We travelled from the Zapata Peninsula, on the south coast, to a little place called Cayo Caguanes, on the north. The target was bats. There is a fishing bat that takes its prey from pools in the mangroves here, and we hoped to see it in action.
Before we looked for that bat, however, Juan Carlos had another species to show me: the butterfly bat, said to be the world’s smallest. He knew of a cave where millions of these bats roosted. Each evening they stream out of only a couple of exits for a night of feeding on insects.
An hour-long, bone-jarring ride in a trailer towed by a smoke-belching Russian tractor brought us to a guard house in the mangroves. (Initially I thought the strong military presence in mangroves on the north coast was to discourage Cubans from attempting to launch boats in the direction of, say, Miami, but Juan Carlos told me that access to all Cuba’s mangrove reserves is controlled by the military.
While the guards lounged in the watchtower—high enough to be out of mosquito range—we followed faint trails into the bush, searching for the cave entrance. It had been a while since both Juan Carlos (an avid speleologist) and the local guide had been here, so it took a while to find the place. It was coming on to dusk, but there was still enough light to identify various bird and tree species, including one locally known as the “tourist tree,” because its bark looks just like the peeling skin of a sunburnt Caucasian.
Once we located the entrance we climbed down into the limestone cavern and crawled to one of the holes where the bats emerge. I stuck my head into the opening and was amazed. The sound of millions of tiny wings was like a fan on full speed. It felt like a fan, too—a steady breeze against my skin. The cave was pitch black, but I knew that the bats were flying past me: I could feel the rush of air and the occasional touch of a velvet wing on my face. I was astonished that no bat collided with me, though I guess to a bat my head looked like a large hot globe, easily avoided.
After half an hour the evening bat commute seemed to be waning, so we retraced our steps. The forest was dark now, and fireflies were out. Juan Carlos found one on a blade of grass and caught it to show me. I had never seen one up close. I expected something resembling a fly, but in fact these ones were sizable beetles. The two green light-emitting organs are situated on either side of the front end of the abdomen.
The tractor took us back into the mangroves, where we watched a known bat pool for half an hour, flicking a torch on occasionally to light the scene. The bats were making their ghostly flights just above the surface, but not dipping down to feed. As at Hatiguanico, there had been a lot of rain recently, shifting the salinity of the pool towards fresh water, and the thinking was that this had forced the fish towards the sea.
The lumbering batmobile was cranked into life once more, and we jolted home to the pyrotechnics not of fireflies but of an electrical storm that made the clouds glow like mercury lamps.