Zapata Peninsula and Bay of Pigs

This is one of the most famous places in the world: for every Cuban it signifies a great victory; for the Americans, a failure of monumental proportions. Historian of Cuba, Hugh Thomas, said the disaster of the CIA-backed invasion in April 1961 was so politically dismal for JFK that he went out and ordered the US space agency to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. In his history epic 'Cuba' he wrote, “perhaps a victory for the US in Cuba might have deprived mankind of that achievement in 1969”. Unfortunately, there is little to see at the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) relating to the air and sea attack except monuments on the roadside marking the fallen and a museum about the invasion. However, this is extremely interesting and is full to overflowing with photos for those who don't read Spanish and there is a feeling of achievement and importance in making it to such an historical site that is a little off the beaten track.

Nowadays, there is more to the region than just its history. The whole of the south coast of the Matanzas province is taken up with the Zapata peninsula , an area of swamps, mangroves, beaches and much bird and animal life. Much of it is a national park - Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata, the largest ecosystem on the island containing the Laguna del Tesoro, a 9.1-sq-km lagoon over 10 m deep. It is an important winter home for flocks of migrating birds. There are 16 species of reptile, including crocodiles. Mammals include the jutía and the manatee, while there are more than 1000 species of invertebrate, of which more than 100 are spiders.

Near Playa Girón is a stunning natural pool area, Caleta Buena, brimming with sapphire-coloured water and teeming with tropical fish. Between Playa Larga and Playa Girón the sea is an exceptional colour, like lapis lazuli flecked with aquamarine. The diving in these beautifully coloured waters is highly rated and there are several marked spots where you can dive and snorkel.

Ins and outs

Getting there and around

Entronque de Jagüey on the main highway marks the 'entrance' to the peninsula. There is also a road from Cienfuegos. Public transport is limited. Viazul runs a Havana-Entronque-Girón-Cienfuegos route. A few local buses run to Playa Girón and Playa Larga. Tour buses and taxis are the usual method of transport but the most convenient way of getting around is to hire a car so that you can get to out-of-the-way places and stay as long as you like. Hiking is good in the National Park, but you will need to carry water as it is very hot in the swamps. 

Tourist information

The Centro de Información La Finquita is next to the Cubanacán Café at Entronque de Jagüey, on the national highway provides local information and sells a map of the zone. The dry season is from December to April. Winter is also the time when migratory birds visit the peninsula so birdwatching is especially rewarding.

South to the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs)

Due south of Jovellanos you head towards the Zapata peninsula and the countryside becomes flat and uninteresting. This area was particularly badly hit by Hurricane Michelle in November 2001, with lots of houses damaged or destroyed. The storm ripped through the Zapata peninsula and its tourist attractions. Jagüey Grande is just north of the central highway from Havana to Santa Clara.

Finca Fiesta Campesina
, is a large country farm. The large, shady garden contains caged animals as well as a bar, shops and toilets. You can watch a man push sugar cane through a mangle so that you can try a glass of
guarapo
(sugar cane juice) mixed with lime (and rum if you want it). Animals include a snake called a
Majá de
Santa María
, the
jutía
, a large-eared rat, and a prehistoric fish called a
manjuarí
, which has a long bill with lots of teeth and eyes set far back, making it look a bit like a platypus crossed with a crocodile. There is a
cabaña
complex in the grounds providing accommodation.

Central Australia
, is a sugar mill that looks like an ailing dinosaur, built in 1872, and decommissioned in 2002. It had its moment of fame when Castro used the administration office (built 1915) as his centre of operations to repel the Bay of Pigs invasion (Operation Pluto). The office is now the
Museo Memorial Comandancia de las FAR
.
It is a singularly unimpressive museum considering its historical importance. There are photos of destroyed planes and victory pictures and one showing the name of Fidel written on a wall in the blood of one of the Cuban victims. There are also some pictures of José Ramón Fernández, Director of Operations, who has been a Vice President of the Council of Ministers since 1978. The phone used by Fidel is still in situ and there is an anti-missile machine in the lobby. Outside the museum is the wreck of a plane shot down by Castro's troops. The guide will tell you that the dead American pilot was kept frozen in an institute in Havana as the US did not want to claim him and thereby admit responsibility for the invasion. The serviceman was not reclaimed until his daughter came to collect him in 1989.

Boca de Guamá

At Boca de Guamá is a tourist centre of shops, a ceramic factory, a restaurant and a crocodile farm (Criadero de Cocodrilos) where they breed the native Rhombifer (cocodrilo) and which is also home to turtles (jicotea), jutía and what they call a living fossil, the manjuarí fish. From here it is possible to take a boat to Villa Guamá, a hotel , and Aldea Taína, an Amerindian complex in the Laguna del Tesoro. On one of the islets a series of life-size statues of Amerindians going through their daily routines has been carved by the late Cuban sculptor Rita Longa, which you can see by following a boardwalk. In the middle is a replica of a caney, a large house belonging to the cacique (chief), where actors do a lot of wailing, blow a conch, daub your face black and expect you to give them a generous tip. This is not obligatory. Birdwatchers are advised to spend a few nights, or go on a tour one day and return with the next tour the following day. You will see most at dawn before the tour buses arrive.

Playa Larga

The road south down the peninsula meets the coast at Playa Larga, at the head of the Bahía de Cochinos, commonly known as the Bay of Pigs. The US-backed invasion force landed here on 17 April 1961 but was successfully repelled. There is a small monument but most of the commemorative paraphernalia is at Playa Girón . The beach is open and better than that at Playa Girón. Some casas particulares have beach access.

Playa Larga is also a good place to come to explore the
Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata
, also known as Parque Natural Montemar, a bird lover's paradise. There are 21 endemic species of birds inside the park. The smallest of these is the hummingbird. The best time to see flamingos and migratory birds is from December to March. Other sightings include magnificent frigates, sandhill crane, Cuban parakeet, nighthawks, owls and pied billed grebe. Sport fishing is also offered. The park Headquarters office, is just before you reach Playa Larga on the main road, indicated by a sign.

The
Laguna de las Salinas
, 25 km southwest, is the temporary home of huge numbers of migratory birds from December to April. The rest of the year it is empty. At the end of the road, at the forest technical station at La Salina, you can get a boat to one of the outlying islands,
Cayo Venado
, where there are iguanas and
jutías
. West of Playa Larga, a track leads to
Santo Tomás
where, in addition to waterfowl, you can see the Zapata wren, the Zapata rail and the Zapata sparrow.

East around the bay,
Cueva de los Peces
, is a
cenote
that is full of fish and is good for diving and snorkelling, particularly early in the day. The snorkelling off the coast here is very good. Two kilometres southeast of Playa Larga is
Playa de la Máquina
, a sandy beach frequented by locals where you can see lots of old trucks, caravans and other 'machines'. Between Cueva de los Peces and Playa Girón is
Punta de Perdiz
, where there is a restaurant, excellent snorkelling, a dive centre and boat trips.

Playa Girón

The resort at Playa Girón is isolated and small with little entertainment or nightlife. It is named after a 17th-century French pirate, Gilbert Girón, who frequented the area and presumably also appreciated its isolation. A stay of a few nights would be plenty to explore the area, visit the Bay of Pigs museum and take advantage of the scuba diving and snorkelling. The beach is walled in and therefore protected, but the sea is rocky. The diving and snorkelling is excellent and you can walk to the reef from the shore. Diving from Punta Perdíz (Bay of Pigs) is an easy beach entry if you are in the area, although the nearest dive shop is at Playa Girón. Nearby there is a 15- to 18-m-long Fisheries Division shipwreck, sitting in 20 m of water on a sand slope. The wreck was intentionally sunk by the government in 1995. The boat, known as a Cayo Largo boat, was built in the early 1980s from concrete and wire. Cuba is well known for building ships like this, which are expected to have a life of around 10 years and are then gutted, with everything of use being removed for a newer model. These 'throw away' boats used to be sunk in deep water, but as diving developed as a sport on the islands, the wrecks were placed in shallow waters to allow divers to explore them. The dive operation at the resort offers courses and packages of dives which can be tied in with accommodation. Further along the shore, however, there is another long sandy beach, and 8 km southeast is Caleta Buena, a pretty cove with lots of coral and fish. There is a small tourist centre, perched on some craggy rocks and the water is excellent for snorkelling. The pale blue, natural swimming pools are teeming with shoals of multi-coloured fish. There are also caves in the area for divers to explore. If you have your own transport, find a beach along the road between Playa Girón and Caleta Buena, there will be no people and good snorkelling 100 m offshore.

At the site of national pilgrimage where, in 1961 at the
Bay of Pigs
, the disastrous US-backed invasion of Cuba was attempted , is the
Museo Girón
. It shows how the invasion was repelled within 72 hours, with 200 CIA-trained Cuban exiles killed, 1197 captured and 11 planes shot down. Monuments to those who died are scattered along the coast. Outside the museum is a British Sea Fury fighter aircraft, used by Castro's air force against the invaders. The tank outside is a replica of the original in Havana that destroyed
USS Houston
. The remains of an American B-26 are also in the gardens. It came down on the
pista
on 17 April 1961. There are also tanks and boats belonging to the mercenaries (Brigade 2506).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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