CAYO COCO, CUBA Sept 05
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2005-2017
My second trip to Cuba was in September of 2005. Since diving in Cienfuegos I had been chomping at the bit to get back in the water as soon as possible. Finally leaving my massage therapy center in the capable hands of my business partner, I could allow myself two weeks vacation in the sun and the sea. I had been shopping around for prices and found an incredible deal for two weeks all inclusive at the Tryp Melia Cayo Coco Cuba, on the North Atlantic side of Cuba in Ciego De Avila province, all inclusive for 1000$. I couldn’t believe it!
Before leaving for Cuba I also bought myself the first piece of new diving equipment I had in a very long time, a Veo dive computer. Now I can monitor my own depth and dive profile without counting on any one else. Safety first!
The Tryp is quite a large resort that used to include a section of colonial style villas and room complexes that is now known as the Blau Colonial, a completely separate resort. There are several pools that interconnect and others that are separate. It has several international restaurants including an International cuisine restaurant and Italian restaurant. I have to say that the food at the Tryp was excellent and there was quite a variety at all times. From fresh grilled fish, to beef, turkey and chicken to a gigantic salad bar and pasta station where the cook prepares your dish according to your specifications. There are even several flavours of ice cream but hurry up and get there early since it tends to disappear rather quickly!
Little did I realise that so far in 2005 there had been a record amount of hurricanes in the Caribbean and that there was another forming and headed for Cuba which is the reason why the price was so low. As my flight date approached Hurricane Rita was building strength and heading west towards Cuba and Florida. I landed at Ciego De Avila International airport without issue and took a two hour bus ride to the resort.
When I arrived, the hotels main complex windows were being boarded up with plywood and the windows taped to prevent shattering. This scene was ominous to say the least! In the end Rita took a last minute swerve north and made landfall in the Florida Keys, avoiding Cuba altogether. Saying I was relieved would be a major understatement! I arrived on a Saturday night and the hurricane brought rain and high winds for a few days but by Wednesday it was calm enough to go diving.
The dive center is on the grounds of the resort which again is really convenient. When you book your vacation and you are an avid diver I suggest you ask for a room as close to the dive center as possible to make getting there easier. The first morning dive is usually the deepest and in my opinion the best and usually the boat leave at 9 am. If you’re at the other end of the compound and you have to go back to your room after breakfast it makes for a rushed schedule.
The Coco Diving Center is run by ACUC diving instructor Pablo Pérez del Rey, an ex Cuban Navy Diver. Pablo is also seconded by a group of very professional diving staff members including, Osvaldo, Noidel, Yaroy, Norgel and Colorado the boat captain. Pablo and I quickly developed a great rapport and we became fast friends as it became evident how passionate about the sea we both are. On my initial dives, although relieved at being under water, the visibility was less than ideal but still far superior than what you will see in most North American sites. The storm had stirred up the bottom and there was still a significant amount of silt in the water but as the week went on the water quality improved dramatically. On my seventh dive, Fernando’s Tomb, I had a close encounter with a Green Moray Eel. We were on a sandy bottom away from the reef and over to the right there was a small fishing boat wreck. I turned to my left momentarily to look for the others and then looked back towards the wreck only to see a rather large eel was free swimming towards me rather rapidly. It quickly wrapped itself around my head as I froze deciding how to react. Although startled and waving it off frantically, I didn’t over react and eventually the eel moved away. As I turned to look at the others I noticed that they were all laughing hysterically through their regulators. Apparently I was the victim of a little joke as the Eel was now lacking teeth and was used to being feed regularly by them. For the rest of the trip they referred to “her” as my girlfriend and it never failed to bring up hysterically howls of laughter from them. Cubans have a great sense of humour and are all practical jokers. Another dive that was really interesting was one I did with Norgel. That day there were no other divers other than myself which is always a treat. Norgel told me he was taking me to a site that was not listed on the dive site map at the center. Since there was no marker for this site it took a few minutes for us to find the right spot and get in the water. As we descended there we couldn’t see the reef or the bottom. By the time we hit 90ft we still couldn’t see the bottom. I was a little worried but tried not to let it show and decided to trust in Norgel. At we swam in the deep blue we still couldn’t see anything and I started to think maybe he had overshot the site and we were swimming out to sea. Then as my doubts were at their peak, a faint outline of a sandy bottom started revealing itself. We were at about 100 feet and the visibility suddenly became crystal clear. The bottom was sandy sparsely sprinkled with coral patches and gently sloping upwards. Then we started seeing more and more fish and especially very large Atlantic Spadefish and Grey Angel fish. It is true what they say about a deep dive seeming more quiet and tranquil. We just kept swimming forward towards the shore until we reached our reserve, did our safety stop and surfaced. Definitely this was one of my favourite dives. My very favourite dive thought has to be the one that I did with some British divers on my last day of diving. We were on a very sandy bottom with very few coral features watching some Queen Trigger fish in predatory behaviour (which in itself is pretty awesome), when a very large Spotted Eagle Ray emerged from the shadows and slowly cruised by us seemingly undisturbed by our presence. It was akin to watching a bald eagle glide by you but in slow motion. The whole scene couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute but it seemed like time was slowing down as this most graceful creature passed us by. David happened to have an underwater digital camera, snapped pictures during the entire time it swam by and got some great pictures. We exchanged emails but to my great disappointment he never got in touch with me to send me the pictures and my emails stayed unanswered. Despite a few days bad weather being there two weeks allowed me to do 16 dives, not bad at all, take that hurricane Rita!
One day Pablo decided to invite me to his house in Ciego de Avila about 2 hours away from the resort. Once I decided to accept, Colorado the boat skipper invited us to his house for a genuine Cuban meal. I went to a rental agency located on the resort grounds and rented a car and at Pablo’s request let him drive it. As we drove out of Cayo coco we go down a long road that cuts right through large expanses of salt flats and shallows which separates the banks from the mainland. Over and over we passed busses full of workers coming to and from the resort. Pablo explained to me that many of the workers have to travel long distances to go to work. Some workers live in a small town called Moron an hour away but most come from Ciego de Avila like himself and have to get up very early in the morning to get to the resort for their shift. Pablo is one of the fortunate ones in that he only has to get up around 4:30 am to get to the bus stop most have to get up earlier if their on the morning shift. Only a few workers are allowed to stay on hotel grounds in order not to commute. It made me appreciate all their work all the more. Cubans are a little crazy driving and certainly seem to have a bit of a heavy foot on the accelerator. We weaved and bobbed through traffic of all sorts. This was my first look at real Cuban society. On the road you saw a little of everything; bicycles, mopeds, antique motorcycles, horse and buggy’s, old American classics, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Chevy’s many old Russian trucks blowing out foul black smoke, Lada’s and the occasional modern European and Asian cars such as Skoda’s, Hyundai’s, Daewoo’s, Hino’s and Mitsubishis. Most of the countryside is lush vegetation with palm trees, sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Since wood is a scarce resource here the electric poles here are made of concrete. Along the way you cross lots of schools, colleges and universities as well as regular and reserve army units. Very often trucks will stop to pick up hitchers which seems is a requirement by law for all government vehicle drivers. Ciego de Avila is a moderately large city bustling with activity. As we drive through the streets of Pablo’s neighbourhood he waives to friends and relatives. They look at me inquisitively and curiously. Pablo is married to his high school sweetheart and together they have a lovely little girl. Pablo’s house is a second floor cement house built by his own hands and the help of some of his friends.
The challenge to having your own home in Cuba is getting the money to pay for the building materials. Pablo explained that he bought the rights to build on top of his mother in laws house. First they get a city engineer to certify that the structure can support a second story. Sometimes some modifications need to be done before the approval can be granted. As you walk in through a small entrance, you see a bathroom and a main room that is both kitchen and bedroom for the moment. As Pablo and I walked out on to the remaining bare cement slab that constitutes the rest of the roof from his mother-in-laws house he carefully explains to me the next phases of the construction. He plans for another two rooms, one a master bedroom and the other a room for his daughter. I asked when he thought he would be finished and he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. As a dive instructor Pablo earns quite a bit more than most Cubans through the tips that he earns at the resort. However it still takes quite a bit of hard currency to get what is needed to finish the job. Although very humble they have a lovely home and I felt very welcome there. Everyone took a little time to freshen up and we then took the car to Colorado’s place.
As I walked in to our skipper’s house his parents and grandparents were in the living room along with a cousin rocking in their rocking chairs. It is pretty hot even in the evening in Cuba and homes here don’t have windows to allow the breeze to flow through and cool things down. Floors are mostly made of tile to further keep things cooler. In my honour, they cooked a beautiful snapper accompanied with rice and black beans, salad and fresh fruit. In this setting I was also served the best cup of coffee I have ever had before or since, truly a feast and certainly not something they are accustomed to doing every night. I truly felt honoured knowing this. After supper Pablo took advantage of the fact we had a car to drive around the town and show me a little of the sights. We stuck to the city center which meant that I really didn’t get to see anything architecturally interesting but to be honest, by that time with two dives, all the driving, a fabulous meal and all the rum I had (I’m a bit of a lightweight!) I was rather tired. That night, as planned, I crashed at Pablo’s house. They had their daughter sleep with them while I, to her momentary dismay, was unceremoniously offered her bunk. They also insisted on having me use the only fan they had in the apartment, which to be honest I was very grateful for. The next day we got an early start and hit the road by 5:30 in order to get to the resort on time for him to work.
To me this trip was a revelation and I can certainly say I’m in love with Cuba and its people, Viva, Viva Cuba!