The whole southern section of Matanzas province is taken up by the Península de Zapata, also known as the Ciénaga de Zapata, a large, flat national park and UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve covered by vast tracts of open swampland and contrastingly dense forests. The largest but least populated of all Cuba’s municipalities, the peninsula is predominantly wild, unspoilt and a rich habitat for Cuban animal life, including boar, mongoose, iguana and crocodile. It also provides excellent birdwatching opportunities, on the migratory routes between the Americas and home to endemic species such as the Zapata rail and Cuban pygmy owl. Despite its 30km of accessible Caribbean coastline, the Península de Zapata’s modest beaches and mostly rocky shores make it unsuitable for sun-and-sand holidays, regardless of what the brochures claim, but it is an excellent area for diving, with crystal clear waters, coral reefs within swimming distance of the shore and a small network of flooded caves known as cenotes.
As one of the most popular day-trips from Havana and Varadero, the peninsula has built up a set of conveniently packaged diversions, though these are best combined with the more active business of birdwatching, fishing, diving or trekking, for which you’ll need to hire a guide and, in some cases, rent a car – entrance is restricted to most of the protected wildlife zones, which are spread over a wide area and not accessible on foot. Of the ready-made attractions, the Finca Fiesta Campesina, just off the Autopista Nacional, is a somewhat contrived but nonetheless likeable cross between a farm and a tiny zoo. Further in, about halfway down to the coast, Boca de Guamá draws the largest number of bus parties with its crocodile farm, restaurants and pottery workshop. This is also the point of departure for the boat trip to Guamá, a convincingly reconstructed Taíno Indian village on the edge of a huge lake. Further south on the Bay of Pigs, scene of the infamous 1961 invasion, the beaches of Playa Girón and Playa Larga are nowhere near as spectacular as their northern counterpart, but offer far superior scuba diving to the offerings near Varadero. The invasion itself is commemorated in a museum at Playa Girón and along the roadside in a series of grave-like monuments, each representing a Cuban casualty of the conflict.