Diving Varadero

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Varadero, Cuba

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Country: Cuba  Area: Cuba

Water Temp: 24 - 30°C (75 - 86°F)

Visibility: 25 - 50m (82 - 164 ft)

Depth Range: 5 - 300m (16 - 984 ft)

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Turquoise waters lap against white sandy beaches in Cuba’s number one resort town on the Hicacos Peninsula, 140km (75 miles) east of Havana.  A narrow headland, Hicacos Peninsula boasts one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in the Caribbean.  Palm leaf umbrellas and volleyball nets dot the 20km (11 miles) of shoreline.  Vendors push quaint wooden carts built on a base of bicycles down the beach offering fresh coconut water, jewelry, cigars and souvenirs.   In the early morning, fishermen can be seen wading into the waters off the beach to throw their cast nets for sardines.      

Because Varadero is a resort town, it is somewhat lacking in authentic Cuban cultural experiences.  For a true taste of Cuban culture, one simply needs to go a short distance to the small city (less than 150,000) of Matanzas.  Often referred to as the “Venice of Cuba”, the city surrounds three sides of the Bay of Matanzas, into which three rivers that intersect the city converge.  A labyrinth of seventeen bridges traverses these rivers.  Founded in the late 1600’s and ideally situated to take advantage of the sugar boom of the nineteenth century, the city is rich is historical sites and museums.

The northeast end of the peninsula is home of the Hicacos Point Natural Park, 3.12 sq. km (1.7 sq. miles) of ecological preserve.  Inside the preserve is Mangón Lake where over 50 species of birds and reptiles may be observed.  Several caves, including the 250m (820ft) long cave of Ambrosio, beckon the adventurer.  The remains of La Calavera (The Skull), a salt mine constructed by the Spanish, can still be seen.

Boats, Credit

Marine Conservation

In the mid-1990’s, the Cuban government established a cabinet-level environmental department.  Since that time, numerous environmental laws have been passed to protect Cuba’s natural resources.  Many highly educated scientists and economists are working on ways to build a sustainable tourist trade, one that minimizes negative effects on the land and marine ecosystems.

Approximately twenty-two per cent of total land space in Cuba is protected ecological reserve.

Climate

Cuba has a moderate, subtropical climate with an average of 330 days of sunshine per year.  While the average temperatures fluctuate very little (daytime highs of 25°C – 30°C (77°F - 86°F), night time lows of 17°C – 23°C (63°F - 73°F), the humidity and rainfall fluctuates greatly.  The wet season is from May through October with the wettest months being June, September and October. 

Hurricane season is from June through November, although the likelihood of a storm is greatest from August through November.  Cuba experiences a storm, on average, every two years. 

 
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The Diving

Waters surrounding Cuba are home to some of the most pristine marine ecosystems remaining on the planet.  Virgin coral reefs seem to erupt with staghorn, elkhorn, leaf, finger, flower and black corals, sea fans and sponges.  Sheer walls, caverns and shipwrecks provide a rare diversity of dive opportunities, including cave and night dives.  Hundreds of species of tropical fish and marine invertebrates, including angelfish, grouper, barracuda, lobster, and moray eels can be found here.

Blue fish,Credit

No modern commercial fishing methods, a lack of large-scale agricultural and urban runoff, and extensive government restrictions have allowed the coral reefs to flourish. Recognizing the importance of these virgin habitats, the Cuban government has declared many areas as protected marine reserves.  Boats are restricted from entering a number of sites for this reason.

Playa Coral is an easy shore dive over coral reefs.  Average visibility of 25m (82ft), max. depth of 20m (66ft), and no current make this a great site for the beginner or novice.  Remolcador Ruso is a shipwreck off the tip of Hicacos Peninsula.  This coral encrusted wreck lies on a sand bottom with depths from 18m-20m (59ft – 66ft) and visibility from 40m-50m (131ft – 164ft).

Parque Submarino Cayo is in Piedra del Norte underwater park.  Here a sunken war submarine lies on the bottom completely encrusted with corals, sponges, and sea fans, creating an ecosystem for hundreds of reef fish and other marine species.  In other areas of the park, old planes, yachts and frigates have been intentionally sunk to serve as structure for marine life and for recreational exploration.

Varadero underwater, Credit

Cave Saturno is a large cavern where salt and fresh water meets.  With a maximum depth of 20m (66ft), average visibility of 25m (82ft), and no currents, this is a dive any novice can enjoy.  The cavern is full of stalactites, stalagmites, and curious marine life that has adapted to low light.  

Protected from the prevailing winds and currents Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) provides calm waters and several uniquely different dive sites.  There are currently twelve dive sites in all.

Punta Perdiz is a wall dive reached by boat.  Hundreds of species of marine life blanket this steep wall.  Larger species such as barracuda and sharks are frequently seen here.  November is the best time to see the largest shark alive today, the whale shark.  With a maximum depth of 300m, this amazing dive is best reserved for the intermediate and advanced diver.  Cueva de los Peces is a cenote (cave) dive reached by boat.  This site has light currents, average visibility of 25m (82ft) and a maximum depth of 70m (230ft).  Extensive coral growth surrounds the cave at depth.  Shore dives from Playa Giron open up a world of lovely coral gardens to all levels of diving experience.  The growth of the corals begins at approximately 8m (16ft) creating tunnels, caverns, channels and terraces.  An abundance of tropical reef fish and invertebrates find shelter and safety here.

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How to Get there

Juan Gualberto Gómez International airport is served by many direct flights from Canada and Europe.  Car rentals, taxis, and buses are available at the airport.  The drive into Varadero takes fifteen minutes (10km) (5.4miles).

Welcome to Varadero! Credit

All hotels have taxi stands.  The more exclusive resorts have car rentals available, even 1950’s era classics.  Double-decker buses with an open top run on a regular schedule from the tip of the peninsula into downtown Varadero.

For the more adventurous, coco taxis (enclosed motorized trikes), mopeds, and horse drawn carriages are available.

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Where to Eat & Drink

There are many options for dining in Varadero.  Most, however, are part of an all-inclusive resort or hotel.  Independent restaurants and bars are not abundant.  That being said, there are a few that deserve mentioning.  At Varadero 60, one of Cuba’s top chefs prepares outstanding dishes of lobster, steak, fish, shrimp and chicken.  Flambée crapes finish off the meal.

For Italian cuisine, the Paladar Nonna Tina is the place to be.  But get there early, as it can get 

crowded.  Fresh and flavourful, their thin crust pizzas are a local favorite.  It’s hard to beat the laid-back atmosphere, local color, fresh pizza and Cristal beer.

Breakfast, Credit

Off the beaten path, Jesus Restaurante, La Fiesta del Carbon, is a hidden jewel.  This Cuban barbeque offers succulent lobster, fish, beef, and chicken grilled to perfection and served with salad, rice and beans, and plantain.  Don’t forget the Mojitos, Cuba’s signature drink, as you listen to the lovely voices of their singers.

Many nightclubs and shows are located within the all-inclusive resorts.  Located in the Hotel Internacional, one not to miss is the Cabaret Continental.  Gorgeous dancers, glamorous costumes that cover little, and saucy Tropicana-style music come together in this extravaganza.  Shows begin at 10pm five nights a week. 

With a centerpiece stage, split staircase and balconies, the Mambo Club is reminiscent of a time gone by.  It feels as though Al Capone might walk in at any moment.  The main dance floor is in front of the stage and usually filled with fast moving bodies.  Shows start late.  Cuban music comes to life when full bands and dancers take the stage. 

For the young party crowd, La Rumba is a steamy dance club where anything goes (including attire, it would seem).  

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Other Activities

Consistent trade winds make the waters around Varadero a sailing and kite surfing paradise.  Most of the resorts can assist you with equipment rentals, lessons, and excursions.    

La lagunilla de Parque Josone, Varadero, Credit  

Ernest Hemingway spent years fishing the water off the coast of Cuba.  Sport fishing is still a favorite today.  All inclusive, deep-sea sport fishing excursions can be booked at either of Varadero’s two marinas.

For golfers, the Veradero Golf Club is the only 18-hole course in Cuba.  The “Xanadu Mansion”, an estate owned by the French American millionaire Irenee Depont de Nemours, now serves as the clubhouse.

Parque Jasone, a small, well-manicured public park in the heart of Varadero is a perfect place to while away an afternoon.  A lake complete with rowboats and geese, palm trees, lush tropical flowers and foliage, and a local population of Macaw parrots lend a hint of romance to this spot.  A variety of eateries and nightly music add to the ambiance.

The Hicacos Point Natural Park is an ideal spot for the naturalist, bird watcher and photographer.

Flamingos and iguanas are but a couple of the many wildlife species you are likely to see here.   The park has extensive cave systems, including the 250m (820ft) long Cave of Ambrosio.  Forty-seven pre-Columbian drawings can be viewed on the cave walls.

The International Center in downtown Varadero is the place to go for a little bit of shopping.  This shopping mall has around 100 shops and restaurants to choose from.  Near the shopping mall is an open-air marketplace.

Varadero Sunset, Credit

Family Friendly

Cuba is a very family oriented country and children are welcomed most everywhere.  Parque Jasone had a childrens’ playground, public swimming pool, and rowboats on its lake for the children to enjoy.  A perennial favorite is the Delfinarios, where the kids can watch dolphin shows and even swim with the dolphins.  Most resorts have excursions designed with the family in mind, as well.

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Tips

A 3mm wetsuit provides a nice level of comfort year round.

For hiking in ecological preserves, make sure you have hiking boots, hats and sunscreen.

Beautiful day at the beach, Credit

Pack bug spray (with DEET) during the summer and early fall.  Dengue virus is a mosquito-borne illness that has become more prevalent in the Caribbean over the last few years.  Symptoms of the virus include fever, headache, rash, joint aches, and muscle and bone soreness.

GPS devices are not allowed in the country - this is a bit of a technicality really - most people bringing their iPhones in and out are OK - but it is probably sensible to do so conspicuously.

You must have proof of health insurance to enter the country.

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