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The calm, blue waters of the Bay of Pigs on a dog day afternoon belie the calamity of the invasion of these salty swamplands more than 50 years ago.
Blistering under a tropical sun, this marshy peninsula, dangling off the southern coast of central Cuba, and lapped by the twinkling turquoise of the Caribbean sea, screeches with the sound of brilliant birdlife. Home to 18 out of 21 of the country’s endemic bird species, it is a magnet for twitchers from across the world, but 50 years ago, flights of feather were replaced by winged behemoths in the shape of an invading aircraft force.
On April 17th 1961, more than a thousand CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed at Playa Girón in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s new government. Airplanes, some piloted by Americans, left Central America for the air assault.
Castro and his followers, however, repelled the invasion. A lack of air support and a series of tactical blunders spelled disaster for the exiles. Some 160 Cubans died as well as some 120 of the invaders; Cuba captured and held more than 1000 enemy fighters.
The abject failure of the invading force led Cuba historian Hugh Thomas to conclude that without this political humiliation for the United States, man may not have walked on the moon. Riled by failure, US President John F Kennedy ordered NASA to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. In his authoritative tome Cuba, Thomas wrote “perhaps a victory for the US in Cuba might have deprived mankind of that achievement in 1969”.
Today, the somnolent Bay of Pigs bears few scars of this historical event. Luis A García Padrón lives in Playa Girón, running one of Cuba’s finest casas particulares (Cuban home stays) and offered to show me the local sights in his classic car. Since economic changes introduced in 2011, he’s now permitted to drive tourists around in his American maquina, a gleaming, chrome-festooned 1955 red-wine Ford.
We set off along the single road in the area to see the sights. The sun-burnt tarmac tongue of the Bay of Pigs road was a solitary grey line amid a feral tangle of greens. The Zapata Peninsula, home to the tiny settlements of Playa Girón and Playa Larga, and the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) inlet, is Cuba’s largest swampland and a vast coastal forest that makes up the Parque Nacional Ciénega de Zapata (Zapata Swamp National Park).
At regular intervals along the road, lonely, upright concrete slabs stand sentinel, memorials to the Cubans who died in the 1961 fighting.
Luis drives me to Central Australia, close to the island’s main central highway at Jagüey Grande, and a good 30 kilometres north from the sea and main settlements. A huge black-and-white billboard, marking the turning to Central Australia, proclaims the 1961 Cuban victory. From the admin offices of the now decommissioned sugar factory, Fidel Castro commanded his forces. Today, the building houses the Museo Memorial Comandancia de la FAR. The mangled remains of an enemy plane sit outside. Inside, photos, Castro’s command office, and an anti-missile device are displayed.
Back in Playa Girón, the Museo Playa Girón features an exhaustive range of photos of the attack and piles of weaponry. Outside, in the small garden, is a memorial dwarfed by an aircraft, tank and other military equipment, staged in glorious triumph.
Most visitors to the Bay of Pigs are birders and divers. The odd tourist who loops off the main highway will be stunned by the beauty of the sea. The area is not blessed with great beaches but the sight of solitary trees outstretched against a backdrop of water, coloured by a swirling mix of teal, lapis lazuli and Gauguin green, is simply beautiful. Cenotes and rock pools allow snorkellers a glimpse into the aquamarine world, but for divers, a huge coral wall just offshore is the main draw.
With the theatre of war now gone in the area, some might reckon the most menacing presence is that of Crocodylus rhombifer. While not an invading force, as the Cuban crocodile is endemic to Zapata, 4000 of them are housed in a breeding centre north of Playa Larga. However, they’re as tenacious as Cuban defence forces.
The caretaker explained at the Criadero de Cocodrilos that male crocs have sex just once a year but can mount up to 10 female reptiles in this period. The male beast first marks his space territorially but one wrong move and he’ll lose his slot. Male crocs fight for this supremacy. Staff at the breeding centre have left males locked in the mouth in battle on a Friday only to return on a Monday to find the crocodiles still clamped around each others’ throats.
We contemplated savouring the croc meat across the road at the El Colibrí restaurant but Luis came up with a better idea after the caretaker retrieved a crocodile egg and explained that female crocs can reproduce for the rest of their lives. Locals sometimes eat croc egg tortillas — for a tasty breakfast, he said. Luis recommended I ordered the same rather than a croc steak to ensure lifelong fertility — something he thought he could market to all foreign females visiting the area!