How the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Cienaga de Zapata remains largely unknown to foreigners is a mystery to most Cubans. Just a 2-hour drive from Havana, this incredibly unique swamp area is home to a diverse range of landscapes and hidden gems - from a treasure lagoon and crocodile farm, to underwater shipwrecks and the infamous Bay of Pigs - landing site of the 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba. But the Bay of Pigs invasion is not the Cienaga's only historical claim to fame - in the late 1950s, when the Native American Miccosukees were fighting to gain rights and recognition from the U.S. government, Fidel Castro offered the Cienaga de Zapata to the Miccosukees as their homeland. Embarrassed, the U.S. government granted the Miccosukee tribe recognition and federal benefits. Today, the region serves as one of the best offbeat spots for eco-tourism in all of Cuba.
Read on to find out more about this fascinating region and which sites to visit in Cuba's best-kept secret!
La Laguna del Tesoro
La Laguna del Tesoro (meaning "treasure lagoon" in Spanish) owes its name to the fact that during colonial times, local indigenous people would throw their gold and treasure into the nearby lagoon, out of fear that the Spanish would loot their most precious belongings. This beautiful lagoon is a great spot for fishing enthusiasts, who will find that the waters are swarming with Golden trout.
Visitors can also travel by boat to the Boca de Guamá (mouth of Guamá), in the centre of the lagoon. Named after one of Cuba's most famous indigenous chiefs, Guamá led a rebellion against the Spanish conquistadores in the early 16th century. Today, the Boca de Guamá houses a replica aboriginal village. The village is punctuated by sculptures depicting daily Taíno life, erected by the famous 20th-century Cuban artist, Rita Longa.
Guamá Crocodile Farm
Just at the bottom of the dusty road leading to La Laguna del Tesoro is a swampy crocodile farm, founded in 1962 and dedicated to the preservation of the critically endangered Cuban crocodile. Notably, this is the only place in the world where Cuba's native crocodiles, (Crocodylus rhombifer) can be found.
Visitors can pet docile baby crocodiles, or try a delicious garlicky crocodile steak at the local ranch. *
*Animal activists do not fear - the farm only slaughters a few crocodiles under strict legal requirements, as a means of reducing illegal poaching and crocodile consumption, as well as of increasing revenue for the upkeep of the farm's preservation programs.
Drive 10-minutes south of Guamá and you'll reach Playa Larga, the inner most beach on the infamous Bay of Pigs. Home to a coral reef of outstanding beauty, Playa Larga is one of the best (yet least visited!) spots for diving and snorkelling in all of Cuba.
Playa Larga's underwater dreamscape is accentuated by the purposefully sunk ship-wreck of El Jaruco, making for a diving adventure you'll never forget!
Cueva de los Peces
Drive 15-minutes along the eastern coast of the Bay of Pigs, and you'll come across the miraculous Cueva de los Peces ("cave of fish"). This little haven boasts the deepest cenote (groundwater sinkhole) in Cuba, extending 70-metres below the surface.
The Cave of Fish owes it's name to the variety of colourful, tropical fish species that can be observed from both above and below the water surface. Visitors can rent snorkelling gear for a relaxing and casual swim, or enjoy a mojito on the pool-side hammocks.
The more adventurous traveller can also rent scuba-gear to dive down into the underwater tunnel that connects the Cueva de los Peces with the sea. Here, they can observe an underwater world of spectacular beauty, including colourful corals and striking stalactites that line the bottom of the cenote.
Right on the edge of the Bay of Pigs, just another 15 minutes east of La Cueva de los Peces, lies the infamous beach of Playa Girón - the principal landing spot in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Visitors can trace Cuba's perspective on this momentous historical event at the nearby Girón Museum, which features exclusive photographs from the invasion, as well as military relics and remnants such as war-tanks and airplanes used in the attack. The museum is small and modest, but definitely worth a quick visit! History aside, Playa Girón is also an outstanding diving location, where divers can even dare to swim with sharks!
Surprised by the beauty and diversity of Cienaga de Zapata? Speak to one of our Cuban-born travel agents to gain more exclusive insights into Cuba's best-kept secrets.