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24 February 2017. The breeze caresses our skin as the sun warms it. Don sits facing the sea. I sit behind him with my arms around his waist and my head resting on his shoulder. The warmth of our bodies transfers from me to him and him to me. The salsa music speaks to the dancing beat of our hearts, and the tranquility of the endless blue sea and sky seeps right into our bones. We are on a yacht heading from the town of Trinidad on the main island of Cuba to Cayo Las Iguanas, or Iguana Island, for a day on the water and at the beach.

It’s like a mini break. It’s tropical paradise territory. It’s Cuba for tourists. We have a choice to take a day tour to Cienfuegos, yet another Cuban city with a beautifully preserved colonial core, or to get out in nature for the day and take a day off from Cuba’s confusing contradictory urban landscape. We look at pictures and Cienfuegos looks beautiful, but still it’s a city, and we need the nourishment of nature. We choose to escape for the day.

As we cruise towards Iguana Island we pass local fishermen in their small wooden boats with makeshift sails,

a flock of cormorants sunning themselves on a row of abandoned wooden poles grey with years of weathering, and idyllic small white-sand islands with palm trees waving in the breeze. I half expect Robinson Crusoe come out from the palapa and wave to us. It’s that kind of setting.

Although the island, twenty miles from Trinidad, is called Iguana Island, and the advertising for the cruise showed pictures of iguanas, I was skeptical that we would actually see any. I thought perhaps we’d see one or two if we were lucky.

Arriving at the island we amble along the dock to the enticing beach and palm trees. It all looks so perfectly blissful.

And then we see them! They are everywhere on the sand and in the nearby bushes, running around, or sparring with each other, or sunning themselves. Dozens of them with their thick tails, red eyes, and spikey spines.

Big ones, small ones, tiny ones. The bigger ones are four feet long with thick round bodies.

There are so many we have to be careful where we walk.

Cuban Rock Iguanas are endemic to Cuba, and are one of the biggest lizards in the Caribbean. They are an endangered species, but clearly they are not endangered here on Iguana Island.

We are dumfounded. Along with the iguanas there are dozens of hutias, a large rodent that is also endemic to Cuba. We’ve basically landed on a beach populated with dozens of giant rats and prehistoric lizards.

The hutias are milling around along with the iguanas as if they are waiting for us. It’s an unexpected welcoming party of unusual size.

We dump our bags and towels and wander amongst this surprising crowd of creatures who couldn’t be more different from each other. Neither the hutias nor the iguanas seem aggressive, or even that much interested in us at all. “Ho hum another boatload of tourists – but we know what’s coming later. Lunch!”

Close to where we land there’s a large open-sided palapa filled with long tables and benches where lunch will be served, and a bit beyond that another building where lunch will be prepared. As far as I can tell that’s all there is on the island.

The sea is a perfect turquoise, the sky is a perfect azure, the sand is soft underfoot. We sink down in this tropical paradise entertained by our serene surroundings and the very active wildlife.

Soon lunch is served in the palapa. The food is good enough, as is the way in Cuba – great heaping platefuls of flavoured rice, lobster, salad, and bread. After lunch the local wildlife explodes into a frenzy of action as all the leftovers are thrown onto the ground behind the palapa. Lunch for the tourists means lunch for them too. Dozens and dozens of the iguanas rush to the five or six piles of leftover food that have been thrown down. Some hutias get in on the action but it’s mainly the iguanas.

Still, the hutias have their ways of getting to the food. This piece of bread that the hutia is holding was seconds earlier in the open mouth of the iguana.

The hutias, which can be as big as 8.5 kg (19lb) (think extremely large domestic cat), are hunted for food in Cuba. The meat is tasty, and even more so when cooked in the usual way with wild nuts and honey.

I go for a walk after lunch and find perfect little hidden coves,

a great blue heron fishing in the shallows, a shy green heron almost hidden amongst the tree branches,

a great egret

and a couple of yellow warblers, one in the bushes and one on the lunch table.

I collapse next to Don on the beach, letting myself be lulled by our surroundings. All is tranquil except for two large alpha-male iguanas sparring with each other,

while this young boy, fascinated with the wildlife, reaches out to pet one of them.

Clearly he is not afraid, and neither are we, and we never have any reason to be, though I did read a post on Double-Barrelled Travel about the hutias and iguanas crowding up to people at the lunch table, and that one large iguana actually launched itself right onto the table! Eeek! Apparently most people that day didn’t hang around to finish lunch. Two years later the tour operators have clearly figured out a way to keep the wildlife away from the palapa until it’s time to feed them the leftovers, though we have no idea how they’ve managed to do this.

At the end of the day, lazing on the boat during the two-hour journey back to Trinidad

we feel sun-soaked and sated. It’s been a surprising day, as well as a sweet easy time of relaxation and rest.

Next post: A story of pain and healing

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.