At the crocodile farm with Ernesto

Ernesto next suggested a trip to the Zapata Peninsula – to the “Swamp of Cienaga”, to be exact. Presumably he thought I needed to see a tourist attraction with more excitement than lakes, bird-filled forests and waterfalls. So after driving for at least an hour in the fast lane of the pot-holed and badly patched six-lane highway known as the autopista, we turned off towards Australia… that is, the village of Australia, Cuba. Apart from slaloming around potholes, it had been a fairly peaceful drive, during which we’d only encountered a handful of other cars and the occasional highway worker, machete in hand, cutting back the flowering bushes on the centre strip.

In Australia, a roadside policeman flagged us down for a document check. We held our breath while it was established that Ernesto’s papers and permits were all in order,  freeing us to continue down this smaller road, past ox-carts, farmers on horseback or bicycles and uniformed school kids being transported in farm wagons.

Our first visit was to a large lake with an island, where a Taino village had been re-created. (“Taino” is the name of a group of native people living on the island of Cuba when it was settled by Europeans.) We spent some time walking around the displays on the  island, and finally found ourselves trapped in an embarrassing native-dance-and- face-painting ceremony. This meant that, despite discreet wipes, when we later entered the Criadera de Cocodrillos (the crocodile farm), our faces still sported the odd yellow or red stripe.

The croc farm’s first display consisted of baby crocs in a way-too-small basin, attempting to bite each other’s noses off. Next came the child crocs – about 3 feet long – which visitors could hold (bound and gagged) for a photo.crocs2

A high arched bridge took us to the lake, where dozens of huge, evil-looking adult crocs were “resting” on the shore.  A chain-link fence enclosed the lake, so I felt fairly secure about photographing the reptiles, who had an unnerving habit of holding their jaws open in order to snap them shut on passing flies. We were soon joined by a small group of Russian tourists wearing brand new outfits and all kinds of bling. The croc farm wardens then zoomed into action and started “feeding” the crocs by waving whole fish filets dangling from long poles over the crocs’ heads. A snapping frenzy followed, and once in a while a croc would even catch a flying filet.

Keen to take pictures, the Russians pushed forward and held their phones over the fence; we remained at the back. It was then that one of the Russian ladies dropped her pink-clad iPhone into the croc enclosure. She cried operson-woman-hand-appleut of course, and the others craned their necks to view it lying on the ground below, but no one knew what to do. Except the wardens. They quickly transformed their feeding poles into batons and started stomping the ground with them as they opened the gate into the enclosure. Baton-stomping continuously, they marched towards the massed crocs, who started backing off. Before the men could get near the phone, however, Ernesto deftly reached through the fence and picked it up, handing it back to the Russian damsel with a slight bow, his gallantry only slightly marred by a smidgen of  face-paint. The wardens didn’t look too pleased, but once again Ernesto had saved the day.

Ernesto and the big snake

The first time he took us to Lake Hanabanilla, our taxi driver Ernesto negotiated us a great deal with a motorboat driver ($25 for the day) and we started off on the two-hour ride to the waterfall at the other end of the lake. After we’d explored the waterfalls and were on our way back down the lake, our boatman steered close to the limestone cliffs on the far side. Then, he cut the motor, stood up, and seemed to be searching the narrow, sun-baked ledges.

Boat trip on Hanabanilla
Cuban friends Ernesto, Julian and the boatman on Lake Hanabanilla

Finally, after a bit more ledge study, he said something about a “maja de Santa Maria”. At those words, Ernesto became electrified and started fumbling in his backpack. With an old camcorder in his stubby fingers, he stumbled up onto the prow of the motorboat, which was still bobbing around in its own wake.

While Ernesto was balancing on the prow, trying to video something, I asked my friend Julian what a “maja de Santa Maria” was. I couldn’t see anything. “A snake – a really big snake” was his answer. It turned out to be a Cuban boa (see note below).

Cuban Boa 609kb

Then I saw it. The snake was at least 6 – if not 8 – feet long. It had been lying, looped over itself, on a ledge a little above our heads, but with all the commotion of the motor and human voices, it had started to slowly  unwind itself and slither along the ledge. Ernesto was by this time beside himself. “Please, Heather,” he begged, “can you help me with this camera?” In his excitement, he had forgotten how it worked. I examined the multitude of buttons and tiny symbols for a second, but had to admit I knew nothing about camcorders. “I’m really sorry, Ernesto,” I said, “but I haven’t the faintest idea”. He watched the reptile’s gliding getaway, grief-stricken. Then I remembered my Lumix and managed to catch the last seconds of slithering before this magnificent specimen disappeared from view.

Nature note: The Cuban boa measures from 2 to 4.5 meters in length. Its diet consists of birds, rodents, bats and lizards. Prey is initially seized by the snake with its teeth, and it then coils its body around the prey and squeezes, eventually causing suffocation. It can be found in moist and dry woodland in Cuba as well as rocky habitats. EpicratesAngulifer1

A good taxi driver is worth his weight in bus tickets

Ernesto at el NichoThat’s Ernesto above – the Santa Clara taxi driver who made my visits to Cuba so much better. He took us to the most picturesque places in Central Cuba: to national parks with hiking trails, lakes and waterfalls, to the northern beaches, to colonial towns like Trinidad, Remedios and Sancti Spiritus, to cultural treasures like Cienfuegos and the Harvard Botanical Gardens.

Every morning, at whatever hour we’d set the evening before – 8.00, 8.30 – Ernesto would honk the horn of his precious white Peugeot in front of the door of our casa particular and sit there patiently till we’d gathered up our stuff and piled into the car.

And all the while he was driving, Ernesto was thinking of ways to make our trip better. It could be anything, from stopping at a little mountain café where they grow, roast and serve their own delicious coffee, to taking us on an impromptu bird-watching walk in the forest, to finding out where peasants serve a multi-course lunch in their own home for $3 per person. To locate such places, he’d stop a farmer on horseback or maybe one cycling home from his fields and just ask: “Is there a good place to eat around here?” Most of the time people would know about where to get home-cooked meals or meals of grilled fresh trout from a nearby lake. Here he is, waiting for our order to be served and showing a  local child how to work his phone.

Ernesto shows a local girl

 

The Bay of Pigs and tropical fish

Ernesto, our private taxi driver, let the car glide along the southern coastal road towards Cienfuegos. Behind us was the Great Zapata swamp, where we’d just spent the whole morning visiting the crocodile farm and boating to islands in Treasure Lagoon. I didn’t realize we were driving around the infamous Bay of Pigs until I noticed humongous billboards blaring slogans (in Spanish) like:

A decisive battle in the victory of socialism was fought here
or:
This is as far as the mercenaries got
and best of all:
Giron: First defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America

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Deep in conversation, Ernesto and Julian let the billboards slip by without comment, but I could scarcely believe my eyes. I’d certainly heard of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, but never thought I’d be driving past its patriotic commemoration.

Shortly afterwards, Ernesto pulled into the driveway of a free-standing house and got out to chat with a friend who was busy mixing cement for the walls of the new tourist bedroom. The friend directed Ernesto to “the best and cheapest restaurant”, where we found a table in the shade and enjoyed another great, late lunch of very fresh fish, rice and beans, vegetables and salad, accompanied by beer and coffee. Price for the three of us: $18.

Speaking of fish, the Caribbean is famous for its colourful tropical fish, and Cuba has some of the most unspoiled  reefs. I’m a bit nervous about scuba-diving but enjoy snorkelling,  so I was really delighted when Ernesto stopped off at the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) a little way beyond Playa Giron. A short path inland from the road leads to what looks like a small lake.Cueva Peces

Except it isn’t a lake, it’s a limestone sinkhole that goes down 72 meters and is full of salt water. Yes, due to a geological anomaly, sea water enters the cave underground, bringing with it schools of tropical fish from the nearby Caribbean. This means that lily-livered divers like me can rent equipment lakeside and happily snorkel on the deep blue surface of this salt-water lake, gazing down at dozens of yellow, purple, turquoise and blue tropical fish. It was paradise and there was almost nobody there.