Rum Cocktails, Old Cars, Great Scuba Diving - Welcome to Cuba
Music, mojitos, fine cigars, ancient cars, irrepressible people and world-class diving. Welcome to Cuba.
Words and photographs Josef Litt
The sun is setting. Miguel and I sit on the veranda sipping rum. The smell and smoke of Cuban cigars add to the relaxed atmosphere. An impromptu street band plays mambo in the distance, and glorious vintage cars go about their business. We talk in a barely adequate mix of Spanish and English about the miserable life during the ‘periodo especial’, the time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the iniquities of today’s taxes. Later, we confirm our plans for a sightseeing tour in the morning to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps with a daiquiri in La Floridita and we bid each other buenas noches.
One of the other famous bars in Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio, displays a handwritten note allegedly signed by Hemingway, extolling its rum cocktails. But, don’t trust everything you read on TripAdvisor! According to Tom Miller in his book Trading with the Enemy, the sign was created in the late 1950s as a private joke and was not penned by the American author. For some, it is the Havana nightlife, the famous rum, the delicious cocktails and the Cuban cigars that draw them to Cuba. For others, it is the spectacular scuba diving in the marine reserves that ticks the box. However, I would argue that what makes the island special is its proud, broke, ingenious – and against all the odds – happy people.
Cubans are rightfully cavalier about the running score of the endless battles between the poor Cuban David and the powerful Goliaths of the world. Spanish colonial rule was supplanted by American domination at the end of the nineteenth century. The socialist revolutionary struggle between 1953 and 1959 replaced the wealth of a few, and the hopeless despair of most, with poverty for all. Active supporters of the previous corrupt and cruel regime, headed by the dictator Batista, were put to death. The wealthy and educated people fled. Those remaining benefitted from the social, educational and health programmes of the Cuban government, at least until the collapse of the communist bloc in the 1990s.
The quality of life on the island deteriorated abruptly when the Soviet states stopped buying Cuban sugar at above-market rates and then cut the supply of cheap Russian crude oil. The hardship suffered by those who were unable to, or who declined to work the system, pushed most to use their ingenuity to survive. The roofs of Havana became a place to keep poultry and domestic animals. Agriculture switched to organic production due to lack of fertilisers. Bicycles became the new means of personal transport, and bullock carts replaced trucks.
Thankfully, people were still able to find happiness from their music, rum, dance and humour. You can go to Cuba and stay in ‘package hotels’ and venture out in organised parties. For US citizens, this may be your only option. But if you can travel independently and stay with locals, you will discover a wonderful, friendly and welcoming world. As with any other tourist destination, there may be a few people trying to benefit unfairly from your relative wealth. It is also unreasonable to expect the services and comfort found in the most developed countries of the world. But that said, my experiences with local hospitality were vastly positive and fair.
There is no hiding the fact that Havana airport lacks the lustre and comfort of modern air terminals. The long wait for luggage causes me to bite my nails: the bag containing my underwater photography equipment, as always, appears on the conveyor belt in the last dribble of problematic baggage. A customs officer orders me to follow him as I grab my bag. A loud kerfuffle erupts at the X-ray machine among the queue of people bringing valuable goods into the country. The officers have found undeclared contraband, perhaps a stash of money, or shoes for sale. The Cuban economy depends partly on remittances and personal imports from Cuban emigrants. Cubans living abroad sent an estimated US$3.5bn to their homeland in 2016, almost four per cent of Cuban GDP – and plenty is sneaked in through the airport.
I try to explain the bag’s contents to a clearly confused member of staff staring at the screen of the X-ray machine. ‘Ah! Sí!’ he finally grasps my garbled phrases of Spanish. Finally, I am being ushered towards the exit, skipping the queue of those passengers still negotiating. I am glad I had abandoned my plan to smuggle a drone into the country. That would never have flown. Drones are forbidden in Cuba and confiscated at the border. Owners are questioned, and there have been cases of prosecution, including a few days in jail.
As a foreigner, I am expected to pay with convertible peso, so-called CUC (pronounced as ‘kook’). I am directed to the foreign exchange counter outside the arrivals hall. I have to explain to the young, entrepreneurial chap that 41 x £20 is, in fact, £820 and not £800, as he tries to hide the display of the money-counting machine with his hand. This is the only moment on my various trips around this country when I witness somebody try to take advantage of a seemingly confused or stressed tourist.
I plan to spend a few days in Playa Larga on the Caribbean coast some 200km (124 miles) southeast of Havana. Roberto, the driver of my pre-booked vintage taxi, had been waiting for me holding a sign. He politely takes one of my bags and then arrives with a beautifully preserved Buick. Even though the car is a bit noisy, the air conditioning works, and I enjoy the feeling of being driven in a vehicle far older than my dad.
A few hours later, Yeni shows me to my room at Casa de Yeni - this is what is called a Casa Particular. The proprietors, Yeni and Juan Carlos, offer visitors three pleasant en-suite rooms in their home and they provide breakfast; and are also happy to cook a lovely and reasonably priced dinner, much better than anything available in the restaurants outside. Juan Carlos helps me with arranging all I need to explore the nature reserve Ciénaga de Zapata. In the evenings we talk and sip seven-year-old Cuban rum. I couldn’t have asked for better hospitality and kindness.
I always feel safe during my trips in Cuba, be it on the streets of Havana or in small towns, beaches, or on the road. The society reminds me of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. The state bureaucracy is tiresome, and available services have much room for improvement, but Cuban hospitality, the culture, the intriguing history, nature, the sea, the rum and cigars are worth the hassle. The time to explore the country is now, before foreign investment transforms the island into another white-sand amusement park in the Caribbean.
One-fifth of Cuban territory is dedicated to a network of more than 250 natural reserves on both land and sea. The enforcement of protective measures is a challenge for every country in the world, and Cuba is no exception. The governmental organisation SNAP – Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas de Cuba (National System of Protected Areas of Cuba) partners with international funders, fishing communities and diving operators to establish a sustainable protection mechanism.
The Jardines de la Reina (Queen’s Gardens) was established as a marine reserve in 1996. Allegedly Fidel’s favourite spearfishing and scuba diving spot, it is today one of the best-preserved areas of the Caribbean and is one of the top scuba-diving spots in the world. Around 250km (155 miles) to the west, one will find the National Park of Ciénaga de Zapata, an extensive ecosystem made up of mangrove forests, cenotes, keys, seagrass beds, coral-reef barriers and deep reefs and is only now being discovered by scuba diving operators. It was submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003. Considered the younger sibling of Jardines de la Reina and being closer to mainland Cuba, it suffered more from illegal fishing, and as a result, big fish and shark sightings are rare. However, the walls of Zapata are covered in rich coral growth and teeming with reef life.
I am diving these two parks, the National Park Ciénaga de Zapata and the National Park Jardines de la Reina, aboard the Jardines Aggressor I. The US Government does not allow anybody, US citizen or not, to travel to Cuba from American soil unless they go for specific reasons. Tourism is not one of those reasons, but support to the Cuban people and information exchange are acceptable. The liveaboard boats Jardines Aggressor I and Jardines Aggressor II are operated by the Oceans for Youth Foundation, an organisation which has been given permission by the US Government to bring people to Cuba to take part in their ‘people-to-people’ programme. This arrangement effectively removes the entry barrier for the Yanquis. The boats run under the franchise of the Aggressor Fleet to the same standard expected of the fleet’s other vessels and crews.
The first question is: ‘Are you claustrophobic or afraid of the dark?’ I shake my head with a hint of hesitance. Ángel clips on his sling tank and off we go, barefoot, towards the entrance of the cenote, stumbling over the tree roots permeating the swamp path that I can only believe are there to make our lives miserable. The dark entrance to the sinkhole is 1.5m (5ft) wide and 4.5m (15ft) long. A scruffy, makeshift ladder leads down into the opening. Ángel insists that the easiest way down is to jump into the black water 3m (10ft) below us. I imagine all the eyeless and slimy creatures waiting for me down in the abyss. Cold shivers crawl up my spine. We have all heard of cenotes, freshwater sinkholes and caverns in the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. There are plenty more in Cuba, and a few are in the process of being opened up to divers.
The cenotes on the Zapata peninsula stretch approximately 70 km (40 miles) alongside the coast of Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Some of them are 70m (200ft) deep. The sinkhole system features seven entrances suitable for scuba divers. The most accessible one, Cueva de los Peces, or Fish Cave, just a hundred metres from the road connecting Playa Larga with Playa Girón, boasts a few shops that rent snorkelling equipment and sell snacks and drinks. Divers can arrange diving with the International Scuba Diving Centre in Playa Larga. Two cave dives, including tank, weights and transport, come to 80 CUC.
Ángel and I follow the line leading the way into the darkness. The line is one of the safety arrangements. Between us we carry six lamps, there is a sling tank hanging from my guide’s waist, and we dive to the rule of thirds: one-third of air to go into the cave, the second third for the return and the last third as a reserve. The dive guides will only take divers into cenotes after they have observed them diving in the sea. Additionally, they will decide on the level of cave penetration: cavern diving with the exit always visible, or cave diving in an overhead environment. No special certification is required.
Ángel points up to the holes in the ceiling allowing beams of sunlight into the cave. Our bubbles slowly ascend constrained by the narrow passage. The excitement prevents me from feeling the 22°C (71.6 °F) cold water through my 3mm wetsuit with a broken zip. Our lights catch cave shrimps as big as my hand dwelling on the walls. They do not run to hide, I am not sure whether they even detect the light. Soon, the narrow passage takes us to a large hall. With no daylight passing through, our lamps illuminate the colours of the rock layers. There are no stalactites or stalagmites to admire, just the feeling of cosmic weightlessness in a vast, yet constrained space.
During our slow ascent on the way out, we stir the halocline, a place where the salt water seeping through the limestone cracks from the sea meets the lighter rainwater that collects in the caves. Our heads are in a crystal-clear layer of cold freshwater, while fuzzy layers of different salinity engulf our fins. Algae living in the freshwater just below the surface create an illuminated green ceiling completing the eerie experience. The caves are a welcome contrast to shore diving, sunbathing and mojitos on the beach. However, the cenotes on the Zapata peninsula are not as stunning as their Mexican cousins, and as such, they do not warrant a dedicated cave-diving trip. The Cuban cenotes are worth a visit if you happen to be in the area – perhaps on your way to a liveaboard.
Encounters with large aquatic animals at the Walls of Zapata are an exception rather than a rule. However, whale sharks do visit the sea south of Cuba seasonally, manatees live in the National Park, and I did see a massive stingray with at least a 2m (7 ft) wingspan. The coral reefs and the walls are spectacular, with lots of small fish and macro life hiding in barrel sponges and anemones. The liveaboard itineraries offer five dives a day, including a night dive. The sea is usually calm, and the diving relaxed.
There is a reason to pay the higher price for diving in Jardines de la Reina. Divers encounter Caribbean reef sharks on almost every dive and, when staying shallow on some of the dive sites, inquisitive silky sharks will come close to the divers to explore. A massive colony of magnificent staghorn coral grows in a shallow channel between islands. Access to the channel is somewhat limited, to prevent damage to the fragile marvel.
One of the highlights that makes the Jardines famous is snorkelling with American crocodiles on the sandy patches between mangroves. The guides attract them with raw chicken while calling out El Niño. It takes a while before the call lures one of the crocs to the boat. They are usually between 1.2m (4ft) and 2m (7ft) long. Snorkelling with these reptiles is exciting and just a little scary. The safety precautions include wearing long, dark wetsuits with gloves, to avoid any resemblance to the chicken bait. For reassurance, I also pretend that I’m a carrot.
THE GROUPER THAT GOES BOOM
My buddy gesticulates for me to come closer. What I see takes my breath away. A gigantic beast is lying on the seafloor. ‘Jeez, a manatee’, I think, but I soon realise it is, in fact, a massive goliath grouper, at least 2m (7ft) long and 1m (3ft) in diameter, able to devour half a diver even with a twin tank. ‘BOOM!’ A thumping sound, as if from an underwater explosion, pushes my heart into my throat. I look around at what might have caused such a noise. Boom, again!
It seems that this monster is trying to scare us away. It certainly does a good job. The grouper suddenly shoots forward out of its lair and disappears in a maze of shallow canyons, stirring clouds of sand, and continues with the intense thumping sound to intimidate anything daft enough to follow. Of course, we try to follow, but the fish is moving too fast, and we are running out of air. I see the goliath entering a small cavern, so I try to take the last picture. When I come closer, I almost bump into another massive fish of the same species. A female? My diving computer starts to beep, demanding a return to the surface. Hesitantly, we end the dive, wondering how groupers could emit such a loud sound.
The Atlantic goliath grouper, Epinephelus itajara, can reach enormous sizes, growing to lengths of up to 2.5m (8.2ft) and can weigh as much as 360kg (790 lb). The fish is recognised as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Goliath groupers feed on crustaceans, other fish, octopus, young sea turtles, and barracudas. They have been known to attack divers and have even been seen attacking sharks. Other divers have also occasionally reported angry groupers making a thumping or booming sound. We witnessed it close-up, and it made a lasting impression.
When diving with the Jardines Aggressor and Oceans for Youth, one is also educated on the local eco-system and the way Cuba enforces rules in the national parks and protected areas. Like anywhere else, Cuba cannot ignore the needs of its economy. Fishing of certain species, such as lobster, is allowed in the protected areas under a quota. Cuba also sees the protected areas as nurseries for harvestable fish, spreading to places where fishing is permitted. Diving operations play a role as a source of income for people who might otherwise engage in fishing. Their presence also deters illegal fishing. The number of divers in Cuba is still low. In balance, their impact on the environment is favourable.
NEED TO KNOW
- The climate is tropical, with a drier season from November to April, and a rainier season from May to October. The average temperature is 21°C (69.8 °F) in January and 27°C (80.6°F) in July. Water temperature is at its lowest in January, with 25°C (77°F) and reaches 30°C (86°F) in August and September. Cuba is occasionally battered by tropical storms and hurricanes between June and November, peaking in September and October.
- The tourist economy operates with convertible pesos (CUC), fixed at par with the US dollar. Bring cash Euros or British pounds to avoid the additional fee on the exchange of US dollars.
- US citizens can enter Cuba under the auspices of the people-to-people programme, for example, as organised by the Oceans for Youth Foundation. Non-US passport holders typically need to arrange a visa in advance. They should avoid US airports as the point of embarkation to Cuba.
- Travellers can pre-book their transfers on the internet. I used www.mycubantaxi.com.
- Private accommodation is often cheaper and better than in hotels. Many options are available on the Airbnb website www.airbnb.com.
- Although the power supply in Cuba is mainly 110V, most of the modern hotels have dual voltage 110/220V. The electric sockets are typically 2-pin European or 2-pin American.
- Using a mobile phone for calls and texting should not cause any problems other than a bloated bill. The data coverage is abysmal, if it works at all, and the charges per MB are excruciating. Access to the internet through Wi-Fi is monopolised by the government, with a low number of hotspots. It is obtained by purchasing a scratch card with a code. Plan your travel old-style – a guidebook and a map.
- One week of diving aboard the Jardines Aggressor I with the ‘Walls of Zapata’ itinerary is US $2,999 including transfers from Havana airport. The cost does not include the port and conservation fee, adding another $290 during 2019. One week of diving the Jardines de la Reina aboard the Jardines Aggressor II costs US$4,399. The same port and conservation fees apply.
- More information about the trips can be found on www.aggressor.com.