside I finally found a shelf of pamphlets and maps, and excitedly began to look through them, only to realize they were from everywhere but Cuba. There was even a pamphlet about saving the redwoods of California. As I’m a native Californian, I’m all about protecting our redwoods but shouldn’t the Cubans be promoting their own homeland campaigns? There’s been no money for such luxuries. A tall man wearing a cap and canvas vest both displaying a logo for Zapata National Park greeted us. After some moments of discussion with my rough Spanish and his bits of English we miraculously found a guide would be available in about an hour, and would give us a ride into the park. Of course there were no park maps or booklets, and we had to pay an entrance fee and a fee for his guidance and a fee for the car and driver, but that was expected and truly worth every kook.

zapata national park, Zapata Insects Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

About an hour later our guide Mario arrived at our casa in an old jeep with a driver. He has worked for Zapata Park Service for over 22 years, and was yet another Cuban willing to share all his knowledge and make sure we were more than satisfied with our experience. We could not explore the area to the west as planned, including the unpaved road to Santo Tomas due to flooding. I felt thwarted. But Mario’s plan saved the day and saved my face from being stricken again. He had us driven to another stretch of the park definitely less traveled by tourists and locals alike. We walked the forest floor in search of Cuban insects, turning over rotting logs and large rocks and inspecting the underside of leaves hanging down from the canopy. We dressed in head-to-toe protective gear and a thick layer of Deet. And somehow escaped the onslaught, coming away with photos and jotted notes and discussions of all the wonderful diversity we’d seen. I even photographed a pygmy owl.

Zapata Insects Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

We arrived back at the jeep to find its driver shirtless, hot, sweaty and burnt red leaning over the engine with a frustrated, apologetic expression. Something was apparently wrong with the vehicle, and we were out in the park a good hike from any used road and without cell phone reception. In fact, for the Americans there is no cell reception in Cuba. And despite the news of Internet cafes opening, we never found one. After some moments of discussion between Mario and our driver, and a definite word that sounded like “broke”, a plan was hatched. The ladies would get in and the men would push and jump in once the engine got going. I had to wonder if it would get going. To everyone’s surprise with a hard push the engine started. The men jumped in and off we went on the bumping dirt drive back to Playa Larga. We were dropped off at Dayami’s casa, paid Mario for his services and with a push and a wave the jeep was on its way. Once again fresh cold juice was awaiting our arrival, and with a cold shower and clean clothes, all was right in the world. Our day with Mario was unplanned and perfect.

Zapata National Park, Cuba Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

Explore insects of Zapata National Park, and look for The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience to continue…

A Drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues with A Drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata

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Zapata National Forest, Cuba

How may I speak out? How does a blond white American girl know what’s right or wrong in this world? I am only able to judge based on my own life’s learning. From my time in Cuba, I see a wrong has been done but I cannot say what exactly or how it was done or how it might be fixed as I also see that people have roofs over their heads and food on the table for their children and accessible health care, and clothing. I also never see a beggar on the streets. At least not like the homeless we see in the USA with old torn dirty clothes and grocery carts full of stuff they’re keeping for that rainy day. There are no shopping carts in Cuba. Many people ask for donations from us visiting Americans who must have so much they can offer handouts to all. We even had a guy carrying a new pair of Levis jeans, saying that he only had two pairs of pants the ones he was wearing and the jeans he was carrying and he needed more. More? I’m the one who needs more in order to make the payments next month for all my modern conveniences. I have to believe that they just don’t know what visitor they are inviting in the door.

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When traveling, you make it work!

Our next driver arrives on time at 9am. His name is Diamond and he’s brought his girlfriend Claudia along for the ride. In fact she drives everywhere with him. Today’s destination is Playa Larga, a small town situated on the divide of Cienaga Occidental and Cienaga Oriental of the Zapata Peninsula, otherwise known as Cuba’s swamp land Zapata. This is where east meets west on this coveted island in the Caribbean. The first leg of our drive is on the desolate Autopista, Cuba’s main highway which bridges most of the island but was never completed. With three wide-open faded lanes running in each direction and edged with tall grasses, this is Frost’s road less traveled. Cars and fuel and holidays are luxuries for Cubans. Most have never even ventured to the places we are about to explore. And the old classic cars now used as taxis in Havana are rigged together in ways that may not make this drive or the speed limit.

 cuba's swamp land zapata, Julia Thomsen, Copyright © XplorMor Inc., [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Forgotten entrance to Zapata National Forest, Cuba

We pass through the Cienaga de Zapata National Park entrance gate that straddles the road. There’s no ranger on duty and signs are faded. There’s a billboard displaying a map of the park, but it’s been forgotten and details are no longer legible. Is this the land I read is on the tentative list of nominations for world heritage status? It needs the funding. After about 2 ½ hours since departing Havana, we arrive at our next casa particular, and are greeted with friendly smiles, fresh squeezed pineapple juice, seats on a balcony over-looking the sea and a lovely breeze. We’ve found tranquilidad until a swarm of mosquitos arrives and bites relentlessly. They are disappointingly undeterred by the bug spray and insecticide lotion and netted clothing I’m wearing. It’s unfortunate and I’ll itch from the dozens of bites accumulated over the next weeks but they are an insignificant price to pay for such uncommon opportunity.

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Cuba’s National Bird, Cuban Trogon

In coordinating and planning our expedition I strove to outline as much detail as possible prior to our departure aiming to avoid trouble for our team enroute in this as of yet unopened country. I should not have presumed, and instead remembered much of the journey is not an end result but the actual means and experience of getting there. So a good portion of my well researched information will prove to be lacking in accuracy or missing some vital puzzle piece. Fortunately Cuban hospitality and serendipity repeatedly meet us along the way as we venture into Cuba’s swamp land Zapata and to remote areas of this enchanting island.

A drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata continues with… Our Day with Mario in Zapata National Park

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail. When I lived on the Monterey Peninsula the Pine Ridge Trail into the Ventana Wilderness was one of my favorite hikes to quickly get to a remote area. A downside is that trail access is easy, Big Sur is popular, and California trails are notoriously crowded. That means that on weekends, when the weather is good, there will be others on the trail with you. If you have the gear and are willing to brave winter weather the trail could be yours alone.

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail, Wythe's Xplorer Journal, XplorMor, Stream, Nature Photography, Big Sur, California, USA

Beauty of Big Sur, California, USA

One recent December I had a weekend without plans and decided to head to Big Sur for a solo hike and camp in Ventana Wilderness. As it turned out, a cold front was predicted to move through on Friday night, with rain, wind, and a drop in temperature. My philosophy with weather is summed up by explorer Ranulph Fiennes who reportedly said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Admittedly, winter in Big Sur is not severe, but I did pack my winter sleeping bag and an extra fleece layer.

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail, Wythe's Xplorer Journal, XplorMor, Stream, Nature Photography, Big Sur, California, USA

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail, California, USA

I arrived at Big Sur Station in mid-afternoon, packed up, and started to hike in. There were about a dozen younger folks hiking out with dogs, guitars, and ukuleles – I guessed that I had missed a good party. My goal was Barlow Flats which was seven miles in but with my late start and the first rain drops falling through the redwoods at 5:15 PM, I decided to make camp at Terrace Creek. I set camp, ate dinner, and to stay dry, was in my tent at 7:15 PM. The rain really came down from about 8 PM until 1:15 AM and I thought that the worst of it had passed. After a lull in the rain, I heard a big crack, not lightning but a big limb splitting off from a tree, followed by the crashing of the limb through lower branches and then a big thud as it hit the forest floor. I had just been through 5+ hours of rain and wind to relax as I stayed dry and the rain ceased and now I had to think about being crushed by a giant redwood branch. Needless to say, I had a few specific thoughts about my end under a giant redwood but then just gave myself over to thinking that I could not stop a branch from falling and there was no place to move my tent as I was in a redwood grove. The real rain came at 3 AM and lasted an hour. Big Sur hugs the coast, and when the storms roll in off the Pacific they come in fast and hard, the wind whips and the rain falls in sheets. The tent held and I stayed dry through the night.

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail, Wythe's Xplorer Journal, XplorMor, Stream, Nature Photography, Big Sur, California, USA

Beauty of the Monterey Peninsula, California, USA

The next morning I covered the two miles to Barlow Flats in under an hour. I washed my tent off, hung it up to dry, set camp, and then was off to try to find Sykes Hot Spring, about three miles further up the trail on the Big Sur River. As it turned out, the river was high because of the rain, the trail crossed the river a number of times and was hard to follow, and I never did find the hot springs. The afternoon was getting on and so I headed back to Barlow Flats. It was a cold night, down to 30 degrees F, but camping close by the Big Sur River I had the noise of water over rocks to help me sleep. On my last day I headed back to the trail head and made the seven miles in about 4 hours. Overall, a quick but relaxing trip; from Friday late afternoon to Sunday late morning I saw no one else in the woods. With the easy trail access at Big Sur Station this is an area worth exploring.

Big Sur and Pine Ridge Trail, Wythe's Xplorer Journal, XplorMor, Stream, Nature Photography, Big Sur, California, USA

Mossy Roots from the Damp Coastal Weather