Ten Delicious Places to Dip into Diving

Diving Cuba

Take the notion of a place that is both forbidden and on the verge of monumental change—like, say, the fictional Casablanca. Then transport it smack into the middle of the Caribbean and surround it with miles of wild mangrove swamps and fringing reefs, sandy beaches and mountainous crags. Add 4,000 mostly-deserted islands, some historic wrecks, and a few submerged seamounts.

What you'll have is Cuba, a place time-locked by a U.S. embargo prohibiting American investment and even tourist travel here since 1961. It is an island bigger than all the other islands in the Caribbean combined, locked inside a 2,000-mile-long coastline.

Oddly, Cuba has been protected by its economic and political isolation—the people are far friendlier than Jesse Helms would have you believe, and the bargains are among the best you will find in the Caribbean. Indeed, well-traveled divers compare it to the Caymans 30 years ago, in both the quality of the waters and the pre-Americanized affordability.

Generally, Cuba has much more undersea potential than it has dive infrastructure to support it. There are four main areas served by dive shops and boats—the Sabana and Camaguey island chains on the north, the Archipielago de los Colorados on the northwesterly cape; Jardines de la Reina on the south; and the Isla de la Juventud, the massive southerly island due south of Havana.

Some of the best visibility is off the most remote points, such as the leeward edge of the westerly limestone and sand peninsula called Cabo San Antonio. For the clearest waters, avoid sites near harbors, and where rivers and streams run into the sea, especially off mountain ranges like the Sierra Maestras.

Safety and poorly maintained rental gear is not the problem it was a decade ago. Today, there are at least 11 recompression chambers around the island, and increased demand by Italian and German divers has resulted in better gear.

And Fidel himself, El Commandante, is a scuba diver, although at his age, most of his best dives are in his logbook. He's also an ex-spearfisherman, who—recognizing the dangers spearing can have for larger, mature fish—has banned all spearfishing here. A number of no-take marine preserves are also set up around the island, some of which even require permits to visit.

It is illegal for American citizens to spend money in Cuba due to the Trading with the Enemy act. Yet, an estimated 5,000 Americans visit here yearly, and that will increase as the restrictions on travel are loosened. Many predict that travel and investment restrictions will be dropped when Castro leaves the scene, however, sport divers should hope that new prosperity doesn't retrofit the pristine marine environment with concrete and bulkheads.

For now, the easiest way in is through any foreign country—Canada or the Bahamas provide the most routine access with regular flights. For a real bargain, take a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish with you and get outside the tourist areas. Good hotels in downtown Havana, like La Valencia, have $60 a night rooms; clean, but more spartan hotels often cost half that. A big meal of Cuban picadillo with espresso can cost $5.

Bill Belleville, an Away.com contributing editor, is a Florida-based writer specializing in nature and marine issues. He contributes widely to national magazines and has scripted and co-produced two PBS documentaries. River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River has recently been published by University of Georgia Press.

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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