JARDINES DE LA REINA, CUBA Sept 07
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2007-2017
On every dive trip that I have gone on in Cuba so far, every time I asked local dive instructors what the best place in Cuba was to dive, one name kept coming up. They talked about this place as if it was magical, mystical almost unattainable. I’m talking of course of the Jardines de la Reina, named by Christopher Columbus after the Queen of Spain, Isabella I, who funded all of his voyages to the New World.
As a national park, it is Cuba’s second largest protected area. It is said that Ernest Hemmingway fished here and it was a favourite fishing destination of El Lider Supremo himself, Fidel Castro who was also an avid scuba diver. With an area of 2,170 KM2 and consisting of more than 600 cays and islands, it is as of this writing, the largest marine park in the Caribbean. “It is located in the Caribbean Sea between the Gulf of Ana Maria (north-west), Gulf of Guacanayabo (south) and Caballones Channel (west). It extends on a general north-west to south-east direction, paralleling the Cuban coast for 150 km (93 mi) from Cayo Breton to Cayos Mordazo.” (ref. Wikipedia).
To book a trip to the Jardines was not such a straight forward affair for me at the time. There is only one organization in partnership with the Cuban government of course, who can operate in this marine reserve. The company, Avalon fishing and diving centers, was founded by a trio of Italians: Franco Fumolo, Filippo Invernizzi and Giuseppe Omegna (alias, Pepe). In order to book a stay I had to make arrangements with Avalon’s travel agency in Italy and send a wire transfer in Euros for the full amount. I can’t remember why but I believe I couldn’t use my visa at the time. (As of this update Avalon has a brand new web site Avalon and lots of international agency partners including WOW CUBA out of Charlottetown, PEI, Canada) In addition to their fly fishing operations, Avalon can host up to 400 divers a year maximum in the Jardines. There are no buildings, roads or resorts on any of the islands so the only way to vacation there is on a live aboard. They have a fleet of four vessels; Tortuga, La Reina, Halcon and Caballones which I stayed on. (As of this update they have also added a luxury live aboard called the Avalon Fleet I)
Far from any resort area in Cuba, getting to the Jardines is an adventure in itself. Most of Avalon’s customers originate from Europe which is logical since they are an Italian run company. That being said, most of said customers land in Havana and so they have a transfer included in the price that picks them up from the airport to Jùcaro. This is an 8 hour bus trip and after spending 4 hours in a plane that wasn’t really appealing to me! Being Canadian and having lots of other flights to Cuba available to me was definitely an advantage for me in this instance. I booked a cheap flight to Cayo Coco and one night in a resort there so I could get a little rest before heading out to Jùcaro. There is a closer airport in Ciego de Avila but the price of a taxi transfer from Cayo Coco was far inferior so I got Avalon to arrange it. After a good nights rest at Oasis Playa Coco, my taxi was waiting for me at 0800 hours at the main entrance. Two hours later we arrived in Jùcaro, a fishing village of 2000 souls, where Avalon has their dock. I was the first one to arrive and shortly after me there was a British couple who were the only other guest. We shoved off for a three hour boat ride to the archipelago.
Los Jardines de la Reina was declared a national park in 1996 and all commercial fishing except for lobster trapping on the very edges of the park were completely banned. (Since 2010 it has also been declared a protected ecological reserve). The diving here is nothing short of spectacular! Being that their hasn’t been any fishing here in over a decade, fish stocks are plentiful and healthy. Schools of Silversides, Jacks, Benitos, Tarpons and Barracuda are common and can surround you in a flash like underwater tornados.
There are lots of sharks here and on every dive. While I was here I saw Silky, Caribbean Reef, Nurse, Lemon and Blacktip sharks. There have also been regular sightings of Whalesharks during plankton blooms and Hammerheads during the winter when the water is cooler.
Eagle Rays cruise regularly on by and two meter long black groupers will often shadow you during your dive.
One fish that fascinates me with its rapid camouflage abilities is the hog fish. Don’t be fooled by the coloring, this is the same fish!
While I was diving in the Jardines I also got to see tons of turtles which was awesome because they are so few and far in between on the coast due to illegal fishing.
I also saw Tarpons for the first time on this trip. Tarpons are a particularly interesting fish. Often seeking prey in the oxygen poor mangrove root forests that are nurseries for many juvenile fish, if stranded by a low tide they can surface and breathe air like mammals do. I also got my first glimpse of a juvenile Goliath Grouper and a Great Soapfish.
During surface intervals you’re often laying up on pristine beaches colonized by mangroves and inhabited by Cuban Rock Iguanas and Jutías (Tree Rats).
This is also a full service operation; your gear is assembled for you, bottles swapped and your gear cleaned at the end of the day. As a rule I always rinse my own gear but everything else was certainly appreciated. Over 6 days I did 16 dives and except for the first day we would do three dives a day. After breakfast we would head out for our first two dives, come back for lunch, sleep for a few hours then go out around 3:30 PM and go for our last dive. After the last dive we were greeted upon re-boarding the Caballones with a mixed drink, a perfect way to end another day of diving!
Our cook was amazing and found ways to make us different and interesting meals. I don’t have the opportunity to eat fresh fish back home and I feared I would get tired of it. Not a chance! I have never had fish prepared so many different ways, every one was delicious. We occasionally got some chicken, pork and once had some lobsters.
The Caballones was originally a Canadian ship as the tags from Transport Canada attest to in the Wheelhouse. Over the years it did however go through a refit in a Cuban shipyard. To add more berths they moved the galley up a deck with the crew quarters. It sleeps 8 comfortably in four cabins with 3 being bunk beds and one a couple’s cabin aft. Every cabin has its own shower, sink and toilet. In a pinch you can sleep a ninth if you use the sofa in the day room astern. The crew includes a lovely chambermaid called Sully who, while you’re out diving, will straighten out your cabin and make your bed. The entire staff was great but I wanted single out Fausto our diving instructor/guide our entire stay. He is a professional in every sense of the word.
A few days after we got to the Jardines we had the pleasure of meeting one of the owners, Giuseppe Omegna aka Pepe to everyone he meets. Right away you can’t help but be charmed by this most cosmopolitan Italian. Looking like he’s still in his 30’s, this easygoing confident man looks like he just stepped off the boardwalk in Capri. Fluent in both Spanish and english as well as his own native Italian, he never misses a beat and is a captivating character. Since the season just started again for Avalon he was on a tour of the facilities to make sure everything is in place for the high season in the fall. He joined us for a few meals and was of great company while he was with us.
Having now explored the Jardines, I can say what all others in Cuba have told me for years, nothing comes closes to it in Cuba. I anticipate the next time I have the opportunity to come here again!
As an update I am adding a link to a pretty good video about the Jardines from CBS 60 minutes, enjoy!