Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata is in Matanzas province of Cuba. The national park is one of best birdwatching areas in the world, plus it has scuba diving and beautiful beaches. It's on Cuba's south coast, in the middle of the country, about a two-hour drive from Havana.
The Bay of Pigs is where the Cubans defeated an American invasion in 1961. The communist propaganda billboards along the road from Australia to Playa Larga may be the best in Cuba. Support for the government is strong on the Peninsula de Zapata because it was the poorest region in Cuba before the revolution, and the first area that the communists developed, with roads, schools, and a hospital. It is also one of Fidel's favorite areas because of the 1961 victory.
The Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata is similar to the Everglades National Park in Florida.
Flora and fauna
Viazul has bus service from Havana to Playa Larga and Playa Girón, and then on to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. There is a bus from Viñales but it will drop you at the restaurant of Pío Cuá because after the lunch break they use the autopista to go to Trinidad. Check beforehand to avoid surprises. When dropped at the restaurant either hitch hike the 20 km (pay 0-20 national pesos) or get a taxi (pay in CUC).
Fees and permits
You'll need a car to get around the national park. Maybe a four-wheel drive.
Local bus runs (at least) twice daily between Playa Larga and Playa Girón.
Criadero Cocodrilo and Guamá
The Criadero Cocodrilo, or crocodile farm, is halfway between Australia and Playa Larga. Everyone likes it, especially the under-twelve-year-olds. You get to see lots of crocodiles, and hold a baby crocodile, and eat crocodile meat in the restaurant.
The other tourist attraction at the crocodile ranch is a boat ride to Guamá. This is an island in a lake, the Laguna del Tesero (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro enjoyed vacationing on the island and commissioned the building of a Taíno native village and 32 sculptures depicting native life. A sign at the ticket office says, in English, that the Taíno village is "the most exciting place on Earth—don't miss it!" Guamá was pleasant and relaxing, but "exciting" it wasn't. The boat ride was also fairly expensive. If you're short on cash and/or time you might want to skip Guamá.
Playa Maquina, just east of Playa Larga, is a beautiful beach. The sand is white coral. The water is warm, clear, shallow, and calm. Palm trees and limestone cenotes line the shore. You'll probably have the beach to yourself. The guidebook calls this beach "Caleta del Rosario."
The Ciénaga de Zapata is one of the best birdwatching areas in the world.
You can see the Tocororo (Cuban Trogon), which is the national bird, and the Bee Hummingbird , which is the world's smallest bird and is found only in the Ciénaga de Zapata, the Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Toady, Great Lizard Cuckoo, Black-Cowled Oriole, Osprey, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Bullfinch, Striped-Headed Tanager, American Redstart, Yellow-Headed Warbler, Palm Warbler, Red-Legged Thrush, Cuban Crow, Black-Whiskered Vireo, Cuban Vireo, Loggerhead Kingbird, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Cuban Peewee, Fernandina's Flicker, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Parrot, Smooth-Billed Ani, Zenaida Dove, Common Ground Dove, Grey-Haired Quail Dove, Laughing Gull, Common Moorhen, Northern Jacana, American Kestral, Turkey Vulture, Blue-Winged Teal, Wood Stork, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Neotropical Cormorant, Emerald Hummingbird, Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Cuban Screech Owl, and the Black and White Warbler.
The best guidebook is Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, by Orlando H. Garrido, Arturo Kirkconnell, and Roman F. Company.
Scuba diving and snorkeling
There are 2 nice spots to snorkel in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) right next to each other. The Cueva de los Peces is a flooded tectonic fault and is best visited at noon to have more light reaching into the depth of 70 m and to see (some) fish. With your own gear snorkel around for free. A much better spot is right at the beach on the other side of the road. You can already see some fish from the beach. It's said to be one of the best spots on the main island. The reef consists of mostly hard coral 'hills' that are spread over the sandy area with distances between 1-10 m of each other. Some several meters long, others are just a big stone with corals atop. The corals are rather colorless but include big blue coral leaves and are inhabited by a good number of colorful fish. From time to time there is a swarm in the ocean and with luck a barracuda can be seen. Visibility is almost 100%; the sea is calm. The area is quite big and also hides a wreck (swim out straight for a good distance and a little bit to the right). Out there you will only see the wreck and hardly any fish because it's to deep (maybe 15 m). If you don't find it follow the divers or snorkling groups.
Diving including equipment at the Cueva de los Peces costs CUC 25 per dive plus CUC 10 for the first introductory dive. This is probably one of the best deals you can get on the island.
There is a diving center at Playa Larga that offers diving tours as well es snorkling. A snorkling tour including transport and gear rental costs CUC 10.
If you have your own gear get on a local bus (often denied by people working in tourism business) that leaves between 9AM and 10AM from the main junction (3 roads: one north, one to Caletón, one to Playa Girón) and passes Cueva de los Peces 15 min later from where it goes back to Playa Larga around 4:30PM. Fare: 1 National Peso. Or, taxis will be eager to drive you there.
A restaurant is next to the Cueva de los Peces. Sunloungers available for rent at the beach. The beach is some 20-30 m long consisting of only stones (no sand) and meadow between the stony part and the street.
Dinners at the casa particular "Susurros de Mar" in Caletón include a choice of chicken, fish, lobster, crocodile (cocodrilo), or jutía—giant tree rat! Everybody likes crocodile meat. Jutía is, shall we say, the choice of the adventurous traveler.
And if you want to make friends with Cubans, don't eat lobster. It's illegal for Cubans to eat lobster so they might be resentful.
"El Chino" makes a sarsaparilla drink that beats any root beer (not alcoholic).
In Caletón, the village just west of Playa Larga, the casa particular "Susurros del Mar" ("whispers of the sea") is on the beach, a few feet from the water. The rooms are nice, the food excellent, and the large living room is sort of the local pub for the neighbors. 25 CUC per night, 10 CUC for supper, and 4 CUC for breakfast. Contact: Nivaldo Ortega, Caletón, Cicuaga de Zapata, Matanzas; telephone +53 15 225 2021.
Across the street Cubans can stay in an unlicensed casa particular for 15 CUC per night for two bedrooms. (The government license to rent a room to tourists costs 260 CUC per month. So the casa owner has to rent each room 11 nights a month just to break even. The neighbor across the street didn't pay for the license so she could only rent to Cubans, but she kept all the money she earned.)
In Caletón you won't struggle to find a casa. Just show up and knock on a door with the blue symbol.
In Playa Giron - Casa Particular Lidia y Julio - nice clean room with flat screen TV, DVD player, fridge, bathroom en-suite - 25 CUC/night. Excellent food provided. Julio is a diving instructor and may also make all necessary arrangements for interesting dives in the area. Telephone: +53-45-984135
- Cienfuegos and Trinidad by Viazul. Check with the Viazul office beforehand as in Jan 2015 the office in Playa Larga was closed. Or ask around.