Scuba diving in Cuba is a bit like the old Charles Dickens line “the best of times, the worst of times.” Over the course of three trips during the past few years — two on the south coast and one on the north coast — I’ve begun to spot a few trends in terms of what you can expect if you visit, now that it’s opening up to American divers. Cuba is not like the rest of the Caribbean. Remember, it’s been stuck in a kind of time warp for the past 50 years, and I’m not just talking about the cars.
Everything about Cuba, outside of the Vegas-like tourist centers, seems to be more a part of the 1950s than the 21st century. And for me, that’s the real appeal. Having said that, while there are some outstanding experiences on any dive trip to Cuba, there are some challenges that potential visitors should be aware of.
Scuba diving in Cuba: the good
Scuba diving in Cuba isn’t crowded. At Cayo Coco there were often only six of us on the boat, and I rarely saw boats from the coast’s other dive operations at the same site. On the south shore, at Marea del Portillo, we were always the only boat at the dive site. In fact, I think there’s only one dive operation along a stretch of coast that runs some 250 miles (400 km) from Santiago de Cuba to Jucaro, where the Avalon boats run trips to the famed Jardines de la Reina.
That meant we could explore the sites to our hearts’ content, without worrying about crowds smashing up the coral, other divers getting in the way or scaring off the fish, or having to wait for one boat to clearing a mooring before tying off ourselves. That’s not the case at a lot of dive destinations in the Caribbean, and that may partly explain why the coral along the south coast is in such great shape. Stretches of the reef had the healthiest coral I’ve seen in a long time. The reefs also feature an abundance of sponges, from massive barrels to tubes.
Away from the water Cuba really comes alive. Every small bar seems to have a smoking-hot band. The rum is cheap and tasty — you can literally buy a bottle of local rum for less than a can of Coke — and the cigars are relatively inexpensive and clearly the best in the world.
Away from the tourist traps, the people are warm, friendly and very approachable. I have not run into anyone who wouldn’t bend over backward to help out. The island often seems a little primitive to North American eyes; a lot of rural areas still have more people using horses and wagons than cars. The roads and bridges are a little worse for wear, but that just adds a little rustic flavor to my way of thinking. And, of course, car buffs will go berserk. Think of a classic car from the 1940s or 1950s and you’ll find it here in pristine condition. Visiting Cuba is like taking a time machine backward 60 years.
Another piece of good news about diving in Cuba — DAN now operates fully on the island. I called to double-check and, unlike a few years ago, they’ll honor their commitments in the same way they would if you were diving stateside.
If you’re a more laidback person than I am, this part of the equation may not bother you. Dive operations that I encountered seem to have a “manana” attitude when it came to the activities I was interested in. In Marea del Portillo, they kept promising afternoon and night dives that just never happened. I kept asking about going down the coast to try a bucket dive on the wreck of the Cristobal Colon, but once again after successive days of “we’ll try tomorrow,” it never happened.
My daily requests for nitrox fills were always met with a polite smile and a “perhaps we’ll have oxygen tomorrow.” I’m told that in much of Cuba, nitrox is rarely available, but it was supposed to be in Marea del Portillo. I got one nitrox fill all week from some oxygen that had been obtained from the local hospital. Bottom line — without nitrox we had far shorter bottom times. In fact, as the week wore on, my computer kept shaving back my times. By the end of the week I was getting some very thin dives.
Another, bigger problem — the reef’s north shore was largely fished out. There were a few small reef fish around and virtually no large pelagics. The south shore was considerably better. Smaller reef fish were abundant — angelfish, yellowtail snapper, blue tangs and various grunts — the usual suspects. There was still a noticeable lack of large fish life, however, such as barracuda, groupers and sharks.
My biggest concern about scuba diving in Cuba — and this applies across the island — is safety when it comes to chamber access. Marea del Portillo’s nearest hyperbaric chamber is in Santiago de Cuba, only 45 minutes by helicopter. But you’d likely have to travel by car, which would take four hours, not including the boat ride back to shore. Cayo Coco says the closest chamber is two hours away by helicopter in Havana, which could mean six hours by road. An online search brings up varied information on exactly how many chambers Cuba has, but a number of sources seem to agree that there are five: Varadero, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Isla de la Juventud.
So, what’s the bottom line? Despite the drawbacks, I’ll be scuba diving in Cuba again in the next few months. Why? Because there are very few places left on the planet that offer real adventure diving. Cuba may have its faults, but it’s the real deal when it comes to finding a place that’s authentic and not overrun with crowds. My next trip — the fabled Jardines de la Reina. Stay tuned.