Cuba: Revisiting the Bay of Pigs Invasion

We're on the road to the Bay of Pigs in a "taxi" with Chuchy, a handsome, middle-aged Playa Larga driver who is chatting the whole way. Since my husband's Spanish is better than mine, he sits in the front. He asks Chuchy about his memories of those fateful days in April, 1961 when a CIA-backed paramilitary group launched an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Having grown up in the military, I am eager to take a trip through time to the United States' worst military blunder ever.

Chuchy tells us he was nine at the time, and he distinctly remembers the sound of American bombs dropping. Like most Playa Largans, his father was a campesino who joined Castro's militia to fight the "yanquis." Chuchy's mother cooked for the militiamen.

After deciding to spend the beach portion of our two-week Cuba vacation at the Bay of Pigs, we found there is no direct bus service to Playa Larga from Cuba's big highway, Huy Grande. The road is wide and flat for a reason: it was built by Castro to accommodate tanks and fighter jets.

We needed a guide, and found Chuchy through a helpful agent in the tourist office in Viñales, where we enjoyed the tobacco country portion of our trip. She called and arranged for him to pick us up at a road stop near the town of Australia, Castro's invasion headquarters. That is where the Viazul's Havana-Trinidad bus dropped us off. A smiling Chuchy was waiting when we arrived and we piled into his 1987 Russian-made Lada to head south.

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On the Road to the Bay of Pigs and Playa Larga

The Zapata Peninsula is a flat swampland. Prior to the revolution, one of its main resources was a mesquite-like fuel source, and the campesinos who harvested it lived in horrible conditions. We do not ask Chuchy if his childhood was as desperate as what we've heard, but one thing he does say is that life is definitely better under Castro.

As we pass sugar cane fields and incalculable numbers of classic American cars, Chuchy points out roadside memorials to the militiamen killed in the invasion. They are concrete slabs with bronze plaques, each embedded with the names of ten people, set into a paved space bordered with shrubs. Ten guys, one headstone.

Our New Book

Approaching the town of Playa Larga, there is no ignoring Cuba's revolutionary history. The only billboards say "!Viva revolucion." We pass an army outpost where Chuchy honks and waves. He had been in the military and had even spent time in Russia during the Cold War. Cold was what he remembered about Russia.

Playa Larga's town square is actually a triangle, with a massive memorial slab punctuating its center. Beyond, toward the water, is a huge stretch of grassy waterfront with nothing but a few horses grazing. Further on is a scuba diving center and the Hotel Playa Larga where a beach party is erupting loudly. Overall, Playa Larga is a fishing village of low-rise, colorfully-painted, concrete block houses in various states of renovation. A town with no where to go but up.

Horse carts and bicycles weave through traffic, making Chuchy swerve. Entering a housing district, he tells us there are over 30 Casa Particulars in town. Indeed, every other house displays the designated sign. Chuchy knows exactly where we are going, and knows our hostess, the vivacious Marieta, who owns at least two guest houses right on the beach. >h2>Through the Field of Crabs To Playa Giron When we ask Chuchy to drive us to Playa Giron the next day, we don't realize that a local bus runs between Playa Larga and Playa Giron, and only costs a few CUCs. Still, we find it's worth the 30 CUCs (Cuban tourist pesos) for the day to coast along in Chuchy's Lada and hear his running commentary about the suicidal crabs we're driving over.

March is the time of year when Gecarcoidea crabs migrate to and from the ocean, which creates a crab killing field all along the highway. They're so cute the way they skitter away from our wheels, but I'll never forget that metallic smell of salty blood baking on hot asphalt.

On the way, Chuchy tells us the name, Bahia de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, was not named for hogs, but for a local fish called Triggerfish. A very tasty fish, he adds.

We approach Playa Giron, which lies where the Bahia de Cochinos meets the Caribbean. This is where the brunt of the American invasion occurred. It was chosen by the Americans not only for the nearby airfield, but for the expansive beaches that would accommodate the offloading of troop ships.

The town of Playa Giron's has wide streets, concrete row houses and a flat landscape dotted with palm trees. It looks like a military base to me. There is almost no shade.

Chuchy drops us off at Museo Giron -- a low-roofed, elementary school-style building fronted by old fighter jets and tanks. He leaves us there, having seen it all before.

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Bay of Pigs Museum

Inside, the museum is cool and sterile looking. It is so empty, the clerk had to turn the light on for us. In the first room of the two-room exhibit, the glass-encased wall displays begin with a pre-revolutionary history of the Zapata peninsula's "vegetable charcoal production," and move through the social improvements brought by the "glorious revolution."

Then, the displays go into attack mode.

In fuzzy, sepia-toned enlargements of newspaper clippings, we see charred remains of the department store, The Charm, which was bombed by the CIA in advance of the invasion. In addition to endless maps of the plan of attack, there are images of the bombed airport of Santiago de Cuba, photos of Fidel addressing cheering crowds of militiamen, and the famous image of the dying militia man who wrote "fidel" on the wall with his blood.

The photos may be fuzzy but the propaganda is sharp.

In the second room, pictures of American with their hands up are captioned with, "The defeated mercenaries eluded responsibilities. They all came as cooks!"

We laugh, thinking this is a typo for "crooks," but in another display depicting the trials of the mercenaries, one caption reads, "Their testimonies were similar, they all came deceived. Others were just cooks or their missions were purely spiritual."

Then, there were the Radio Telegramas of support and outrage from all over the world: Africans in France, Mothers in China, Japan's Congress of Journalists, the Communists in Chile. Nothing visible from Canada, but the display showed how the Americans were all alone in this fated mission.

Playa Giron Hotel

We leave and walk oceanward on Giron's Main Street to the Playa Giron Hotel, a classic 60s building with groovy roof lines and giant windows. Inside, under an enormous mural depicting the invasion, the lobby bar looks like the set of an Elvis Presley film.

Outside, beyond the enormous cerulean pool, a system of breakwaters protect the hotel from hurricanes and possible storm troopers. Two groups of tourists are sprawled on the beach under palm leaf umbrellas. Staring down the long deserted beach, I imagine American mercenaries skittering from their ships, guns blazing, only to be surprised by scores of well-armed militiamen who mow them down. What were they thinking?

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Back in Playa Larga, we discover the postcard-perfect public beach Caleton near our casa. There, a rusted-out, metal-hulled boat is half buried in the sand, looking 50 years old and never been moved. As I stare at the deteriorating hulk, I wonder how many men had jumped from it and died that day. When we find a system of bunkers buried between the palm trees, it hits me that those mercenaries never had a chance.

The whole idea makes me sad that so many lives were lost in such a misguided venture. Hopefully, after the U.S. embargo ends and more investment is made, the Bay of Pigs will outlive its militaristic history and transform into the very cool beach destination it's ready to be.

Bay of Pigs: More Than a Battlefield

Already, the Bay of Pigs is much more than a string of military relics.

The Boca de Guama Crocodile farm offers a chance to get up close to these prehistoric creatures and to eat a burger made of them.

From there, you can take a boat through the lush Lagona del Testoro to the native village, Villa Guama.

The bordering Zapata National Park is a vast mangrove marsh, home to migratory birds that requires the accompaniment of a park guide.

There are great places to dive including Punta Perdiz and Cueva de los Peces, with International Diving Centers in both Playa Larga and Giron.

If You Go

ViaZul buses run all day from Havana and can be booked at any large hotel or online at: CubaStarTravel.com

Eliseo and Marieta, or any of the 45 Playa Larga Casa Particulars can be found at: Playa Larga Casa Particulars

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Mari Kane
is a writer and blogger living in Vancouver, BC. She blogs about food, wine and travel on her site, TastingRoomConfidential.com, and web masters for the BC Travel Writers at BCATW.org. Someday she will finish her wine book. Follow her at @marikane.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: February 14th, 2014



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