If you wake up at 3am on a Saturday morning in Havana and you are fortunate enough to have a view of the Malacon (the walkway along the seafront, or promenade), you will find many of the younger adult Cubans sitting on the wall that divides the street from the sea. Couples kissing, friends laughing, probably having just left one of the downtown nightclubs and to them the night is still young. It is truly the city that never sleeps.
For me though my day was just starting, as in an hour it was time to meet our bus provided by the liveaboard company we were booked with (Avalon) to begin our 11 hour journey to the Gardens. Our destination, Jardines de la Reina (translated Gardens of the Queen) marine park is considered by many as one of the biggest treasures of the Caribbean. It’s connectivity between marine ecosystems means it has international importance and various bodies from all over the world conduct investigations and surveys here. Within the marine park there are some areas classified as ZUSRUP (Zones Under Special Regime of Use and Protection). This is a management classification of protected areas, with the aim of using them in a sustainable way, in places where tourism and conservation activities interact under special rules and strict regulations. A chain of 250 virgin coral and mangrove islands spanning 75 miles await the lucky divers and fishermen (all catch and release) fortunate enough to visit here. There are only a limited number of divers and fishermen permitted annually in the marine park (I couldn’t get a straight number while there, but it is highly controlled) which is part of how the government maintains that vital tourism/conservation balance.
True to the nature of most destinations in the Caribbean, the bus arrived on “island time” and at 425am we piled into the large modern motor coach that pulled up outside our hotel. Spacious and comfortable with reclining seats and individual climate control, it made the next 6 hours far more pleasurable. We stopped at a couple of other hotels picking up a small collection of other divers, a few fishermen and a handful of Avalon crew and then we truly hit the road. It was still pitch black so I dozed the first couple of hours. The journey was broken up by the odd bathroom break, the chance for coffee and a bit to eat and at around 10am what appeared to be a rest stop but surrounded by beautiful gardens and serving delicious Pina Coladas! Now it was daylight and having had a couple of rums for “breakfast” I could sit back and enjoy the view. We drove through small villages with locals going about their day, past fields being plowed by a lone farmer with a single ox, lush mountains were almost always part of the backdrop and before we knew it we were pulling into the port of Jucaro.
Unloading and checking in was extremely efficient and within a matter of minutes we were on the boat meeting our crew for the next week. We boarded on the dive deck and was asked to remove our shoes as the boat prefers no shoes as we move to our cabins or up and down the various levels of the boat. Anyone that knows me knows I will go barefoot every chance I get and they didn’t have to ask me twice! I kicked off my shoes and placed them in the designated spot and I didn’t touch them again for the next 6 days!
With our bags stowed in our cabin and some simple paperwork completed, we headed upstairs to the second deck for a meet and greet and a welcome drink. Cuba Libre! By my first sip, the boat was pulling out and we were on our way. Some people are put off with the thought of an 11 hour journey, but I really didn’t count the next 5 hours as traveling time. A combination of dining on a delicious lunch, doing a bit of socializing combined with lounging with your hair flying in the breeze while you have a couple of Mojitos and watch the world go by is hardly something that has to be endured.
By the time we pulled into the Gardens, we were relaxed with our bellies were full and had already began forming friendships yet were also well informed and all preliminaries out of the way. We arrived a couple of hours before sunset – long enough to soak in some of our surroundings. We had pulled up next to the Avalon Fleet’s floating hotel, Tortuga. A converted houseboat, she is now a permanently moored 8 room dive lodge in a small protected inlet. Tortuga is a more affordable option to the Avalon II liveaboard as the accommodations are not as grandiose, but offers the exact same diving opportunities throughout the week. Moored close by is Avalon’s diving center which includes equipment and supply storage, dive crew quarters, a repair station and much more. Other than this small collection of floating wooden buildings, there was nothing else as far as the eye could see other than ocean and small islands covered, and I mean covered in mangroves. Heaven.
After an amazing dinner where both the wine and the conversation flowed easily, serious decisions had to be made. Would I hang out in the lounge with a book? Stay in the dining area and put a small dent in the bottle of welcome rum they had provide the group? Perhaps sit on the main deck and start to go through my photos of the day before? I opted to head for the sundeck – a huge area of space which uses the full footprint of the boat littered with sun loungers and outlined each end with a large comfy couch and a hot tub as the center piece. The perfect spot at night for stargazing and to let all the stress of everyday life leave your body as realization creeps in that you are actually here. You are smack bang in the center of the place that has consumed you for months and that took an awful lot to get to long before you headed to the airport.
I am in the Gardens of the Queen. I have arrived!!!