Jardines de la Reina, Cuba Trip Report - September 2015

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Ayisha

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[FONT=&amp] I've been meaning to get around to posting about my trip to Cuba, so here goes. It was fabulous! I included more detail for people who are planning a vacation, but it's probably too detailed for casual readers, sorry. :wink:

We went to Cuba not only in the rainy season, but prime hurricane season, but our weather was great over the 10 night trip. It rained a few evenings, and spit or rained for a few minutes twice. So just welcoming cooling breezes here and there, warm to hot every day, mostly sunny, sometimes a little cloudy for part of the day.

We went to Havana in mid-September and explored for a day and a half. Our resort provided free hop-on hop off bus tickets and our Sunwing guide provided a map of Havana and recommendations and tips in our briefing. I had already been touring around Havana almost 14 years earlier, but off we went to explore. I had already been to the cabaret dinner and show at Tropicana before, so we didn't go again, but saw it is much more expensive now. We hopped off at Revolution Square, walked over to the Jose Marti memorial tower, took pics of an old cathedral, and marveled at the beautiful old architecture and old American cars. We hopped back on the bus, took pics of monuments along the way and passed the new US embassy, and went to old Havana in a market area and walked around, taking pics, chatting with locals, and browsing the hand made artful merchandise, cigars and rum, lots of rum. We had a meal at Bodeguita del Medio, one of Ernest Hemingway's favourite restaurant/bars, and the food was good, some Creole style, and each of our meals were about 16 CUC (Convertible pesos for tourists which are even with the US$), and there was a mariachi band playing. [/FONT]

[FONT=&amp]The next morning we were picked up for the 2 1/2 hour drive to the Bay of Pigs and found the diving there decent, but not fantastic. There are a couple of dozen entry points, so not sure how the one we used compared to the others. The cenote didn't have a lot of stalactites or stalagmites, but it had interesting rock formations and colours. It turned into a cave really fast. The guide, Osnedi, and his casa (bed and breakfast) that were recommended to us were great, and the authentic Cuban home cooking by Yaquelin and her helpers was delicious. We stayed overnight in their wonderful casa, "La Casa del Buzo" in Playa Larga The Diver House, Playa Larga. Excellent lodging in Cuba. | Cubadivingnow After a hot multi-course breakfast, we continued on just over 3 hours further to Jucaro, where we met our liveaboard company Avalon to Jardines de la Reina. Cuba Diving. Best Scuba Diving in Cuba and the Caribbean
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W[FONT=&amp]e were upgraded to Tortuga, the huge floating barge, and it was awesome. We took a fast, comfortable boat 60 miles offshore in 3 hours to Tortuga. Excellent dives and customer service. They remembered all our names from the first day, and accommodated any customer food restrictions or preferences. We decided as a group what our schedules and times would be for the coming days, with recommendations from the Avalon dive leader. The wake-up call was at 7 AM with coffee/tea and orange juice to our cabin, then breakfast both ready and made to order in the dining room from about 7:20. First dive departing at 8:30 each morning. The very first dive was a check out dive to 75 feet or so. Everybody was comfortable and had pretty good buoyancy, so all was good. Returned to Tortuga after the first dive each day or an uninhabited island to wet facecloths as we got off the boat and pastries, fruit, coffee and tea. They fill and switch tanks at their dive shop across the mangroves. Forty-five minutes later off for the second dive. Return and have a good lunch about 20 or 30 minutes later, then relax or siesta. [/FONT]

[FONT=&amp]3:30 departure for the third dive each day. Return to wet facecloths as you get off the boat, and shortly after, a mojito or cuba libre, and home-made pizza. They remember which drinks you like and how you like them, and bring them each day. At around 7:30 is dinner time daily. Again, fresh, home-made, tasty food. We got to know the other passengers, and had a fun week, sitting around, chatting, drinking, joking. In the package, everyone was allowed a mojito/cuba libre welcome drink each afternoon, 2 glasses of wine with dinner, water on the boat, tea/coffee plus 48 other drinks over the 6 days for no extra charge, whether they are water, pop, or alcohol. They also put a bottle of rum on our table each day, but not sure if that was because there was a group of frequent customers there as well.
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[FONT=&amp]The diving was excellent, very healthy and colourful. The coral, sponges and sea grasses covered the sea floor, not just in patches. From the second dive day on, the first dive each day was to around 90 to 100 feet; and then the second and third dives were a little shallower, averaging between 60 to 75 feet. They were all multilevel dives of around one hour with lots of time spent shallower. Lots of life throughout the dives at each dive site. Four out of 15 dives used a bait box or bait placed in a sponge, which I wasn't thrilled about. We still saw good size sharks and grouper on every single dive without baiting. There were tonnes of Caribbean reef, silky, nurse, and one hammerhead shark, plus some green moray eels, hawksbill sea turtles, eagle rays, tarpon, barracuda, and tonnes of varieties of other fish. There is no question that there is an abundance of healthy life in Jardines de la Reina. The sea conditions were like glass, totally calm and very warm, 30 - 31 C, which is about 86 - 88F.
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After we returned to shore, we were dropped back to our resort in Havana on a comfortable large tour bus, with a couple of stops along the way. We had a pina colada (3 CUC) at a place that touted itself as making the best pina coladas in Cuba, and they were good.

The following day, some of us went sightseeing around Havana again and had a daiquiri (overpriced at 6 CUC) at Floridita, "the birthplace of the daquiri", another of Ernest Hemingway's favourite bars, and watched a female band play.
We wanted to eat at the hottest new restaurant that just opened (can't recall it's name), but the line-up was 1 and 1/2 hours, so we went to a beautiful fine dining-looking restaurant (but shorts were fine) called Los Nardos on a different floor of the same building, and the overflow line-up was half an hour. It was filled with locals, so we knew the food would be authentic, and my huge delicious meal that I could only eat 1/3 of cost a total of 9 CUC with tax and tip. We had a mojito on a rooftop hotel bar overlooking the malecon and old Havana, listening to a mariachi band. We then went back to the resort and got picked up by our tour bus to go back to the airport and home.

Someone on our trip took excellent pics and I was right near him and am in quite a few of his pics, so here they are: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?...1&l=bc67872d11

I have a lot of u/w pics as well as land pics, so you might want to just skim them. They're with an old point and shoot without strobes, but they'll give you an idea of the variety and health:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?...1&l=8b4f0103e6


---------- Post added November 1st, 2015 at 01:20 AM ----------

Here are some short videos from Jardines de la Reina:

Arriving at our floating hotel Tortuga, with the "dive shop" fill station in the mangroves to the right:
https://www.facebook.com/ayisha.hassanali/videos/10153465450051998/

The welcoming/defence committee of iguanas, hutias, and hermit crabs when we had surface intervals on an uninhabited island:
https://www.facebook.com/ayisha.hassanali/videos/10153464583676998/?l=4683784368251234464

Hermit crabs retreating from an uninhabited beach:
https://www.facebook.com/ayisha.hassanali/videos/10153464590111998/?l=689546661727030171

Little Nino, the croc that we went to visit in the mangroves: https://www.facebook.com/ayisha.hassanali/videos/10153463633961998/?l=1177631940706843504
 
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Ayisha

Ayisha

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I see the links to the albums don't seem to be working and I can't edit the post now, so here they are again (the video links above still work):

Someone on our trip took excellent pics and I was right near him and am in quite a few of his pics:
Jardines de la Reina, Cuba by Pavel Simak | Facebook

I have a lot of u/w pics as well as land pics, so you might want to just skim them. They're with an old point and shoot without strobes, but they'll give you an idea of the variety and health:
Jardines de la Reina, Cuba 2015 | Facebook
 

t-mac

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Great review. Hoping to do pretty much exactly this later this year. Thanks for posting.
 

drrich2

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Glad you had a great trip. Is there any other Caribbean destination the diving reminded you a lot of?

Over time, as Cuba becomes less difficult for U.S.-based dive tourists, it'll be interesting to see what its 'selling points' are compared to other destination options. I get a sense that for some in the U.S. it's been sort of a 'forbidden fruit' thing, or maybe 'new,' but with time, what'll be the main merits?

It's close to the U.S.; in time, be interesting to see how the airfare runs. If it had cheap airfare, cheap overall trip costs and fine diving, I imagine it could eat some of Cozumel's lunch maybe...?

Richard.
 
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Ayisha

Ayisha

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No problem. Thanks for looking! :)

Richard, Jardines de la Reina reminded me of Cozumel pre-2005 or the atolls of Belize such as Turneffe by the elbow, Lighthouse, etc., also up to the mid-2000's - except better. Better because while each of those areas was very healthy, colourful, and had a tonne of big life, Jardines has that plus the corals really cover the sea floor. Not healthy patches here and there, but really most of the sea floor. Also the sheer numbers of large critters were astounding. The diving really was breathtaking.

Also, we saw only about 3 smallish lionfish in the 5 days of diving (15 dives) we did, and 2 of those 3 got speared. Compare that to Grand Cayman where six months earlier I saw many huge lionfish, of which a few were speared, and Grand Cayman is not that far south of Jardines.

The return airfare and even all-inclusive costs from Canada are very cheap. You can easily get a 4* all-inclusive (equivalent to about a 3*) for a week in the winter for $500 CDN a month or two in advance. Even the full price averages around $8-900 CDN all-inclusive. You would think that it should be extremely cheap from the US.

The cost to go to Jardines though is much more expensive. We took a buy 3 get 1 free special, which worked out to $1822 CDN total including taxes, transfers and fees for the Avalon/Jardines part, which compared to the rest of Cuba for us, is really expensive. Altogether, the entire 10 night trip cost us $2600 CDN including a 10 night all-inclusive in Havana that we used for only 3 nights; return airfare; Bay of Pigs diving, transfers, accommodation and meals; the whole Jardines part; plus all transfers, taxes and fees. For $2600 CDN each, we could almost go half way around the world, but I have to say it was worth it. What they've been charging Americans for these supervised trips is astronomical. I hope the price becomes more reasonable for Jardines, but I guess that the relatively low number of divers allowed per year has something to do with that.
 

chillyinCanada

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Ayisha, to my mind that's not a bad price at all for what you got. I'm having a tug of war with myself. $2600 will get me quite a bit of diving in North Sulawesi with fullboard and accommodations. Yet, I'm being pulled to get myself to see the Gardens in Cuba. I'd love to see for myself what diving used to be like in the Caribbean. :)
 

chillyinCanada

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I don't think $2600 cdn is high. I think what the current prices are for Americans group trips are high but it's further exacerbated by my dollar against yours. So, I'm trying to say, if I want to go, I should organize my own trip as did Ayisha. And then, is it worth it? Truly worth it? Definitely if one only dives Caribbean. But I've found heaven on earth diving, so is it worth it to ME? Especially since I've been to Cuba before.
 
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Ayisha

Ayisha

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$2600 Cdn may not be that high compared to other locations, but I found it high for what Cuba should really cost - compared to the rest of Cuba. Remember that was at 25% off of the liveaboard each (which was most of the cost), and before the prices went up drastically for this year. It is 6 hours driving from Havana to Jucaro plus 60 miles (3 hours driving) offshore so I'm sure it's remoteness is factored into the price.

I like how we broke up the long trip by stopping and staying/diving in Bay of Pigs and making it a relaxing 10 night trip. I think if we had done it tightly in one week, all the traveling would have been more tiring. The extra couple of nights only cost $25 all-inclusive (out of our total price).

It is similar to some other healthy, abundant locations mainly outside of the Caribbean, so whether it's worth it is very personal. I've been diving in Cuba previously and had found it not impressive at all, but I had wanted to try Jardines for years, and went in a little skeptical but hopeful. For me, it was worth it because it was an awesome trip with amazing, colourful reefs and abundant life.
 

RyanNM

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Thanks for the comprehensive info, Ayisha. Did you book directly online through the Avalon/Cuban Diving Centers website? Or was it a group/dive trip offering by a third party? $2600 for everything, flights, hotels, liveaboard and all transfers sounds quite reasonable! I've dived Playa Giron, Playa Anchon, Cayo Levisa, but have dreamed of Las Jardines for a while now. Thanks!
 

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