CIENFUEGOS, CUBA, April 05
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2005-2017
My first trip to Cuba in April of 2005, was a hastily organised and last minute decision for a badly needed vacation. A friend of mine who owns a sun tanning salon also works as an associate travel agent out of his office. The price was right and so was the timing so I booked and was off to Cuba a few days later.
The plane ride with Cubana airlines I recall was about 3 and a half hours and pretty uneventful. What did strike me was how upbeat the Cuban staff was, interacting easily with the passenger and sharing a few jokes here and there.
When we landed, mobile stairs were used for us to disembark, feeling, as we walked out, the wall of heat and humidity you only get when travelling in the tropics. We walked off the tarmac into the cleanest airport I had ever seen up to that day, under the watchful eyes of the Cuban customs and security personnel. Once my visa stamped I headed to the money exchange counter to change some of my money. One thing I now always suggest to people is that they change all the money they intend to spend in Cuba right at the airport. The reason being the hotels charge an additional fee that, in addition to the 8% Cuban government tax, can substantially cut into your vacation fund.
I stayed at a three star rated resort called the Rancho Luna which is just outside of the city of Cienfuegos. It’s really more of a 2 star hotel but the rooms are very clean, the air conditioning works very well and there is satellite TV should you be forced indoors or if you feel like staying up late after or as an alternative to the variety show given in the evenings at most Cuban resorts on the island. This resort is a family oriented resort with a mixture of family’s, retirees, couples and a few singles. A warning to those who are very fussy about food, this resort is not for you. Many travellers go to a foreign country wanting to eat like at home which to me is completely illogical and shows a lack of adventurous spirit. One thing that must be understood is that the American embargo, although it allows for agricultural products to be sold to Cuba, requires that all purchases be paid up front and in cash. Since Cuba doesn’t enjoy diplomatic relations with the US it also cannot benefit from commercial credit that is available for most countries trading with the US. The result is that the quality and abundance of food can vary greatly over the year. Also to be fair, I was there in April which is considered low season. One thing is for certain, the food at resorts and the abundance of it (to your taste or not) is far better than anything most Cubans are used to and can afford. I can only imagine how Cubans feel when they have to deal with tourists complaints about food. For me it’s a question of perspective.
Before coming to Cuba, I had decided to do some scuba diving since laying in the sun like a lizard all day isn’t for me. I was a little worried about the dive center having the right size BCD for me so I went to my local dive shop before the trip and rented one and an octopus to be on the safe side which turned out to be a good move on my part. I still had my trusty US Diver mask, fins and snorkel from my original Open Water Course to round out my gear.
The Whale Shark Scuba Center happens to be on the grounds of the Rancho Luna so I didn’t have to walk very far every morning to get there. I had not been diving for a long time so I had brought my open water dive manual with me to do some review and did a refresher in the resorts pool before going out to open water. The center is run by a very nice Cuban dive instructor named Israel. The shop has the basics in terms of equipment and is a little dated but is well maintained by the staff. So the best option is always to bring your own BCD, octopus and mask, fins and snorkel but if weight is a concern the equipment on-site is perfectly acceptable. One warning for folks who are a little on the heavier side, large BCD’s, wet suits and weight belts are somewhat of a rarity as I learnt the hard way over the years, being a XXL. One thing that is important to note is that most dive centers in Cuba use steel tanks that are stubbier and heavier than aluminum tanks so take that into account when you’re calculating your require weight for your weight belt or integrated pockets. If your BCD tank strap is normally adjusted for aluminum tanks you’ll have to readjust it for diving here. The dive centers boat is usually a 20 foot fishing boat with an outboard and a sun canopy that seat about 10 divers comfortably. Most of the 30+ dive sites around the center are within 5 to 15 minutes by boat. Typically there are two dives in the morning and then the staff will close the shop for the day once all the equipment has been cleaned and squared away.
One of the more memorable dives I made the week I was there was one called “El Labyrinto”. The top of the reef is at about 50 to 60 feet and there is a passage through the coral that resembles a tunnel. Once you emerge from the tunnel you are at between 90 and 100 feet and out into to open water. It is a stunning effect. The visibility on that day was well over 200 feet and you couldn’t see further simply because it was too far. The drop off from the end of the tunnel goes straight down rather than slope and is the equivalent of a straight wall to the left and to the right. You actually feel like you’re an astronaut that has just left the space station for an EVA (extra vehicular activity). My love affair with diving had just been rejuvenated! Even the lack of substantial amounts of fish could not dampen my enthusiasm for this dive and my subsequent dives. My only regret was that I didn’t own a dive camera at the time and so the only pictures I have were sent to me by my dive buddy from the Tchek Republic that I met during my stay. Thank you Radim !
During my first dive, I got my first taste of Nitrogen Narcosis. At the time I didn’t realise this is what I had experienced but as they say hindsight is 20/20. I remember descending quite rapidly and getting at about 60 or 70 feet wanting to fine tune my buoyancy by emptying some air out of my BCD. I was convinced that I was pushing the purge valve when reality I was depressing my low inflation valve. The result was less than ideal, an unwanted rapid ascent. Fortunately for me as I ascended, I started to feel better and realised my confusion and was able to reverse course. Once I got neutral, I then slowly descended this time encountering no more trouble for the rest of the dive. The result is I now understand the importance of slow descents/ascents in preventing the onset of Nitrogen Narcosis.
One of the advantages of being at the Rancho Luna is that you’re a short taxi ride from Cienfuegos city once known as “La Perla del Sur”, the peal of the south. This former Spanish and French colony, population 400,000, is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its impressive colonial architecture. Although fifty years of embargo has taken its toll on the city’s infrastructures, there are some restoration projects that have benefited from international support. One building that is a must see while you’re here is the hotel La Union, a former French customs house now a luxury 5 star hotel in the center of the city. This jewel of 19th century French architecture was in dire straights after years of being used as public housing and was in danger of collapsing before foreign hoteliers invested millions to save it.
My day excursions to Cienfuegos is also the first time that I encountered Cuba famed antique taxis that are a glimpse back to a time when this island was the playground par excellence for American expats and tourists alike. Abound are Oldsmobile’s, Cadillac’s, Buick’s and Chevrolets in excellent condition considering the years gone by and the lack of spare parts is nothing short of a miracle.
There are many excursions offered including a trip to Havana, a visit to a crocodile farm and a mountain spa a few hours away. I had booked for the trip to the mountain spa but unfortunately the excursion was cancelled since the spa ended up being closed for maintenance. Being flexible while vacationing in Cuba I would learn, is an essential ingredient for your overall satisfaction. Once the week was over and I was climbing about the plane for home I couldn’t wait to go diving again !