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Guide to Ciénaga de Zapata and Bay of pigs.

Guide to Ciénaga de Zapata and Bay of pigs.

by WhyNotCuba

Ciénaga de Zapata is one of the six biosphere reserves in Cuba, located 150 kilometers southeast of Havana. This natural park is the wildest, most untamed region in the Caribbean. It is one of the best ecotourism destinations in Cuba.  

The park contains extensive and varied ecosystems. Crocodiles, flamingoes, deer, jutias and the rare manatee inhabit the wetlands and mangrove forest. More than 200 species of migratory and endemic birds inhabit here as well, making it worldwide known as a birdwatching region

Bay of Pigs has the typical Caribbean charm with lots of beaches, coral reef barriers and deep cenotes, perfect for diving, snorkeling, fishing, or just relaxing. But there is more to know about this bay than its turquoise water and natural riches. A dark chapter of Cuba’s history took place on this bay, the failed US invasion of 1961.

Keep reading to find out more about the hidden gems of Ciénaga de Zapata.

Birdwatching

The wetlands and mangrove forests in Ciénaga de Zapata are a paradise for birdwatchers. More than three-fifths of the total of birds in Cuba can be found here. The Zapata Wren (Ferminia), the Zapata Rail (Gallinuela de Santo Tomás) and the Zapata Sparrow (Cabrerito de la Ciénaga) are endemic to this specific region, being considered the birds with more restricted habitat in the world. The Gray-fronted Quail Dove (Camao) and the Blue-headed Quail Dove (Paloma Perdiz) are gracious specimens of the family Columbidae that you can spot here.

You can spot birds pretty much everywhere you go in Cienaga de Zapata. But if you want to explore deep into the region you have to take a birdwatching tour. Here are a few options:

Refugio de fauna Bermejas.

If you are into birdwatching you have to take a tour to Refugio de fauna Bermejas. The tour leaves at sunrise and lasts about 3 hours. The guides know the area and where to find the most exotic birds.    

“Enigma de la Roca”.

This tour explores cenotes surrounded by forest and caves. You will see not only birds, but also fish, turtles, lizards, chameleons and crabs. The main attraction of this tour is a wild crocodile that lives in a cenote deep into the forest. 

Laguna de las Salinas.

One of the most popular excursions is to this Laguna. It´s located 22 km from Playa Larga. On the road to Las Salinas you will go through forest, swamps and lagoons. It is possible to spot thousands of flamingos, pelicans, and other migratory waterfowl here. You can take a walking tour or include a boat ride into the lagoon and coastal waters.

Rio Hatiguanico.

There are several tours available along the river Hatiguanico. They all include walking tours and boat rides.

The tours can be organized at Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office. The office is located on the main road in Playa Larga. They are open from Monday to Sunday, from 8:00 – 16:30. All the tours cost 15 – 20 USD per person, but transportation is not included. You have to arrange transportation on your own to the start point. You can ask your casa particular host to help you out arranging transportation. 

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Snorkeling and scuba diving in Bay of pigs 

Between Playa Larga and Playa Girón in Bay of pigs there are 35 km of beaches and coast. The area is famous for the cenotes, crystal waters, abundance of fishes and coral reefs, which can be found near the shore. There are over 25 immersion points all over the bay. You can jump in pretty much everywhere and explore the coral reefs on your own. But if you want to see the hidden gems you should take a diving tour. Here are a few options:

Diving excursion with Octopus Dive Center and Scuba Center

Octopus Dive Center in Playa Larga and Scuba Center in Playa Girón offers daily diving and snorkeling tours. They pick you at 9 am at your lodging or nearby spot and take you to the diving center to pick up the equipment. The tour usually takes you diving on two different spots for 1.5 hour each. Return to town is around 2pm. The cost is 35 USD for diving and 15 USD for snorkeling per person and includes kit rental, transportation and guides. It should be arranged the day before or the same day at 8 am, you can always ask your casa particular host to help you out. 

Cueva de los Peces

Cueva de los Peces Diving Center. The fish cave is located right on the coast. The diving center, bar and restaurant are open from 9am to 5pm every day. On the island side you will find the deepest cenote in Cuba, with 70 meters deep, crystal waters and abundance of colorful fishes. Thousands of years ago there was an underground river here, the roof collapsed and the result was this flooded cave. 

Visitors can rent snorkeling gear and take a relaxed swim on the cenote or in the beach. Those wanting to explore the sea and the coral reefs can take a diving tour on the open sea. The more adventurous travelers can go diving through the underground tunnel that connects Cueva de los Peces with the sea. 

Cueva de los peces cenote

Punta Perdiz

Punta Perdiz Diving Center is located around 10 km from Playa Giron. The restaurant and diving center are open from 9am to 5pm every day. It’s a great place for snorkeling and diving, as it has the best seabed in the region. On a diving tour you can also see remains of a shipwrecked boat from the Bay of pig’s invasion.

Caleta Buena

El Pirata Diving Center is based in Caleta Buena. This place is perfect for a day at the beach. Here you will find a beautiful beach, lots of cenotes and coral reefs that can be seen from the shore. They are open from 9am to 5pm every day. An entrance fee is required and it includes an open bar and buffet. There are 19 different immersion points in Caleta Buena, the diving center offers multilevel diving, with depths up to 25 meters, and practice of espeleobuceo in the cenotes. 

Australia sugar mill and museum.

You will notice on the road signs pointing to Australia. Australia is a small village founded in 1862. It took the name of the sugar cane factory “Central Australia”, which is now abandoned. The name can also be written prominently on the sugar mill tower. During the 1961 US invasion of the Bay of pigs, the sugar mill office served as Fidel Castro’s headquarters. The base of operations became a museum afterwards, the Museo de la Comandancia

La Boca crocodile farm & Guama taino village

Crocodile hatchery “La Boca”

La Boca was founded in 1962 with the aim of bringing the Cuban crocodile back from extinction. it’s a popular attraction for both international and national tourism. It’s a small zoo that shows some of the local fauna, such as jutias (tree rats), jicoteas, and manjuari. Of course, crocodiles are the protagonists here. Visitors can see the crocodiles at all the stages of life, from youngsters to fully-grown adults, and even hold a juvenile one for a photo. In the adult pit you can admire some of considerable sizes and even feed them through the fence. You can order crocodile meat at one of the restaurants in La Boca, or even buy a dissected crocodile in the souvenir shop. 

La Boca crocodile farm

La Boca it’s also the jetty bound for the boats and ferry’s heading to Guama through Laguna del Tesoro. The boat ride costs 12 USD per person.

Laguna del Tesoro

Laguna del Tesoro is one of the largest bodies of freshwater in Cuba. The treasure lagoon owns its name to an old legend. The story tells that the indigenous decided to throw all their gold and treasures to the Lagoon instead of handing them over to the Spaniards in the XVI century. 

On the east side of the lake there is a resort named Villa Guama, built to resemble a taino village, on a dozen small islands.

Guamá

Guamá taíno village tries to recreate the life of Cuban aborigines before the arrival of Spaniards to the island. The village is named after the most famous indigenous chief in the history of Cuba, who led a rebellion against the Spaniards back in the XVI century. Life size sculptures resembles those Indians performing daily life activities, such as hunting, fishing, gathering and housework. A group of Cubans dress up as aborigines and perform some of their typical dances and rituals around the thatched roof bohíos

Guama taino village

Bay of Pigs Museum

Bay of Pigs have lovely beaches and cenotes, but it is probably best known for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1961 US troops landed in Playa Giron in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s revolution. The government erected several propaganda boards and monuments all over Bay of pigs ever since. 

The Museo de Playa Giron is dedicated to commemorate this bizarre episode in Cuba’s History. It’s a small museum, but it details the whole story of the failed-CIA invasion of Cuba. Exhibits include a plane, a war-tank and weaponry used in the battle, as well as some photographs and personal effects of fallen soldiers. They also play a 15-minutes documentary (in Spanish with English subtitles) which offers some context to the invasion and its aftermath. 

Bay of pigs museum

Where to stay?

There are two small villages where you can stay in Bay of pigs: Playa Larga (Caleton) and Playa Giron.

Playa Larga (Caletón)

Playa Larga is WhynotCuba’s recommendation. There are lots of casas particulares right at the beach. Most of the casas have bars and restaurants so you can order drinks and snacks while chilling on the sand. Although there are not many nightlife opportunities in Bay of Pigs in general there is more of a friendly vibe here. You might find a bar open until 23:00-24:000. 

In Playa Larga you will also find a hotel, the Octopus International Diving Center and the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office.

Hostal El Caribeño and Casa Alexis y Dignora are some of the best casas particulares in Playa Larga. 

Sunset in Playa Larga

Playa Girón

Playa Girón is more like a quiet village. There are plenty of casas particulares here as well, but none of them on the beach (around 500 meters from the beach). Beside the State-run Cubanacan hotel and the International Blue Diving Center there is nothing else established on the beach. Here you will also find the Giron Museum, which tells the story of the Bay of Pig’s Invasion. 

Hostal Mayito and El Castillito are some of the best casas particulares in Playa Giron. 

Well, Ciénaga de Zapata is not just a smelly swamp after all. It has quite a few experiences to offer. Those looking forward to admiring some wildlife, birdwatching, learning some history, snorkeling, scuba diving, or just chilling at the beach will not be disappointed. 

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