Crocodiles and coral at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba
The Cuban crocs were baking in the tropical heat, all 4000 of them. Crocodylus rhombifer is endemic to the marshy swampland of the Zapata peninsula, a pointed wedge of land that sticks out like a heeled boot on the southern coast of the island.
The Cuban crocodile is endangered and these reptiles, piled on top of each other looking for shade, were, thankfully, contained in a breeding centre where, once the reptile quota reaches nearer 7000, they could be released into the wild.
Locals should have no fear according to the custodian of the crocodile breeding centre at Boca de Guamá. The last time a Cuban was eaten was 13 years ago when a fisherman sidled up too close to a female croc guarding her eggs. During the 2008 hurricanes that battered Cuba fences were blown down and several of the beasts escaped but apparently did not roam too far from the breeding centre.
The Zapata marshlands are a vast coastal swamp home to flamingos, jutías (giant rat-like creatures), dozens of birds, and a fish with prehistoric looks. The rare Cuban Gar, known in Cuba as Manjuarí, with its large scaly body and long snout looks like the evolutionary predecessor of his ground-dwelling crocodile neighbour.
Here too, you can spot Cuba's national bird, the Tocororo, a trogon that bears the colours of the national flag - red, white and blue. Also bustling amid the forests that attracts twitchers from across the world are the cute, miniscule emerald-green Cuban tody, known as the Cartacuba, woodpeckers, Cuban pygmy owl and the smallest bundle of feathers in the world, the bee hummingbird, known as the zunzuncito.
South and to the east, the Caribbean sea's sand bank drops off steeply; a huge, coral-cluttered reef wall shelves deeply off Playa Girón. On land, small stretches of fine pale sand leak out of jagged rock known as dog's teeth for its razor-sharp edges.
Shadow is occasionally provided by sea grape and brackish trees that bend over the stunning calm sapphire and navy blue waters, some of the most beautiful in Cuba. Fidel Castro is inclined to agree; he has a holiday home and yachts on Cayo Piedra, just offshore. Just along the coast at Caleta Buena, visitors snorkel with tropical fish splashed with bright colours in small rock pools and caves.
All this natural wealth is overshadowed somewhat by the infamy of the neighbouring sea inlet. The Bay of Pigs is known world wide for the failed 1961 US-backed invasion. On April 17th 1961, some 1400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles and a group of American pilots landed on the shores of Playa Girón in an attempt to overthrow the new Revolutionary government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was an abject failure. Nearly all the invaders were captured and 160 Cubans died in the fighting.
At Playa Girón, the Museo Girón (open daily 8am-5pm) details the attack in photographs and maps; weapons are also on display. Along the road between Playa Girón and Playa Larga, at the tip of the Bay of Pigs, and up to the highway at the sugar mill settlement of Central Australia, grey concrete monuments to the Cuban fallen line the road. At Central Australia, is the little known Museo Memorial Comandancia de la FAR (open Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm). The 1915 building was the admin offices of the adjacent sugar factory and was commandeered by Fidel Castro to use as his command post during April 1961.
Almost 50 years after the invasion, Playa Girón is still a small, sparsely populated settlement. Old American cars cruise the one main drag, locals drink from a solitary mobile beer stand and horse and cart trot by to work. It draws divers for the sparkling sea and corals and twitchers for the flit and feather of 21 of Cuba's endemic bird species. Large propaganda murals of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro colour the scrappy, washed out waste land that separates the town from the beach. Close to the museum that proudly displays grounded aeroplanes and tanks, monstrously large black turkey vultures circle overhead.