A rare, highly dangerous, yet delightful and amusing natural phenomenon, takes place every year in various part of Cuba as spring falls, but most notably in Matanzas, in the protected biosphere reserve of Cienaga de Zapata. All along the road connecting Playa Larga to Playa Giron, a moving sea of red, black and yellow takes over roads, streets, sidewalks, buildings, walls, houses, fences, backyards and even windows (some mistakenly make their way inside houses through windows, doors and cracks).
A legion of crabs (as many as 100 million!) make their rather comical sideways dancing rush to mate on the beach, overcoming perilous obstacles on the way, risking being crushed by cars and bikes on roads, or, as is the case with some of the edible varieties, like the yellow crab, ending up on the table of locals’ homes and restaurants.
The most famous and colourful migration is that of the red crab, also known as “zombie crab” or “Halloween crab” due to its black body and reddish extremities, with varying hues verging between red and orange. Perhaps it’s the most famous variety because; due to its vibrant colour it is the most striking to see, an also because their population in this part of Cuba is so huge, it cannot be overlooked.
The Cuban red crab migration is a true spectacle for which there’s little comparison elsewhere in the world. A few other countries may have similar crab migrations, namely other parts of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean’s Christmas Island, but in the case of Christmas Island it’s a different species of crab altogether, and nowhere else in the Caribbean is the red crab migration quite as big or quite as compellingly remarkable as the Cuban one, given its partly urbanised background setting. The event has caught so much attention over recent years that many publications have echoed its rare existence, with the BBC Worldwide doing a mini video documentary where they called it “one of the largest mass migrations in the world”.
Why is it so special? Why should you see it?
If by now you’re asking yourself whether a trip to witness this crabby race to the sea is worthy of your time or why indeed you should endeavour to make a stop here during your Cuba holiday, then allow me to elaborate on how big of a (rather unspoken) phenomena it is, and how big of a travelling window it allows you to be part of the action. The migration goes on for months, starting in April and ending in July, and, while you probably won’t hear about it in any travel guide, part of the magic precisely lies in how and how uncrowded this part of Cuba is.
This annual romantic migration puts entire Cuban towns and villages on hold for months, as navigating the roads without getting endless punctures on tires is a tricky endeavour to say the least, and in recent years measures by environmental authorities have meant closures of streets and roads as well as creating special sidewalks to reduce the number of crab casualties, which in some years have peaked at around 3.5 million - a small percentage that nevertheless causes a big impact, with crushed crabs leaving behind a red mess of shell carcasses on roads with an accompanying odour.
As I previously explained, red crabs are not endemic to just Cuba; they can be found elsewhere in the Caribbean and they’re not in danger of extinction, yet all steps are taken to protect them on a journey that’s rightly theirs and which man has altered to his convenience with the building of a big road that’s almost parallel to the coast and which stands between the wilderness of moist forests, local housing and the sea, ultimately making the ten-legged creature’s crossing an enormous obstacle race course.
But, why is it that you absolutely mustn’t pass up on the opportunity of witnessing a red crab migration in Cuba?
Because it’s so rare that only the migrating crabs of Chistmas Island come close to it by comparison. Because seeing the soft sands of Playa Larga turn into a moving red carpet is a sight you will never ever forget and one that you’re likely forever cherish as part of the most surprising encounters in you travelling life. And because, quite conveniently, Playa Giron, also famously known as the Bay of Pigs has plenty of history for you to dig into (a stop by the Playa Giron Museum is a must) as well as protected nature for you to discover in an area where as much as 80 per cent of Cuba’s flora and fauna can be observed – and that’s including endemic crocodiles and birds. So, truly, a nature lover’s ultimate fantasy come true.
Getting back to the crabs - it’s an authentic, relentless and frantic invasion, where they will stop at nothing on their way to reproducing and continuing a lifecycle that has remained unchanged for millions of years. Seeing their unstoppable, obstinate sideway scuttle first hand won’t leave you indifferent, I guarantee it.
As it happens, I was lucky enough to have witnessed one of these migrations all the way back in June 2006, while I relaxed with family and friends at a casa particular directly overlooking a stretch of Playa Larga, literally a handful of steps away from the shore, with the only thing separating the casa’s backyard from the beach being a wire fence, where the concrete floor gave way to fine sands.
The wired fence gate remained open for most of the day, meaning that if we got up early we could observe the little creatures marching en masse towards the sea, sometimes getting side-tracked inside houses, trapped in window blinds, or delayed by some manmade structure standing in their way, but never stopping, except during the day’s hottest hours. In my case, it was the yellow crab migration that I got to see, not the red crab one, but the only difference lies in the colour and edibility of the two species, the yellow variety may be less gaudy and flamboyant (yet perfectly edible) but their journey is equally mesmerising.
The background story – a tale of love and endurance
It all starts with the first thunderous rain of spring, giving crabs the starting signal to get going on their race for survival towards the coast. The courageous males lead the way, taking several weeks to reach the coast as they dart through the many obstacles on the way. Those who make it safely to the shore get entangled in a battle for the best territory while they wait for their female counterparts to join them.
A short while later, the lady crabs embark on the same journey to start the mating ritual on the sands, and within weeks are ready to lay eggs. They do so on the surf, which poses yet another challenge, as mummy crabs struggle to avoid being swept back into the water by the tide. Once they successfully master this tricky task, the eggs hatch upon contact with water. The tiny larvae that emerges from them will eventually grow into little baby crabs a month or so later. Immediately after, the new parents head back to the forest to burrow themselves in the humidity of this special ecosystem´s soil, where they will wait for their babies to join them a few weeks later.
But not all is over yet, the new hatchlings will have many obstacles of their own to overcome before joining mum and dad in the forest. Shortly after hatching, the water in which they´re found floating is full of new perils, with a variety of factors reducing their number (mainly larvae-eating small fish and jellyfish) and once they make it to the shore as fully-formed crabs the beach itself is also full of predators, mainly seagulls, other fish-eating birds and some mammals. The ones who make it safely all the way to the forest’s cool and moist shade (and the vast majority do) can look forward to doing the same journey all over again (but in reverse) the following year.
This compelling a ritual that dates back millennia as one of the oldest lifecycles in the world and there´s no better place to be a part of it all than Cuba. Add a sprinkle of history and on top, a generous dose of amazing scuba diving opportunities and the authentic, provincial charms of off-the-beaten-path locals, and you´ll have the perfect concoction for the trip of a lifetime.
How the locals deal with the migration
You might think that the overwhelming invasion of crabs taking over roads, public buildings, restaurants, houses and patios for over three consecutive months each year, might upset locals and put them on a mood of despair. Yet, while indeed, they do try to take every precaution to avoid too big a crab massacre, and might not be thrilled at the sight of crabs roaming around their house, cramming into the nooks of their windows or ripping mosquito net; most locals actually welcome the crab migrating season.
Why, you ask? For two main reasons: a spike in domestic and foreign tourism and a small fortune to be made fixing tire punctures. The growth in tourism during crab mating season has seen government and environmental officials take measures to protect the crabs by creating “crab crossings” in some areas and closing off some roads and sidewalks. Still, some crabs will inevitably be crushed on the asphalt, and because of the resulting sheer volume of tire punctures, especially where foreign tourists are concerned, locals rake in big bucks during this period. While 10 CUC for tire repair may not sound like a lot to you, it’s nearly half the average state salary of a local, which means that crabby havoc on vehicle wheels is incredibly good business.
There´s a third reason too: a table served with seasonal crab specialties that are too yummy to resist!
A crabby feast
If you were thinking this massive crab invasion might mean a feast for seafood-loving locals, think again. You´re only half wrong, though.
The two species that make the journey are the red crab (Gecarcinus ruricola) and the yellow crab (Gecarcinus lateralis). The red crab’s meat is inedible and highly toxic to humans, as they accumulate tungsten in their system and human ingestion of this heavy metal is potentially fatal. Yet, the same is not true for its cousin the yellow crab, which are fewer in number but still enough to feed locals and visitors, whom, by the way, don’t kill them off to eat them, but instead use gloves to skilfully remove their largest, meatiest pincer and immediately after lowering them down to the ground so they can continue on their merry way.
During my time in Playa Larga, one morning I woke up to the sight of barefoot locals casually walking among dozens of crabs, easily picking them at random, one at a time, twisting the claw off in one swift motion, dropping it into a bucket, releasing the lame crustacean and carry on catching one after another and repeating the same process without so much as a breath in between. I was amazed to see their skill at removing crab claws as it were child´s play.
Some locals have perfectioned the art of declawing crabs and are true experts at doing this without getting pinched by their powerful pincers - they know precisely where and how to hold the crab in one single super quick motion. This is obviously not a task I´d recommend any novice to attempt and one that left me wondering whether the crabs felt any pain in the procedure. The verdict on this last thought is somewhat inconclusive as scientists cannot know for sure (or to what extent) crustaceans are able to feel pain. What´s certain is that they cannot process pain like us humans do because they lack the complexity of our central nervous system. To add to this, crabs that are declawed or lose one, two (or several) of their ten legs, are able to not only get by just fine, but also regenerate the lost limbs over time, just as a lizard would regrow its tail. This knowledge left me at peace to enjoy my crabby ceviche without any regrets.
After obtaining a bucket full of meaty pincers, the de-clawers would hand over the bucket to the ladies of the house, who would then prepare them in various ways, meaning that, for the two meals where we had crab as a main dish, we got to taste it cooked in two different ways. That´s what you call fast food! Picked right up from the floor and straight to a table less than a metre away - you cannot get any fresher or smaller carbon footprint than that!
Where to go for the best crab migration views?
Although crab migrations can also be observed in the Guanacahibibes peninsula (Pinar del Rio) and in some of Santiago de Cuba’s coastal areas, the most popular place to watch this event in Cuba is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos), more specifically along the area that covers the long stretch between Playa Larga and Playa Giron (an expanse covering around 36 km). The latter was the infamous site of a U.S. invasion sponsored by the CIA in April 1961 and as such it has incredible historical value on top of the area’s protected natural assets. There’s a museum dedicated to the events that happened during the attack (an invasion of another kind in the very same place, how’s that for irony?) with items from the battle that ensued showcased inside glass panels as well as war tanks and military planes parked outside.
How to get there?
You could book yourself an organised one-day excursion of the area as they are sold at most Varadero hotels’ tour desks, but I’d highly recommend you to stay overnight, at least one day if you can, but ideally two or three, especially because many of the tours don’t include everything you might want to see on their itineraries. And also, because the crab invasion cannot be properly appreciated on a rushed 10-hour visit. Beyond the crabs, there’s plenty of snorkelling and diving to be done, plenty of laidback seafood eating by the water and plenty of rare wildlife encounters to move you. This is a place I recommend enjoying at your own leisure, at your own pace, not on a strict, organised tour, unless your tour allows a stay for a night or two.
If driving there yourself or hiring a driver, in order avoid too many crab casualties plan to make the journey to Playa Larga somewhere between midday and early afternoon, as the crabs tactically avoid the sun’s strongest hours and the largest number of them make their journey between dusk and dawn. That’s not to say that by travelling on the road outside these peak times you won’t find any crabs making the crossing, you still will, but you won’t see as many, greatly reducing the risk of both puncturing your tires and lessening the impact on the crab population.
It also comes highly recommended to rent a car during your time in the Zapata peninsula, as distances between some places of interest can be long, especially if you want to do the drive (most likely you will) from Playa Larga to Playa Giron (35 km apart) and would like to see other tourist attractions like the crocodile farm and the indigenous village at Guama.
Where to stay?
Because this is one of Cuba’s less trodden nature enclaves (and one of the most protected against manmade developments) you won’t find many hotels here. In fact, there’s only two, and they’re more like villa/bungalow-style accommodation then hotels, so you definitely won’t have too much. A good alternative to hotels is to book a room at a "casa particular", a choice I definitely recommend as you will immerse in the hospitality of friendly locals, many of whom are fishermen who will bring to the table the freshest catch of the day.
You have a choice between the "casas particulares" in Playa Larga and Playa Giron. If I had to choose in which of the two coastal areas to stay I’d go for Playa Larga every time. Not only is the beach stretch nicer but many of the "casas particulares" here are located directly on the beach, putting you mere footsteps away from the water. Playa Giron has fewer "casas particulares" on the beach by comparison (most are located in town at about 1km from the shoreline) but on the other hand is also more secluded. Both are very sheltered, tranquil and crowd-free beaches with very little waves, making it ideal for kids too. In fact, on some days you’ll be hard pushed for spotting other bathers, with the exception of a few local children scattered around here and there.
Back in 2006, I stayed in a "casa particular" with my family (mum, dad and sister) and we shared the house with a couple that had an eight-year-old daughter (one of the sweetest, kindest girls I’ve ever met). The house next door, belonged to friendly neighbours who were either relatives or very close to our hosting family (can’t quite remember), and whom also rented rooms. As it happens, the family of friends that were travelling with us stayed in their house. At times, it was hard to tell whose house belonged to whom as they spent so much together at either of the houses that it got confusing, this is how tight communities are over here. Even when they were separate households, the housewives were together for most of the day, either doing chores or cooking. The husbands spent most of the day outside fishing on a boat with a friend, while the wives cooked us delicious, hearty lunches and dinners every day. So, a homestay, is as traditional as it gets in this part of Cuba and the best way to experience local folklore.
Beyond the many crabs that often got stuck to the windows (one day I found two on the shower!), the house-owners also kept a rather interesting pet – a crocodile! It was a very young little croc, chained to their boat, which when not in use was parked on the backyard, just inches away from our al fresco dining table, but posing no real danger to anyone as the chain was very short, meaning he could never get out of the boat. The sight of the little reptile every morning added to the experience.
The Cienaga de Zapata farm is famous for its large population of Cuban crocodiles, an endemic species that thrives in this part of Cuba and which is heavily protected. Still, its meat is offered for consumption at local state-owned and private restaurants which means that human consumption must be allowed but regulated. One of the evenings the ladies of the "casa" served us with a very tasty dish of diced Cuban crocodile. The best way I can describe its taste is somewhere between chicken and fish – a peculiar flavour you don’t forget.
How to best enjoy the experience
Get up early and just as the first sunrays begin to pierce the sky, sit back on a comfy chair (or even better, a reclining rocking chair) on the front porch of the "casa" you´re staying in, put your feet up (if you can and look, you won´t have to strain your eyes, the crabs will come right to you, well not you, but they´ll scuttle right past your feet on their relentless marathon. That’s day one. You can do this at sunset, but visibility isn’t as great. During the hottest daylight hours, the crabs will stop marching and seek shade, or else they’d dehydrate or die.
On day two plan to watch the same scene at sunrise from the beach, where the sands will quickly turn into a surreal red carpet that undulates with the frantic movement of millions and millions of mating crabs. Have your camera ready, you’re not likely to come by this phenomenon twice in a lifetime!
…and while you’re here: Nearby attractions not to miss!
The Bay of Pigs is the best base for exploring Cuba’s largest wilderness area, the Zapata peninsula, a UNESCO-listed national park and World Biosphere Reserve. Beyond witnessing the crab migrations and visiting the Playa Giron museum (a must), during your time here, you can also stop by the local crocodile farm (Criadero de Cocodrilos) and get acquainted with this autochthonous species by holding a baby crocodile (I got to do that!) and quite conversely, getting a taste of it at the onsite restaurant (I did that too).
From here you can take a scenic boat ride through the dense swamp jungle to Guama, a replica of a traditional Taino village where you can get to know a little bit more about Cuba’s first inhabitants while admiring the tranquil beauty of "Laguna del Tesoro" (Treasure Lake). Commissioned by Fidel Castro who enjoyed breaks on this little island, the aborigine village includes 32 sculptures of Taino Indians depicting native life, as well as numerous traditional-style huts surrounded by the most beautiful greenery. You can actually stay in one of these huts, part of the Horizontes Villa Guama Hotel.
Caleta Buena and Caleta del Rosario– idyllic for snorkelling and diving
There are two idyllic little beach coves in this part of Cuba in which to unwind and enjoy the calm waters. One of them is Caleta del Rosario (also known as Playa Maquinan) and the other is Caleta Buena, ideal for snorkelling and diving expeditions. You’ll find the latter 8 km past Playa Giron, as a beautiful protected heaven with a small diving centre. Admission costs 15 CUC and includes a lunch buffet with open bar. Snorkel gear will cost you an additional 3CUC in case you didn’t bring your own and there are beach chairs and umbrellas for added comfort on the rocky shoreline. It doesn’t get more paradisiacal than this in Cienaga de Zapata!