Let’s play a quick word association game. I say “Bay of Pigs,” you tell me what comes to mind.
Fidel Castro? Communism? Failed CIA missions?
When I think of the Bay of Pigs, I think of crystal clear water stretching out as far as the eye can see. I think of black sand beaches and snorkel rentals. I think of a beautifully restored 1929 Ford Model T convertible, driven by a young man in a woven straw hat.
When my boyfriend and I traveled to Cuba last summer, we had few plans apart from exploring the cobblestoned streets of Havana. But after a few days in the capital, we felt the urge to escape. I wanted more culture and history; my boyfriend wanted nature and the beach.
We compromised with a trip to the Bahia de Cochinos on the southern coast of Cuba, better known to Americans as the Bay of Pigs. Guidebooks promised great snorkeling and scuba diving; I was more intrigued by the bay’s storied past.
The Bay of Pigs leapt to notoriety after an unsuccessful American CIA mission to invade Cuba in April 1961. Upon landing, the U.S.-trained troops were handily defeated by Fidel Castro’s forces in a matter of days. It was a turning point in the Cold War, proving the fallibility of the United States while reinforcing the strength of the Castro’s Communist regime.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the Bay of Pigs embroiled in anything but epic mosquito swarms. The bay holds the swampy Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata to the west, the black sand Playa Larga in the center and the rocky Playa Giron to the east. We arrived via taxi from nearby Cienfuegos and stayed at the Casa Enrique Rivas Fente in Playa Larga, one of a handful of privately owned casas particulares that dot the sandy strip. The rooms were basic but clean, and meal offerings included fresh grilled lobster and squid. Since we arrived on a Saturday night, we were welcomed by a private chanteur, who played Cuban music for a troupe of Ukrainian salsa dancers staying at the casa next door.
Between mojitos, we asked our host for the best way to explore the peninsula. We had in mind bicycles, or perhaps a CUC$2 motorbike ride from stop to stop. Instead, our host recommended a taxi service run by her son. “This is the best way,” she assured us, a hint of mischief in her eye. We balked at the CUC$35 fee, but given the remote nature of the guesthouse and region, we had little choice.
The next morning, we arose to breakfast and the sight of a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T convertible parked in the driveway. This would be our ride for the day, our host informed us. Budget concerns aside, it was difficult to protest.
We hit the road, bound for the Cueva de los Peces, an inland freshwater swimming hole formed from a flooded cave. The water is refreshing but deep, stretching 230 feet into the ground. Nearby is a stand where you can rent scuba and snorkeling gear, and across the road is a rocky bluff looking out onto pristine white-sand snorkeling ground. Beach chairs are available for hire, but the real draw is the water, with its clear visibility, bright coral and sprightly tropical fish. Our driver staked out a spot by the snorkel stand and traded car tips with his friends while we enjoyed the sea.
After working up an appetite from the ocean air, we continued to Punta de Perdiz, a popular spot on Playa Giron with an on-site restaurant and cabanas. A serving of arroz con pollo and a Cristal beer hit the spot. The cabanas at Punta de Perdiz were slightly more conducive to lounging and reading, so we alternated baking in the sun with more dips in the water.
At one point, I staked out a spot on a bluff and looked out onto the sea. I tried to imagine undercover sea craft entering the bay and helicopters dropping paratroopers into the jungle. I thought about America’s contentious relationship with Cuba, about the outdated judgments many still hold toward Cuba and about our trip thus far. There’s a widespread belief that once foreigners are freely able to visit and invest in Cuba, the island will become a wasteland of gringo tourists and McDonald’s. With travel restrictions continuing to loosen, it will require a serious commitment to sustainable tourism and development to ensure that Cuba can benefit from increased development, without losing what makes it so special.
A few hours later, we hopped into the Model T and headed back to reality, impressions of the bay forever changed.
[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]