It may be difficult for some to imagine a softer side to a country well known for its communist regime, guerrilla icons, and lingering economic war with America. A country whose capital city, Havana is animated with the hum of vintage automobiles, pulsating salsa music, and tobacco-filled air. Partly thanks to its wide array of passionate African, European, and Caribbean cultures, one’s thoughts might naturally sway towards the nightlife, savoury food, and beautifully crumbling cityscape when considering Cuba as a tourist destination. However, for many, thoughts of Cuba will not immediately conjure images of lush mountains and rainforests stretching to the shores of some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs.
Yet, this vibrant island nation has much more to offer than the narrow geopolitical and socioeconomic stereotypes for which it is sometimes known. And for divers, the choices are plentiful. As the largest island in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba benefits from a 5600km coastline, littered with ripe reefs prime for scuba divers. Fidel Castro, an avid diver himself, made it a priority to protect this treasure trove of biodiversity long before it became trendy or politically popular for governments to support marine conservation.
The first thing you will want to decide is which time of year to travel. And typically that has a lot to do with air and water temperatures as well as the amount of rainfall. Generally speaking, one can dive year round in Cuba as the average yearly water temperature hovers around 24˚C/76˚F. Nevertheless, the peak time to dive in Cuba is between December and April. Rainfall is at the lowest between these months and the temperature is more comfortable. During the months of January, February, and March the air and water temperature are the coolest (Mid-January is generally ideal with an average low of 16°C and a high of 26°C). Therefore, when traveling during these months a 5mm wetsuit is recommended but a 3mm is more than manageable (and will suffice for any other time of year). If diving between May and November, you may experience an increase in rainfall and hotter temperatures (July being the hottest). It is worth noting that throughout the year the temperature only varies between 16˚C and 32˚C and very rarely does it get above 32˚C or below 11˚C.
Hundreds of dive sites are scattered proportionately across the north and south of the island, offering everything from shore to liveaboard diving options, along with an average visibility of 30-40 meters. The country boasts 50 species of corals, 200 species of sponges, and dozens of species of fish. The landscapes range from coral gardens to caves and some interesting wrecks. The most accessible diving is off of the north coast due to its proximity to the international airport and the largest city in the Caribbean, Havana. If you are on a tight schedule and/or hadn’t pre-planned any diving, you will likely be limited to diving the north part of the island. Fortunately, coral gardens, small caves and tons of fish can be found near Havana with great options both shallow and deep. But while diving in the north is well above average, it is widely agreed that the top diving in the country (perhaps the world) is located off of the southern coast.
Most notably, Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), situated 60 miles off the central, southern coast is certainly the crown jewel of the country, but getting there takes time. If you are looking for the stuff divers’ dreams are made of, then you will want to head south and plan your trip carefully in advance. Pristine water and calm currents surround 250 coral and mangrove islands. Beneath the surface you can expect to find dozens of schooling sharks, including Silkies and Caribbean Reefs. If you are lucky, the Great Hammerhead just might make a cameo appearance as well. Goliath groupers and the rare chance to snorkel alongside friendly saltwater crocodiles are some of the other star attractions in this marine protected area.
To the west of Jardines de la Reina lies an island called Isla de la Juventud (or Isle of Youth). While this is the official name, both locals and tourists have bestowed a more appropriate title: Treasure Island. The classic namesake novel by Robert Louis Stevenson was in fact written on this very island. The Punta Frances National Marine Park, located in the southern corner of the island consists of 56 dive sites, which are full of life. Here you can find everything from sunken wrecks, dramatic wall dives and a series of tunnels and caves. Depending on the sites you dive, you might stay on the lookout for Nassau groupers, black groupers, barracuda, tarpons, jacks, eagle rays, turtles and several types of shark.
As with Jardines de la Reina, this location is a marine protected area which is therefore controlled by park rangers. The 6km stretch of dive sites is referred to as El Colony and is only accessible by boat. Furthermore, getting to the dive sites can take up to an hour by boat. One in particular, Cueva Azul (Blue Cave) is a forty-five minute drive from El Colony; however, do not let that deter you from one of the best sites in the region. A few of the other top sites include but are not limited to: Pared de Coral Negro, Tunel del Amor, El Pasaje Escondido, and Cueva de los Sabalos. The quickest way to the island is a short 35 minute flight from Havana followed by a 45 minute drive once on the island.
Continuing westward you will eventually reach the UNESCO Natural Biosphere Reserve in the Great Natural Park Guanahacabibes. Within the park there are two distinct dive locations, María la Gorda and Cabo de San Antonio, which are best known for their abundance of black coral. The marine life here is copious with the usual suspects of jacks, barracuda, lobsters, morays, and crabs. Mantas and whale sharks also frequent the area although seeing one can take some luck. One of the best dives here is a site called, Yemaya, due to the beautiful black coral that litters the vertical wall. Most of the diving begins just off shore somewhere around five meters. Again the lack of currents make for some relaxing dives exploring the 18th century Spanish Galleon/Pirate wrecks. A few of the other notable dive sites of the region are Paraíso Perdido, Ancla del Pirata, Las Tetas de Maria, and El Almirante.
If time is a factor you will certainly find good diving options near Havana. There are approximately 34 dive sites to choose from and all are within a short distance from the city. The depth ranges from beginner to advanced, starting around five meters and dropping down to thirty-five. As mentioned earlier, the terrain consists of wrecks, caves and coral gardens with an abundance of tropical fish throughout. The best dive site in the region is Boca de Caldera (Mouth of the Cauldron) in Eastern Havana. Here you will find very little current, good visibility and an amazing garden of sea fans, sponges and coral. This is a really interesting dive in that, you enter the ocean from a rocky shoreline, swim for about 200m (650 ft), then descend into a small cave to twelve meters. From that point you begin a lovely wall dive.
A few of the other popular sites around Havana are: Hollywood Song, Baracoa Umbrellas, Coral Island, and Sanchez Barcastegui. Hollywood Song consists of caves and tunnels, while Baracoa Umbrellas at 35 meters appeals more to the deep diver and coral enthusiast. Sanchez Barcastegui and Coral Island are more geared towards those who enjoy wreck diving. The Sanchez was an 8,000-ton Spanish ship, which sunk to 25 meters soon after colliding with another vessel in 1895. While Coral Island was an old merchant ship which caught fire and also lies in the sea at 25 meters. It has split up into three separate sections and is full of interesting marine life.
A few hours’ drive east of Havana lies the city of Varadero. And six miles out to sea, beginning at ten meters is the famous dive site Ojo del Mégano (or “Blue Hole”). The site is known as a refuge of sorts to many types of fish who use the walls for protection from larger predators. The marine life includes barracuda, red grouper, snapper, and lobster.
Getting to Havana is fairly easy as there are direct flights from many cities within Europe, North, Central and South America, as well as from some of the neighbouring Caribbean islands. For example, in Europe there are direct flights from Paris, London, Frankfurt and even Moscow. If you are traveling from Asia you will likely make a connection in one of these cities. Furthermore, travel from the United States generally takes place out of Los Angeles, New York or Miami if you can work out your visa issues with the US Dept of Treasury (see http://oceandoctor.org/gardens/). From Canada you can fly direct from Toronto. From Latin America, direct flights come via Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and Panama. Finding a flight to Cuba shouldn't be difficult as it is a very popular tourist destination.
Once you have figured out how to get to Havana, your next step will be sorting domestic transport to your final destination. Generally speaking, dive operators should be able to arrange transportation from Havana; however, if this is not provided, there are a few other options. About half of the roads in Cuba are paved, most of the highways are kept in decent condition, and traffic is generally light which makes renting a car a viable option. There is a central road connecting the east and west, which spans the length of the country. At 1,435km (892mi), the road is known as Carretera Central. A good site to visit for more information on car rentals is: http://www.rexcarrental.com orhttp://transturcarrental.com. If driving in a foreign country isn’t your thing, you’ll want to check out www.Viazul.com for coach bus information. A combination of the two may be yet another option worth considering. The last option of course is air transportation. From the domestic airport, Playa Baracoa (near Havana) one can travel by light aircraft to many locations throughout Cuba.
Regarding the cost of scuba diving in Cuba, one can expect to pay on average $35 USD for a single dive.
However, dive centers do offer discounted rates for groups and multi-dive packages which can bring the price down a bit. In terms of currency, one is best-advised to bring Euros in cash and then exchange for local currency. (USD can be widely exchanged but at a 10% black market premium). To further confuse things, there are two currencies in Cuba at the moment. The CUC (Convertible Cuban Peso) is pegged to the USD and is the currency tourists utilize. The other currency, CUP (The Cuban Peso), is the currency local’s use and is only worth a fraction of the CUC. The government is currently in the process of simplifying the system so at some point in the near future we should see one currency.
Dive centers in Cuba are unusual in that they are joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign investors. For the most part they are very well managed, professional outfits, which offer scuba courses and certifications through SSI, ACUC and CMAS. Due to the embargo issues with the United States, PADI lacks a presence on the island.
If you decide to head south for the diving you will want to take a look at Avalon Cuban Diving Centers (cubandivingcenters.com) in particular, as they adhere to very high standards and are a pleasure to dive with. In Jardines de la Reina, in particular, they are the only dive operator. They also have operations in Isla de la Juventud, and Cayo Largo. If you are staying on the northern side of the island check out Varadiving (http://varadiving.jimdo.com/scuba-diving/), and La Aguja Scuba Diving Center.
On a final note, it is comforting to know that dive safety is taken seriously in Cuba as there are five operating hyperbaric chambers. How ever vigilant you and the dive centers may be accidents do occur. And it is good to know they are prepared to handle any emergencies that may arise.
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