Diving in Santa Lucia, Cuba
In Montreal, when people have to walk in brown sludge left over from weeks of depressing dark snowy days to get to their ice covered cars, the idea of heading anywhere south is quite appealing. There are many destinations: Florida, Mexico and the Dominican Republic come to mind, but the most popular Caribbean destination is Cuba. For the longest time Cuba has been the safest, prettiest and cheapest destination. The sand is truly white; the Cubans friendly, the country super clean and the water safe to drink. The all inclusive packages are so cheap that it’s often more expensive to stay in Montreal for a week than go to Cuba. For instance, I paid a total of 450$ for a week at Santa Lucia.
As for honoring the American embargo on Cuba, that’s laughable. Most Canadians trust Castro more and they did Batista’s old regime cronies. In fact, I sense that Castro’s resistance makes him all the more popular in all countries outside of Florida and perhaps Cuba. Cubans don’t really appreciate the political climate inside their country or the embargo, and frankly I don’t think I would either but that’s none of my business. In my opinion, the future of Cuba should be in Cuban hands and I trust that the country will eventually go back to some form of normality. In any case, even with all its problems, I would much rather be stuck in Cuba than any of the surrounding countries.
Despite the fact that a trip to Cuba is embalmed by revolutionary folklore, the type of tourism available is on the comfortable and safe side. Because of the structure of the industry, the all inclusive club package is the way to go. An independent traveler will save money by purchasing an all inclusive package and perhaps delay his departure for a few weeks if he wishes to travel independently. Most of the time, the all inclusive packages are cheaper than flights alone. Once in Cuba you can rent a car and go from one city to the next. You can move freely within the country and stay in Cuban homes (there is an official network of casas particular as well as unofficial casas and house rentals) or hotels. While the all inclusive hotels and casas are really affordable (35$ per day at the Mayanabo Club Amigo and 20$ for casas in November 2010), car rental prices are pretty steep (above 60$ per day). The public transport is not really an option for tourists and taxis are prohibitively expensive (an hour ride from the Camaguey airport to Santa Lucia was 60$ or three months of Cuban wages).
Regarding the money, the currency system is complicated by the fact that Cubans and tourists don’t use the same currency. Cubans use the “national peso” or in Spanish “moneda nacional“. The national pesos’ acronym is CUP. The tourists have the Cuban Convertible Peso. To further confuse tourists, the acronym for the Cuban convertible Pesos is CUC, I guess CCP made too much sense or was too close to CCCP. The CUC is worth about 25 CUP or about 1 euro (in November 2010). Travelers should be aware that the only currency that cannot be used on the street or to purchase CUCs is the US dollar. Credit and bank cards work fine at banks.
While it does not impact the independent traveler much, the nature of the regime makes things a little difficult for independent freedivers. It is true that you need not worry about being run over by powerboats like you would in Florida, Ste-Lucia or the Barbados, but it is also true that it is very difficult to find any sort of craft to get offshore on your own. The boats that do go out for tourists are under strict surveillance and limit their activities to the most common dive sites. The areas that are the most interesting to freedivers: the ones with current, big drops, big fish and generally difficult conditions are well beyond what most Cubans are willing to put up with for tourists. Taking the all inclusive resort’s kayak to go 3 km offshore like I did twice, will get you banned from the resort’s watercrafts (bribes don’t always work).
An important note about boating safety or even awareness of boating safety or rules is that such awareness is not any better than anywhere else. In fact, I believe it’s much worse, but the number of boats is so small that it makes it manageable for freedivers used to dealing with aggressive, borderline homicidal and often intoxicated powerboat owners. If you have children, I would suggest you keep a close eye on them as kite surfers cross the swimming area and generally like the first few meters of water right on the beach. They can ride anywhere they want, including the swimming area, and they do so unless an angry tourist threatens to grab them. The one thing to your advantage is that if one does hit you and you can still breathe on your own, you can easily wait for the kite surfer to come out.
While many Cuban destinations are available for less than 500$ for a week, I chose Santa Lucia because it sits at the beginning of the archipelago of Camaguey. Santa Lucia has an amazing reef right in front of the resorts. The reef in question is the second longest reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef according to the marketing department. I have heard the same type of boasting from Belize and I’m not sure just how the reef in front of the archipelago ranks but it’s a long one. If you look at Google satellite pictures you can clearly see that it starts at Santa Lucia and goes all the way to Kayo Coco, the better known, most popular and accessible dive destination.
In front of my hotel, the reef surfaced about 2 km from shore. You can see the water breaking on this reef all along the shore. Unfortunately there are no real breaks in the reef in front of Santa Lucia. In order to go over the reef you have to have calm seas and a high tide. At low tide the reef is a few centimeter underwater and nearly impassable. One would not want to walk over it since bad for the reef and, if you didn’t care about that, getting scraped on the sea urchins and dragged over the fire coral would soon elevate you environmental awareness.
On a high tide you will have a little over a 30 cm of water over the top of the reef but you can navigate your way through the reef by following the depressions. It’s easy to get through the surf on the other side if it’s small. With a sea kayak it’s really straightforward to do it since kayaks only need a few centimeters but I recommend that you do not capsize. A few years ago, my dive partner, JJ, got sea urchin spikes in his foot doing that on this reef.
The other way of getting to the other side of the reef is to take a boat around. The breaks are a few kilometer to the right and left of the resort area. The problem is finding someone to take you. The resort’s staff will take tourists to the other side on the small catamarans, but only for a few minutes and in the shallows.
Once you get on the other side of the reef, things get interesting. Close to the reef, in shallows water, you will find all sorts of colorful life. There are holes in the reef with the usual Caribbean residents including crayfish. One could easily shoot some small snapper in the shallows but it would not be my first choice for anything but photography.
The reef is the beginning of a long plateau a lot like the one past second reef in front of Fort Lauderdale. This plateau has less life. It’s a large slightly inclined bedrock surface that goes from 2 to 23 meters. There are continuous sand trails going offshore. After a few hundred meters (500 m to 1 km), the plateau stops abruptly. At the edge you will be standing above an abyss. It goes from reef to blue water. If the water is really clear, it’s a little intimidating.
The end of the reef is deep but full of life. The shelf gets more and more eroded as you get close to the precipice. While the top of the cliff stands at 23 meters, the sand at the bottom of the cracks is around 26 meters deep. Of course, you can dive as deep as you like if you choose to swim down the wall. Following the wall down is a bit unnerving as you are standing at the top of an inconceivably high precipice and the blue water at your back can really play with your head.
While on that edge I saw plenty of nice snappers and mackerels. I could not stay there for very long and was able to get to the edge only twice so I don’t really know how productive that edge would be. I’ll say this, the fish did stay far away but it looked really promising because of the amount of fish. It’s the sort of spot most spearfishermen who like a challenging hunt dream about.
To get to the edge without a kayak, you will have to swim 2 km to the reef plus almost 1 km to the end of the plateau. It’s a minimum of 6 km of swimming even if you swim really straight. While I’ve done it, it’s time consuming and the amount of bull sharks said to be in the area makes me wonder about the wisdom of shooting fish without a kayak. It’s not a problem if all you want to do is photography but make sure that you plan the tides correctly otherwise you will have to add another 3 km east to get to the opening. That sort of detour is less intimidating when you are on a kayak.
Alternatively you could do like the Cubans, and head for Coco Beach (8 km west of Santa-Lucia on a dirt road). There, the reef is much deeper and closer to shore. I found out about Coco beach on my last day. Coco beach is riddled with mosquitoes, so I would leave before sunset. You could also go to Kayo Coco and join the crowds. Of course, as you go to more accessible spots, you also have less pristine grounds.
I believe that the fact that there are so few boats and so much of the coast is difficult to dive or away from the population and tourist destinations, make Cuba one of the best kept diving spot in the Caribbean. Just don’t ask me how to get to these many inaccessible spots. I dream of having an all terrain truck and a proper kayak in Cuba or, dare I wish, a powerboat.