While Cuba is perhaps best known as a beach destination, many travellers are now seeking out more authentic ways to experience the country.
And although Havana has enjoyed much of the authenticity spotlight in recent years, Cuba has another hidden gem waiting to be discovered on its southwestern shores.
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While the Zapata Peninsula is not too far from the all-inclusive resorts frequented by Canadians, the experience offered here is a completely different world.
A wild world
Much of the peninsula is a national park containing a vast marshland full of wildlife, similar to Florida’s Everglades. Known as Ciénaga de Zapata, the swamp has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2001, protected under Cuban law and providing a home for dozens of bird and reptile species within its 4,520 square-kilometre area. The Zapata Swamp is considered to be the best preserved wetland in all of the Caribbean.
And like the Everglades, the Zapata Swamp is home to crocodiles: in this case, the rare Cuban crocodile, which can be found only here. A number of crocodile farms have been established throughout the region, where visitors can get an up close look at the reptiles. The most notable is the Criadero de cocodrilos, a reptile farm established in 1962 and credited with helping to save both the Cuban and American crocodile from extinction in the country.
Established in 1962, this crocodile breeding farm has successfully saved two endangered species of crocodiles from extinction.
The region also played a key role in a major international event of the 20th Century: it was here that the U.S. launched its failed Bay of Pigs invasion, landing troops along the eastern shores of the bay in Playa Giron. A military museum dedicated to the event now resides here, complete with aircraft and tanks used in the invasion.
In addition to its historic connection, the Bay of Pigs also offers plenty of diving opportunities for visitors, with Playa el Tanque, Caleta Buena and Cueva de los Peces (a 70m deep inland cenote) among the top dive spots in the region. Those looking to go diving in the region will be happy to know that all of the region’s dive sites are accessible from the shoreline.
Daytripping: endless possibilities
Travellers to the region have a few local hotel options, with a handful of properties located in Playa Larga and Zapata National Park.
However, it’s just as easy to make a visit from the more popular resort areas to the north.
Located approximately 150 km south of Havana (and less than 100 km from Varadero), a visit to the Zapata region can easily be done within a day from a resort on Cuba’s northern coast.