Going to Cuba was a mystery of sorts for us to visit the once forbidden land. The year was 2017 and we could finally go to Cuba directly from America! We were part of a humanitarian group trip to help document Ecology and Conservation efforts in the ocean there. About 1 week before our departure, the president declared a travel ban to Cuba for all Americans due to the apparent sonic blast in some buildings. This did not deter those of us determined to see this fine country.
There was excitement on the plane as we were approaching Havana. We were right above Cuba! We could see it! Suddenly, we were gaining elevation. The captain gets on the speaker and tells we have to abort the landing because he could not see the runway. It was foggy. A hurricane was just passing through and we were at the tail end of it. The Havana airport doesn’t have the guidance systems we take for granted in America.
We circled around, again getting so close to the ground we could see it. Then, the captain comes on: “We have reached our bingo fuel limit. We are aborting
The realization sunk for everyone that after all this excitement of finally getting to go to Cuba, it still might not happen. Luckily, after about an hour waiting on the plane in Miami, we were headed back to Cuba for another try. The skies were a little clearer and the pilots said: “We see the runway! We’re landing!” Then, the wheels hit the ground and everyone cheered. As soon as we stepped off that plane into the airport, the excitement grew stronger. “Holy Moly, we’re in Cuba!”
We met with our Cuban national who wished us a wonderful time in Cuba and connected us to our tour organizer, Amy, from Cuba Scuba Tours. We were so excited to see all of the old cars, but be warned, they don’t like you to take pictures on airport grounds, even outside in the parking lot. So hold off your picture taking. There will be more old cars to take pictures of.
We were off on our bus to the city of Havana. Our plans to go straight southwest to Maria La Gorda to go diving were postponed due to the hurricane. So we switched our schedule and spent a few days in Havana first. Driving through Cuba from the airport was so exciting. Seeing this country for the first time was amazing. There were old cars everywhere, old gas stations, old buildings.
You could just see the history there. There was some damage as this was a bad hurricane year and a big one had just hit Havana. We learned that the government helps restore all the buildings, but it takes so long to get to so most people try to fix up the buildings themselves. Most people live with their extended families in the same household.
We were headed straight for dinner after our long travels. We arrived
Lovely locals open up their homes and run a sort of bed and breakfast. It is a great way to experience the culture. Now, my Spanish has gotten a little bad over time so we had a fun time playing a sort of charades game with our host to talk. After a great night’s sleep, we were welcomed to a nice breakfast on the balcony. We were just watching the hustle and bustle of kids going to school in their uniforms, adults going to work. It was nice.
A few of us took a walk down the street to the “wifi” park where we were told to just wait and someone will approach you to sell you a card. Don’t get me wrong, being in a place with no wifi was a great relief from social media. However, I knew my parents would want to know I was safe. So a guy approached us and we bought our cards for about $3. You had to stay in the park for the wifi. The walk to and from the park was an experience. There would be beautiful houses next to rundown abandoned ones.
How did we know where we were going? There’s a nice app called map me that you download before your trip that gives you access to a map of Havana with no wifi or cell service requirements. After our nice morning stroll, we met with the rest of our group and were off on a tour of Old Havana. It was a nice tour of very old history, old churches, local businesses, and a way of life. We even went to an armory that had many of Castro’s arms from his house. There were kids playing soccer in the streets, women taking a break seated on stairs, men selling their local cuisine from a cart…. It was business as usual in Cuba and we were happy to be witness to their culture.
Things to do
We visited Fusterlandia, a wonderful house made of art by local artist Fuster, who we were lucky to catch a glimpse of. Another exciting trip was a tour of Havana by way of
Afterwards, we were given a delightful dinner and show by a local dance studio. After our welcome drinks, we were seated for food and dance. The kids were amazing dancers! We ended the night at a jazz club where one of our very own was brought on stage to play the bongos. Another night in Havana we visited the bar Ernest Hemingway would visit, El Floridita. We had some amazing Mojitos. That night a few of us got a “New York city cab ride” experience back to our casas. We thought for sure we would be in a couple car accidents. Wow! I think one of my friends filmed it.
Cruisin through Cuba
The next morning we woke up with excitement for our 5 hour drive down to Maria La Gorda where we would stay for a few days of diving in the Caribbean. Before we left the city, we stopped at a cigar factory for a tour. What an operation! We even learned of a side business for an interesting gentleman. Haha (sorry inside joke)
On our way down to Maria La Gorda, we were taken through the lush countryside. Cuba has really big conservation efforts that were very evident during this drive. We passed through a small town where everyone was staring at this big bus going through town because most of them got around via horse and wagon. Every house we passed had a horse outside. At one point, we were stuck in traffic because we were behind a horse and wagon waiting for the tractor to pass on the other side.
Maria La Gorda
Upon arrival to our resort, we were greeted with armed military. All the hotels in Cuba are government owned and operated. This did not bother us one bit. This is just how they operate. As we turned in, there it was: the big beautiful blue Caribbean Ocean! A few of us could not contain our excitement. We grabbed our masks and snorkels and were off for a swim! We were barefoot and learned we narrowly missed stepping on sea urchins. Ouch. After dinner, drinks on the sand, playing with the cats and dogs (this place was raining cats and dogs), and a little ping pong, we had a great night’s sleep.
The next morning we opened our door to find a horse grazing in the grass.
We were off to the boat located at the resort. Side note: Cubans are not allowed on boats so our dive operators have special permits that allow them to take us boat diving. All of the dive sites were so far from the resort, 1 minute was the shortest and 5 minutes was the longest boat ride. Yes, I was being sarcastic. We did one dive each morning, had a surface interval on the beach at our resort, then another dive. The water was clear, even though a hurricane had been through a few days earlier. We did many swim throughs where you would be in sandy bottom at 30 feet or so then go through a swim through full of coral, fish, and lobster and come out staring at the deep blue, a wall that goes down probably thousands of feet. It was so beautiful!
As part of our humanitarian trip to Cuba, we were doing some fish counting for REEF. We were also taken by the coral farms where they are growing pieces of coral that will then be planted on the ocean floor for growth. An effort to save the coral reefs!
One night we also did a
We also saw crabs and some eels. As we were ending the dive, the underwater mosquitoes were attacking our lights! Little plankton everywhere! I was one of the last ones out of the water and had to turn off my light to avoid being attacked. But before I turned off my light, I shined it down at the sand only to see another lobster ”running” on the sand. I was laughing underwater.
We were greeted at the surface by a huge rainstorm. Luckily, it was still kind of warm on this October night. As we docked at the resort we ran to get inside and rush to dinner. Even after I showered I had plankton in my hair! Grosse! I mean it. They swarmed us.
Diving in Cuba was truly a beautiful experience. The reef looked very healthy. The fish were abundant. There were lionfish everywhere, but we learned that on later trips the crew was killing them. In case you don’t know, lionfish are an invasive species and kill the reef life so killing the lionfish is a must in these waters. I even got to do a little salsa dancing underwater. I will leave the pictures and videos here to do the rest of the explaining.
On our bus ride back to Havana, we stopped at a tobacco farm. We were given lunch and the full tour. We watched them roll the tobacco leaves, we saw the tobacco fields, and where they hang the leaves to dry. It was interesting to learn the whole process. We were even able to buy a few cigars there to take home legally!
Our last evening in Havana was spent at the Hotel de Nacional for drinks near the water and a little music. We then danced the night away on the Malecon. After one last night back in our casas, some of us went back to Old Havana to visit the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed while he wrote several of his novels. He had beautiful views of the city from his room. The roof of the hotel offered views of the entire area including the ocean. This was a great place for us to end our tour of Cuba.
We were off to the airport with a sense of warmth and excitement, filled with memories of a lifetime experience. The people of Cuba were so amazing. They opened their homes and hearts to us so that we could learn about their culture. Leaving Cuba and arriving in America were very easy. I would go back in a heartbeat! Cuba: Wonderful people, beautiful land, stunning diving.