By Malcolm Schwegmann
Image by Scubalibre Varadero/Carlos M. La Osa
A LOCAL DIVER’S ACCOUNT
Cuba has become a dream destination for many divers who seek unspoiled reefs and vibrant marine life in an exotic setting. Read on to find out why Cuba is a must-dive destination and receive some practical advice on how to make it more enjoyable.
By way of introduction, I will begin by explaining that my family and I are nuts about extreme sports. We have paraglided over the Mediterranean and have ridden camels across Egypt while the country tore itself to shreds during civil war. Scuba diving is another phenomenal sport which has allowed us to bond even more as a family, and to meet awesome people along the way.

Over and above the sports, we are a family that has extremely itchy feet. As a result, we travel a lot. Along the way, we came to the agreement that as part of the adventure, we would balance “common” places with exotic places.

Cuba has always been an interest of ours; an exotic land of cigars and rum. We began by researching Cuba from top to bottom: we learnt about everything from the currency (the Rand is quite strong), to the diving spots, to the laws (this last one was quite important as we enjoy creating a touch of mischief wherever we go).

Part of our preparation was to verify the safety of the diving spots within the country. The fact that the country is quite poor and is effectively a socialist state means that getting high performance equipment in, and maintaining it, might be a bit of a challenge for any diving operation.

We arranged to explore the western coastline of Cuba and to dive the highly acclaimed Maria La Gorda in Pinar del Rio.

Being children of the sun, sand and sea, we decided to enter Cuba via the Bahamas. Armed with full dive gear, we caught a very long, direct flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta.

The Americans are skilled at getting hordes of people through airport gates. Unbeknown to us at the time, a regulator set looks like an improvised explosive device (IED) when it passes through an airport scanner. As a result, we were politely ushered to one side where a security guard sporting latex gloves smiled at us. Immediately, prostate exam imagery filled my mind, and a cold sweat started to bead my brow. Luckily, the gloves were only used to open our luggage to determine the origin of the so-called IED. Having discovered it was only a regulator set, the guard sent us on our way. We repacked all of our bags and headed off for a few weeks in the United States before taking a connecting flight to Nassau in the Bahamas.

When we landed at Nassau, the IED-in-the-bag, latex-gloves commotion took place all over again. A local taxi ride from the airport to the hotel reminded us of South Africa; there were exactly the same Toyota mini buses in exactly the same state of roadworthiness. The only difference was the Jamaican driver who offered us commentary on the island.

We always try to make our trips fun and memorable, so we stayed in a little hotel named Orange Hill Beach Inn, affectionately known as “Fawlty Towers”. The hotel was across the road from the beach – and what a beach it was: bleached white sand, turquoise waters and a reef about 3km out surrounded us. The water was warm and calm with no waves because of the natural breakwater further out. There were blue skies, coconuts and seashells on the beach with palm trees waving in the breeze. We spent the day walking the beach for miles.

Finally, we made the hop to Cuba. We disembarked from the plane and climbed onto the bus headed for arrivals. Once in arrivals we stood in a long queue before being subjected to a very thorough inquiry of our intentions in the country. During the time of our visit, there had been an Ebola breakout in Africa. Thus we were also quizzed quite exhaustively on where we had been in Africa. The fact that we had a healthy travel medical insurance definitely helped us in this situation. Oh yes, and then there was the airport scanner IED episode once more.

TRAVEL TIP

I have found that being a DAN member and having insurance with a reputable travel medical insurance offers peace of mind and smooths plenty of waters, especially the further off the beaten track you go. Find out more…

Eventually, we stepped out of the arrivals hall and officially into Cuba. Cuba is a unique experience. On the “international” side of the airport, you are exposed to 21st century technology. Pass through the airport and it seems as though you are time warped to the 1950s.

For those who do not know this, Cubans speak Spanish. This language barrier coupled with Cuba’s socialist tendencies led us to enlist a local guide to help us get around. Our guide, Danny, met us with a car reminiscent of those in the movie Grease. Danny was in his 20s and had typical Spanish good looks, flair and charm.

We took a leisurely drive to the main hotel in Havana where, unbeknown to us, we would have our last interaction with constant electricity and running water.

Havana is an incredible city, filled with amazing history and adventure. We spent a few days there and walked from one side to the other, finding the birth place of the Mojito and the homes of Ernest Hemmingway and Bacardi Rum. We even thought we had somehow stepped into Washington DC by mistake. Danny explained that the Washington Capitol building was replicated in Havana, except it was built marginally taller than the original.

We also explored the western coastline which was characterised by blue skies, superb heat and picturesque island life. We travelled through villages consisting of colourful houses with wooden shutters in place of windows. I was pleasantly aware of how different life is in Cuba when compared with our modern lifestyle.

TRAVEL TIP

There are no ATMs, there is limited electricity and running water outside of Havana, there is never a sense of urgency and your attitude will definitely make or break your experience in Cuba

There are no ATMs, and people travel by bicycle, motorbike, car, donkey, cart and horse. Most purchases are conducted through trade – a tomato for a garlic clove, and the like. Most of the houses in Havana were open. Many have been converted into day restaurants giving visitors the opportunity to sit on the veranda or in the lounge and eat an endless supply of crackled pigs’ ears, lamb, lobster, rice, black beans and rum – lots of rum – finished off with authentic Cuban cigars. At night, the houses are converted back into residential abodes until the sun rises in the morning.

 

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