For years we have been hearing about the amazing, pristine diving in Cuba. No pollution and not many divers should mean coral reefs that rank among the world’s best. Last May, we decided to see for ourselves.
Just before we left for Cuba, a Cuban friend on Cozumel told us about the diving there. “Beautiful reefs – no fish. The people are hungry, they eat everything.” Unfortunately, he was right. Except for the lion fish and it was obvious by their size that nobody was eating them.
We visited the reefs at Maria la Gorda and at Bahia de Cochinos and the story was the same. Clear, clean water, healthy corals and lots of small fish. In five dives we saw only two grouper, but no turtles, crabs, snappers, lobsters, eels or rays. However, the Cubans are not killing the invasive, predatory non-native lion fish. So between the hungry Cubans and the voracious lion fish, there is very little of the usual sea life.
This could change. After our first dive and seeing huge lion fish, we asked our dive master and boat captain why they didn’t kill this invader from the Pacific? Many diving destinations in the Caribbean, including Cozumel, have begun aggressive eradication programs. Why not in Cuba?
“We can’t, it’s a national park,” Osvaldo replied. Then we told them about Cozumel and how several restaurants serve lion fish and that the local fishermen get a premium price for them.
“You can eat lion fish?,” they said, the look of surprise on their faces revealing that they may not have realized that you can eat them and that they are quite good. I’m thinking this is the moment when the Cuban lion fish population begins to decline.
Maria la Gorda was the first stop, on the southwestern tip of the island, a little more than a four hour drive from Havana. There was a lot of building activity, adding new hotel rooms and a new dining area to the aging cabañas and hotel. The setting is lovely with palms and casuarina trees and a long sandy beach. The nearest large town is more than a 90-minute drive, so it’s peaceful. Except for the cats.
There are a couple of dozen feral cats that live near the dining area, begging for scraps during each meal. Every guest makes the mistake of sitting outside on the patio for their first meal. After the assault of the cats; jumping on your lap, your chair and your table, most people realize dining is more pleasant inside. Still, we couldn’t help but favor a young, scrappy male, that seemed to know how to get food bits without getting pounded by the larger males.
The cats everywhere were a bit sad and annoying. The cows grazing the sparse grass around the bungalows and dropping cow pies everywhere was just weird.
The dive boat was nice, the dive master friendly, competent and bilingual and the scuba equipment virtually brand new Scuba Pro gear.
A few days later we pulled into Bahia de Cochinos, about three hours southeast of Havana, and took a look at Playa Larga. Not seeing much in the way of decent accommodations, we drove another hour down the bay toward Playa Girón. There were several private homes renting rooms, but they all had the feel of 1950 dreariness. The most likely choice had a front porch that faced a grim, Soviet-era apartment building.
Deciding to pass on the Casa Particulares experience, the next stop was the hotel, Villa Playa Girón, which also has the International Scuba Center. They had rooms in small concrete bungalows that kinda screamed “Military Base”. Ours came complete with A/C, color tv, two bedrooms, small refrigerator and 523 tiny, orange land crabs on one wall. Luckily they checked out the next day.
The guests were a mix of Cuban families enjoying the pool and the beach, a bandstand for live music (which didn’t materialize), and foreigners there for the diving. There were a few vendors on the beach selling cigars and crafts. Sadly, the view of the ocean was marred by a large concrete seawall fifty yards from the beach. The whole place was only slightly less grim than the places in town. It was not built by Italians. Although they may have had something to do with the pool, the hotel’s nicest feature.
The diving was shore diving and we had hoped to go alone, but we still needed Cuban dive masters. Like Maria la Gorda, there was no current and we saw only small fish. We did see a lovely spotted drum. The dives started shallow, reached a wall, where we cruised at around 60 – 70 feet. Both of the dives were mostly at 20 – 40 feet and lasted a little more than an hour.
We enjoyed our time underwater in Cuba, but until Cuba gets serious about stopping the poaching in the “national parks”, we probably won’t go back. We have a feeling the lion fish problem will be fixed soon. We might consider the diving at Jardines de la Reina, which is offshore and is only accessible by live aboard dive boats (you should see the photos of the bargelike craft with a two-story hotel built on top). The site is probably beyond the reach of small, Cuban fishing boats. There might be fish!
Both dive sites offer room and meal packages. You have no options at Maria la Gorda. Room with breakfast was around $60 and dinner was $13. A two-tank “lunch” dive was $50 with equipment.
While there are other local restaurants at Playa Girón, the hotel is all-inclusive, so drinks, meals and a two-bedroom bungalow for three was $100 per night. Each dive was $25, equipment included. We chose to bring our own wetsuits, masks and regulators and dive computers. The equipment at both places was nearly new and appeared to be well maintained. At least we had no problems with the BCDs.
You can book your trip with any travel agent that deals with the various Cuban government travel agencies, such as Havanatur. We used Divermex in Cancun.
As always, everyone, from the cooks on the buffet line, to the servers and dive masters appreciates tips. CUCs, please.