Maria La Gorda, February 2016

Maria La Gorda means Maria the fat one in spanish. Quite who Maria was, I don't know but I had heard it was one of the best scuba diving locations in Cuba. The only problem is that it is in the middle of nowhere and getting there isn't easy. I tried various websites and was quoted as much as £427 for a transfer because I was alone. Eventually I booked the accommodation and diving with Scuba en Cuba because they answered promptly.

The people who ran the casa particular in Havana said I should go to Viñales and get a collective taxi from there. I went to the bus terminal for Viazul and after queuing for about half an hour managed to get a ticket but not until the afternoon. The terminal itself is nowhere near central Havana and it cost $5 just to get there.

It's a two lane road to Pinar del Rio. The road surface wasn't great. There were also horse and carts on it. My personal highlight was when a man in uniform waved a red flag at us. The bus stopped and then reversed about 250m back up the inside lane where a brief conversation ensued between him and the driver before we were again on our way.

It was 5:30 by the time we got to Viñales. Getting of the bus, there were lots of offers of accommodation. I explained I needed a cab and they got this guy with an official ID with taxi on it. He had pink trousers, a pink shirt and a matching pink sunburnt face. He said it would cost $150. I said I'd only pay $100 maximum and he went off to make some calls before saying he'd found someone who's be there in 15 minutes. It would have been cheaper to go earlier in the morning as I could have got a collective taxi. Viñales looked an interesting place up in the limestone hills so this would have been a good option if I'd had time.

The taxi ride was uneventful apart from cyclists and horse and carts with no lights looming out of the darkness. The driver said he'd take me back to Havana for $100 but I didn't know when the dive times were, so I took his number. Everything was prepaid at the hotel apart from my equipment hire which I had to pay $70 for in cash as the card machine was not working. They did change money but they were reluctant to change my pound notes as they didn't recognise them though they eventually did do it.

The hotel is the only thing at Maria La Gorda. I was booked on a full board basis. There was a buffet breakfast and dinner neither of which were very inspiring or very hot. When you compare it to the quality of food that you get in family run restaurants in Cuba, it was quite poor. Nowhere else served me chopped up frankfurters with white rice, for instance. I never found out where my included lunch was supposed to be though there was a restaurant where you could get pizza for $6 and it was much better than the buffet.

My room was fine. It had a big bathroom, balcony, TV though I couldn't tell you what channels were available and air con. I never switched on the air con as it wasn't that warm in the evenings. A jumper was a good idea both for warmth and to cover up your skin from the numerous mosquitoes.

The dive boat went out at 8am, 10:30am and 3:30pm. The morning dives were to 25-30m, the afternoon ones were shallower at 15m. I'd booked a 6 dive package and did 5 mornings and one afternoon. There was no need to book. You just turned up at the specified time. The kit was mostly Scubapro. There were 3mm shorty wetsuits. There were 3 boats though I was always on the larger one. The others were used for excursions and full day trips. It was quite busy with up to 30 people on board though it never felt cramped and the boat rides were never more than 15 minutes.

Diving was done in groups of 8 with a guide. The boat moored on permanent mooring sites. There would be sand at about 15m, then the reef would rise up to about 10m away from the shore before dropping off into the deep. The visibility was always 30+m.

The wall itself had a few swim throughs. There was rarely anything overhead but there some quite tight splits in the coral that we swam through. The coral all looked healthy. I remember thinking that there weren't a lot of fish on the first dive but this certainly wasn't true on subsequent ones. There were schools of fish including the usual creole wrasse, grunts and sargeant majors.

On the 6 dives, I saw a couple of turtles and an eagle ray. The big highlight was when a hammerhead shark swam past us and then circled back a couple of times checking us out. This was not an unusual sighting there as they'd seen one the day before I arrived.

If I had any complaint, it would be that the dives were a bit short. We'd start coming up at 40 minutes, so they'd be about 45 minutes into total with the safety stop, which I'm pleased to say was always enforced. I was coming out with over 80 bar on each dive, though as the water was 26C, it was getting a bit chilly at the end of the second dive.

I found the dive operation to be professional with reasonable equipment and they stuck to safe diving practices. OW divers were restricted to 18m and there was plenty to see at that depth.

The evenings were very quiet. There was a bar but it was practically empty after about 9pm.

When it came time to leave, the hotel wanted $175 for a transfer to Havana so I phoned my taxi driver. This was somewhat easier said than done. My roaming mobile didn't connect. I did manage to send a text though he didn't reply and in the end, I bought a $5 phone card and used a public phone. It took a number of attempts but eventually I got through.

Maria La Gorda could be summed up as great diving but a complete pain to get to. If you're in a group, then you can share a collectivo taxi, but if you're not, they expect you to pay the full amount and it's far more than you can arrange yourself. The mosquitoes are evil there. Make sure you take plenty of repellent.