The whole of the south coast of Matanzas province is taken up with the Zapata Peninsula, an area of swamps, mangroves and beaches. It is the largest ecosystem in the island and contains the Laguna del Tesoro, a 9.1 sq km lagoon over 10 m deep, an important winter home for flocks of migrating birds.
There are 16 species of reptiles, including crocodiles. Mammals include the jutia and the manatee, while there are over 1,000 species of invertebrate, of which more than 100 are spiders.
There is a crocodile farm (Criadero de Cocodrilos) at the Zapata Tourist Institute in Boca de Guamá, where they breed the native Rhombifer (cocodrilo). They also have tortoises, jutia and what they call a living fossil, the manjuari fish/alligator, on the farm.
There are lots of shops, a bar and restaurant, occasional live bands and a ceramics factory. This is all a bit touristy; hotels and tourist agencies from Varadero, Havana and other places organize day excursions including lunch, a multilingual guide and a boat ride on the lagoon through the swamps to Villa Guamá, a replica Indian village. On one of the islets a series of life-size statues of Indians going through their daily routines has been carved by Cuban sculptor Rita Longa. Birdwatchers are advised to spend a few nights, or go on a tour one day and return with the next tour the following day. You will see most at dawn before the tour buses arrive. Take insect repellent. Entrance to the crocodile farm 0900-1800, US$3; boat trip from Boca de Guamá to Villa Guamá US$10, 45 mins.
The road south across the peninsula meets the coast at Playa Larga, at the head of the Bahía de Cochinos, commonly known as the Bay of Pigs. The US-backed invasion force landed here on 17 April 1961 but was successfully repelled. There is a small monument but most of the commemorative paraphernalia is at Playa Girón (see below). The beach is open and better than that at Playa Girón. The Laguna de las Salinas, 25 km southwest, is the temporary home of huge numbers of migratory birds from December-April. The rest of the year it is empty. Tours go from the Hotel Playa Larga, Mon and Wed mornings, US$15.
West of Playa Larga, a track leads to Santo Tomás where, in addition to waterfowl, you can see the Zapata wren, the Zapata rail and the Zapata sparrow. The Park also runs a number of rare bird (Cuban parrots and Cuban parakeets), turtle and fish breeding programmes. Not far from the Hotel Playa Larga there is a good site for watching birds such as hummingbirds and the Cuban trogon. Park headquarters are near the Hotel Playa Larga, in the Empresa Municipal Agropecuaria, Oficina Parque Nacional, Carretera Principal, Playa Larga, T7249. Here you can get permission to enter and pay the admission fee of US$10 per person as well as find a guide (obligatory), about US$50. Insect repellent essential.
The resort at Playa Girón is isolated and small. The beach is walled in and therefore protected, but the sea is rocky. The diving and snorkelling is excellent and you can walk to the reef from the shore. There is a museum at the site of national pilgrimage where, in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous US-backed invasion of Cuba was attempted. The museum is open daily 0800-1700, US$2.