This article originally appeared in Outside and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
I FINISH the last of the saltines that accompanied the coconut that has masqueraded as my hotel breakfast. “It’s good today,” my waiter told me cheerfully. “We have coffee.”
I drain my cup. The early-morning air is warm, muggy, and fragrant. Much of Cuba seems to smell of frangipani and moldering fish. Paying my $5 tab, I head toward the beach. My scuba-boat charter awaits. Paint peels from its sides. A nonchalant Cuban guide hands me a mask. I hesitate and then confess. “I’ve, uh, never dived before.” My guide shrugs. “Kick your feet,” he says. “Watch the gauge on your tank. Breathe through this tube.” How hard can it be? Twenty minutes later, I’m 40 feet under the turquoise surface, kicking, watching the gauge, and breathing as evenly as possible under the circumstances.
Need a fix of risky pleasures? Cuba will certainly oblige. Once the most popular vacation spot in the Caribbean, this 775-mile-long island has been officially off-limits to Americans for almost 35 years. In the 1950s, honeymooners and other vacationers came to load up on cigars and rum and close-to-home exoticism. But we’ve been enjoined from going since 1963’s Trading with the Enemy Act. Cool.
The act, of course, has had the stopping power of a sieve. Thousands of Americans visit illegally every year, despite solemn Treasury Department warnings that they face jail time and a $250,000 fine. Those who do show up get a winking, we-won’t-tell-if-you-don’t welcome. Castro needs hard currency. (Visitors’ largesse has become so vital that anti-Castro types have taken to bombing tourist locales, adding indelibly to the frisson of a Cuba jaunt.) Today, dozens of hotels are under construction, new outdoor guide companies open every day, and the Cuban Tourism Board has even created its own Web site (www.cubaweb.cu).
All of which makes now perhaps the last, best time to visit, before the tourist stream becomes a tsunami. Canadian and European tour groups already crowd the beaches near Havana, and a large influx of Americans is expected in January to see Pope John Paul II. (U.S. travel restrictions may be eased for his visit.) But most of Cuba remains remarkably untouched, almost prelapsarian. There’s poverty here, but not abject want. The shantytowns aren’t slums. The forests aren’t clear-cut; most aren’t even mapped. The beaches aren’t polluted. And even the shellfish are edible — though the fishermen slumbering on the beach aren’t in any hurry to haul them in. Most of Cuba remains what all of the Caribbean once was: somnolent, exotic, dusty, a little decrepit. Bring bug spray, bandages, cash, and a willingness to adapt to laissez-faire notions of sanitation and safety. The Cuban backcountry isn’t clean and efficient yet. But if it were, the savviest of travelers would have moved on long ago.
Playa María la Gorda
In Cuba, the sport of kings — or at least dictators — is diving. Castro reputedly loves to slip beneath the waves. And he’s not alone. Jacques Cousteau once said that Cuba offers some of the most beautiful diving on the planet. Among the cognoscenti’s favorites is the reef-rimmed Isle of Youth, off the the main island’s southwestern tip, which was known as the Isle of Pines until Castro opened a no-doubt rollicking communist youth camp there. The waters off Puerta Esperanza and Playa Santa Lucía are also popular, especially with thrill-seeking Americans disappointed by the ease with which they slipped into Cuba: Sharks are common.
But the finest and least-known diving on the island is probably at remote Playa María la Gorda. Tucked into Cuba’s westernmost bay, this secluded, palm-lined beach resembles nothing so much as a pirate’s cove. Perhaps because it once was a pirate’s cove. And it’s that past, in part, that makes it such a memorable place to submerge. The sea floor is covered with plundered ships, their rusted cannonballs speckled with algae. The wrecks aren’t the only draw: The marine life is equally stunning: Large schools of parrot fish and snapper circle a glowing white coral reef.
Of the area’s 38 official dive sites, the most picturesque is Las Tetas de María, named for a voluptuous rock formation that protrudes enticingly from a nearby cliff. The Tetas harbor a rich m‰lange of marine life, from eels to orange sponges. You can spend hours gawking. But don’t leave the water before heading out beyond the official diving boundaries — having alerted someone to your plan, of course — to the edge of the cove, 600 feet offshore. The shelf of the bay drops precipitously to the ocean floor here, forming a shadowy wall rippling with anemones and ferns. This is where the Gulf of Mexico bleeds into the Caribbean Sea. Shark territory. Barracudaville.
To get to Playa María la Gorda, drive west from Havana on Highway A1 to Route CC. When you reach La Bajada, turn left and follow the coast five miles to Hotel María la Gorda (doubles, $30; 011-53-84-3121). Divers should check in at the hotel’s scuba center. You can hire a guide there for about $25 per dive. Certification is dismayingly optional but, for safety’s sake, strongly advised. Choosing your dive site itself is pleasurable: The night before, head to the Bar de María, where the only map of the waters is painted on a back wall, buy your guide a Cuba Libre, and point.
The Sierra Maestra
Tell someone in Havana you’re planning to through-hike the peaks and rainforest of Sierra Maestra National Park, and they’ll laugh heartily, as if you had announced plans to windsurf to Miami. The area is famous for landslides, torrential rains, and mosquito infestations. But a prolonged hike through this, the island’s largest mountain range, may be the best introduction to the wilderness at the heart of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra remains a trackless region of high cliffs, parrots, and shadowy legends; from here, Castro and his scruffy group of revolutionaries launched their fabled guerrilla wars.
The best time to make the three-day trek across the park is during the dry season, between December and February. But bring raingear — “dry” is a relative term. Day one will find you threading through damp, tropical rainforest, rain dripping from the canopy. Spend the night at the shelter at the base of Joachín Peak, surrounded by aromatic nabago flowers. Look closely for the peanut-size bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird.
In the morning, fill your bottles at the spring near camp (filtering is advisable) and depart for the high peaks. Joachín is the first and most strenuous ascent of the trip, a steep rise on rocky terrain above the rainforest. From Joachín, you’ll have a clear view of Pico Turquino (6,468 feet), the highest mountain in Cuba and your next destination. The route from Joachín to Turquino dips and then climbs again along cliff-lined switchbacks. Have lunch at Turquino’s summit. Far below, the Caribbean laps to the horizon. The final day, the easiest, brings a fast, smooth descent to the seaside town of Las Cuevas, where you can luxuriate on the beach, pick fresh guava, and watch for Cuba’s national bird, the red, white, and blue tocororo.
To arrange a trek of the Sierra Maestra, fly from Havana to Bayamo (about $165 round-trip), rent a car — be sure its gas tank is full, since fuel is hard to find — and drive to the town of Villa Santo Domingo. The only hotel, the Hotel Villa Santo Domingo, has 20 double rooms ($26 per room). Campsites are available nearby for $10. By law you must have a guide for the hike; arrange for one at the national park entrance near the hotel. Park entry costs $7.50 per person. The guide is free, but gratuities are never declined.
Cuba is more than its mountains and its sea. It’s also the land wedged between — a hilly, empty greenscape perfect for exploration by wheel or hoof. The main industry here is terraced tobacco farming; the only traffic, sputtering, ancient Ladas.
Trinidad, a gorgeously preserved Spanish colonial town on the southern coast, is the place to begin. Head northeast on a rutted road into the undulating landscape of the Macizo de Guamuhaya. Its steep hillsides are covered with wild orchards of mangoes, coconuts, and apples. Shimmy up the nearest tree for lunch. Watch out, however, for two natives of the region: the “Maja de Santa Maria” boa constrictor and the jutía tree rat, which can grow to be two feet long and which sometimes drops onto the heads of unsuspecting travelers. Happily, majas consider the rats delicious. Bring a tent and spend the night in a meadow to enjoy the clear skies of southern Cuba. In the morning, continue east on tree-lined dirt trails to Loma de Banao, the highest peak in the central mountains. From the summit, you can look out over the sable-colored sugar farms that once made Trinidad one of Cuba’s richest townships.
For those who’d prefer to cover the route on horseback, the Hacienda los Molinos near Trinidad can provide small, sturdy mounts for $6 per half-day. The best time to ride is between January and April. Rains are light, wild fruit is abundant, days are relatively cool, and the majßs are at their most efficient as rat hunters.
Sure, Varadero Beach seems at first to have been ruined by Cuba’s new infatuation with tourism. The beach is jammed with group-tour beachgoers, and the hotels’ resident mariachi bands insist on playing “Guantanamera.” But like the rest of Cuba, there’s more to Varadero than this. Come just after dawn, before the beach loungers arrive, while the sky is still pink and humidity is low, and you can immerse yourself in one of the oldest traditions on the island: tuna fishing. Varadero Beach was a fishing hangout of Ernest Hemingway during his 20 years on Cuba. Slightly rickety charters leave from Marina Gaviota every morning for about $50 per person, guides included.
Afterward, bypass the tourist hotels in favor of the less-expensive hostels at the west end of the beach. Or pitch a tent at the campground on the peninsula’s tip ($5 per night). Facilities are rudimentary, but the palm trees are lush and the white sands stretch 12 miles to the Straits of Florida. Best of all, should you not have had your fill of dangerous Cuban pastimes, the Bar Mirador, just up the beach, sells Havana Club rum by the glass or the pint.