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CIDA Cuba Land & Sea Adventure-December 29, 2016 to January 7, 2017

Trip report for Cuba Land & Sea Adventure with Oceans for Youth Foundation and Channel Islands Dive Adventures.  It was a People to People group trip on Dec. 29, 2016 to Jan. 7, 2017. Detailed trip report by Ken Kollwitz

Cuba, everyone asks “How was it” and all I can say is what a learning experience it was. I will say after traveling to other places in the world where some were third world countries with much poverty with people living in shacks barely able to support themselves and little interference from their governments to the other extreme in Cuba where the government runs and dictates just about everything-which is better? I don’t know but I do know I am so FORTUNATE to have been born into a good middle class family in the good ole USA and proud of it!

So what was the best part of the trip? For myself I would have to say the people, the architecture of the buildings, the music and the countryside were all beautiful and the trip aboard the Jardine Aggressor was equally as great!

Cuba has been in turmoil a long time and you can easily get a sense of it right away traveling through Havana from the airport to the beautiful Iberostar Parque Central Hotel where we stayed our first 2 nights before moving on to the Jardine Aggressor. Our first taste of frustration was at the Havana airport. It is a modern airport and I saw planes from Russia and Italy while coming in and things were going good till it came time to get our luggage. It turns out average time to get all your luggage from the very small area could easily be 2 hours. One piece would show up and then the other maybe 20 or more minutes later. It gets to the point when you think it is lost just keep waiting because if you go to the lost and found line you probably have another 2 hour wait from start to finish. One person did lose one piece of their luggage which showed up a day later and trying to buy the things he needed was a whole other story. On our return to the airport for our departure home they had no running water and I was told by some kids stranded in the airport due to the shooting in the Fort Lauderdale airport that there was no running water for at least 26 hours and this included the restrooms.

We need to remember that Europeans, Canadians and most everyone else have been able to travel to Cuba for a long time now and much of the infrastructure including the airport in Havana, the roads, their economy and more has not changed much for many years and I sure don’t see many change in the years to come. In fact I see somethings becoming worse from the influx of people like myself and our Channel Islands Dive Adventures group that traveled there.

One thing for sure is that the Cuban people are very resourceful and have done an amazing job at living with so little but the thought of everything we have in the states was also a bit overwhelming. I guess it is what you get used to but with the Cuban government involvement they just don’t have many choices.

The trip our group of 18 was on was a People to People trip with the Oceans for Youth Foundation. It was a very well run trip with us staying at the very nice Iberostar Parque Central Hotel while in Havana. The hotel looks like a 5 star but with the maintenance our room could have used I would call it a 3.0 star hotel. The room was spacious and nice with a comfy bed. The rooms had 220 volt 2 prong receptacles and you could get a free internet card while staying there but most had a hard time logging in. In fact internet and phone service was something that didn’t work for most everyone the entire trip. The main lobby and gathering area was beautiful as well as the bar. They also had some good music in the evenings but with our schedule there wasn’t much time to enjoy it for long. The Oceans for Youth Foundation had us going and I know some of it was based on government rules for group trips.

With all the frustration coming in at the airport we had about 15 minutes to check in, get our stuff in the rooms, cleanup from our long travel and be ready to leave with the group for dinner. All the buses used were very nice and comfortable and our tour guide while in Havana was Damien. Damien and our bus driver Billy did a good job of keeping us on time to all the planned events and meals out. While in the buses we would always get info on Cuba and the guides were good about answering any questions we might have and being the Americans who are just now able to go to Cuba we had many. All our meals out were to small restaurants that were very nondescript from the outside. In fact the first night we went to the Ivan Chef Justo restaurant entering through a small door off a side street with a very large Cuban guy standing out front like he was there to keep unwanted people out. Inside was a mulita level building with lots of narrow stairs leading different landings where tables were set with linins and china. The room was decorated with lots of pictures and antiques and the plates were all different but nice and looked like they were from the 50’s. One thing that surprised me was that everyplace we ate they used all the silverware and plates that you would at a formal dining venue along with appetizers, salad or soup, main entrees and desert.

After dinner we walked the short ways back to the hotel realizing that there aren’t many lights on in the city when dark and there were quite a number of potholes and big curbs to watch out for and lots of people out enjoying the nice weather we were having while in Cuba. One thing we learned quickly is when you cross the streets in Cuba people and probably animals do not have the right away. The streets were not jam packed like in other countries because owning a car and getting supplies to keep them running can be a very difficult. Just like we see in the movies and pictures there were plenty of old American cars but most had many changes under the hood and there wasn’t much American too them anymore. There were other old cars from China, Russia and Europe and a number of motorcycles with side cars attached to them.

Breakfast was every morning at the restaurant and I have never seen so much to choose from as we had at the hotel breakfast buffet. It was a bit overwhelming to me and the sad part was knowing that most every Cuban could never enjoy the same type of breakfast buffet.

The following morning we had a presentation at 9:00 am by Dr. Julio Baisre of the Marine Fisheries Department who gave us a very interesting talk about the Cuban marine ecosystem and how creating marine parks work only if you can enforce the rules. Cuba now has about 15% of Cuban waters in marine parks and would like to increase that to 25%.

Afterwards we left by bus to Old Havana and Plaza Vieja for a walking tour learning about the historical buildings and their reconstruction ending up at Plaza de Armas and Castillo de la Real Fuerza which in English means Castle of the Royal Force. Next stop was lunch at Atieler which was good and had a collection of old radios and some nice yard art outside. We then had a bus tour of the city ending up at Morro Castle for some scenic views of Havana and some cigar shopping. On our city tour I realized Havana was a very odd mix of old and newer buildings, homes and businesses that were anywhere from nice to in total disrepair and crumbling apart and this could be all on one block. It was clean and I saw very little trash and one wall at a street corner with graffiti on it so my take away was that the Cubans are very proud people!

After arriving at the hotel we had little time and my wife and I enjoyed a Mojito with a couple others on the trip before leaving for dinner at another interesting restaurant, La Casa. Dinner was very good and we had a trio playing music during dinner. After dinner we were off now to a nearby neighborhood for our neighborhood exchange which from what I understand is a government mandated requirement for groups like ours. We met in a basement where we watched a kids Jujitsu demonstration and then had a question and answer time with Damien our guide translating for us. The man speaking was very much focused and from what I understand he was an elected official of the People’s Council for Zone 7. Havana has over 100 Zones. We learned everyone goes into the Armed Forces unless going to college or physically unable to. Schooling is free as well as college. If you go for a degree the schooling is free and you receive a small salary while in school but you have to commit yourself to 1-2 years of community work. They get free housing although most look uninhabitable by the US standards. The speaker did give us some salary ranges (225-545) for some better paying jobs but he failed to tell us those payments were in Cuban pesos (CUP) and not Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) which is what everyone seems to use. CUP’s are worth about .05 cents US and the CUC is about .87 cents US.

You could tell our speaker was all for his way of life. We also talked to others that were not all for there way of life but it was something they just couldn’t overcome so they make the most of what they can with the little they have. In fact one person said living in Cuba was like living in the Stone Age!

Cuba has a centralized economy. The prices of goods and salaries are adjusted by the government and they give lots of subsidies and rations to somewhat help. To make things more difficult there are the two currencies used. Cubans get paid in CUP’s that is for Cubans only. With that currency you can purchase goods at government set prices. From what we found out talking to others there wasn’t even that much available for the Cubans to buy but I sure did see many Cubans dressed nicely so my guess there is a black market or they have things brought from the states or other countries.

Enough politics-The next morning we met early for our 6 hour bus ride to the harbor where we would board the Jardine Aggressor. The ride was long, the bus was nice and the views of the countryside, farmlands and sugarcane fields was beautiful. It was more flat with trees and fields with a few hills. There wasn’t much along the way except for some roadside stops and a few small towns. We made a couple stops to stretch our legs and one that wasn’t planned. It seems a group doing the same trip but boarding one of the Avalon’s boats had bus problems and were broke down. We stopped and picked up the remaining passengers and their luggage and of all groups most were from the So Cal area and some I knew through Facebook so I was finally able to meet them in person. What a small world!

We arrived at the end of what looked like the only road in a very small town and the bus was bigger than most all the houses. At the end of the road were all the boats which were mainly all liveaboard dive boats. The Jardine Aggressor is managed by the Avalon Company which started in the mid 90’s by an Italian guy named Pepe. They now have quite a large operation and the Jardine Aggressor is of course the newest addition with another Aggressor liveaboard expected to start service sometime around March 2017.

That evening we checked out our new home for the week, got situated, had our welcome briefing, figured out who would be in skiffs 1 & 2, enjoyed a nice cold drink and called it a night. The Jardine Aggressor was very nice and the great thing about Aggressor boats is they have high standards and no matter where you go they keep them up. The crew were all from the Avalon operation but had to learn new things to keep up the standards that Aggressor passengers have come to expect.

The boat is 110’ long and 22’ wide with 8 rooms all with private toilet and showers below deck along with the cleanest engine and compressor room I think I have ever seen. The main deck had the salon with 2 staterooms forward and the spacious dive deck in the back. Because we dived off skiffs the entire trip and the tanks with BCD’s stayed on the skiff there was way more room then we needed on the dive deck. There was also a large camera table with 3 shelfs giving everyone plenty of room for their toys. One very important room on the dive deck was the laundry room where all the “HOT TOWELS” would come from after rinsing from every dive.

The 1st upper deck had the dining area with awesome views, a hot tub out back and the kitchen just forward of the dining area. Also the crew and captains quarters were up front on the 1st upper deck and the 2nd upper deck was the sun deck. We had a crew of 13 that did an outstanding job and they were all very accommodating. The only problem was our Cuban wasn’t very good or their English so sometimes understanding what was said was hard especially for the dive briefings. It wasn’t really much of a problem because after a while what was expected of us during a dive was the same. Follow one DM and the other would be in the back and very seldom did they have to say or motion for you not to do something. They did do some great drawings of the dive sites and listed a number of things we “MIGHT” see.

It was beautiful on our first day of diving and an excellent way to start the New Year! Each day was more or less the same with 3 day dives and a night or early evening dive. There was no way to get 5 dives in like some other trips because it took time to get to and from the dive sites diving from the skiffs. Breakfast was at 6:00, lunch usually at 12:30 and dinner at 6:30 or 7:30 depending on our last dive. The food was much different than I expected because Cubans are not Mexicans or Spanish and they do not care for spicy foods and they learned to use what they could easily get. For breakfast things were setup very casual and they had continental breakfast stuff out or you could order something like omelets, eggs & bacon and so on. For lunch it was buffet style with some great soups, usually white rice and 2 types of main dishes with beef, chicken, fish or lobster. Lobster was a typical thing and they used it like we would chicken. There was usually a casserole or two and some veggie dishes and to top everything off desert was always served. For dinner it was all about elegance with nice linen tablecloths and napkins and no buffet. Most all meals were Cubans dishes and they were great about accommodating any special food requests or dietary needs. Our two chefs Leo & Anibal did a great job along with the help of Ama, Yoa and Yoel

On Saturday, New Year’s eve we traveled about 5 hours from the port of Jucaro through the Caballones Channel where we spent the night. Sunday, New Year’s Day and our first day diving we spent in the Boca De Piedra area diving where we visited an island that had Cuban Hutia’s and small iguanas. The Hutia’s look like a cross between a rat, opossum and squirrel. This area is also where we snorkeled with Nino the crocodile. There were two others but they did not stay around long. I am sure the crocs could do lots of damage but it seemed as long as you didn’t try and grab it or put your hand into its mouth you were OK.

Monday morning we stayed in the same area diving and during our third dive the boat moved 23 miles to the Cachiboca area, the  furthest east we would go. While the boat was moved we did a dive and had a speedboat tour of the shallow mangroves and the Avalon base situated in a protected mangrove area. Here they had a large houseboat style floating lodge, boat docks and repair area and more. In the evening Andreas Castillo our biologist visited us and did a presentation about the Jardines de la Reina or the Gardens of the Queens. The Gardens of the Queens is about 72 miles long and lays 60 miles off the coast of Cuba. It is very large and extensive, comprising a chain of 250 virgin coral and mangrove islands. Fidel Castro, a scuba diving enthusiast himself, declared the Jardines de la Reina a national park in 2002, creating one of the largest marine reserves in the Caribbean. We learned that the Gardens of the Queens is so large that much still needs to be explored and researched and more work needs to be done to protect it. During our trip we covered about 50 miles of it.

Tuesday we did some deeper dives ending the last 20 minutes hanging out at 10’-25’ deep with the silky sharks and large groupers just below the skiff. Diving from the skiffs was easy and they were much larger than I expected. Both were about 20’ long fiberglass boats, had twin 150 hp outboards and easily held 10 divers plus the 2 DM’s that accompanied us on all dives. We did back rolls out, used the 2 large ladders to get back in and had a large camera area in the back. Easy diving!

Wednesday we moved twice during the day to the furthest west we would go ending up in the Punta Yana area. We were told this was an area they had only been to twice before. Here there was a barrier reef and the dive outside the reef wasn’t all that special but the dives within the barrier reef were awesome and diving this area would make me want to go back. There were lots of HUGE barrel sponges, color and more fish.

Thursday we stayed in the Punta Yana area for the first two dives doing Rainbow Reef which was probably my favorites. The reef had everything from large sponges and a healthy reef along sloped terrain that has seen little to no damage to lots of small fish and critters in the shallow area at the top shallow area of the reef. The night dive here was also one of the best with lots of basket stars, green eels and a number of octopus sightings. Our groups in both tenders were perfectly matched for the trip. Tender 1 had 8 divers (4 couples) and tender 2 had all the single people. Within the first 2 days everyone in tender 1 missed a dive or two and in tender 2, one person missed one dive due to ear problems and I missed one dive because I snorkeled with my wife while everyone else did their dive. For those that did all dives (8) they received the highest honor you could ever be bestowed-The Iron Diver award which I also received because as far as everyone was concerned I never missed a boat trip out with the group.

Friday was our last day diving the Gardens of the Queens and how sad for it to be over so soon. We did two dives before moving back to the harbor for the evening. Because my wife was a non-diver our cruise director Yoel set up a special snorkeling trip for just the 2 of us. Between dives he had tender 1 and a DM take us to what he called a “very special spot” and boy was he right. We both agreed it was the most pristine spot we have ever snorkeled in. There were large staghorn coral with sea fans growing everywhere including on the coral. We saw a large grouper and green eel hiding in the coral as well as the most fish I seen on the entire trip and all this within 5’-10’ deep. I am so lucky my wife requires little to keep her busy and that one snorkel trip really made her day!

After the last dive it was time to clean and pack everything because we would get our wakeup call at 3:00 am Saturday morning. That evening we watched the movie the crew made for us and it was fun to watch the highlights of our trip. We also watched a short slide show I put together with pictures and videos of anyone who wanted to share them.

Very early Saturday morning we boarded the bus for our 6 hour ride back to Havana. It was a quite trip with most everyone sleeping along the way. We made a stop to stretch and one for lunch at another restaurant in Havana. The restaurant was Lucecita and was an artsy type of place with 2 young musicians playing music and some very cool artwork around the compound. We had a detour along the way to the airport and watching the people and city from our very nice bus just made me wonder how everyone could seem so happy living the life they did and knowing very few if any would ever get the chance to travel outside of Cuba. We passed tractors pulling carts with tired looking men and other people selling what looked like meat from little shacks while waving the flies away. More sights of old crumbling houses and then next you would see what looked like a castle built in among everything else decaying from time taking its toll. There were also many houses and buildings wrapped in fencing making it impossible for someone to get in without being let in. Makes you wonder how bad the crime is or maybe it is to keep out unwanted animals? Occasionally you would see a billboard with slogans on them but all were about the government.

I think it is safe to say we all had an excellent time and our guide, bus drivers, crew on the Aggressor and biologist all did an exceptional job. The food was great although some was overcooked but then that is probably the Cuban way. The music was awesome and the crew had the best playlist I have ever heard and lucky me I came home with it. The one problem some of us did have (me included) was some gastro intestinal issues that seemed to happen more after we boarded the boat. Not sure what the cause was but I did let both the Aggressor Fleet and Oceans for Youth Foundation know. They had a desalination machine to make water and everything was very clean so my guess is it just was the different foods our bodies were not used to.

Would I go back is the big question? At first I would have said yes if I could fly into Santa Clara and spend the week on the newest Aggressor that will start operation in March 2017 diving the more further away locations but after looking at their website and seeing how much more that trip will cost for the new itinerary which is a shorter trip I would have to say no. I did receive an offer to spend a week traveling around Cuba with Andreas our biologist and that I will have to make happen. Seeing the real Cuba is what I am really after!

So what about the diving? I haven’t traveled extensively around the Caribbean but from the places I have been too such as Bonaire, Belize, Cozumel and Cayman Brac I would have to say it was about average except for a few sites I really liked. True there were sharks at some of the dives but found out later some of that was from feeding them for the European divers and we didn’t see any at places where that didn’t happen. There weren’t as many fish as I thought there would be and I saw the most at the place we snorkeled at. I did really enjoy seeing the basket stars on the night dives and we only seen a few turtles and rays but I will say some of the reefs had very little damage from storms with a good number of sponges and corals.

The bottom line is it is different and the culture is different and things can change at any time so get out and explore the world ASAP!

Thank you to Katie Yonker from Bluewater Travel for all her help and hard work following up on things for this trip. She gave excellent customer service and I would highly recommend her to others.

By Ken Kollwitz

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