Worth a Trip: Jardines de la Reina
The uninhabited Jardines de la Reina is a 120km-long mangrove-forest and coral-island system situated 80km off the south coast of Ciego de Ávila Province and 120km north of the Cayman Islands. The local marine park measures 3800 sq km, and is virgin territory left more or less untouched since the time of Columbus. It's the best place to dive in Cuba (nay, the Caribbean), but only allows a tiny trickle of visitors in annually on half-a-dozen live-aboard boats.
Commercial fishing in the area has been banned, and with a permanent local population of precisely zero inhabitants, divers must stay on board a two-story, eight-bedroom houseboat called Hotel Flotante Tortuga, or venture in from the port of Embarcadero de Júcaro (on the mainland) aboard one of five well-appointed yachts.
The flora consists of palm trees, pines, sea grapes and mangroves, while the fauna – aside from tree rats and iguanas – contains an interesting variety of resident birds, including ospreys, pelicans, spoonbills and egrets. Below the waves the main attraction is sharks (whale and hammerhead) and this, along with the pristine coral and the unequaled clarity of the water, is what draws divers from all over the world.
Getting to the Jardines is not easy – or cheap. The only way in is on a diving excursion with the Italian-run Avalon. One-week dive packages, which include equipment, seven nights of accommodation, guide, park license, 12 dives and food and drink, cost from CUC$3250 and up. Ask for a quote via the website. Another company, Windward Islands Cruising Company, incorporates the western tip of the archipelago into its one-week Cuba cruises.