Santa Lucia, Cuba, October/November 1999

J F M A M J J A S O N D
Temp/F 79 79 80 84 86 89 87 86 87 84 80 79
Sunshine/hours 6 5 6 7 8 9 9 6 5 5 5 5
Rain/inches 3 2 2 2 4 6 5 5 6 7 3 2

The flight was with Monarch. It wasn't too bad, though it did take longer than it's supposed to because of strong head winds. It should take about 9 hours. On the way out, the plane stops at Varadero and then goes onto Holguin. It's only supposed to stop at Varadero for about an hour, but the refuelling and re-catering typically takes about twice that long.

Map of Cuba

Santa Lucia is on the north, Atlantic coast of Cuba. It's not really that close to anywhere and so is not a very good choice of destination for anyone who wants to see the sights. The nearest town is a place called Nuevitas, which is on the opposite bank of a large lagoon. There used to be a ferry, but it broke down and they couldn't get the spare parts. There's not a lot in Santa Lucia, mainly there are just hotels, though there is a residential area nearby.

Around Santa Lucia are salt flats where you can spot flamingos at the right time of day. However, these are also the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. I don't normally get bitten that badly, but I got plenty of bites this time. Repellent is essential though I still managed to get bites anywhere I didn't spray, like my face and even the palm of my hand.

The journey from Holguin airport took about 3 hours by bus. There is a nearer airport at Camagüey, but most people who got off in Holguin were staying in Guardalavaca, which is much nearer. The bus was a modern, air-conditioned vehicle. The journey took so long because of the slow, local traffic and because there were a lot of potholes in the road after Camagüey.

As we drove through the countryside, it was fairly obvious we weren't in the richest country in the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, petrol has been in extremely short supply in Cuba. So trucks have been converted to makeshift buses and horse drawn carts are also widely used, as are bicycles. The houses are very basic, but I've seen worse in Mexico.

We were staying at the Cuatro Vientos hotel. When we arrived, we were so tired that we just had dinner and then crashed out. I couldn't get the air conditioning in the room to work, but at that stage I was past caring. Next morning, we had the meeting with our rep. Of the 4 couples who turned up to the meeting, half of us had non-functioning air conditioning. So they sent someone around to look at the unit and, when he discovered he couldn't fix it in 10 minutes, they decided to change our room. So there was no real problem. Most of the sinks and baths don't have plugs. So it's a good idea to take your own. The lid of the Cuban insect repellant spray is conveniently the right size for the bath. The other facilities in the room included a fridge and a television. The electricity was 220V and the plugs were North American.

At the meeting, our rep gave us a long list of all the things that Sunworld don't recommend. This included taking any internal flights on Soviet made aircraft, hiring a car, hiring a motorbike and using the dive school. However, most of their trips, including the Havana day trip, did involve a flight on an Antonov. We didn't go, but everyone who did said it was quite a frightening experience mainly because they're very noisy on takeoff. They also vibrate rather a lot.

We were told that diving wasn't recommended for two reasons. The first was that the dive school was ACUC and not PADI, which is an interesting slant on the "which agency" question. PADI, of course, are not allowed to operate in Cuba because of US law. The second reason was that the equipment was poor and "held together with sellotape".

We were staying on an all-inclusive basis. Most drinks were included except champagne and the 7-year old rum. There were 4 main bars, though one of them was shut during the first week. In addition there was a disco and a piano bar which opened after 11pm and were not included in the all-inclusive package. I don't know what they were like, because we never went. The bars didn't open until 10am, which was a bit of a nuisance because we normally started sitting by the pool at 9am and there was nowhere to get a soft drink. The favourite drinks were cocktails, which inevitably were mostly rum based. For the few guests not on an all-inclusive package, the drinks weren't cheap. Most long drinks were about US$3-4. Bottles of water were also not included, though at US$2 for a 1.5 litre bottle, they weren't that expensive.

Windy beachMeals were served buffet style in the restaurant. I didn't think the food was too bad, though if you're a big fan of vegetables, you'd probably disagree. Lunch and dinner were both accompanied by a salad bar, though it did seem to be a bit limited. They did have some lovely sprouts on a couple of occasions and I did try the peas once but they were stone cold. Normally there was a choice of three different meats. Pork was the most common, but we also had beef, turkey and chicken. Apart from the nights when we had salmon, the fish wasn't that good. It was always a bit dry. The potatoes were usually boiled, and often with bits of bacon or sausages mixed in, so probably not ideal for vegetarians.

Breakfast had the usual choices of bacon, eggs, pancakes, fruit and cold meats. They also had some cereals though none I could recognise. A chef was on hand to cook omelettes except for the day the grill packed in. Coffee and fruit juice were also available. Tea bags, including mint and camomile, were provided but the supply of hot water wasn't very reliable and it wasn't boiling either.

Food was also available at the snack bar from 10:00am to 6:00pm, though the all-inclusive package didn't cover lunch time from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, which was no big deal. They served burgers, chips and pizzas. The menu had some marvellous mistranslations in it. The "Tocineta" pizza was described as "lard". Tocino is actually the Spanish for bacon.

Satellite television was available in the room and on a big screen in the snack bar. The channels available weren't the premium ones and included VH1, Discovery, CNN and HTV. HTV is the Latin American equivalent of MTV. It was usually on in the bar, and the songs were repeated quite often, so they became very familiar after two weeks. Unfortunately, when it rained heavily, all the digital channels lost the signal, though CNN was still OK as long as you didn't mind some snow.

Every night, when the weather permitted, there was some form of entertainment. On some nights they had a band. The music was normally quite dated and had a 1950s "big band" feel to it. On other nights, they had traditional Cuban dancing, which doesn't particularly interest me. Even the sight of women jiggling about frenetically couldn't hold my attention for too long.

The weather during our stay wasn't particularly kind to us. October is supposed to be quite wet, but we didn't arrive until the last couple of days of the month and November is supposed to be much drier. Unfortunately the 1999 hurricane season went on until quite late. We didn't suffer from any hurricanes, but we had more than our fair share of tropical storms. On one day it started raining very heavily at 9am. It didn't stop until 4pm and then it started again at 8pm. Several inches fell and we probably had almost as much rain that day as is supposed to fall for the whole of November.

For a country that often has this sort of weather, the hotel didn't really seem designed to cope with it. The dining room was at the end of a path that sloped slightly downhill. So even a quick burst of heavy rain meant that the water came in under the door. The snack bar had a ceiling, but had pillars rather than walls on most sides, and there weren't any storm shutters or blinds that could be pulled down to keep the worst of the rain out.

The weather severely curtailed the amount of diving I was able to do. Although it only really rained for four days, it was often windy. As we were on the Atlantic coast, there was often quite a big swell. The extensive barrier reef meant that the waves didn't get much more than a ripple on the beach, but it was a different story out on the reef itself.

I had taken almost all my equipment with me, so I wasn't unduly worried about the warnings from our rep. However, their equipment didn't look that bad and it certainly wasn't held together with sellotape. I've seen a lot worse. Unlike Bali, no one was tying knots in straps because the clips had fallen off. Most of it looked like it was only a couple of years old, though it had seen quite a lot of use. Personally, I would take my own regulator and gauges. I'd be reasonably happy using the other stuff.

I only used their tanks and their lead weights. I take my own weightbelt because I know it's got a decent, metal buckle and it's the right length. They had a variety of tanks including steel 10 and 12 litre tanks and 10l aluminium ones. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the steel tanks had 200 bar DIN valves with inserts that allowed them to also be used with A-clamp regs.

The waiver form was pretty standard though, unlike other operations, it didn't make you sign away your rights even if the instructor/guides were negligent. It did make you agree to do no-decompression diving and to limit your depth to 40m. It didn't ask that many questions, not even your total number of dives, and you weren't required to do a checkout dive. The no-deco rule seemed to be widely ignored, though I don't think anyone racked up a serious amount.

The price was around US$30. The more dives you did, the slightly cheaper it became. Night dives were US$42 and the shark dive was US$70. Equipment hire was free for the winter season, which started from September 1st.

When the weather allowed, they did a dive at 9am and another at 1pm on one of their two small boats. They also had a big boat but I was rarely on that. It seemed to be exclusively used by divers from another hotel who used to arrive on a bus every morning. I never really found out what was going on.

The first dive was to the Alta Gracia wreck. We started off on the reef, which was terraced in three levels. The lowest level was about 40m and the second level was at 12m. We spent most of the dive on the vertical part of the wall between it two. The reef was quite healthy, though I was a bit surprise to see some bleaching on some plate corals. There were loads of whip corals, big fans and sponges. The fish life was quite good with snappers, blue striped grunts, blue tangs, surgeonfish, grouper, angel fish and parrot fish quite common. The visibility was over 30m (100ft), which I thought was pretty amazing considering how bad the weather had been on the previous two days. I wore a 3mm shorty, and didn't feel cold, though I don't think I would've wanted to wear anything less.

Towards the end of the dive we came to the wreck which was quite interesting. It didn't have that much growth on it, so it probably wasn't that old. The propeller was still intact and you could swim in and out of the wheelhouse. We had a maximum depth of 25.5m (85ft) and the dive time was 55 minutes. This was pretty much the standard profile of most of the dives. Some were a little deeper and some were a bit shorter. The DM always did a safety stop and ascended nice and slowly. However, there was very little buddy system discipline. Most people didn't even have a set buddy and just dived in the group. The groups were usually about 8-10 people. I tended to go down with the group and then pick someone to dive with underwater. Not exactly ideal, but after a minute underwater, you can spot the people who know what they're doing and they were quite happy to dive with me too.

The next four dives I did were fairly similar. There were a couple of caverns that were quite interesting. They were in about 35m (115ft) and quite large. The ceilings were 8-10 metres above the floor and a whole group of 8 could comfortably have a look around them at once. We also dived a site called Este 120, which had an interesting swim through. You went through the whole and came to a T-junction. The right hand tunnel was too narrow but you could get through the left one and exit out through the roof. Inside the tunnel were some rather nervous glass fish.

The next day both the 9am and 1pm dives were cancelled because of the wind. As the forecast was much the same for the following day, I decided to sign up for the shark dive which would definitely go ahead because of its sheltered location. The shark dive was always done in the channel between the sea and the lagoon. There were only three people booked on the dive, a Spanish couple, and myself. They seemed nice enough, if a little loud. I have this personal theory that all Spanish people are born with normal hearing, but constant shouting makes them deaf at an early age, so they find it necessary to shout at people sitting next to them. So we set off in a decrepit minibus and bumped along the mostly unmade roads through the salt flats until we came to the channel.

Windy beachThe water looked very clear and it was calm despite the wind. There was a guard post for the Frontier Guard and a watchtower complete with a bored looking soldier equipped with a telescope and various searchlights. Two of the staff went in first to set things up and then we entered the water from the shore. We descended by the side of a wreck and there was a big, ugly looking jellyfish near us in the water. The visibility was about 20m (66ft). I was supposed to be diving with a member of staff, but the Spanish woman was having trouble with her buoyancy and ended up being led by the hand, so I dropped back to keep an eye on her husband.

On the bottom we lay on our fronts in a line of four on the sand at 26m (87ft) whilst a DM fed the fish. Initially there was a very big ocean trigger fish, some queen trigger fish, a large grouper and lots of sergeant majors. Then the sharks appeared out of the gloom. There were two of them and they were bull sharks. According to my fish book bull sharks are "responsible for many fatal attacks". These didn't appear that aggressive, but they were 3m (10ft) long, which is certainly big enough. They came in for the first couple of fish, but that was all they really seemed to be interested in. There had been a shark feed the day before too, so perhaps they weren't that hungry. They patrolled back and forward for quite a bit and we only had a couple of minutes no-deco left when we started out ascent. We leisurely ascended and looked around the wreck on the way up. I just managed to avoid going into deco though I heard the others' computers beep as they went into it. We hung around at around 5m for a few minutes and climbed up the ladder back onto the shore.

It was certainly a worthwhile experience, though whether it was worth the US$70 price is debatable. I think that's pretty steep for a shore dive of any description.

The next day the weather was still bad and when I went along at 9am, it looked like we weren't going to get a dive at all. After hanging around for 15 mins, they said we were, though we were going to go on the big boat. So we climbed onto a bus which had originally come from Holland and still had Dutch adverts on the wall. It was practically a museum piece. Then we set off through the salt flats to the channel again where the larger boat was tied up.

On the boat it was explained that we were going to do a drift dive along the channel. I was actually assigned a buddy for a change. The DM accompanied the Spanish woman, whose hand he ended up holding for most of the dive.

The dive itself was really nice. When we got in the current was going in from the sea towards the lagoon. Halfway through it dropped off and then it changed direction and started going out. The visibility was about 20m (66ft), and the wall was shaped into three terraces. There were lots of overhangs to look around in and the fish life was good. I saw clouds of sergeant majors as well as blue tangs, surgeonfish, queen angelfish, squirrelfish, four-eyed butterfly fish, blue striped grunts, pork fish, trumpetfish, a spotted moray and plenty of others that I didn't recognise.

As we came up to the top of the reef there were lots of big limestone and coral boulders covered in fans and lots of coral. Our maximum depth was 26m (87ft) and the total dive time was 53 mins. My buddy was getting low on gas, otherwise we could have had a bit longer. I think we definitely got the better part of the deal, because everyone else on the boat had gone in on the other side of the channel in two groups of 10-12.

I thought that this dive, which was to be my last, was one of the best ones there. What I couldn't understand was why we hadn't done it before. It is current dependant, but it would have been diveable on some of the days when dives were cancelled. I can't help feeling that, if the dive centre had been privately owned, they would have made more effort to lay on more dives even when the weather was bad. But since it is of course owned by the state, they just seemed to shrug their shoulders and cancel them.

Visiting Cuba was certainly an experience. After all there aren't that many communist countries left in the world. The resort was much like any other beach resort really. It was only on the bus journey that you saw the political posters and slogans about the revolution and Cuban independence. There were some security guards at the hotel but they were mostly unarmed and didn't have much to do. Unlike some other parts of the world, you don't get pestered by people trying to sell you things. I was offered cigars a couple of times. The black market ones are often fake, so buyer beware. Crime against tourists is uncommon. The penalties are apparently quite severe. One couple told us that the previous year there were prostitutes soliciting for business on the beach, but the authorities cracked down and I didn't see any about.

As tourists, you're not really affected by the embargo, though when things break they don't get fixed very quickly. Foreigners have to pay for everything in US dollars. They won't accept pesos. Visa and Mastercard are accepted as long as they're not issued by American banks. The dive shop and the hotel charged about 4% commission for using them. Travellers cheques attracted much the same commission rate. American Express cards and travellers cheques are not accepted. All the rooms in the hotels had safe deposit boxes, which could be hired for US$2 a day, so taking cash is probably the best bet.

There wasn't really that much to buy apart from rum and cigars. The rum was very cheap. White rum cost US$3 a bottle, the darker 3 year old rum was only about $6. I did think about getting myself a Che Guevara T-shirt, but the ones I saw were poor quality. It's advisable to take all your toiletries with you. Shampoo is available but they only had one brand and it was about $6 a bottle. Suntan lotion was similarly priced. Local craftsman did have small stalls in the hotel where you could buy souvenirs. They mostly sold woodcarvings and pottery.

One thing that did impress me was the linguistic ability of the staff in the hotel. All of the bar staff, restaurant staff and reception staff spoke reasonable English. They also didn't seem to have much difficulty understanding Italian and some German. Service was also reasonable.

The holiday was reasonably priced. It cost £914 each. This included the price of the tourist card but not the $20 departure tax. I did think it was a bit of a liberty having to pay both on the way in and on the way out. Still, there aren't many places you can go on an all-inclusive package in the Caribbean for that price. We originally booked a holiday to Cayo Largo, but cancelled it after being advised of extensive hotel re-development on the island. We would have got the holiday a bit cheaper if we'd booked earlier.

I think I'd go to Cuba again, but probably at a different time of year. Still you can always be unlucky with the weather in most places in the world.