Cienaga de Zapata, Nature’s Jewel
By: Nidia Rodríguez León, Photos: Alejandro Gortázar
The Zapata Swamp Biosphere Reserve is considered to be one of the most important nature reserves in Cuba as we as in the Caribbean for the diversity and wealth of its flora and fauna. This is one of the most spectacular places in Cuba and is distinguished by its natural attractions and beautiful landscapes.The Biosphere Reserve is located lies in the Zapata Peninsula, the largest and least populated municipality on the island, and can be found on the southern coast of Cuba in the Province of Matanzas, about 100 kms directly south of Varadero. It has the most important wetlands in Cuba and one of the best preserved and largest in the Caribbean he municipality, surrounding the Bay of Pigs, has become a great spot for tourism with leisure activities related to nature, eco-tourism, and adventure. Guides are available to show the best places to see the exotic flora and fauna.
This natural paradise was declared by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and a Ramsar Site in 2001 at the Convention of Wetlands ofInternational Importance. The area is flat with unique landscapes like the Treasure Lagoon, one of the largest fresh water natural reservoirs in the country, with an area of 900 hectares and four metres in depth. Other important sites are the Hatiguanico and Hamibana river basins and Playa Larga and Playa Giron. There you can find the most impOltant drainage system in Cuba as well as many endemic birds and other migratory flocks that at the end of the year fly to Cuba seeking refuge from the cold winter. Inside the Reserve there are protected areas such as the Montemar Natural Park which covers an area of 5,000 square kilometers. It is a regional, national, and international reserve with a fragile ecosystem and important natural resources. Seventeen different vegetation formations have been identified including swamps and mangrove forests. Fauna in the area is also important. It is the main habitat of the Cuban Rhombifer crocodile with an intemationally renowned hatchety for its breeding. Among the fresh water fish species is the primitive Manjuari or Cuban alligator gar which has reptilian features. Families of the community participate in its preservation.
With more than 170 registered species of birds, it has the greatest bird diversity in Cuba. Eighteen of them are endemic species and numerous others are local. The La Salina and Santo Tomas trails are frequented by tourists interested in bird watching.
Due to its natural charms, this area has numerous and varied offers to visitors including open sea and cave diving, hiking, spotting flora and fauna, and speleology. The cave system of Zapata Swamp is considered the deepest in Cuba with great flooded caves with channels connecting with the sea. The Cueva de los Peces (Fish Cave) is the largest and has become a great place for cave diving. All along the coast there are more great places for diving, especially along the stretch from Punta Perdices to Playa Giron which is considered the best place for wall diving in the area for the large and diverse colonies of coral growing at the bottom.
Another fascinating show at the swamp is the coming and going of thousands of small crabs that mate and lay their eggs. They can be found at dusk covering many of the coastal roads.
One of the most visited places is Villa Guama, a replica of an Indian Taino village created by Cuban artist Rita Longa. The village includes small huts, canals, and fishing areas decorated with statues of natives completing their daily chores.
To preserve the environment and to protect its natural resources and the ecosystems, the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (ClTMA) has established an office at the swamp.
Cuba has made it a high priority to preserve the environment for future generations and, with that end, has established policies to protect its natural resources and to develop sustainable tourism.