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Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park is a wonderland for wildlife. Discover a pink swathe of flamingos, search for colourful endemic birds and swim amongst the coral in the Bay of Pigs.
Ciénaga de Zapata National Park is a vast wetland about 2 hours south of Havana. It comprises flat swampy grasslands, dense mangrove forests, stunning coral reefs, underwater canyons and vast wetlands. This beautiful part of Cuba supports a varied ecosystem which is home to an abundance of wildlife.
Thousands of flamingos cut a swathe of pink through mangrove-framed lakes. Coral in the Bay of Pigs provide a stunning location for snorkelling with colourful fish. But the real drawcard of Ciénaga de Zapata is the birdwatching opportunities. The national park is home to a whopping 28 birds that can only be found in Cuba.
With a vast array of tours available, it can be hard to know which trip is right for you. So, here’s a breakdown on how to visit Ciénaga de Zapata National Park.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF CUBA’S CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA NATIONAL PARK
Search for a huge array of endemic birds in Refugio de Fauna Bermejas
Discover a sea of pink flamingos in the Zapata wetlands
Spy colourful fish and coral diving & snorkelling in the Bay of Pigs
Relax with a sundowner on the beach at Caleton (Playa Larga)
LAYOUT OF THE NATIONAL PARK
Ciénaga de Zapata National Park spreads across the south of the Matanzas region in Cuba, from Península de Zapata in the west, through Playa Larga and onto Playa Girón in the east. The park splits into three distinct types of eco-system.
1 / To the east of Playa Larga is Refugio de Fauna Bermejas. This is a forested area where many birds endemic to Cuba can be spotted flitting through the trees. It’s home to the brightly coloured Cuban tocororo (Cuba’s national bird); the tiny bee hummingbird (the smallest bird in the world); the Cuban tody; the Cuban parrot; and the reluctant recluse, the Cuban pygmy owl.
2 / To the west of Playa Larga is the Península de Zapata. This is an expansive area of swampy wetlands where vast numbers of flamingos, pelicans and other migratory waterfowl rest and feed in its rich waters.
3 / Just off the southern section is the Bay of Pigs reef. Here you can wade into the Caribbean waters and search for a wide variety of colourful fish (and the odd sunken boat) that reside in the swaying coral.
1 – REFUGIO DE FAUNA BERMEJAS
Situated east of Playa Larga and north of Playa Girón, Refugio de Fauna Bermejas is the place to come for birdwatching. The area is home to a whopping 28 birds that can only be found in Cuba. While some of them are elusive, depending on the time of year you visit, it’s not uncommon to spot at least 10 to 15 colourful feathered creatures.
There are 2 types of tours available into Refugio de Fauna Bermejas.
The first is a pure bird-watching tour. This will leave around sunrise and stroll through the forested area of the park for about 3 hours. A good guide will know where the birds nest and will have birdsong recordings to summon them for photo opportunities. On our tour we saw 11 different species.
The second type of tour explores cenotes surrounded by forest. This route is called Sendero Enigma de las Rocas and is just a few kilometres northwest of Playa Girón. On this tour you will see birds, fish, turtles, lizards, chameleons and crabs. You may also get taken into a cave with bats. Towards the end, you’ll have the opportunity to swim in the cenotes.
Both tours are 15 CUC per person excluding transportation. If you don’t have your own car, you’ll need to arrange your own taxi. Your casa particular host will also be able to arrange a colectivo for you. There are more details on booking these tours below.
2 – PENÍNSULA DE ZAPATA
To the north and west of Playa Larga lies the expansive Península de Zapata wetlands. Here dense forest, cut by rivers, leads to mangrove-fringed coastal lagoons. This is the spot to find the occasional crocodile, masses of flamingos and various other waterfowl.
There are a number of different tours you can take.
The easiest is to head out to Laguna de las Salinas. This is a 22km drive from Playa Larga through forest and swamp to a coastal lagoon where it is possible to spot thousands of flamingos, pelicans, and other migratory waterfowl. A number of short walks in the area can be arranged from Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office in Playa Larga. This trip can be extended (at an extra cost) to include a boat ride into the lagoon and coastal waters.
Another option is to take one of the many tours available along the Rio Hatiguanico. One leaves from the north of the park and includes a boat ride along the river. Another leaves from Santo Tómas in the west and uses a combination of walking and boating depending on conditions.
All the tours range from 15 to 20 CUC per person but again exclude transport. Therefore, if you don’t have your own car transportation to Rio Hatiguanico can add quite a bit of time and cost – check prices with your casa particular host.
Laguna de las Salinas is the closest and cheapest option.
3 – BAY OF PIGS SNORKELING AND DIVING
Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata National Park stretches south into the sea to an excellent coral reef. The most accessible part of the reef is a short distance offshore between Playa Larga and Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs. Here you can simply wade offshore with a snorkelling mask or diving equipment and spot the many fish that call this place home.
The reef consists of hard coral hills spread across the sandy seafloor. The coral is generally colourless, except for the odd section of colourful leaves. But visibility can be remarkably good, so you can see plenty of deep coral and a profusion of fish. If you are lucky you may get a swarm of barracuda.
There are a number of spots where you can dive or snorkel in the Bay of Pigs straight from the coast. Punta Perdiz and Playa El Tanque offer relatively shallow dives. Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) has a cenote (sinkhole) on the inland side of the road for some challenging diving through a cave system – the perfect place if you already have your dive certification. There is also a good piece of reef on the coastal side. Here the reef drops a little deeper and steeper than at other locations, resulting in better quality coral and more fish. There is also a small wreck.
If you only go to one spot in the Bay of Pigs, this is the one. All the locations have been marked on the map below.
SNORKELLING & DIVING TOURS
A once-daily tour runs from both Playa Larga (Caleton) and from Playa Girón. The diving/snorkelling trips to the Bay of Pigs leave in the morning when the water is calmest and clearest before the wind picks up in the afternoon.
Pick-up is about 9 am from either your casa particular or a convenient spot nearby. First stop is the dive centre (Octopus Dive Centre for Playa Larga or Scuba Centre in the Cubanacán Hotel in Playa Girón) where you pick up your snorkelling or diving equipment, depending on the tour you booked. The tour makes two stops at various locations depending on the conditions, however one of which is usually Cueva de los Peces.
At each spot, snorkelers have 1-1.5 hours to explore while divers can be guided around the reefs. Return to town is about 2pm. The tour costs 10 CUC per person for transport, 5 CUC per person for snorkel and fin rental, and 25 CUC per person for a diving tank. The tour can be organised through your casa particular as late as 8.00 am the day of the tour.
OTHER SPOTS TO CONSIDER VISITING AT CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA
Ciénaga de Zapata is an under-rated part of Cuba. Apart from the relaxing, local beaches; the variety of natural eco-systems and staggering birdlife, here are some other things you can do.
Boca de Guamá – Another great spot, especially if you have kids, is Boca de Guamá. Here you can visit a crocodile farm where they raise two species of crocodile, one of which is the critically endangered Cuban Crocodile. / Details: Criadero de Cocodrilos is open from 9:30 – 17:00, at Carretera a Playa Larga just north of Playa Larga. (CUC$5)
Hotel Guamá – You can also take a boat ride to Hotel Guamá, which has been built in the image of a Taíno village. Spread across a number of small islands it tries to recall the time before the Spanish arrived, when local indigenous tribes ran their own lives. Touristy, but worth it. / Details: Ferries and speedboats run from Boca de Guamá. (CUC$12)
Bay of Pigs Museum – Just half an hour drive east of Playa Larga, the Bay of Pigs Museum details the failed CIA sponsored invasion of Cuba. The museum plays the victory for all its worth with tanks, planes and guns on the lawn and detailed information boards inside. / Details: The museum is open from 8:00 – 17:00 daily. Information boards and tours are in Spanish only. (CUC$2)
WHERE TO STAY
The best places to stay to explore Ciénaga de Zapata National Park are Playa Girón or Playa Larga (Caleton).
Playa Girón – Playa Girón is more convenient for visiting the Refugio de Fauna Bermejas and the Bay of Pigs Museum. The town is larger than Playa Larga and while it feels more local, it lacks a bit of soul. Apart from the rather austere-looking government-run Cubanacán hotel, nothing much is established on the front. So, there’s a lack of beach atmosphere in the evenings.
Playa Larga (Caleton) – Playa Larga is more convenient for visiting the wetlands and the crocodile farm. It also has the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office so you can easily book any tours you want to take. Playa Larga has two beaches: Playa Maquina on the east of town and Caleton, south west of town. There’s a very relaxed friendly vibe on both beaches in the evening. You can find more things to do in Playa Larga in our quick guide.
Our recommendation is to stay in Playa Larga.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Viazul Bus – The Viazul bus stops at Playa Larga and Playa Giron as it ploughs the route between Havana (twice daily) or Varadero (once daily) to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. More information about the different transport options are covered in our guide to getting around Cuba.
Colectivo – Playa Larga is a regular destination for tourists heading between Viñales and Cienfuegos. Since the bus is slow and goes through Havana colectivos run the route. It takes 4 hours 30 minutes (including a break for lunch) and cost CUC$35. It is most likely that you will have to change cars just outside Havana so that each driver can easily get back home.
Private Taxi – Private taxis are easily rented in Playa Larga or Playa Giron. Expect to pay about CUC$10 to CUC$15 to be ferried between the two. There used to be a hop on hop off bus, but it no longer operates.
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TIPS FOR BOOKING TOURS AT CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA
1 / Reservations for any tours can be organised at Ciénaga de Zapata National Park Office which is on the main road in Playa Larga. They are open between 8:00 – 16:30 daily.
2 / Make sure you are clear about which type of tour you want and what you want to see – each of them are quite different.
3 / Ensure your guide is an official SNAP guide (government accredited for the national park) and ideally speaks some of your language. Guides will generally cost 15 CUC.
4 / If your focus is snaring some great bird-watching opportunities, you’ll need to get a tour that leaves at sunrise.
5 / Try to make sure your group is not too large – particularly for birdwatching. Any more than 6 and you’ll probably find the elusive little creature you’ve been tracking has scurried off before it was your turn to get a photo.
6 / Even if you don’t do a snorkelling tour, having your own goggle to visit Ciénaga de Zapata is a good idea – lots of the coral reef is visible just a short swim offshore.
7 / Before you sign up for any tour make sure you understand if transport is included and how far away the tour starts so you can organise your own transport.
8 / Remember that your casa particular host is your friend. They will be able to suggest tours and organise transportation for you. They’ll also be able to hook you up with other travellers to share a colectivo if necessary.
MORE CUBA READING
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
Top experiences in Cuba not to be missed
3 days in Havana – a city of decaying grandeur
Quick guide to Playa Larga
Best things to do in Trinidad
Explore the best scenery in Cuba on this Viñales Valley hike
Impressions of Havana – a story from the streets
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