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Traveling Cuba – Stage 6.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Central Cuba – Off the beaten track in Cuba
The leg from the port town of Cienfuegos to Playa Giron, leads through a swamp area and along sugar plantations. The recurring sound of horses makes this leg of the trip cozy. It is a journey amid abundant vegetation very near to the coast, small villages and scare cities.
Cienfuegos – Bay of Pigs 135 km
We drove our rental further north-west from Cienfuegos and headed to what the Cubans call “Playa Giron” and what we call “Bay of Pigs”. The road is generally good, with some pothole sections as we got closer to Playa Giron. Today this area remains as it was in 1961, a remote, lightly-inhabited, swampy area on the south side of the island just 3 hours by car from Havana or about 2 hours away from Cienfuegos.
We stopped the car directly in front of the museum to the Cuban victory, which contains photos of each of the 156 Cuban soldiers who were killed during the 3 day battle. This failed invasion by 1,300 US government-supported soldiers had many long term impacts, but to appreciate them we need a quick history refresher or lesson.
Museo Playa Giron
The Museo Playa Giron, is a small building exhibiting anti-aircraft weapons, portions of a downed plane, and lots of photos, propaganda in nature, but nonetheless real: dead women and children killed in the initial aerial bombardment, Fidel commanding his troops via headset, crying families and processions mourning Cuba’s dead, Fidel back in Havana – stronger and more popular than ever – standing before a massive crowd.
After Castro came to power in 1959, he nationalized all US businesses and farm holdings in Cuba. In early 1961, he publicly declared he was a communist. The CIA had planned an invasion using Cuban freedom fighters. At the last moment, President Kennedy did not supply the promised US air cover, guaranteeing failure. Castro personally led the defeat of the invasion. Much has been made of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, how Kennedy failed to order in U.S. troops as back-up, but the simple fact was that the whole operation was both poorly conceived and executed.
Despite contrary opinion in the states, it was only after the Bay of Pigs invasion that Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist and the revolution to be socialist.
Hotel at the Playa Giron
The beach at the Playa Giron
Today, the beach at Playa Giron is home to a modest tourist hotel and is quite a wonderful place to swim. On the 49th anniversary of the invasion, we waded from the clear blue sea onto the sandy shore and stood near a pregnant Cuban woman who was watching her two young children splashing in the water.
An empty restaurant by the road, before Playa Large
From Playa Giron, we headed up to the Bay of Pigs which was virtually deserted. The road follows the ocean shore, and in the next 30 km or so, before Playa Large, we stopped at few different beautiful beaches. They were all beautiful wild beaches which had a truly timeless feel. It is beautiful to watch the waves smash against the sea wall against the backdrop of the slowly setting sun.
Beautiful beach before Playa Large
Life is slow in this part of the world and there’s virtually no food to be found in the middle of the day. We booked our overnight stay at hotel “Villa Horizontes”, just before Playa large, which was built by the beautiful sandy beach. When you’re staying only one night, you don’t get to choose your room. We got a room in a newly built bungallow, that didn’t have apeal, but it was nice and clean from the inside, and we felt very safe.
Villa Horizontes – bungallows
Hotel Villa Horizontes – they even had a small pool
Hotel Villa Horizontes beach – very nice…
Hotel Villa Horizontes beach
There was a bunker on almost every beach – reminder of the invasion.
Diving centre in Playa Large
Next day, taking the only road out of Playa Large heading to the Central Australia, we stopped at Guamá, which is the name of an original Taino village, as those belonging to the Cuban ancient inhabitants when the Spanish came to colonize the Isle.
Guamá is a very special touristic center. It is the reproduction of a Taino village on the water. Beautiful indigenous style cabins are built on pivots in the water. Hanging bridges link the residences to the central point where there are a quay of yachts and boats, a restaurant and a balcony.
Only Eighteen kilometres down the Carretera de la Ciénaga from the autopista, Boca de Guamá is a heavily visited roadside stop. Most people make straight for its headline attraction, the crocodile farm, but there is also a pottery workshop and, a short boat ride away, a replica Taíno village.
Bus-loads of day-trippers spend an hour or two at this most touristy of the peninsula’s attractions, to eat at one of the restaurants, make the brief tour of the complex and purchase mementoes from the ample supply of souvenir shops. Though it can seem rather fake, this efficiently run attraction does make a refreshing change from the half-hearted and underfunded museums and galleries that are all too often the norm in Cuba.
Criadero de Cocodrilos farm
Boca, as it’s referred to locally, is most famous for the Criadero de Cocodrilos (daily 9am–5pm; $5CUC), a crocodile-breeding farm that forms the centrepiece of the complex. The setting is pleasant enough, with a short path leading from the car park, over a pond, to the small swamp where the beasts are fenced in.
The crocodiles themselves are more or less left alone and you may even have trouble spotting one on the short circuit around the swamp. However, if you keep your eyes peeled you should be able to catch the sinister glare of one or two gliding through the water.
Established shortly after the 1959 revolution, the farm was set up as a conservation project in the interests of saving the then-endangered Cuban crocodile (cocodrilo rhombifer) and American crocodile (cocodrilo acutus) from extinction. Since then, these ideals seem to have become a little blurred: before arriving at the edge of the swamp, you are invited to first witness a mock capture of an exhausted-looking baby crocodile and then to eat one. At the Croco Bar crocodile meat – a delicacy rare enough for the government to pass laws declaring only tourists may eat it – is served in whole and half portions for $10CUC and $5CUC respectively, although chicken and fish also feature on the short menu.
From here it was less than two hours of driving back to Varadero, where we started our Cuban journey 13 days ago.
To be continued with the blog about Varadero, which will be my last blog about Cuba…