DIVING CUBA BLOG
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2011-2017
CUBA; A PRIMER
This blog is dedicated to divers who want to dive in Cuba and are looking for more than just the typical industry information available out there.
My name is Nicolas Lakoff and I learned to dive at age 19 when I was posted in Victoria B.C. in the 3rd Battalion of the PPCLI of the Canadian Armed Forces. Over the years I would dive once a year or every two years but it’s only in the last 6 years that I have increased that to 2 to 3 dive trips a year. One place that I’ve been to quite a bit over time is Cuba since it’s only a 4 or so hour flight from Montreal, the diving is cheap and the island is surrounded by coral reefs. To date I have about 200 dives in Cuba and lots of great memories and experiences that I’ve decided to share with others.
The first part of this blog will deal with my impressions and opinions about Cuba, the people and the system of government. They are my own and are subject to scrutiny of course but they come from my perspective. I thought about leaving this out and doing a strictly diving articles but I think most will appreciate some of my insights and hopefully readers will give me feedback on their experiences there as well. I will continue with some general information on resorts areas, city’s, food, roads, currency, what to bring and much more. The third part will be entries on my different trips along with some pictures. In these pages I try to be as accurate as possible but should you find any discrepancies or if you have any additional information or insights and would like to contribute I invite you to write me at email@example.com.
Cuba in Numbers
Capital: Havana, pop. 2,241,000
Provinces: 14 provinces (provincias, singular – provincia) and 1 special municipality* (municipio especial); Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Cienfuegos, Ciudad de La Habana, Granma, Guantanamo, Holguin, Isla de la Juventud*, La Habana, Las Tunas, Matanzas, Pinar del Rio, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara
Government: Socialist republic, communist state
Literacy rate: 97%
Physicians per 1000 population: 5.91 (USA 2.3 per 1000, Canada 2.1 per 1000)
The Cuban People
One thing I have to say about Cubans is their friendliness and hospitality. Most tourist experience the resort areas of Cuba, but having been in many city’s and towns I can tell you that despite the hardships they endure, they are warm, friendly and passionate. Many will give you the shirt off their backs or food off their plate even if it’s the last scraps of food to be had in the house. I have seldom experienced that anywhere else in the world. Another thing that is very striking is the equality between races here. The integration between, white, Latino and black is complete here and has been for some time. In our society it is common to see races segregate themselves to varying levels but here there is very little of that and I find that quite refreshing. Cuban society is still a very macho society although since there are many more women then men in terms of sheer numbers this is slowly changing. In terms of demographics, there is one man for seven women in Cuba.
Cuban society is very family oriented and family is paramount. If you are invited to dine with a Cuban family don’t turn it down, it’s a privilege to witness the ambiance that happens at family gatherings. I’ve also had the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in these settings, truly amazing! You should be prepared for the conditions you may witness in the typical Cuban home. More than likely you will be invited by someone that works in the resort. If you’re a diver, it’s usually a dive instructor, a boat captain or maybe an employee of the dive center. You may also be invited by an employee of the hotel you’re staying at. Most of these people have relatively better conditions than most Cubans but still very different from our own. Most Cuban homes have limited or no running water. Toilets often don’t have seats and many are flushed by using pouring a pale of water into it. It’s rare to have AC in Cuban homes and very often the men are shirtless and women are in tank tops to keep cool. One thing I can say is despite appearance, Cubans take great pride in the cleanliness of their home and you should worry too much about catching anything there. Compared to many Caribbean countries, Cuba’s sanitary systems, water treatment and sewage system are comparable to many developed nations. You should still drink bottled water not to get diarrhea but there is much less likely hood to develop diseases like Hepatitis A and B than in other places. One interesting thing to note is that Cuba has a very good medical system and has one of the lowest if not the lowest Doctor to population ratios in the world. All sorts of medicines are available because the American embargo does not include a ban on medical supplies. Just like in Thailand, many people come to Cuba for cheap first class medical treatment that is difficult or too expensive to get in their own country.
One thing I want to stress is that you should never refuse to eat food that was prepared for your visit. Very often Cubans will deprive themselves if they know they are having guest to stay. If you are very picky about food in general and typically like North American style food, don’t accept the invitation because leaving food on your plate is deeply insulting for people who have so little. However if you are open to food from different nationalities you are in for a treat! Most Cubans either can’t afford or have access to beef, but fish and chicken are staples with the occasional pork. Usually you can count on having delicious black beans and rice, plantain or Yucca (pronounced Juka), which is a type of tuber like potato which they typically serve with butter and garlic, Yum-Yum!! You usually have whatever greens or vegetables that are in season, like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, cabbage, etc…One thing is for sure, for most this will be a once in a lifetime experience and it will stay with you a long time.
Cuba and the revolution
Although I do not have a degree in political science, in my experience, there are many myths out there about the political system in Cuba. Cuba is socialist country with one party and little tolerance for dissent. There is another country in the world like this and yet we have immense trading relationship with them. That country is China of course. So what is the difference you might ask; The American embargo of Cuba in place since the beginning of the 1960’s. Ironically even for a non-politico like myself, it’s obvious that the embargo has done nothing but help maintain the powers that be in power up to this day. As a Canadian, I am proud that our then Prime Minister, the Honorable Pierre Elliot Trudeau decided to promote trade with Cuba rather than tow the line with our American cousins. Today I can tell you that 50 plus years of embargo has taken its toll on Cuba but mainly imposing hardships on its people. I believe the Canadian position and that of other countries in the world has helped lessen this suffering but not end it. This isn’t a politically charged opinion, it’s simply a realistic point of view from someone who has been there and seen it for himself. Since the 50’s there are very few American’s that have been to Cuba, although American tourists are welcome and I have come across a few there over the years. In order to get around the embargo they must transit from another country like, Canada or Mexico. So it is very difficult for the average American citizen to know what the true state of affairs is other then what their politicians are saying. Cuba’s recent re-admission to the Organization of American States with the United State’s endorsement is a positive sign and hopefully it will lead to improved relations and renewed dialog.
There are many ironies created by the cold war period and the embargo. Say what you will about the regime there, life expectancy in Cuba is the highest in the world beating out Japan in the last recent years. Cuba has the highest amount of university graduates of any country in the world. As I mentioned before, it has a first rate medical system that rivals that of many first world countries. An interesting Irony created by the embargo is Cuba now has the biggest organic agriculture in the world since it cannot import ingredients needed to make chemical fertilizers,. Another irony is since the military is very present in all parts of Cubans society; they are ready to act quickly and decisively during civil crises. For example when Hurricane Ike passed straight across Cuba there were only 3 deaths, while in Haiti, where the Hurricane had the same intensity, there were over 74 deaths.
Of course as a believer in democratic processes I would like to see more freedom in Cuba, however it’s up to Cubans to decide what form of government they want and can live with. I also feel, as do almost 98% of all nations around the globe that the embargo of Cuba is an illegal act and must end as soon as possible. I can’t imagine any government in the western world dictating to the Chinese what form of government they should have, so why is Cuba and exception? Once dialog starts happening then things will start moving again and walls will come down. This is my sincerest hope for Cuba and Americans.
Tourism in Cuba
The one thing I can say about being a tourist in Cuba is how safe you feel there. Even though Cuba is not a dangerous as other destinations in the Caribbean and Central America, you still have to have a modicum of common sense. However in a country where the state controls so much, policing is quite effective and taking advantage of tourists is just not worth the risk for most criminals. This means that you feel relatively safe exploring Cuban cities and towns outside the resort areas if you wish to. Many European tourists will stay in Cuba for a few weeks and go around the island stopping off in different hotels and towns, exploring as they go. Many of them bring their bicycles or rent mopeds, motorcycles or cars to travel. Some groups even ship their motorcycles by ship container and tour the island as a group.
Since the Russia stopped supporting the Cuban government with subsidies in 1994, Cuba has had to depend heavily on Tourism to help it combat the crippling effects of the embargo. This has led to many more resort hotel complexes being built as collaborative project between foreign entrepreneurs who do not have business interests in the U.S. As a matter of fact, no business can operate in Cuba if the Cuban government is not involved in some way. Usually the agreements made with foreigners to operate a resort will last a given number of years and renewed, if desired by both parties or it reverts back to the government’s control that will run it as a state entity. Major players in the Cuban resort industry are the Spaniards with the Melia chain, the Germans with the Blau chain and the Italians with the Gaviota chain. Usually chains run by foreign companies in Cuba are superior in quality to Cuban run facilities because of economics. Because of the embargo, it is sometimes hard for the Cuban government to come up with the hard currency for operations and maintenance of facilities to western standards because they have to import everything from Europe or Asia. As a general rule with a western style 5 star resort rating system you need to subtract half to one star from what is advertised. However there are some hotels in Cuba that are truly 5 star Hotels like with the Ibero line of Hotels run by Spanish interests.
There are two official currencies in Cuba. The Cuban peso is the countries official government currency and a true value for it is hard to determine since Cuba is not officially part of any international monetary system. For years Cuba used the American dollar as do many central and South American countries. However with its shift to tourism and also for political reasons the regime established a tourist currency, the CUC, which is pegged in value with the American dollar. In 2004 Fidel Castro officially banned all use of the American dollar in a move that to most observers was politically motivated since the US greenback was increasingly seen by Cubans as more secure and popular than either the CUC or the Cuban peso. The existence of two currencies however has created a situation where there is a dual economy. The power of the Cuban peso has continually eroded now only being used for the most basic food staples purchases in government shops. Any vendors selling consumer goods imported from Europe, Korea and China require payment in CUC making them out of reach for most Cubans whose monthly salary on average is 25$. I foresee this problem only getting worse and an eventual dumping of the old currency for the CUC as the official Cuban currency. Should the embargo finally come to an end this is an inevitable conclusion.
The number one thing that people are curious about with travel to Cuba is food. Depending on the person, you will get a range of feedback on food served in resort settings. Since there are many challenges with supply, logistics and distribution in Cuba, the same hotel can have periods where the food is better then other periods. This can coincide with high season (November to March) and low season (April to October) but it is not always the case. I have been to places in the low season where the food was really good and some in the high season where it was so-so. Most resort will have a buffet style cafeteria that serve a variety of meals and some specialty restaurants. Spices are hard to get and expensive so the food can lack a little tang at times but most of it is pretty good. I sometimes bring salt and pepper with me when I stay in Cuba, especially for my eggs in the morning. I once brought with me balsamic vinegar and olive oil to make descent salad dressing since I had always been disappointed with what was available at the previous resort I had been to. It turned out that this resort had balsamic and olive oil and had mixed salad dressings as well. So on subsequent trips I took my chances. If you do have space in your luggage and you do want to make your own salad dressing then by all means bring what you need with you. Certain foods will also taste different since there are no pesticides, fertilizers or growth hormones used in agriculture or in the meat. Personally I can tell you that I usually lose weight when I go to Cuba and I eat more than I normally do. I’m personally convinced that since the foods there are less processed than back home, our bodies tend to store less of what we eat in fat. Finally, one thing is for certain it’s not American style resort food so be prepared.
One interesting tidbit is that oddly enough the U.S. is the biggest exporter of food to Cuba since food isn’t included in the embargo. However Cuba must pay for good in hard currency as they go, since there are no diplomatic ties, Cuba is not extended credit. If you tell Cubans this, most will not believe it, since the Government makes sure that the origins of the food remains nebulous at best.
Most highball drinks in Cuba are based on rum, since sugar cane is one of the largest crops. They also make a variety of liqueurs such as a coffee based liqueur similar to Amaretto, a chocolate based liqueur similar to crème de cacao, an orange liqueur similar to Curaçao, and grenadine to name a few. There are two types of beer widely available in Cuba, a blond lager called “Crystal” and an amber beer called “Buccanero” and “Buccanero Fuerte” which is a little stronger in alcohol content. There are other types of alcohol available for purchase in most hotels and some government run shops like in the airport. However in most of the all inclusive hotels you are limited to rum based drinks. You can get Irish whiskey and scotch but you can’t get Rye or Bourbon so if you’re a Rye drinker, like myself, get a bottle at the duty free on your way down. Gin and Vodka are also available. I have yet to see a tequila bottle in all my trips however I’m not a big drinker so I may not have been looking very hard. There are wines available and most of them are either Spanish or South American. The national drink in Cuba is by far and away the “Mojito”. Of course you need fresh mint which in most cases is not a problem but resorts occasionally run out due to the popularity. A very nice alternative is the “Canchanchara” which is similar but uses lemon instead of mint. It’s a specialty of the city of Trinidad in south eastern Cuba, so odds are if you’re in another place they won’t be familiar with it. You can read more about this drink in my entries about my trips to Trinidad. There is pop for sale in most places and there are three main flavors; TurKola which is the equivalent of Coke, Limón which is the equivalent of “Sprite” and I have seen an orange drink whose name I can’t recall that is the equivalent of “Orange Fanta”.
There isn’t much shopping to do in Cuba other than cigars, souvenirs and rum. This may be good for you and your wallet but not great for wives and girlfriends in need of a shopping fix. Consumer goods like electronics are available but mostly in Havana and there usually at a premium. So be advised things that you would buy in a pharmacy like sunscreen, calamine lotion, over the counter drugs, film, batteries, etc… you are best to bring with you. In terms of diving gear, there are some places in Havana where you can get things but mostly you have to order it and you’ll be long home by the time you get it. I suggest that you always have your gear checked before you travel and travel with as much spare gear as you can.
One thing they do have in some quantity in Cuba is junk food, chips and crackers and a surprisingly large array of cookies and ice cream products. One thing that is surprising is that Cuba is a producer of Cocoa but make very few fine chocolate products. I did buy a few local Cuban bars, dark and milk chocolate but I found them to be rather unrefined and somewhat bitter. Some chocolates are like this I know but I felt it was more due to the manufacturing process then the nature of the cocoa.
As of this writing there is a sort of economic revolution going on in Cuba that is affecting most Cuban from every walk of life. The central government in an effort to reduce Cubans dependence on the government is loosening its grip on private enterprise and now allowing individuals to start their own business. This has a direct impact on the multitudes of casa particulars both legal and mostly illegal operating on the island. A casa particular literally translated means a private dwelling or house. These were homes that were opened up to tourists in a B&B format but could include lunch and suppers if desired. There were very few legitimate government licenses given to such operations but they were by and large tolerated by the authorities largely because of their great popularity with tourists wanting a more authentic Cuban experience. Very often you can also stop for lunch at one of these establishments given a little forewarning. For between 10 and 20 CUC you can eat quite well. A very common offering is a sort of surf and turf including lobster, fish and shrimp with salad, beverage (beer or pop) and desert. Occasionally I’ve been offered turtle soup but always declined trying to make them understand that turtles are a big reason that I come to the Caribbean to dive and killing them will eventually affect the number of tourists coming to Cuba.
Today most resorts have either 110V or a combination of 110V and 220V outlets in their rooms. In the early days of Cuban government tourism development, 220V was the standard. But the newer developments have always had 110 and the older resorts were retrofitted to accommodate both Canadian and European visitors. It’s always a good idea however to check with the hotel before leaving to see what is actually available in your room. You should note that most travel battery rechargers can either be charged on 110 or 220/240.
Most resorts in Cuba offer scuba diving either with an in-house scuba center or an affiliated scuba center. Most if not all of these are run by Marlin a government agency that also operates the many marinas around the island that supplies boats for diving and deep sea fishing. Scuba diving is a very established in Cuba which boasts some of the best diving in the Caribbean. Very often instructors were formally in the military some even in the Cuban navy as divers. There are a multitude of international diving organizations that are represented here including; CMAS, SNSI, SSI, ESA but because of the American embargo PADI cannot operate in Cuba despite, I suspect, their desired to do so. ACUC is an organization that was created by Canadians in order to retroactively credit course taken in Cuba into the PADI system. This means you can receive credit for courses given by the many talented instructors in Cuba. Many of them were trained abroad especially in Europe for their qualifications. Most tanks in Cuba are set up to accept yoke regulators but every center I’ve been to have some tanks set up to accept DIN regulators. Compressors are meticulously maintained and tested regularly by the staff but common sense dictates that you always check how your airs smell before going on the boat. There are a few recompression chambers in Cuba, notably in Havana and one that I know of in the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) area.
Diving in Cuba is relatively cheap if you compare with other Caribbean countries. As with most dive centers in the world the more dives you take the cheaper each dive becomes. As of this writing, not including equipment, you could buy 20 dives for 420 USD which is equivalent to 21 $ a dive! Note that some centers now charge ahead of time for the dives so if you want to benefit from the savings buy the maximum dives you want to do and should you do less dives because of weather issues or other reasons, you will be reimbursed.