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January 1999 Vol. 14, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cuba's Isla de Juventud

the thrill of diving forbidden water

from the January, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Standing in the immigration line at Cubas sparkling new Jose Marti International Airport, I felt apprehensive about sneaking into Cuba. Having just arrived from Cancun, Mexico, I carried a Cuban tourist card along with a Spanish language letter of introduction requesting that the Cuban authorities stamp my tourist card but not my U.S. passport. Scubacan, my Canadian travel agent, had provided the documents so that Cancun would appear as my final destination in my passport. Presumably, U.S. immigration would be none the wiser when I returned home.

I presented my papers to the immigration official. He carefully looked at the letter, then at me, and smiled conspiratorially. I help you, you help me, he muttered in halting English. I asked him to repeat, reluctant to flash cash at him, but that was his drift and I got it. I forked over a fiver and was on my way with my passport unstamped.

Scubacan representatives met my partner, me, and another couple, then transported us in a minivan to the Copacabana, an over-the-hill Mafia-era waterfront hotel in New Havanas Vedado district. The next morning we gathered in the lobby along with a woman from New York, then were driven to Jose Marti for a short flight to the Isle of Youth and the Hotel Colony.

Lying south of Havana in the Caribbean, Isla de Juventud, originally the Isle of Pines, may have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island. At 1900 square miles, it offers plenty of coastline, and the diving is reported to be Cubas best.

The rambling 77-room Hotel Colony was built as a casino just before Castro took power forty years ago. It still has a quaint Lucy-and-Desi appeal, right down to the twin bed in the colorfully-painted rooms. Cuba's Isla de JuventudToday, the Colony is almost exclusively a dive resort, since theres little else to do in this remote location 45 minutes from the islands major city, Nueva Gerona.

Upon arrival, I quaffed my welcome Mojito (a rum-and-mint concoction that inspired some of Hemingways taller stories) and had a hearty, if bland, lunch. They then hustled us off on a short bus ride to one of their five dive boats, which ranged from sleek cabin cruisers to rusty old trawlers (two new 42-footers were due any day, but any day could also mean manana).

The larger boats take 8-14 divers each, but they assigned the four of us to the runt of the fleet, a 25-foot inboard runabout with a nylon awning, no radio, no running lights, and no fire extinguisher. It didnt even have a windshield, so waves breaking over the bow splashed unimpeded into the cockpit. During the 80-minute ride to the dive sites at Punta Frances (thats the average time to all sites), the spray became a downright pain in the butt.

Our first two dives were billed as checkouts. Divemaster Martin, a truculent, potbellied fellow in his 50s who sported a monokini, gave no briefing. He merely told us two old salts and the two inexperienced divers to follow him. (I speculated that its Marxist to treat everyone equally, but then they do that at many Cayman operations, as well, regardless of experience. Oh, well.)

After back-flopping into the 80 F. water, tuxedoed Black Durgon matreds escorted me to the 45-foot bottom. It was studded with typical Caribbean finger reefs, straight rows of hard coral with a profusion of soft coral, which were separated by sandy channels. Once Martin was satisfied with everyones buoyancy control, he led us on a circular tour, pointing out a large green moray inside our 60-foot range of visibility. Since the area is a preserve, the sea life was bold, even audacious. Yellowtail snappers swam in front of my face like pilot fish. An 18-inch lobster stood his ground halfway out of his hole, allowing me to touch his feelers. Martin led us back to the buoy line with 1,000 psi in our 80 cubic foot stubby steel tanks. He climbed on the boat while I played tag with queen angels. After 45 minutes and a safety stop, the boat driver hauled in my tank, BC, and weight belt. I clambered up a rickety swim step and pulled myself over the transom.

At Reino de Sahara (Martin referred to the sites by number, and it took me days to find a key that listed the names), I encountered a few tarpons loitering around an arch at 60 feet. A live conch and even a Tritons trumpet, which were probably alive only because there are few tourists to buy shells, dragged themselves along the sand. Surfacing near dusk, I didnt look forward to the wet 80- minute trip back, especially with no refreshments or food on board. Nor was I amused when the engine failed to start. After all, we were the only boat on the water, and with no communications or running lights, it was a daunting prospect. But Martin and the driver (who spoke no English) eventually got her going. After a drenching trip, we pulled in at 7 p.m. under the watchful eyes of troops manning a guard station at the mouth of the harbor.

Bedraggled, I showered, dressed, and scurried to the Galon Restaurant. The buffet featured pot roast or chunks of chicken or pork in mild sauces, accompanied by fresh carrots, cucumber slices, and rice with canned peas and corn. In a country where food is rationed and the average family eats meat only a few times a year, this was a lavish spread. However, the dishes, made with poor-quality raw materials, were overcooked and hard to distinguish from one another. And the plentiful selections varied only slightly each night: fuel indeed, but not feast. After dinner, staff and local talent offered a homespun and spirited floor show of songs, dances, and blackout skits.

My ground-floor room looked out on private patios and a palm-studded lawn that swept down to the beach. With no screens on the louvered windows, the mosquitoes swarmed so fiercely after sundown that I was forced to close the louvers and run the air conditioning all night. My partner and I slathered ourselves with insect repellent: it was pretty effective, but hardly romantic.

The Colony draws mainly from Europe and South America. The groups cluster in the restaurant and open-air Pirate Bar next door, which features rum, rum, and more rum (such as 7-year-old Havana Club, which sips like cognac, at $2.50 a pop). If you want other hard liquor, BYOB. Cuban beers were excellent, particularly Crystal and Maybe ($1.50). At the end of the pier in front, about 100 yards out, the al fresco Mojito Bar is a great place to watch sunsets and later gaze at the incredibly starry skies. Generally, the hotel staff was very helpful. Ernesto, the 28-year-old general manager of the Colony, made a specialty of taking Scubacan guests under his wing as a combination concierge, tour guide, floor show MC, and all-around problem-solver.

I met only two other Americans, including an Undercurrent reader named Bill from Chicago who was on his sixth visit. He gave me good advice: tip Martin on a daily basis. I did so and suddenly he was much more communicative. He even let on that cold drinking water had been on the boat all along.

Over the next few days we visited several sites. At Queens Garden, midnight parrots worked over an Einstein-sized brain coral 60 feet down; at Pirates Anchor, an 18th-century relic shared a reef with well-entrenched stone crabs. Tarpon Arch, which rises 3 yards above the 45-foot bottom and opens onto a natural amphitheater, had (what else?) tarpon. Visibility ran to 90-100 on the deeper morning dives. After two dives, we would motor 10-15 minutes for an unremarkable lunch at a beach-side restaurant, then out for an afternoon dive, by which time there was always lower visibility. I passed on the one night dive, which would have delayed dinner until our return to the Colony, close to 10 p.m.

Cuba's Isla de JuventudThe real thrills came on the deep dives. Pared de Coral was a wall with black coral gently wafting in blue water 125 feet down. The bushy golden brown stands, undistinguished at depth, had to compete for our attention with a myriad of sea rods, plumes, whips, and fans plus massive leaf, plate, and sheet corals. Christmas tree and feather duster worms peeked out between tube, barrel, and loggerhead sponges and a grab bag of encrusting tunicates. On top of the wall I watched a barracuda spook a ball of blue tangs into a flashy display of group reflexes.

At Cuevo Azul, Martin led us to a vertical cave at 65 feet. Like Santa slipping down a chimney, I dropped feet first as a tarpon family circled restlessly in a chamber ten fathoms below me. Slowly a posse of small tarpons spiraled up to check me out, all steely eyes and undershot jaws. At 125 feet we exited the cave, then veered down the wall to enter a second vertical tube at 146 feet. There we ascended through another school of tarpon and the balls of tiny glass fish they feed on. Wow!

Since we had a small group, we could explore these extraordinary caves as leisurely as our computers would allow. Once, while we were completing our safety stop, another boat dropped 15 divers over our heads. The group, of mixed experience, drifted all over the surface and struggled to adjust their gear underwater. I hated to think what the trip through those narrow caves would be like among that flailing throng.

The diving operator, PuertoSol, is a CMAS dive operation, so PADI rules, such as 130-foot depth limits, dont apply. Some divers told me of descents to 175 feet or more. A small shop at the marina rents fins, shorty wetsuits, and Spanish-made BCs, all in seemingly good condition. No computers or camera gear were available. They consistently filled steel tanks to 2600 psi. The marina also boasted outdoor showers and a fenced-off pen for rinsing and drying gear. A prize-winning local photographer offers lessons and slide or film-developing services.

Because three tanks take up the entire day, I had no opportunity to sample other activities. The free-form pool, with its graceful angelfish sculptures, was hardly used except for certification classes. An activities shack was stocked with rental catamarans, kayaks, mopeds, and bikes (all with flat tires). Water skiing and sightseeing were available for additional fees. The gift shop featured some bargains (sunglasses were $4 and tee-shirts $7). The art gallery was closed until our last day. Snorkelers could see lots of fish (including barracuda) over the grassy sand bottom off the Mojito Bar at the end of a long pier but had to contend with Portuguese Men O' War and other jellies.

Is Cubas diving worth the hassle and potential risk? I thought so. (See the sidebar for details.) They promised virgin reefs, and while I saw no signs of human damage or litter, storms had kicked a lot of silt onto the corals. Hurricane Mitch had just passed, and I noticed plenty of natural destruction, including a 6-foot stand of pillar coral lying in the sand while swarms of damselfish and blueheads pecked at the remains. But in five days, I had two dives I would rate as 10s, the rest above-average Caribbean fare, on a par with better sites in Belize or Tortola, for instance. With its usual water clarity and abundance of tame, multicolored fish, Punta Frances is a photographers Shangri-La. As for big animal encounters, all I saw were an indifferent nurse shark, a 6-foot moray, and the ubiquitous tarpon. Trips farther along Los Indios wall and a couple of shallow water wrecks were canceled due to poor visibility.

Spending the last two nights in Old Havana made the trip especially worthwhile. Imagine New Orleans French Quarter, except twice as big, twice as old, and twice as exotic. This lively historic district, founded in the 16th century, is a blend of stately colonial buildings, friendly plazas, mysterious side streets, warm, vibrant people out and about at all hours, and music pouring from every doorway. And theres plenty of security, with armed troops at every intersection.

I stayed at the Santa Isabel, Old Havanas only 5-star hotel. The building, converted from an 18th-century palace, is a four-story wedding cake of a structure on the Plaza de Armas, which serves as a town square of sorts for the district. For $150 a night I got spacious and beautiful quarters with comfortable double beds, honor bar, in-room safes, appliances that actually worked (including TVs that pulled in ESPN and CNN from Miami), and breakfast. On our spacious balcony, I smoked Cuban cigars and watched the passing parade below. The staff speaks fluent English and was extremely accommodating.

La Habana Vieja houses a dozen or more museums, plus outdoor arts-and-crafts displays and bookstalls. You can follow Hemingways footsteps by visiting the room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel where he wrote several novels, then having a Mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio and a daiquiri at La Floridita. The people were friendly and delighted to meet Americans. Nearly everyone I met has a relative in the States and longs for an end to the embargo so people and goods can cross the borders freely. They have great respect for Castro and the revolutionary struggle but are not afraid to discuss such problems as shortages of goods and job opportunities. I saw little street hustling or begging.

Cuba is a patched-together paradise, a land of do-it-yourselfers whove learned to make the most of their meager resources. Given all theyve made of the scant amount theyve had to work with, it seems unfair to complain about minor problems. On the other hand, visitors need to prepare for a genuine third-world experience. Bathrooms may overflow, bugs and geckos may infest your room, the hotel may run out of toilet paper, and your TV may pull in only one German-language station (thankfully, not very well). But the sincere and friendly people, most of them clean, well-dressed, and proud, genuinely tried to make our stay as comfortable as possible.

There is another, intangible reward here for travelers: the tingle one gets when wandering into forbidden territory. As we approach the year 2000, there arent many opportunities like this left for divers.

D.L.

Cuba's Isla de JuventudDivers Compass: Scubacan, the Toronto group operator, has been advertising fully-hosted, completely legal dive adventures in American dive magazines. I flew to Havana from Cancun in an Aero Caribe 727 (missing the thrill of Cubana Airline's Aeroflot jet). High season rates of US$1538/person include round-trip airfare to Havana from Toronto, Cancun, Nassau, or Panama, the round-trip from Havana to the Colony, a double room for 5 nights, all meals and non-alcoholic beverages, 11 dives minimum, two nights in New Havana with a city tour, and escorted airport transfers. A few other goodies, such as a lobster beach party, are provided for groups of eight or more. The Scubacan folks were extremely helpful throughout the trip. . . .Scubacan has a package of 3 dives per day for its groups, a schedule that requires their clients to arrive and depart together. . . .If you book independently, rates at the Colony are lower, but you have to make your own flight and transfer arrangements. A la carte diving during high season is $56 for two dives. Snorkelers pay $8 to join boats. They claim the best diving at Isle of Youth is in May or August (low season), but watch out for hurricanes. . . Since most goods are in short supply, bring everything you need, including an insect bomb for your room, personal repellent, toilet paper (people dispense it for tips in airports and other public places), a hair dryer and a wash cloth. . . .Bring plenty of cash, because you cant use credit cards or travelers checks issued by U.S. banks. The dollar is eagerly accepted. Most hotels have safes for valuables. Typical high-season rates in Old Havana were under US$100/night for two; dinners ran US$10-15. Shopping is limited, but inexpensive (original watercolors under $20, for instance). You wont need adapters for electrical appliances, but be ready for power outages. . . .Additional resources for planning your trip: Cuba Tourist Board, 555 Queen St. E., Suite 705, Toronto, Ontario, M5C 1R6 Phone: 416-362-0700, Fax: 416-362-6799; Cubanacan International Canada, 372 Bay St., Suite 1902, Toronto, Ontario M5H 2W9. For booking trips to Maria la Gorda, Trinidad, Cayo Largo and other locations besides the Isle of Youth, try Carlos Dellacqua, Cuba Travel, 630 San Vicente Blvd., Apt. H, Santa Monica, CA 90402, phone: (213) 975-1692, e-mail scuba@cubatravel.com.mx. . . .For cyberdives, information on specific sites and nearby hotels and dive operations can be found on www.cybercuba.com/scubacuba.htm; www.cubatravel.com; www.fun@suntravel.net; www.3routes.com/scuba/ca/cuba; www.cubanacan.cu/index1. Scubacans website is www.scubacan.com/information/cubadiving.

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