“In Cuba we don’t have mechanics. We have magicians.”
So explains Dayan, our local guide, as a steady stream of candy-colored Chevys and Fords pass by. We’re heading into downtown Havana, and Dayan is explaining the challenge of classic car maintenance on an impoverished, isolated island. Like so much of what we’ll learn over the coming week, it’s mysterious, ingenious, disturbing and inspiring.
After passing through the leafy neighborhood of once-affluent Vedado, we head into the heart of Old Havana. Founded as a trading port in the 16th century, Havana was the final meeting point of Spanish galleons before crossing the Atlantic in treasure fleets. As plundered silver and gold poured into the city, it financed a stunning collection of palaces, mansions and parks. On the eve of Cuban independence in 1902, Havana was the crown jewel of Spanish America.
For most people, Havana is Cuba. Classic cars, cigars, guitars, maracas, mojitos—all set against a decadent backdrop of crumbling colonialism. A stroll through the manicured plazas and filthy back alleys tends to inspire escapist fantasies: Hemingway hedonism, revolutionary socialism, time capsule voyeurism—take your pick. Havana is like no other city on earth, which is why so many people want to visit.
But Havana, overflowing with Americans eager to see Cuba “before McDonald’s comes”—and Europeans eager to see Cuba “before the Americans come”—is not our main destination. We’re here to explore the remote natural areas on the island’s southern shore, a place where few tourists go.
Prior to our trip, I watched a PBS documentary, Accidental Eden, which describes one of the most overlooked aspects of Cuba. Lost amid the rancorous political debate is a miraculous fact: when Cuba’s economy ground to a halt in the 1960s, it inadvertently preserved a stunning natural paradise. At the exact moment when modern industry unleashed horrible new forms of pollution across much of the planet, Cuba withdrew into an ecological bubble. Today Cuba boasts, among other natural wonders, the healthiest coral reefs in the Western Hemisphere and the largest protected wetlands in the Caribbean: Zapata Swamp, where our group is headed.
Lying 90 miles south of Havana—the same mythical distance that separates Cuba from Florida—Zapata feels just as much a world apart. Concrete and grime are replaced by palm trees and mangroves. After spending the night at Playa Larga, a small seaside village at the head of the Bay of Pigs, we set out across a narrow dirt road that leads to the southern tip of the Zapata Peninsula.
Hundreds of shorebirds are visible in the wetlands on both sides of the road: egrets, herons, cormorants, roseate spoonbills, flamingos. Zapata is home to over 170 bird species, including the Cuban trogon (the colorful national bird of Cuba) and the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, which measures just five centimeters long.
We climb into kayaks and glide through the mangroves. Paddling between sheltered estuaries, we keep our eyes out for Cuban crocodiles. These beautiful reptiles, also known as “pearly crocodiles” for their unique coloration, once flourished in the Caribbean. Today they are the world’s rarest crocodile, found only in Zapata and the nearby Isle of Youth.
Our park escort, Pepe, who’s patrolled these waters for decades, disappears into a narrow opening in the mangroves. We follow him through a long, serpentine tunnel where sunlight filters through the canopy. After a few minutes we emerge in sight of our final destination: a sandy cay surrounded by turquoise water. There we enjoy a picnic lunch before paddling back to the mainland.
The next morning we head to the Bay of Pigs Museum. Dayan explains the infamous CIA-backed invasion from a Cuban perspective, challenging our assumptions and leading to a spirited discussion back on the bus. Multiple controversies—the Cuban Embargo, the Cuban Missile Crisis, CIA plots against Castro—are brought up as we drive through rural Cuba. As if on cue, billboards filled with socialist propaganda appear alongside the road.
Dayan, sensing that some people might be holding back, passes around a blank sheet of paper.
“Write down any question you’d like,” he announces. “Don’t include your name—this is completely anonymous. I’ll answer as many questions as I can before the trip is over.”
True to his word, Dayan answers most of our questions. He’s open, frank and calm, willing to discuss nearly any topic at length. Some questions are probing: “Do you think the Cuban Revolution was a good thing?” Others lighthearted: “What do you think of American tourists? BE HONEST!!” Only a handful of questions go unanswered, including mine: “In what ways do you think Fidel Castro and Donald Trump are similar?”
The political chatter stops when we reach our next destination, a protected ocean cove sliced into the surrounding highlands. We unload the kayaks and paddle offshore, but the seas are too rough to explore the nearby corals, so we return to the cove to watch the sun dip below the Caribbean. As evening falls, we check into a hotel overlooking the water.
Another day, another beautiful experience. This time watching dozens of flamingos take flight in front of our kayaks at Guanaroca, a protected lagoon off Cienfuegos Bay. From there we paddle to a half-submerged Russian submarine—a Cold War relic, quietly rusting away in the mangroves—before heading to the city of Cienfuegos to spend the night in casas particulares (private homes). It’s a privilege to stay with local families, but the best, unexpectedly, is yet to come.
The next morning, en route to our final destination in the Escambray Mountains, the axle on our kayak trailer snaps. Our bus wobbles to the side of the road near a public bus stop, where a group of locals calmly observe the situation.
The magicians immediately set to work.
While the driver seeks out help, Dayan leads us to a small home across the street. He knocks on the door, and a cheerful Cuban lady answers. Upon hearing our predicament, she invites us inside and introduces us to her mother, Maria, and two sisters. Soon the family is showing us old black-and-white photos and giving us a tour of their garden. Maria, meanwhile, prepares tiny cups of coffee for everyone. You hear a lot about the warmth and graciousness of the Cuban people, but experiencing it first hand, in a random, unscripted encounter, leaves everyone touched.
The arrival of a busload of stranded Americans creates plenty of buzz around town, and soon extended family and friends are dropping by to say hello. The new arrivals smile knowingly as Dayan explains our situation. When we say goodbye, it’s unexpectedly emotional. Whatever the political differences between our two countries, the connection between Cubans and Americans is undeniably strong.
The axle fixed, the magicians satisfied, we continue to Lake Hanabanilla. There’s still enough daylight to paddle to a remote waterfall, where we cool off before circling back to an ecolodge perched above the lake. Accessible only by boat or kayak, the lodge is a collection of open-air thatched huts on circular platforms. Amenities are basic, but the forest setting is spectacular.
In the morning, we paddle back across the glassy lake as clouds drift through the surrounding mountains. After loading our kayaks on the trailer for the last time, we drive to Havana. Upon entering the city we’re greeted by an enormous cruise ship. It’s docked, unsurprisingly, just a short stroll from a giant warehouse filled with vendors hawking tourist trinkets.
Cuba is an unusual country, defined by a series of historical accidents. Ever since Columbus visited on his first voyage, Cuba has struggled to adapt to the global forces that seem to hit the island harder than anywhere else. The recent U.S. overtures are just the latest chapter in a centuries-old drama. As my taxi driver put it on the way to the airport, “People in other countries always talk about global crises. Here in Cuba, every day is a crisis. For us, it’s nothing new.”
Cubans are famously resilient, and they’ll no doubt survive whatever political storms lie ahead. But environmental damage can last forever. Waves of tourists are now descending on the largest island in the Caribbean, which, against all odds, is also the most ecologically well-preserved. Will Cuban tourism be defined by cruise ships and joyrides in classic cars? Or will people discover—and seek to protect—the vast natural beauty that lies beyond Havana?
Photos: James Kaiser