CUBA GROUP TRIP
with Bluewater Travel and Eco Dive Center
WORDS AND PICTURES BY TIM YEO
VIDEO BY TODD KORTTE
SCUBA CUBA: SHARKS, CROCS, RUM, CIGARS AND DANCING!
June 1, 2017: Havana
We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana during a tropical downpour. After locating the currency exchange booths, we exchanged euros (EURs) to Cuban pesos (CUCs), but we were limited to 200 euros per person—probably because the exchangers were running low on cash. Welcome to Cuba! We grabbed a taxi and headed to Old Havana to check into our casa particular (a Cuban phrase meaning the place of our private accommodation). After a couple of mojitos on the hostal's rooftop bar, we walked out to have some local food and more mojitos.
Some of the group went back to rest after a long day of traveling and the rest went to check out the local nightlife. We went to 1830, a restaurant, bar, and salsa club. The colonial building housing 1830 sits along the Malecón, and it was owned by one of the past presidents. The outdoor salsa club draws some of the best Cuban salsa dancers and amateurs alike. There were performers on stage and the dance floor was always packed, both with locals and tourists. Afterward, we walked along the Malecón for a while, and took a classic car taxi to a Cuban hip hop club before heading back to our hostal at 3 a.m.
June 2: Havana, Old City Tour
We met our city tour leader Larissa at 9 a.m. with three beautiful classic cars waiting for us along the street outside our hostal. Since we were already staying in the middle of Old Havana, we started the tour by walking around Old Havana and visited the Plaza de Armas (Arms Square), Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square). Then we hopped into the classic cars and drove to Revolution Square where the government buildings are located, two of them bearing the famous outlines of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Afterward, we drove along the Malecón and passed the American and Russian embassies and the National Hotel. Then we were dropped off at the local flea market, where art and other wares and trinkets were on sale.
We walked back to our hostal and—after a short rest break—walked to a local bar and restaurant that had a live Afro-Cuban band playing. After dinner, we walked over to The Floridita, the oldest bar in Havana made famous by Ernest Hemingway. After a couple more pit stops along Calle Obispo, we headed for supper and back to the hostal for a 90-minute siesta before we departed for the port town of Jucaro to catch our boat.
June 3: Journey to Jardines de la Reina
Because it is not possible for buses to pick up passengers at non-state run hotels, we had to walk a couple of blocks to our meeting point for our 3:30 a.m. pick up. Ouch. The 6-hour bus ride to Jucaro included two quick stops along the main highway linking east and west Cuba, and we passed by sugarcane plantations as far as the eye could see. Sugar was and still remains Cuba’s main export. We reached Jucaro at 10 a.m. and boarded our home for the next 6 nights.
The Halcón is a charming and cozy liveaboard with six cabins to house our 12 divers. After registration was complete, we set sail and cruised through beautiful turquoise waters so clear that we were able to see sharks swimming near the surface. This was a preview of what we hoped to see while diving over the next few days. After a 5-hour motor, we arrived in Jardines de La Reina, an archipelago of mangrove islands.
After we set up our gear in the speedboat tender, we set off for our checkout dive. The diving was very easy with barely any current. We dropped down onto the reef at about 30 feet and swam down to 60 feet. The highlight of this dive was a large remora that followed us for half of the dive, swimming from diver to diver and often bumping into our cameras. Dinner was a sumptuous meal of lobster, fish, and chicken. Most of us called it an early night after dinner.
June 4: Jardines de la Reina
Dive 1 was a shark dive. We back rolled into a school of a dozen Caribbean reef sharks and silky sharks circling the tender boat. Some of them followed us down to 90 feet, where there were a couple of swim throughs. We continued along the reef and some of the group saw a manta while we slowly made our way back up the reef. The safety stop was under the boat with the sharks making multiple close passes.
After an hour surface interval, we headed back out to the reef for Dive 2 and then to a beach that was inhabited by igunas and hutias, a rodent that are scarce in Caribbean islands but are flourishing in Jardines de la Reina. These cute mammals are used to human interactions and approach our csmeras while we feed them pieces of papaya and water straigh from the bottle.
Dive 3 was also a shark dive, but at a different location. After dinner, a visiting marine biologist spoke to us about the uniqueness of Jardines de la Reina and the conservation efforts to keep it in pristine condition. With another long day ahead of us, we decided to hit our bunks early.
June 5: Jardines de la Reina
Living up to scuba Cuba’s reputation, this was a shark and crocodile day! We were surrounded by Caribbean reef sharks and silky sharks throughout the whole of Dive 1 of the day. When we got back to the Halcón, the boat had moved and anchored in the mangrove islands where Niños live. The moment the tender boat tied off to the mothership, the first Niño—a 10-foot ‘baby’ crocodile—swam right up to the swim step on cue, awaiting food.
Dive 2 was a pretty dive with schools of tarpon under ledges at about 60 feet down. After Dive 3 of the day, we tried to call Niño #1 back but he had moved on to a different part of the mangrove. So we snorkeled among the mangrove roots and saw schools of baby fish and also upside-down jellyfish on both the grassy and sandy area.
Right when dinner was brought out for the group, a crocodile head appeared on the surface—Niño #2! Although we had already showered and were clean, two of us got back into our snorkeling gear and jumped in. We took photos of the beautiful American saltwater crocodile, swimming with Niño #2 until the sun went down.
June 6: Jardines de la Reina
After a hearty breakfast of toast, eggs, ham, and fruit, we got ready to go on another shark dive. Just as we saw the tender boat drive up to the Halcón, another Niño popped up again to check us out. Since we were already in our wetsuits, we decided to spend some time with the crocodile before going on our first dive.
Sharks were in scarce supply during this dive with only five of them staying with us throughout the dive. It was only Day 3 of diving and we were already spoiled! For Dive 2 of the day, we headed out to a site called Octopus Cave. It was a pretty dive with many snapper, a few Nassau and black groupers, a hawksbill turtle, a couple of stingrays, and some coral crabs. There were two massive coral castles at the end of the dive.
Right as we got back to the Halcón, Niños’ larger cousin, Megalito was spotted swimming over to the boat in search of food. With a much larger crocodile in the vicinity, the nearby Niños retreated into the mangroves. A few of us jumped right into the water and it was an amazing experience to share the water with such a large prehistoric creature. Megalito spent most of the time on the surface and dived down a couple times to the bottom at about 15 feet. After a good 30 minutes in the water with Megalito, it was time to go on the next dive—as the wind was starting to pick up.
For Dive 3 of the day, we headed back out to the reef where we saw our first nurse shark of the trip. There were also plenty of Caribbean reef sharks and we swam with large schools of tarpon numbering up to 25 strong. After dinner, we simply sat around the dining table and finished our nightly allotment of wine. Some of the crew showed up and we invited them to sit with us. After a couple of rum drinks and Cuban cigars, the crew put on Cuban salsa music. The salsa and merengue dancing party started on the back deck until it was time for bed.
June 7: Jardines de la Reina
The weather changed overnight and the wind and seas had picked up from the day before. We jumped in for the first dive and had a black grouper sticking with us the whole way waiting for handouts. We tried to find a lionfish for it, but Jardines de la Reina had done such good work at dealing with the lionfish problem that continued to plague the rest of the Caribbean that we couldn’t find a single lionfish during the whole dive.
When we got back to the Halcón, we called for Niño again and right on cue Niño #3 showed up in the mangrove and started to make his way to the boat. We tied a chicken leg to a string and had Niño jump for it. We spent about an hour in the water with Niño. For the second dive for the day, we did another shark dive and had about a dozen silky and Caribbean reef sharks following us the whole dive.
After lunch, we received reports that the weather had picked up even more and that the divers on another liveaboard had experienced a tough dive. Thus, we decided to do a dive in the mangrove. It was definitely a dive to check off the bucket list. We saw lots of upside-down jellyfish and many schools of juvenile fish swimming among the mangrove roots. After an hour, we reached a 50-yard tunnel and we snorkeled through with the mangroves above our heads. The famous aquanaut, Sylvia Earle (marine biologist, explorer, author, lecturer, and conservationist) completed the same snorkel, and said it was one of her top experiences in Cuba.
After dinner, the crew and our group sat around the dining table with rum and cigars until we decided to move to the bow, where there was more room for some dancing under UV lights.
June 8: Jardines de la Reina
Dive 1 of the day was another shark dive. We just could not get enough of the silky and Caribbean reef sharks. Visibility was decent, offering 60 feet underwater vistas. About a dozen sharks accompanied us the whole dive. Given the option, we opted for a coral reef dive for the second dive. We headed over to "El Perjano" and dived a gorgeous healthy coral reef.
Reports from anther liveaboard were that the north side of the island was diveable this afternoon, so we headed back to one of the sites that we had done earlier in the week and we were not disappointed. We saw three lettuce nudibranchs on a rock and many sharks, tarpon, spinyhead, secretary and arrowhead blennies, morays, lobsters, crabs and more. After dinner, we arranged a Captain’s party on the bow of the boat with the guests, crew and staff from the dive shop. Cigars, rum, music and salsa were plentiful until late into the night.
June 9: Jardines de la Reina back to Havana
At 6 a.m., the boat started her journey back to Jucaro. We arrived back in port around 11 a.m., and boarded a bus to Havana. After two stops along the way, one of which we managed to have lunch at, we arrived back in Havana at 6 p.m. This time, our casa particular was a gorgeous hostal radiating charm. The building dated back to the 17th century and retained a lot of her old world appeal with high vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.
Due to a local recommendation, we went to El Guajirito for dinner at 8 p.m. for a dinner and a show not unlike what you might see at the Tropicana Club in Cuba. The show at El Guarjirito was headlined by Afro-Cuban all-stars from the Buena Vista Social Club featuring no less than four Grammy winners. However, we decided to just have dinner and skip the show after a long day of travel. Half the group decided to head back to the hostal and the rest of us walked around Parque Central looking at the classic cars driving around the city.
We ended up at a local bar where a live local duet was playing Cuban music. Of course, impromptu dancing, singing, and guests joining the band with musical instruments was happening there too. Those of us who stayed out got back to our rooms just after 1 a.m.
Our beautiful 18th century accommodations in Havana
June 10: Havana, Hemingway Tour
Our wonderful tour guide Larissa picked us up at 9 a.m., and we began with a tour of the National Hotel before visiting the Havana Club Rum Museum. Afterward, we drove out of Havana to Hemingway’s house which was well restored—it also housed his boat, the Pilar. We had a long lunch break in the nearby fishing village of Cojímar before heading back into Havana and getting dropped off at the flea market again for some last-minute souvenir shopping.
We walked along the streets of Old Havana and after a drink in a café, we found a nice rooftop restaurant and bar with a view of the bay and the fort in the distance. With the scenic view, we stayed after dinner and continued to enjoy drinks there.
Hemingway's house and the finshing village when he hangs out
June 11: Havana to home
After a late breakfast, we tried to hit the Romeo and Julieta shop to get cigars and rum, but the shop was closed on Sunday! So we walked over to the taxi area and hailed two pink Cadillacs, headed across the bay to the fort where there was another rum and cigar shop. We did a quick walk around the fort and then headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and got taxis back to the airport to catch our flight back to Los Angeles.
All-in-all it was an unforgettable trip filled with fun, friendly times and momentous memories.
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