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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Day #3 - 5/16/2012: Zapata Peninsula

Day 3 – May 16th, 2012



Click here to view a web album containing 104 high-resolution photos from this day.

I’ll start this blog by wrapping up day #2 (our day in Havana). Just before 8PM, we boarded our bus and headed to the Hotel Nacional for dinner. We enjoyed another very tasty traditional Cuban meal (two kinds of rice, freshly fried potato chips, pork, chicken, and a unique passionfruit sauce for dessert) while being serenaded by a band:

After dinner, we were all encouraged to take advantage of Havana’s famous nightlife. The students were led by our guide Ludwig to a jazz club. We separated at that point, but I’m sure that everyone had a fun and safe time.

Day #3 began with breakfast at the hotel. We boarded the bus at 9AM. After a brief stop to stock up on bottled water ($0.65 per bottle) and exchange currency ($1 = $0.87 CUCs, the official Cuban currency; exchange requires a passport). We then headed out on a three-hour drive to the Zapata Penninsula, home to large stretches of nature preserves (roughly equivalent to the Florida Everglades).

We entered the Zapata National Park, the largest wetland in the Caribbean and Cuba’s largest park. We will be visited various locations in this Park for the next few days. Our first stop was a botanical garden featuring some of the native hardwood tree species of Cuba (and, it was noticed, lots of mosquitoes):

We also spotted emerald hummingbirds (one of three Cuban endemic hummingbird species). From there, we drove on to the Treasure Lake preserve, so named because native Cubans used to hide their gold there to prevent Spaniards from finding it. The preserve contains a network of mangrove swamps criss-crossed with natural waterways. We piled into two speedboats for a 20 minute journey across the Tesoro Lagoon to a series of lodges on an island:

There we had lunch—admittedly the worst food we’ve had in Cuba so far, but not bad given the difficulty in getting any provisions to this remote spot. And the view (from a large thatched lodge on stilts over the water) was fantastic:

We toured the island, which featured eco-tourism huts (where people can stay—bring a book!), a long boardwalk path, many horizontal-leaning palm trees, various bird species (including several varieties of ducks), several species of gecko lizards, a variety of sculptures depicting life for Cuba’s indigenous peoples, and mock-ups of a Taina village showing their dwellings complete with locals dressed in period costumes:

Given the hot, humid, sweltering day, we stopped several times for drinks. After a very fast speed boat ride through the swamp (which was a blast!), we visited a crocodile refuge and breeding center. There we saw Cuba’s largest native rodent, the jutia and crocodiles of various sizes and ages. We watched the adult crocodiles feed on crabs. The students were all able to hold a juvenile crocodile (after it had been secured by a guide), which was a real thrill for all:

After a 20 minutes bus ride, we arrived at the town of palpate to visit Korimakao, a state-sponsored artists’ colony. Here, teenagers with artistic talent are paid to hone their craft and develop into professional painters, singers, and dancers. We toured the grounds, visited the galleries, and watched a performance by the dance troupe:

By this point, it was late afternoon. We were all pretty hot and sticky from the heat and humidity of the day. We were glad to arrive at our new hotel, the Playa Larga Hotel. The students were all quite psyched to see the pool and the ocean. This hotel looks like a retirement community, with individual candy-colored buildings, each one story with a patch of lawn and rocking chairs out front. Pairs of students were assigned to a bungalow, each of which contains a sitting room, bathroom, and 1 or 2 bedrooms with air conditioning. Everyone was quite impressed with the quality of the accommodations. We enjoyed a dip in the ocean to cool off, and then a group dinner that featured local crab:

Unlike our hotel in Havana, this one is quite isolated, with no other place to visit in the neighborhood. I was disappointed to discover that, although they have Internet at this hotel, it is currently not functioning. I am writing this paragraph at 9PM on 5/16, but it may be days before I am able to post it. We shall see!

Everyone is well, with no significant problems. We look forward to a most interesting day tomorrow visiting the Bay of Pigs.

Best wishes from Cuba,

ejs

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