Cuba was one of the last places on Earth I ever expected to eat an antelope steak, which is precisely why we ordered one. To keep things playful, we also asked for a beef steak and requested that the waitress not tell us which was which. Although both plates arrived with an identical side of mash, their differences were immediately clear. The antelope was darker, leaner and more thoroughly cooked. As far as taste and texture, it was like a cross between skirt steak and beef jerky. As the waitress cleared our plates, pleased that we’d enjoyed our antelope, she promised that we’d see many of them in the wilderness the following morning. And so began our Cuban safari.
For the past five decades, Cuba provided aid, personnel, troops and civilian services to more than a dozen African nations and played a major hand in three African insurgencies. Even at times when it couldn’t really afford to – in the 1980s, the island was spending 11% of its annual budget on maintaining the 65,000 troops and civilians it had spread across Africa – the Cuban government forged important friendships for itself and for the Soviet Union, which provided weapons and had a vested interested in keeping countries like Angola from adopting pro-Western foreign policy.
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Today, the remnants of those ties to Africa live on in Cayo Saetía, a sparsely populated 42-sq-km cay off Cuba’s north-eastern tip. It's surrounded by thick forest, where in the 1970s Cuban party officials would hunt for hogs and deer – there are even whispers that it was once a private holiday destination for Fidel and Raúl Castro. But since the ‘80s, the cay has become home to a far more exotic population of animals, many of them sent over the years from African countries including Ethiopia, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, but also India and China as tokens of friendship and gratitude for Cuba’s support in difficult times.
The most abundant of these exotic animals are the antelope. Ranging from the eland, from Namibia, to the much larger and more majestic nilgai, which hail from India, they’ve taken well to the landscape, and have reproduced to the extent that they’re commonly eaten by locals and guests of the state-run Villa Cayo Saetía – the only hotel property on the Cayo, with 12 spacious rooms and an on-site restaurant in the middle of the wilderness. As I’d already experienced, it’s one of the tastier things on the menu, and what is most likely to be available in a place so far off the beaten path in Cuba, where shortages of basic food items like butter, chicken or mayonnaise are a regular occurrence.
What it lacks in dining options, the Villa Cayo Saetía makes up for in scenery. It overlooks cerulean waters and majestic valleys full of lush vegetation, but still has enough palm and mango trees to feel tropical. Iguanas of all sizes – some as large as a tricycle – scuttle across the grounds, occasionally in the company of grazing turkeys, peacocks and jutía (furry little woodchuck-like critters that Cubans love to consume in stew). Eagles glide through the sky, wild horses peacefully graze on the plains, and small, non-venomous snakes slither through trees punctuated with giant black termite hives.
Further into the prairies of the Cayo is where things get the most interesting: this is where guests have the option to hire a driver and go on safari. From the comfort of an open-top, windowless, 1980s Russian jeep with a roaring motor and very little by way of shocks, they can speed through mud roads, into dense woods and over rolling hills to encounter an array of animals one would usually not expect to find in Cuba.
The first we spotted was an ostrich. She darted out from behind a tree and sprinted along the earthen road we were driving on, leaving a reckless trail of dust and orange feathers behind her. Once she was about 200m past us, she turned around and sprinted back in the other direction so we could take in the entire spectacle one more time. Ostriches can run at speeds of up to 65km/h, and this one was clocking about that. We were told that she’d recently laid three eggs, and was likely running off a bit of post-partum steam. It is common for male and female ostriches to share incubating duties, as we saw when taking a small detour to drive past the nest. Her male companion was dutifully sitting on the three eggs, though he got up and let us peek at them when baited with a banana.
Deeper into the Cayo, we came upon a valley where half a dozen water buffalo from China were cooling off in a muddy lake. We were told that they’ll soon be joined by rhinos and hippos that will be making the journey over from their temporary home at the Havana Zoo. Around the bend, fluffy white-tailed deer darted away from the jeep (their tails conveniently and rather comically doubling as mosquito swatters), while the antelope seemed less phased by our visit, and carried on as usual.
The Cayo is home to a few camels, though they’re getting on in years, and as only males remain, they appear to fight often. The pair of giraffes that used to live on the Cayo didn’t take well to the new environment, though exactly what led to their demise is unclear. Our guide told us that they died from being overfed; a hotel employee said that the male killed the female when she refused to mate with him; and a guard employed on the grounds said they died of old age. The 30 magnificent zebras, on the other hand, have adapted much better to Cuba and its landscape. Travelling in packs, they move serenely across the plains, their stripes contrasting vividly with the bright green vegetation they spend their days snacking on.
All the animals in the Cayo are allowed to roam freely, and aside from the few remaining alpha camels, they co-habit peacefully. This is because they are all herbivores, with the exception of a single crocodile that lives in an enclosed pond area. (When the hippos arrive, they will also be segregated, given their reputation for violence.) The animals forage for their food and must fend for themselves as if they were in the true wilderness, though a small staff of veterinarians and animal keepers make rounds to ensure the animals are well-nourished and healthy. They also assist, as necessary, when animals go into labour.
The Villa Cayo Saetía, is operated by the Gaviota Group, a tourism conglomerate controlled by the Cuban military. It is flanked by a camp for ‘pioneros’, Cuba’s version of scouts, who wear bright red or blue neck scarves and are taught, as their motto indicates, to be ‘pioneers for Communism, and to be like Che’. Security is tight at the entrance to Villa Cayo Saetía – even drivers dropping off hotel guests must leave their national identification cards with military officers – and official information about its history is hard to procure. A common story is that Fidel Castro, who was born on a sugar estate in the nearby village of Birán (you can visit his childhood home, and the school he attended), wanted to create a national park and fill it with exotic animals gifted from other countries. To an extent, this is what the Cayo has become, though how it remains so off the radar of most Cubans and visitors to Cuba is surprising. This is likely to do with the limited accommodation and the poor roads that connect the Cayo with the rest of the island, which ultimately give it an extra air of remoteness and seclusion.
A five-minute walk from the lodge is a small, secluded beach shaded by mangrove trees and surrounded by white sand and crystal blue water. By the looks of it, it is frequented far more often by iguanas than humans. About a 15-minute drive away is a larger beach populated with tourists who make daytrips on a reggaeton-blasting catamaran from the nearby resort area of Guardalavaca. They usually clear out by 15:00 (once lunch is served at the beachfront restaurant), leaving the area blissfully quiet and mysterious once again.
Secret Worlds is a series from BBC Travel that invites you to explore the various ways destinations offer a sense of surprise by heading off the beaten path.
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