I've had to take a bit of a break from writing about my journey through Cuba (new job and finishing up grad school have been keeping me very busy), but I couldn't wait any longer to get this segment completed on the Bay of Pigs!
The Bahía de Cochones–Bay of Pigs in English–is a cerulean blue bay filled with tropical fish located on the southern coast of Cuba. The bay's modern-day setting evokes a feeling of peace and tranquility. However, the location is best known to most Americans as the site of the failed 1961 CIA sponsored invasion of Cuba. The history that simply the name of this place conjures up, along with what I learned about the battle while studying President Kennedy, made it a must-visit site on my Cuba list.
Today, the Bay of Pigs is an ecotourism site, well-known diving/snorkeling spot, and perfect sunbathing location. It rivals any popular caribbean destination with its crystal-clear water and calm surf. If it weren't for the little fact that American's aren't permitted to travel to Cuba for leisure travel, the place would be crawling with American tourists. The ban is probably a good thing for the bay's delicate ecosystem, though.
Since the bay will be a stopover on our way to our final destination for the evening, Cienfuegos, we decide to get an early start. We have breakfast at the same spot we've eaten the past two mornings, down the street from our AirBNB at Cafe Espada (why mess with a good thing?), and then head back to grab our bags to meet Tony at the jeep. I'm sad to be leaving Havana but excited to explore another part of the country.
It's about a three hour drive to the bay from the city, so we talk to pass the time. I love picking Tony's brain; he provides some very candid insights into this dichotomous country. One thing I notice along the roadway are American flag stickers on the back of some cars. In packing for our trip, I'd caught myself almost packing an American flag beach towel and had chastised myself, thinking flaunting our flag might cause problems in Cuba. However, now I am seeing the American flag brazenly displayed as a bumper sticker on locals' cars. Tony says that since Raul has relaxed restrictions a bit, the government has been looking the other way on minor infractions like this. It is a rare glimpse of freedom in this otherwise restrictive country. Still, they most certainly do not have the freedom of expression to which we Americans are accustomed. Tony sums up Cuban's right to freedom of speech in one sentence: "You people can go and say whatever you want about your president. We people [also] have the right to say whatever we want about your president!"
During our drive, we pass ox carts, horse and carriages, army-style trucks with workers precariously balanced atop them, and jalopy busses. I get a kick out of the horse drawn carts with car tires on them; everything is makeshift in Cuba. My husband asks how you go about buying a car in Cuba. Tony says that there are government places that sell cars but not how we think of a car dealer in the United States. New cars are astronomically expensive, and there is no way to take out a loan in Cuba; you must have cash. Then if you have the cash, it raises questions with the government as to where you got the cash. It's a catch twenty-two. Then, if you can somehow surmount all of those obstacles, getting parts when the car breaks is near impossible.
Everything in Cuba is a struggle, and navigating the roads is no exception! Even Cuba's major highways are in an incredible state of disrepair. On a long drive like this, you really get an appreciation for just how bad they are! The potholes are more like small craters in some places, and Tony deftly maneuvers the jeep around the worst of them. This, in combination with the ramshackle appearance of much of Havana, makes it clear that the country is grappling with minimal sustainment resources. There appears to be little to no infrastructure maintenance. The roads of the 1950s are very much the roads of today, and they're definitely showing their age!
I am curious about how the Bay of Pigs got its name. It doesn't appear to have any resemblance in shape to one on the map. According to Tony, at certain times of the year, they have a crab invasion at the bay. The crabs come ashore en masse to lay their eggs--you can't even see the road. The wild pigs used to come down to the shore to eat the crabs, and the bay got its name from them. [When I tried to confirm Tony's story when we got home, I couldn't find any information to confirm this theory. I did find several other explanations--from a type of fish that inhabits the bay to it possibly being a location where pigs were offloaded from ships. Either way, it's definitely a unique name.]
Our first stop this morning is the Finca Fiesta Campesino. It's a somewhat unimpressive little zoo/botanical garden. For the U.S., calling this location a zoo would be a stretch. There are deer, guinea pigs, tiny fish, and a baby alligator. It most definitely feels like a tourist trap, but we take it all in, chatting with a friendly employee for a few minutes. They are quite proud of their little zoo, and it's all part of the experience!
Next, we follow the route that Fidel took, passing through a little town called Australia. In its heyday, it was a sugar mill community. We see the location of Fidel's headquarters during the invasion which is a museum now. Tony also shows us the old sugar mill and how it once worked at the now defunct factory. He also shows us the tourist train that now takes people to the sugar plantation, but we have other plans for today.
As we continue our drive, Tony points out some of the monuments to dead heroes from the battle along the side of the road. The Bay of Pigs invasion wasn't technically an American invasion. It was American sponsored. The CIA backed the effort using private boats and planes--not U.S. military equipment or personnel. The lack of American military support, though, doomed the attempt from the get-go. The entire invasions can basically be chalked up to a comedy of errors. Castro was tipped off, the trained exiles were ill equipped to launch an invasion (think sunk ships, paratroopers in the wrong location, and planes not where they expected them to be), and the Cuban people did not rally around the invaders cause the way they had expected. All told, Cuba took 1100 prisoners from the battle. (They were eventually traded back with America for cash.) Tony argues that the Bay of Pigs invasion actually pushed Cuba closer to its communist allies and toward more extreme communist beliefs. Not quite the outcome Kennedy, the CIA, and the exiles were expecting!
As we pass into the National Park, Tony tells us a little bit about it. The site covers some 33,000 acres of the island. The area we are currently driving through is a vast marsh teeming with wildlife. Of the 24 endemic birds to Cuba, he says 19 live here. Of the 17,000 crocodiles that live in Cuba, 5,000 live here. Tony says the area is protected ,but that doesn't mean that people don't hunt and fish. The road we are driving on feels as through we are literally driving straight into the everglades. Occasionally, we'll see a small tree, but for the most part, it is marsh grass as far as the eye can see. [Fact Check: My research later found a slight discrepancy on the birds with UNESCO stating 18 of 22 endemic species reside here; I could not find the crocodile statistic anywhere to confirm it.]
We stop 4 km from the bay near the small town of Palpite for lunch. Tony says the mercenaries only got as far as here from the bay during the battle before they were stopped. Our lunch spot today is called Restaurant La Finquita. It is a cute covered outdoor patio that has a small "zoo in the back"--a deer, tree rat, parakeets, turtles, and chickens. For lunch, Tony says he will eat inside while we eat privately out on the terrace, but we insist that he joins us. We really enjoy his company and the local perspective he can provide. Tony orders us lobster tail, crab, and chicken--3 entrees to share--along with rice, black beans, a fresh veggie plate, and a traditional soup. The veggie plate comes with sliced cucumber and huge, ripe avocados that I can't stop eating. The lobster is expertly cooked in its shell, and the crab is picked clean and minced in spices. Lunch is absolutely delicious, and our hostess graciously accepts our compliments.
After a very savory lunch, we are craving something sweet, and back in the car, my husband and I break into our stash of snacks from the U.S. We have peanut butter chocolate granola cups and offer one to Tony. He says he hasn't had peanut butter in 20 years. He seems to be savoring every bite. Like so many times during our trip, I have to stop and reflect on how many little things we take for granted on a daily basis. Something as simple as a cheap snack from the grocery store is a major treat here. Not for the first time, I wish we'd brought more things to distribute while we are here.
As we continue along our route, we pass a replica of Fidel's tank that took out the USS Houston during the battle. We finally emerge along the bay and begin to drive down along the water. Tony points out a fishing co-op and a piece of property belonging to Fidel. As seems to be the usual, thick trees block our view of the property and home. Fidel doesn't appear to want his people to see "how the other half lives."
We stop off at a deserted spot with a crystal clear view of the bay to take a picture (this article's headline photo). The water is as clear as any pristine caribbean beach, but the shoreline is made up of sharp black coral rather than soft white sand. The contrast of the dark coral with the cerulean water makes for gorgeous photos, but it's definitely not kind on the soles of the feet!
After driving a short distance farther, we stop off at a snorkel rental hut to take a quick dip. Tony rents our equipment for us (included with our tour) and shows ups some good spots to swim. First, he takes us to what he says is the deepest natural pool in the country. There's not much to see in the water, but the temperature is surprisingly cold which offers a refreshing break from the midday heat. The rocks surrounding the pool are sharp and slippery, making it a bit of a challenge to get in and out, but we manage to navigate the perimeter without incident.
Next, we head over to the ocean side. While the same sharp coral is surrounding the bay, it's easier to get in and out of the water here. There's a decent-sized drop-off into the water from the shore, and a pool ladder had been helpfully screwed into the rocks to aid in getting into the water. Here, I can see why Cuba is so well known for snorkeling and scuba diving. Colorful tropical fish surround us. The water is bathtub warm, and there are only one or two other people in the water with us. Tony says it can get crowded here with big bus tours, but we are traveling on a different schedule from them (the perks of having your own private guide). Tony spots a lobster and he and my husband want to catch it. The lobster smartly wedges itself under a rock and they are forced to give up, though. I am enthralled with all of the different fish surrounding us. They have no fear. Usually I am a bit afraid of swimming in the ocean. (I have a huge fear of running into a shark.) But here, the water feels tranquil somehow. After about a hour, though, it's time to be on our way.
Our final stop is Playa Girón. Playa Girón is well known for the white sand beaches we have been missing up until this point, but we don't stop to sunbathe. Instead, our stop here is to visit the Playa Girón Museum on the Bay of Pigs invasion. The front of the museum is flanked by a plane and tanks. There is a memorial to Cuba's fallen in the battle, a small museum display, and a huge Cuban flag flying over it all. The Cubans are quite proud of what they see as a massive defeat of their neighbors to the north. We take this bit of propaganda all in with a grain of salt.
It's hard to say what Cuba would be like today if the Bay of Pigs invasion had been successful. As an American, I would like to think that the struggling population would be better off than they are today, but who's to say really. Everything wasn't sunshine and daisies for the working class people of Cuba long before Castro took control. A visit like this certainly gives one a lot to think about. Like most of the history that we've experienced firsthand around the world, I find that things often are not as black and white as they appear on the pages of our history books.
Stay tuned for our next installment on the beautiful costal town of Cienfuegos...