Stepping into the shower of my cottage on Cuba's Zapata Peninsula, I was amused by the sight of a large, garishly painted plastic frog sitting on the handle of the soap tray. I presumed that the fake amphibian had been carefully placed by a room maid who thought it might add some tropical ambiance.
As I reached for the soap, however, I discovered that the frog was no bathroom ornament, but a comically real interloper.
Leaping from the tray to my chest, the suction pads on its feet took firm hold not far from my thumping heart.
I had come to Zapata to see nature, but nature had boldly come to see me -- first in the guise of osteopilus septentrionalis, the largest tree frog in the Americas.
The frog proved to be a harbinger of things to come during my next week on the Zapata Peninsula, a 4,300-square-kilometre region wrapped like a horseshoe around Bahia de Cochinos (better known to the English-speaking world as the infamous Bay of Pigs, where CIA-backed Cuban exiles were defeated by Fidel Castro's ragtag but resolute troops in 1961).
These days, the failed invasion is sternly remembered with a local museum and frequent roadside memorials to slain Cuban soldiers. But Zapata (pronounced with a soft "s") is developing another reputation: as an area with the largest and most important wetlands in the Caribbean.
For visitors who prefer tall saw grass and wetlands over swimming pools, or sightings of rare birds and crocodiles over souvenir stands, it is a joy.
Almost two-thirds of Cuba has been converted to agriculture, but in Zapata's mosaic of fresh and saltwater marshes, woodlands and mangroves, visitors find one of the country's most extensive habitats for wildlife and an area that is, perhaps, a last refuge for some species.
A large swath of the Zapata Peninsula is a national park, and UNESCO has declared the Zapata wetlands a biosphere reserve, which means it's a VIP -- Very Important Place -- in conservation circles.
For many people, it's a shock to learn that Cuba has any significant nature beyond sandy shorelines and palm trees, but, in fact, the country is rich in flora and fauna. There are more than 6,000 species of flowering plants and 349 birds, including 24 unique species not found anywhere else.
An ironic benefit of the long-standing U.S. embargo is that rampant tourism and habitat destruction have been curbed. But there are still forces that threaten Cuba's natural areas. In some cases, burgeoning tourism is a culprit, but often it's indiscriminate agriculture and forestry that are contributing to habitat destruction.
Zapata is one of the natural areas of Cuba with a strong Canadian connection forged by World Wildlife Fund Canada, an organization that has helped fund and co-ordinate local conservation efforts across Cuba for the past 15 years.
With the help of the Canadian International Development Agency and some support from the Canadian business community, WWF Canada has offered conservation expertise and helped provide what local biologists need most: funds to help advance long-term protection.
While Zapata isn't the only region of Cuba that receives WWF support, its close proximity to Havana makes it readily available to the more intrepid visitor who wants something other than sun and sand or Havana's tawdry charms.
Aside from the frog, my introduction to Zapata fell more formally to Orestes Martinez Garcia, better known as "El Chino" (The Chinese). His mother conjured up the nickname when he was a boy, after some insect bites had narrowed his dark eyes, temporarily giving him a slight Asian appearance.
Today, as a self-taught guide in his mid-40s, he has been exploring Zapata for 27 years. No one knows the peninsula, from its swamps to its tangled forests, better than the compact and stocky Chino. For visitors who want to see rare, endangered or vulnerable birds such as Fernandina's flicker, the Cuban pygmy owl or the Zapata rail, he knows just where to look.
I had come to see these rare birds, but a larger, more fearsome creature -- the Cuban crocodile -- topped my list of wildlife to spot. No more than 6,000 of these scaly reptiles remain in Zapata's freshwater swamps, making it one of the most vulnerable crocodile species in the world and also one of the hardest to see in the wild.
My first crocodile sighting, of sorts, came on my first evening in Zapata, where it popped up on a restaurant menu -- a distinct surprise given that the species is threatened. Crocodile farming, though, is simply part of the meagre local economy, putting food on tables of people who struggle in what is largely a Third World economy. Without the farming, the temptation to scour the swamps and creeks for a meal might just kill off the species entirely.
If you're wondering what crocodile tastes like, consider the description from a local waiter, who, poker-faced, told me it tastes "just like alligator."
The easiest place for visitors to observe crocodiles, from one-metre youngsters to a few five-metre senior citizens, is Criadero de Cocodrilos, a captive-breeding farm replete with souvenir shops and a languorous bar. It's located on La Boca de Guama, right on the main road (Route 3-1-18), south of Australia, a town that intersects with the main highway from Havana.
A sighting in the wild, though, trumps viewing the creatures through screened fences, and it's in the company of guides such as Chino that the odds improve.
Depending on your point of view, it's either disconcerting or encouraging to notice that Chino has half a finger missing, the result of a crocodile encounter.
As for catching sight of one of the wild cocodrilos, it's best to go for the scenery or for the bird-watching and count yourself lucky if you happen to see one, jaws agape and looking like it would be quite delighted if someone were to tumble out of a passing boat. Look for a bony ridge behind the eyes and a yellow and black patterning of scales, both of which are features of the Cuban crocodile.
Wetlands and waterways are everywhere in Zapata, especially in the rainy season. Prime among them is La Salinas, a patchwork of marshes and lagoons that flanks a 30-kilometre dirt road that's sometimes flooded, either by water or tens of thousands of cangrejos, red crabs that get highly mobile when the urge to mate kicks in every spring.
Also on the red-pink end of the spectrum are Cuba's resident flamingos, which are readily seen in small groups in the shallow waters, sometimes doing an amusing Michael Jackson moonwalk to stir up the tiny shrimps in the silt that give the birds their colour.
Another recommended outing, one with a little more of an Indiana Jones feel to it, involves a trip up a creek that runs from Santo Tomas, about 30 kilometres west of Playa Larga. One of the more remote spots in Zapata, Santo Tomas is reached by a potholed road that is the bane of local residents.
Before we started up the creek, Chino made a few stops. The first was to introduce me to the Cuban parrot in the wild, another rare and endangered bird. Cloaked in bright green plumage, the iridescent parrot perched on an open branch in dense forest, screeching a loud "squack-squack!" before flying off.
Fifteen minutes later, Chino took me to a spot where I got my first glimpse of a bee hummingbird, aptly named because, at 6.4 centimetres, it's the smallest hummingbird on the planet.
The next stop was the house of Raul Perez Padron, a local fisherman and farmer who is one of about 8,000 cienagueros, or swamp people, who live in small villages sprinkled throughout Zapata. A lean, wiry man, Raul showed us a cedar waxwing, an elegant black-masked bird that I've often seen in Ontario woodlands. Indeed, it was a reminder that Canada and Cuba share many migratory birds and butterflies, and without winter safe-havens such as Zapata, Canada might well suffer a decline in the numbers of birds that return north in spring.
After the waxwing sighting, Padron hauled a recently caught young crocodile out of a rickety storage shed. It was destined for study at a Havana museum, and he handled the creature with the wary finesse of a man who has spent a lifetime in the swamps.
His ease in the landscape was evident later, when he poled us in a rickety tar-patched boat up Zanja La Cocodrila (Channel of the Lady Crocodile). Birds seemed to burst from every patch of shoreline or tall grass. Stepping out of the boat at one point, my foot landed less than a metre from a baby alligator, and I walked gingerly around snails the size of walnuts. I could almost feel life pulsing along the muddy shoreline.
The Zanja la Cocodrila meanders for 19 kilometres and eventually enters the Hatiguanico River, a broader body of water worthy of another trip on its own.
For midday outings with a conservation theme, Zapata offers several options. But don't expect large-scale, multimedia undertakings. Instead, look for homey, rather modest efforts staffed by just one or two good-natured Cuban naturalists.
At the Centre de Reproducion de Fauna Cubana, set off the road just four kilometres south of Australia, biologist Mario Caballero presented about a dozen cages full of noisy Cuban parrots. The plan was to raise new parrots to replace those who have been lost to indiscriminate logging. Another large cage was home to a dozen or more jutias, Cuba's largest mammal and a rodent that, to Canadian eyes, looks like a cross between a groundhog and squirrel with a bit of beaver mixed in.
Likewise, in Playa Giron, Edvardo Ramirez Lence -- like Caballero, a benefactor of WWF Canada support -- provides another captive breeding facility for jutias behind his house.
Jutias are an important part of the crocodiles' diet, but Lence reminded me that we are its main foe. Through hunting, farming and habitat destruction, people are threatening to wipe out the highly social and bristly haired creature. Every year, Lence releases a few jutias into the wilderness and hopes it will eventually make a difference.
Some political analysts are anticipating that the United States will drop its embargo against Cuba within a few years. If that happens, and Cuba faces a friendly invasion of American conservationists, Zapata and the peninsula that flanks the Bay of Pigs might ironically end up being a model of what's worth preserving for posterity.
If you go
Canadians interested in getting a taste of nature in Cuba can make arrangements through the Toronto office of Cubanacan, a tourism and trade agency. For more information, call (416) 601-0343, visit the Web site at http://www.cubanacan.cu or e-mail email@example.com.
Cubanacan has several options for nature-based trips through Cuba, including birding, nature cycling, hiking and programs for children. A trip to Zapata will involve making a customized itinerary. Cubanacan has many well-trained guides, but you can request "El Chino" (Orestes Martinez) as your guide in Zapata through Cubanacan. You can also try e-mailing him directly at