Besides managing most of the attractions on the peninsula, Cubanacán (wcubanacan.cu) also organizes less touristy trips into the heart of the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata nature reserve, offering tailor-made packages which can be spread over a number of days or weeks, or ready-made day-trips to specific areas of natural interest. They can supply specialist guides, some of whom speak English, for diving, fishing and birdwatching. The marshes and rivers of Zapata are great areas for fly-fishing; however, very little equipment is available locally and you should bring your own kit (plus your passport, needed to obtain a fishing licence). The three excursions described here are to UNESCO-protected parts of the peninsula that can only be visited with a guide, and which together provide a varied experience of what the area has to offer.
The Río Hatiguanico
Hidden away in the woods on the northwestern edge of Zapata is the base camp for trips in small motor boats on the peninsula’s widest river, the Hatiguanico. A tree-lined canal connects the camp to the river, and the whole route is abundant in birdlife, including Zapata sparrows and Cuban green woodpeckers. Before reaching the widest part of the river, the canal flows into a narrow, twisting corridor of water where you’re brushed by leaning branches. After, the river opens out into an Amazonian-style waterscape and curves gracefully through the densely packed woodland. Trips last between one and two hours, cost $19CUC per person and usually include a packed lunch, a short hike into the woods, and a swim in one of the river alcoves. Fishing is also an option here; tarpon, snapper and snook are among the fish in these waters.
Thirty kilometres west from the small village just before Playa Larga, along a dirt road through dense forest, Santo Tomás sits at the heart of the reserve. Beyond the scattered huts which make up the tiny community here is a small, 2m-wide tributary of the Hatiguanico. In winter it’s dry enough to walk but during the wet season groups of four to six are punted quietly a few hundred metres down the hidden little waterway, brushing past the overhanging reeds. This is real swampland and will suit the dedicated birdwatcher who doesn’t mind getting dirty looking out for, among many others, the three endemic species in this part of the peninsula: the Zapata wren, Zapata sparrow and Zapata rail.
In stark contrast to the dense woodlands of Santo Tomás, the open saltwater wetlands around Las Salinas are the best place on the peninsula for observing migratory and aquatic birds. From observation towers dotted along a track that cuts through the shallow waters you can see huge flocks of flamingos in the distance and solitary blue herons gliding over the shallow water, while blue-wing duck and many other species pop in and out of view from behind the scattered islets. Las Salinas is also a great fly-fishing spot, home to bonefish, permit and barracuda among others. Since this is a protected area, no more than six anglers per week are permitted to fish here.