Gran Parque Natural Montemar (Zapata Peninsula)

The Peninsula de Zapata forms the southern part of Cuba's Matanzas province and is home to the Gran Parque Natural Montemar (formerly called the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata). This is perhaps Cuba's wildest region and one of the top Cuban destinations for adventure-inspired, wildlife-loving travellers and eco-tourists. From bird-watching in the Caribbean's largest wetlands area to cave diving off the Playa Larga beach and being introduced to a thriving colony of the endemic Cuban crocodiles, there are so many things to do here that you're sure to find something for your own tastes and likes.

The Peninsula de Zapata is a piece of land stretching west into the Caribbean Sea from the southern section of Cuba’s Matanzas province—but it’s so much more than just that! Home to the Gran Parque Natural Montemar (formerly called the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata), this is one of Cuba’s prime wilderness areas and a favourite destination for nature lovers of all kinds.

Here is just a brief sampling of the activities you can look forward to in this national park and UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve:

Bird-watching and wildlife-spotting

Of all its natural wonders, the Gran Parque Natural Montemar is arguably most famous for its birdwatching opportunities. Specifically towards the south-western section of the peninsula—home to the largest wetlands area in the entire Caribbean—the birdwatching is truly first class.

The Peninsula de Zapata is home to over 190 bird species, including at least 18 of the 21 species that can only be found in Cuba. If you’re patient and you have a bit of luck, you may even be able to spot a Cuban bee hummingbird—the smallest known bird species found anywhere in the world.

Beyond the birds you have numerous other wildlife creatures to spot and admire if you get lucky enough. These marshes support over 900 plant species (around 115 of these are endemic) and are home to 31 reptile species, 12 mammal species and countless insects, amphibians and fish.

It’s also the island’s most important habitat for the severely endangered manatee, the protected Cuban crocodile and the odd-looking manjuari (alligator gar) which has a croc-like head but a fish-like body. If all this wasn’t enough, this is also the only place where you can stumble into the almost-extinct dwarf hutia with these swampy lands being its only last refuge.

Snorkelling and Scuba Diving

If you get tired of trudging around in the mangroves looking for rare animal species, don’t fret—there are also plenty of fantastic and refreshing underwater options for you in the Gran Parque Natural Montemar. The two primary spots for diving are Playa Larga and Playa Giron, each located towards the eastern end of the peninsula. The beaches themselves are nice but not stunning—but it’s what’s under the water that counts here!

Between the dive sites off the two beaches you’ll find a variety of underwater caves as well as the wrecks of at least four fishing boats waiting to be explored. However, perhaps the most famous diving option here is a steep sea wall plastered with coral and sponges plunging over 300 metres down into the depths below.

If this all seems like a bit much for you, don’t worry—closer to shore the water remains shallow and there are coral reefs more than appropriate for just some light snorkelling. The Park is also home to several other points of interest for beginner snorkellers including the Cueva de los Peces and Punta Perdiz.

Whatever your passion or interest level in the natural world might be, the Gran Parque Natural Montemar on the Peninsula de Zapata is bound to have something for you—and at only a day trip away from Havana or Varadero, there’s really no excuse to miss it!

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