Plenty of American travelers have delighted in the recent thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba. The island nation’s famous untouched beauty, great people, and rustic time warp of vintage cars make it an appealing destination for wanderers of all passion and interests. But there’s one segment that was probably more interested in Cuban travel than most: Scuba divers.
That’s because Cuba offers some of the best dive spots in the world and the crown jewel of Cuban scuba sites is the highly regulated and protected archipelago Jardines de la Reina – the “Gardens of the Queen.”
And while US citizens are not technically allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism, American scuba divers, even those who won’t get dive certified UNTIL they get to Cuba (more on that below) and who choose to fly directly from the States, qualify for one of the dozen authorized categories of US-to-Cuba trips (educational purposes).
Here’s a breakdown on diving in this underwater paradise that’ll get you rushing to pack your wetsuit.
What’s with the Name?
The reef was named by Christopher Columbus to honor Queen Isabella of Spain, and thanks to great conservation efforts by the Cuban government it remains much like it did when it was discovered 500 years ago.
What’s so Special About It?
Consisting of 250 virgin coral islands and spanning 837 square miles, Jardines de la Reina provides visitors an intimate experience to get up close to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants. The system has flourishing mangroves, whose roots provide a dense nursery for many types of small fish, which in turn attracts larger fish like 6 different types of sharks and massive Goliath grouper. You’ll also catch crocs lurking in the mangrove areas of the reef. Of course, the main star of the show is the intricate and colorful coral that comes in all kinds of majestic formations.
Important Dive Sites on the Reef
This site is known for its beautiful canyons and caves forged out of coral, with a 24-meter drop-off that’s alive and buzzing with schools of silver tarpons, turtles, and eagle rays. You might also spot the lonely hammerhead shark or a group of curious silky sharks.
Easily one of the best dives in Jardines de la Reina, this is a massive coral mountain that’s 17 meters deep from its peak. The crater at its top drops down and divides up into tunnels that allow light to stream in through openings, which creates a spectacular display against the coral formations. You’ll see the same fish as in Pipín plus some reef shark.
Huge black coral colonies populate this site while shy hammerhead sharks may occasionally glide by.
Black Coral I and II
These two dives have a minimum depth of 24 meters on top of the reef, going into a sandy bottom at 30 meters. You’ll come face to face with reef sharks, and also get to see stingrays and schools of other fish.
What You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip
The Cuban Government only allows 1,000 divers each year to access this area – that means it’s very important to make travel plans for you, and your group, as early as possible to take advantage of the optimum diving period that spans from December to April.
There are many organizations that offer educational programs (one category that is okayed by the US government for US-to-Cuba trips) on reef conservation, along with the opportunity to do some great diving. Some even offer a live-aboard boat that allows your group to access the reef while staying comfortably on the water for a number of days. But be aware: there are many scam sites selling scuba diving packages to Cuba. These organizations are not sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury department.
Never Scuba Dived Before?
For first-time divers, there are many places in Havana and other coastal towns like Varadero, Santa Lucia, and Cayo Coco that will allow you to undergo a week-long open-water diving course — with theory and practical tests — to prepare you for your dive.
Other Useful Info on Cuba
- Cash is still king: When on the ground in Cuba, it’s important to note that cash is the preferred method of transaction, especially when traveling outside Havana. When visiting from the US, you’ll need to exchange currency to the Cuban convertible peso (CUC – a 1:1 exchange rate with the US dollar).
- Don’t rely on the internet: While Cuba does have internet, it’s very limited with shaky infrastructure as you head outside Havana.
- Mobile roaming: Just a couple of American mobile phone carriers have roaming services in Cuba, but others do not.
Have you scuba dived in Cuba lately? Have some tips or favorite diving spots to share? Leave them in the comments.