Cuba Photo Trip Review – Part Two: Cienaga de Zapata
This is the second of four articles on my travels in Cuba in November 2011. You can read my thoughts on Havana in part one here.
My favourite images from the trip have now been collected and published in my new book “Cuba: Town & Country” which is now available in various print formats and also as an e-book for iPad or iPhone.
A world of flights and bites
Entering Cuba’s Cienaga de Zapata National Park does feel like an adventure. In planning any trip to Cuba you can read endless travel blogs or guidebooks about Havana or Vinales, but things get altogether sketchier when dealing with one of Cuba’s wildest areas.
There’s a good reason for that, the Zapata Peninsula does not give up its secrets easily. The protected wetland area (a designated Ramsar site since 2001) is the largest anywhere in the Caribbean, covering over one million acres (4,000 km²). A mixture of open grasslands, coastal forest and mangrove swamp, there is hardly any road access and even channels navigable by boat are limited. The good news is that the lack of human encroachment has preserved an area teeming with wildlife, including a large number of rare endemic species… if you can find them! For birdlife it’s undoubtedly one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited.
I can almost guarantee there is one species you sadly won’t see in the wild, the area’s top predators, the Cuban Crocodile and its close cousin the American Crocodile. Captive crocs can be seen at a croc farm on the road to Playa Larga, one of the area’s prime tourist spots, but I stayed away from it after seeing YouTube videos showing clear mistreatment of the animals. Despite talking to many local people I could find no way to penetrate deep enough into the swamp to find them, nor anyone foolhardy enough to guide me there. “You crazy, too dangerous, el cocodrilo very aggressive” was said to me on more than one occasion, so maybe it’s just as well I failed! Instead I concentrated on two specific areas of the National Park offering very different environments and lots of wildlife photography opportunities.
One of the few ways of getting into the heart of the huge mangrove swamp areas in the west of the park is by boat down the Rio Hatiguanico, the so-called “Cuban Amazon”.
Guides can be booked at the Cubanacan desk at the La Finquita snack bar which is on the Autopista just by the turn off for the road to Playa Larga. Access to the departure point is actually back along the Autopista about 25 kms towards Havana, then turning off for about 7kms down a dirt road that will test out your car’s tyres and suspension nicely! Keep any eye out down this road, I got some nice shots of Turkey Vulture and American Kestrel en route.
The jetty area is safe to park and in no time you’ll be crusing down the arrow-straight river into the western part of the swamp. I put together a short video of part of the journey together with some images of the wildlife we encountered, including turtles, several types of heron, and many smaller bird species such as Flycatchers.
The broad river narrows as you travel through sections of the river filled with large, jumping Tarpon, a game fish popular with visiting fishermen. Eventually we headed down a small side channel and tied the boat up against the bank allowing us to jump out and experience the immediate area on foot. The tangled terrain and enormous number of mosquitos mean any serious progress is a challenging undertaking so we contented ourselves with a check of the immediate area. To my delight this yielded the discovery of a Cuban Boa Constrictor. It had its head stuck down a hole in the riverbank and I had no desire to interfere with it so took a quick record shot, watched it for a few minutes and then backed off.
Our journey back up the river was more rapid as the afternoon was wearing on, but the rush of cool air was very welcome on a day when the temperature was hovering around the 30ºC mark and humidity was high!
To my mind the jewel in the Zapata crown is the coastal saltflat lagoon area of Las Salinas. It lies to the south of Playa Larga on the western flank of the famous Bay of Pigs. It’s a mecca for large numbers of wading birds and many bird of prey species too.
A long straight (bumpy) road bisects the area and you will soon emerge from scrub forest into wide lagoon areas studded with mangrove. Be aware you must have an EMA guide to access the road to Las Salinas, it is guarded and you can’t just drive yourself into the area without one. I’ve never seen so many species of waders in close proximity from herons to flamingos, pelicans to spoonbills and egrets there is something to see in every direction!
The raptors are also spectacular, Ospreys are a common sight (my guide told me he had seen up to 12 individuals fishing in one morning!) and we also saw Northern Harrier, American Kestrel and the endemic Cuban Black Hawk as well as the usual copious numbers of Turkey Vulture.
At a couple of points along the road, large viewing platforms have been constructed. These give a great view across the landscape, but do not have hides. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful area with a real treasure trove of species and I feel very lucky to have spent time there.
Top tips for visiting the Zapata Swamp
- Take plenty of mosquito repellent, you’re going to need it!
- My favourite accomodation is Bohio Don Pedro, a small complex of lovely rural thatched cottages in a quiet area near the village of Australia not far from the Autopista. Alternatively there are hotels and casas in Playa Larga.
- Allow at least 2 full days on the peninsula to visit the various areas (committed birders could easily spend a week!)
- If you are self-driving rather than being part of an organised tour, visit the EMA (Empresa Municipal de la Agricultura) office in Playa Larga to hire guides, the guys there are great. It’s on the right-hand side of the road in Playa Larga just before you reach the obvious fork in the road. A 3 – 4 hour trip to Las Salinas is around 20CUC per person. You will need to drive the guide in your car. Make sure you tip them well, they deserve it!
- If you plan to visit Las Salinas, go early in the day for most bird activity, especially to see Osprey fishing. To see the largest concentrations of American Flamingos visit in January/February when up to 10,000 individuals are present.