Around Cuba’s Bay Of Pigs In A 1929 Ford Model T Convertible

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]

The world’s most ethical tourism destinations

ethical tourism destinationsEach year, non-profit organization Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of the world’s developing nations, analyzing their progress toward promoting human rights, preserving their environment, and developing a sustainable tourism industry. The study, run by Ethical Traveler’s all-volunteer staff, factors in country scores from databases like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Bank, then dives into actions that governments have taken to improve circumstances within their countries in the previous year.

The top countries are celebrated in Ethical Traveler’s annual list of the Developing World’s Best Ethical Tourism Destinations, with the hope that increased tourism will help those countries continue to improve. “Travel and tourism are among the planet’s driving economic forces, and every journey we take makes a statement about our priorities and commitment to change,” they say. “Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel is a net positive for the planet. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our role as citizen diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.”

This year’s list includes Argentina, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Mauritius, Palau, Serbia, and Uruguay. Explore these countries more in the slideshow below.

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[Flickr image via Lisandro M. Enrique]

Waldorf Astoria Maldives launches coral reef regeneration project

coral reef maldivesThe Maldives coral reefs comprise the eighth largest reef system in the world. But active tourism and fishing industries, as well as global phenomena like climate change and El Nino, are taking its toll. And because the islands of the Maldives are low-lying, the coral reefs are even more important as a barrier against sea-level rise and storms.

To do its part, the Waldorf Astoria Maldives is now allowing guests to help restore its surrounding coral reef ecosystem through a partnership with Seamarc, a marine consultancy that has developed an innovative new coral propagation technique for “replanting” parts of the reef.

For $150, guests can select and transplant a small portion of coral reef in the area surrounding the resort. The whole process takes one hour, and involves selecting a plot of living but damaged or threatened coral that has been harvested by Seamarc, attaching the plot to a lightweight frame structure, and transplanting it in the resort’s lagoon. Guests can then monitor the growth and progress of their coral reef plot through a dedicated website.

The program may not completely offset the environmental impact of the Waldorf Astoria and other luxury resorts on the Maldives coral reefs, but it’s a start.

New travel philanthropy partnership helps children in Uganada, Africa, through their “$1 for the Future” campaign

uganada africa charity programBeginning this month, Marasa’s Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, Africa, launched their “$1 For the Future” campaign in conjunction with USAID’s Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift Program (USAID-STAR) and the Uganda Community Tourism Association’s Pearls of Uganda Program.

Guests who stay at the Mweya Safari Lodge are invited to donate $1 per day of their stay to help rebuild and construct schools for children. This also includes building murals that reflect the theme of conservation and children being taught the values or protecting wildlife.

Not only does this campaign aim to help children, but also to protect the land in East Africa through conservation and education. The “$1 For the Future” program is an example that highlights the ways that tourism can support sustainable tourism.

Tourism push threatens Turkey’s ancient sites

The age-old battle pitting historical preservation against tourism infrastructure development is coming to a fever pitch in Turkey. In an effort to increase tourism, which is set to earn Turkey $21 billion in 2011, the Turkish government recently transferred some archeological excavation permits from non-Turkish to Turkish universities. This unprecedented move, according to The Art Newspaper, is “a cracking of the whip over foreign scholars regarded as not working fast enough to transform the country’s extensive array of antiquities into tourist attractions.”

Turkey lays claim to an impressive catalog of antiquities, ranging from Greek and Roman ruins to the remains of ancient Hittite settlements to Byzantine and medieval Arab treasures. Its most famous archeological attraction is Ephesus, an ancient Greek and Roman city and the home of the Library of Celsus, one of the most iconic ruins of ancient Rome. Ephesus attracts more than two million visitors each year making it the perfect example for both sides of the preservation vs. tourism debate.

Infrastructure development to handle both the influx of tourists and the increased urbanization of Turkey’s populacealso threatens Turkey’s cultural heritage. For example, seven years ago, workers building a new station for the Istanbul metro system uncovered a Byzantine harbor which included the ruins of 32 buried ships. While a work stoppage was ordered to preserve these artifacts, Turkish officials, particularly Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who complained that “bits of old potsherds” were getting in the way of development, have grown weary with the slow progress of infrastructure projects. Other antiquities, such as the ancient Roman spa town of Allianoi, have already become victims to Turkey’s efforts to modernize. Allianoi now lies buried beneath the Ilya River as part of the Yortanlı Dam project.

In recent years, Turkey has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economies as well as an increasingly popular destination for tourists. It shall be interesting to see how Turkey’s antiquities fare as these two factors force the country towards more development.

Photo © Melanie Renzulli