Jardines de la Reina
February 4th, 2016
No matter how many video’s I saw, or stories I heard about the Aquarius Scuba trip to the Garden of Queens in Cuba it could not compare to the actual trip. The diving was superb, the travel experience was an adventure, and the friendship I had with the crew and fellow divers was heartfelt. This is where you can make friends that could last a lifetime.
Getting to the destination of the Garden of Queens was an experience in its self, something I will always remember. The early morning flight to Havana was as expected, short and sweet, sweet because I slept most of the way. I met most of my fellow divers before boarding, only one of the 13 people who booked the trip came on a different flight and met up with us at the Panorama Hotel in Havana later that day.
The Panorama hotel was first class, glass elevators, a ten story atrium open to a friendly lobby bar, two restaurants, one of which was very quaint, the other was set up to accommodate a massive buffet for the included breakfast and affordable dinner. Once we got settled we all met for a cocktail before leaving for dinner. While sitting at the bar drinking a wonderful Mojito, a deliciously sweet drink of rum soda and fresh mint, we were serenaded by a beautiful woman and guitarist for a pitons. The laid back mood with the Latin sound and dance was a warm up to be able to laugh and enjoy the cab, and for some a bus ride adventure of going to dinner. Cuba may be the only country where rain and high winds can make a Caribbean holiday more fun. The street where the restaurant was, is across from the beach. Normally that only adds to the ambiance, a narrow driveway leading past an open bar, a stairway up to the seating area and a swimming pool just below the open deck of tables offering indoor or outdoor dining. The glowing from the underwater lights and alabaster sconces with concrete benches around the pool made the crashing waves hitting the break wall seem apropos. The only problem was It had been raining for hours and the street was flooded knee high, the locals were putting up markers as a warning but that didn’t stop us because we were fortunate enough to have been taken by bus, at least four of us were, the others left in taxi cabs before us. Those two cabs couldn’t make it through the flooded street and there wasn’t a third cab around for the final four of us. So in true Cuban hospitality and desire to please, instead of the usual well preserved 1950’s Chevy that most taxi cabs are, they sent us by shuttle bus, big enough for 40. That bus was able to take us to the front walk to the restaurant, all we had to do was take off our pants and shoes to walk through the knee high flood. Our bravery was well rewarded by the restaurant staff being the only patrons that were there we were given a free drink. We were only slightly concerned with getting back to the hotel because we were in Cuba! It was becoming apparent “Anything can happen in Cuba”
In the wee hours of the next morning we were given sandwiches and a drink before boarding the very comfortable bus that was taking us for the 6 hour drive to our next destination, a live aboard, our home for the next week. The country side was beautiful! It felt like an overland trip. Not only was I going diving I was seeing the country, which I really appreciated. Watching a farmer repair a 10 ft. fence around his crops, the posts made of branches and the ladder made of the same wood showed their poverty and need to preserve to use ingenuity to survive. We made two stops that were along the sometimes well paved streets we traveled. Both stops were very similar and well designed as rest stops with bathrooms, food, souvenir stores, and a bar with espresso, a takeout restaurant, and plenty of seating to relax. As we got closer to our destination the poverty of Cuba became more evident by the now rough unpaved road with the odd old tractor or donkey powered carriage slowing our way. The homes of only four walls, old shutters for windows and wooden plank doors and flat tin roofs showed the hard but easy existence. Happiness seemed as simple as a roof over your head, food on the table, and clothes on your back. It didn’t seem like you’d need allot here. I felt a hard but happy peacefulness.
The sun was beaming down when we arrived to the port, a small gated area where 5 boats were docked very close to each other. The hustle and bustle of loading our luggage aboard gave me time to walk outside those gates to buy smokes and a bottle of rum at the small kiosk style store 50 yards away. For $10.00 I bought a carton of Cuban cigarettes, I planned on giving away, and a bottle of Cuban rum. The sales girl insisted on giving me my change, she even looked puzzled that I offered the change and didn’t want it, which somehow gave me a greater appreciation of these people. I was pleasantly surprised to find my room, which I was sharing, had its own bathroom with full size toilet with a walk in shower. The air conditioning was blowing full force assuring me of being comfortable at night and before I knew it we were off to sea for the next journey, four hours till the Mangroves of the Garden of The Queens. We all took the opportunity to use this time to unpack and get all our dive gear ready for the next day of diving.
We were introduced to the crew and served coffee cookies and fruit along the way. It was a pleasant ride clipping through the sea feeling the wind on my face with the heat of the sun. I became Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic for a moment with blue sea all around.
As we pulled into the Mangroves we passed the Tortuga, a 7 suite house boat, and saw the other floating buildings, a dive shop, a generator station, and a dozen smaller boats in a large roofed area, one of which would be taking us to our dive locations for the next week. Once we moored in less than 10 ft. of clear water we saw a stingray, a barracuda, and we were told the story of Franko, a huge crocodile who apparently comes to visit sometimes. Before dinner the dive masters came aboard from the boat that held the tanks we would be using. It was a 30 ft. fiberglass boat with two 150 hp Yamaha 4 stroke engines, enough power to take us at 45 mph to the dive sites. Before dinner we were introduced to the three dive masters that keep us safe for the 16 dives. We actually squeezed in an extra dive that I can’t talk about because what “Happens in Cuba stays in Cuba”
Dinner was great with an abundance of fresh lobster, fish, fruit, vegetables, rice, potatoes, and chicken, pork, or beef. More than enough food for every palette and everybody. We could never finish all of it. There was pizza or homemade biscuits for an afternoon snack every day, a fresh lunch similar to dinner. The Breakfast was your choice of as many eggs as you’d like, toast, butter, a homemade mango spread, yogurt, juice, coffee, tea, vegetables and fruit. I was never hungry between meals or at night, it was a perfectly balanced diet. An abundance of cold drinks and water, including beer was available from the fridge on the second deck which was where the dining table and lounge was, along with a bar where an afternoon Mojito was served daily. After dinner there was music and dancing, complete with salsa lessons by one of the crew. Throughout the next week we would all become friends and have a great time every day and all day long.
We consisted of a mixed bunch of divers with different levels of training, one guy was doing his first open water dive, others their advanced recreational certification, some had dozens to hundreds of dives. I was going to also do two deco dives, to a greater depth than the other dives, through canyons using sidemount along with my teacher. For most shallower dives I used a single tank BCD. A few of us used more air than the majority of divers so they accommodated us with a larger single tank. 15 L instead of the standard 12L. our tanks were filled and set up secured to the boat with our regulators octopus and BCD for every dive. The only thing we had to do was put in the right amount of weight for the first dive, once we established the weight we needed we kept the weights in our BCD’s never having to change it again unless we wanted to. Nice and easy! For some of us? The waves were very high that first day especially in the morning, and since what “Happens in Cuba stays in Cuba” I’m not using names.
Many captains would not take divers out in these conditions but because “Anything is possible in Cuba” we not only went out, most of us went diving too. For me, it only added to the fun and experience of becoming a better diver. The open water diver was too busy feeling sea sick and it probably was not the best conditions for a first open water dive so he stayed on the dive boat along with the race car drivers wife who was feeding the sharks her breakfast. I think the rest of us made it into the sea. On the way back there were four more casualties of sea sickness. Those who followed the advice of taking Gravol made the second dive without getting sea sick, the remaining stubborn divers were convinced after being sick the second dive to take Gravol, and by the third dive of the day no one got sick for the rest of the trip. Gravol works!
Every dive was different, the only thing every dive had in common was the presents of sharks. They were everywhere and in numbers. It was truly amazing to dive with these creatures. There were also plenty of large Groupers usually with the sharks. The Groupers were more aggressive when it came to taking food from the feeder box that was used to attract the sharks. The head dive master knew these dives like the back of his hand, he handled the sharks with the same confidence making it a relaxing and calm experience for all of us.
Each day the sea became calmer and more comfortable and so did all of us. Something very interesting was the Lion fish. Since Lion fish were not indigenous to the Caribbean when they somehow found a way into these waters, possibly from hurricane Katrina, they had no predator and started to multiply like crazy, affecting the ecosystem. In areas where they are indigenous the sharks would eat them, but here the sharks didn’t know what they are nor how good they taste. The answer to the problem was to spear all the Lion fish possible and feed them to the sharks, and that’s what we did every time we saw a Lion fish. I can tell you first hand, by the way, those sharks quickly take that Lion fish in their mouth and swim off like a bullet. They are learning very quickly that Lion fish are food for sharks. I’m glad Humans are not their food because it’s truly a humbling, unbelievable experience to play with these amazing creatures.
It’s possible to run into variety of exotic life in these waters, Turtles, eels, sea rays, cucumber fish, puffer fish, schools of tarpons, you name it. The coral reefs are huge and full of life and colour. One day a medium sized crocodile came to our boat, it not only posed for some great photos, it came aboard for a piece of chicken and allowed us to film it underwater as it swam away. You can take a trip to one of the small uninhabited islands to play with lizards and other indigenous life that exists in abundance in this government controlled nature reserve. The company of appreciative fun loving Cubans is a pleasure. We made a mock wedding underwater and drank yogurt. I can understand why Aquarius Scuba has been coming here since they were first invited 7 years ago. Not once a year but two or three times a year. There’s something here for everyone. For me it’s the caverns.
The caverns are like a maze, leaving one to enter another, each one going to a different depth. Whether it is a slow decent through one cavern or a shorter and quick decent through another, each one is lined with coral. Some more challenging than others, there’s caverns for every level of diving from recreational to technical. It’s like diving through caves in some spots with only small openings to the light above. I felt completely at ease with sidemount tanks going from one coral lined cavern to the next to come out to the open sea with dark blue water below looking down to what seemed bottomless, a depth of 800 m, a shark just above us and large a spotted sea ray on the coral cliff. Even the assent from this depth, which I can’t reveal, because “anything is possible in Cuba” and “what happens in Cuba stays in Cuba” was exciting. While doing a deco stop surrounded by sharks circling us like a pet happy to see its owner made me feel like this is where I belong.
The last two days spent in Havana was exciting, educational, and allot of fun. With all my new friends we had a blast, singing, dancing, eating and drinking. I learnt that Bacardi rum was originally made in Havana and Cuban rum is the original Bacardi. We went to the cigar factory store and drank 20 year old rum, which is the smoothest I’ve ever tasted while smoking one of the best Cohiba cigars in the world. Havana is a city lost in time. Touring the historical area of Havana was beautiful and I can understand why Earnest Hemingway loved it so much. As I look at the photos we took, while I sat beside the bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway, in the bar which bears his name, the taste of a Cuban cigar and Cuban rum, salt water from the sea, an image of underwater caverns, entering the deep blue, sharks, coral all the other sea life. Life on the live aboard, diving three times every day, great food and friends. I look forward to coming here again.