Rio Maximo's Wildlife Refuge - the Caribbean's largest flamingo nesting site

One of Cuba's most peculiar ecosystems and one of the most captivating natural sights in the world is a protected fauna refuge like no other and a declared Ramsar Site. It lies perfectly hidden in an off-the-beaten part of Camaguey and it is home to not only the Caribbean's largest flamingo population but also migratory waterfowl, American crocodiles and manatees. A rare gem few tourists know about and even less venture to discover, but it's now possible to do so thanks to new guided tours.

Rio Maximo's Wildlife Refuge - the Caribbean's largest flamingo nesting site

Nature’s best-kept secret in Cuban fauna (though who knows for how long!) is a virtually intact, remote and quite hard to reach wetlands that sit between two of Camaguey’s rivers - Rio Maximo and Rio Caguey, close to the point where they meet the sea in the province’s northern coast.

Officially named “Refugio de Fauna Silvestre Rio Maximo” and translating as Rio Maximo’s Wildlife Refuge, this thriving yet extremely fragile nature reserve has been protected since 1998, but even in most recent years, tourist visits were completely unheard of as there were no organised excursions, access was (and still is somewhat) difficult and due to its protected status, you can’t just venture there on your own.

But now thanks to local tour agencies like Ecotur and Camaguax tours, access is no longer off-limits and visits can be arranged. However, due to how little-known this virginal reserve is and given virtually no tourists enquire about it (it doesn´t feature in tour guides so the vast majority tourists aren´t aware of its existence) if you are really keen to visit it you should arrange to do so in advance, with as much time as possible, as tours are not regular, they don´t run with a discernible schedule and are usually only available on demand. Still, the thrill of experience such a wildly beautiful and undiscovered place is more than worth the hassle.

And you really should visit now, before the area completely opens up to tourism and becomes more exploited. Right now it´s at its rarest and rawest. Pure unedited beauty at its most authentic.

Besides, Camaguey is an attraction of its own, with a beautiful and historic city centre famous for its pirate invasions, its winding streets and picturesque alleys, and its famous giant “tinajones”, so it’s not like you’ll run out things to do and sights to explore after you’re done with exploring the wildlife refuge. Not at all, plus, there’s also the nearby natural pools at Los Cangilones to cool in after an intense and incredibly rewarding wildlife-spotting excursion.

Rio Maximo´s Wildlife Refuge - spectacularly unedited

Covering an area of around 23 square kilometres (22.58 to be precise) the wildlife refuge wedged between the banks of Rio Maximo and Rio Caguey is a coastal ecosystem consisting of vast marshlands, teeming with all manner of wonderful creatures. The one species that easily outdoes the others, and by a long shot, is the Pink Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber) since this is the Caribbean and the Antilles´ largest breeding site for this beautiful bird, as well as the most optimal feeding and resting grounds, resulting in a healthy population, which at one point was calculated to be 180,000 of these pretty winged creatures.

One of central Cuba’s least-discovered natural reserves, found in Camaguey’s municipality of Minas, this sandy delta has been declared a Ramsar Convention Site for its international significance as a habitat of migratory waterfowl; from ducks to pelicans, doves and sparrow-hawks, among others.

Valued for its rich biodiversity, this coastal ecosystem is a key breeding ground for several migratory bird species (not just flamingoes) and species endemic to Cuba and the Caribbean. It’s also home to the largest population of American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) in Cuba’s northern coast, and a large colony of West Indian manatees. Both are vulnerable species that thrive here, and more can be done so that numbers stop their downward trend. Sadly, in recent years and due to several environmental factors that need addressing (and which are currently being looked into) populations have suffered and swift action is needed to reverse the damage.

Overcoming adversity

It’s a sad but very real fact that after gaining numerous international recognition and awards for its pristine conservation status, in more recent years the area has badly suffered the effects of nearby agricultural contamination, illegal hunting and the introduction of exotic species…all of which have resulted in an alarming drop in the area’s number of inhabitants. So alarming that back in 2014 no more than 4,000 flamingoes were recorded, a frightful number, especially since not so long ago the refuge was home to over 120,000 individuals of this species. How scary is this dramatic downward spiral? Very scary, indeed.

To counteract the many adverse effects that humans are causing to this once thriving enclave and stop the number of creatures from falling even lower, swift action was needed, and after a couple of years, it seems local authorities are finally listening and getting involved. Perhaps not as fast as desired but several projects to restore the area’s ecosystem are underway.

The alarm cry was given by Jose Morales Leal (a.k.a Fefo) an investigator, founder and director (until 2015) of the Rio Maximo Wildlife Refuge who had earned the International Prize for his life’s work. He alerted the local authorities about the need to act quickly and save this one-of-a-kind nature reserve or it would soon stop existing altogether. He denounced the negligent stance of some of the people in charge of looking after the refuge and urged them to rectify, reflect, think and act according to the area’s environmental rules in place to safeguard the flamingo’s forever home.

Environmental Threats and Challenges

The main culprit, as usual in these cases is unregulated human intervention. Illegal hunting, agricultural development and the irrational exploitation of natural resources for the construction of boats, spawning stations and other industries all contributed to the drastic decrease of the river’s water quality as contamination levels reached a record-high. All these issues are currently being tackled but the recovery will be slow and painful as there’s a lot of damage to reverse. But some progress has been made since 2015 and the positive results can already be seen. There’s a long way to go but as long as efforts are maintained, there’s a good chance the reserve goes back to its days of glory. The number of animals is already on the up, so fingers crossed, the upward trend continues in spite of the many challenges the refuge faces.

Planned Proposal for a Sustainable Development

At present, there are a variety of measures in place for the refuge’s protection as well as different actions being carried out to improve the quality of the river’s waters. One of these actions is the implementation of an efficient system to treat the residual waters of the spawning station, to decrease the contamination of the marshes by 30 per cent. Efforts also include a reforestation programme being carried on the banks on the river, the canal and the surroundings of the nearby Base de Campismo (Camping Base). The creation of forested areas with species adapted to the area’s salinity levels has been yet another step to naturally contribute to this fragile ecosystem’s overall health.

There’s also an effort in progress to completely remove the invasive Casuarina in the protected area and in this regard the target is very close to being achieved. Other projects work in synergy with an array of national and international organisations and institutions, such as the GEF and WWF projects for the National System of Protected Areas and for Protected Marine Areas.

Steps for Sustainable Tourism

In terms of developing the area for sustainable tourism (in a way that funds could be invested in the community to improve and support conservation efforts), there are plans to improve road access (there are actually no roads taking you there, so these are plans to build a road in the first place). The rehabilitation and refurbishment of the tourist area at "Los Cangilones", with sustainable materials and a design that naturally fits in the protected environment, thus minimising its overall impact, as well as regular cleaning procedures (by hand and with machinery) to improve the quality of the natural pools.

Other steps also include the development of an ample programme of Environmental Education and Social Communication and the opening of a centre to train locals in environmental conscience and how to look after the health of the marshes. There are other national and international projects against droughts

All the implemented actions have contributed and will continue to contribute to the generation of employment for locals, the use of human resources to train local women to work in the tourist industry and in artisanal work in the rescue of old traditions. The efforts have also had a ripple effect in the creation of a collective environmental conscience in the local population and in local decision-makers.

Access to the refuge

Getting here is as much of an adventure as visiting the reserve. The path is treacherous, the area to get there completely road-less and as such hard to reach, but it´s all part of the exhilarating experience. To arrange an excursion you’ll have to contact tour agencies in the area, namely Ecotur and Camaguax Tours, both of which can be reached from the city centre of Camaguey or found at a hotel tour desk.

Don’t even dream about embarking here on your own, not only you’ll get lost, most likely, but you risk a good telling off for walking into protected grounds without an official guide. Also, you can’t rely on locals giving you directions as few know of this virginal place and even less come to visit.

Yet, the area’s remoteness, one of its biggest appeals but also one of its biggest threats, could soon change as more efforts go into the sustainable development of the refuge and its surroundings. Income from tourism can be re-invested into the protection of this wildlife reserve, employing more permanent onsite park rangers, scientists and conservationists while the creation of tourism can have a positive ripple reserve in the wider community in the form of employment for locals. In a few years’ time Rio Maximo’s Wildlife Refuge could be the natural site to see in Camaguey, but while we’re not there yet you could be among the few to inspect it first, minus the tourist crowds.

What else is there to do in the region?

Los Cangilones

While you’re here, don’t leave without first visiting Los Cangilones, the region’s most famous area and once a popular tourism spots for nationals (completely unknown to foreign visitors).

Los Cangilones del Rio Maximo is a privileged part of the river, surrounded by the mountains of Sierra de Cubitas and with a geological configuration that gives way to beautiful natural pools that extend for 350 metres. Such a stunning natural wonder is a declared National Monument and a key protected area, closely connected with the preservation of the nearby Rio Maximo Wildlife Refuge.

Sadly, due to severe contamination of its waters (from the dumping of residues and aquaculture), by the year 2000, the area was closed off to tourists who had previously enjoyed the rural accommodation at Base de Campismo Popular Los Cangilones, a camping site adjacent to the pools.

After continuous efforts to restore the area’s health, the site reopened in June 2007, followed by a complete overhaul to the camping base with new rural cabins scattered through the woods, coexisting in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings. Yet, said cabins include modern fixtures such as electric fans, TV, fridge and bunk beds. There’s also an onsite restaurant, video room, sports areas, a stable, medical clinic, computer room and cafeteria.

Now, thanks to an ongoing conservation project that has included the building of a canal to divert toxic waste and a physical barrier that stops residues being dumped in the river pools, Los Cangilones is back on the tourism radar. Plans are to continue exploiting its potential and enhance its offering, so you can’t go wrong with a stay here. Accommodation might be basic, but who needs luxury when you are surrounded by such natural beauty!

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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