Visiting Cienfuegos and Playa Girón for a few days for diving

Visitar Cienfuegos e Playa Girón por uns dias para mergulho

When I planned my trip I didn’t even considered to stay in Cienfuegos. As you know, I am a proud hillbilly, therefore adding another city to my list of places to visit in Cuba made no sense to me. However, my destination would be Playa Girón, where I would dive. Though, due the lack of direct transportation from Viñales, the best option would really go via Cienfuegos, or a taxi colectivo (carpool taxi).

From Viñales to Cienfuegos

That was the longest bus trip I had in Cuba, but all part of the plans. I woke up early, had my amazing breakfast at the casa particular (home stay), and then towards Viñales central square. Where I did the check-in and then I waited seated at the church’s outside stairs. Yes, one needs to check-in for the buses in Cuba. And according to what I’ve been told, purchasing a ticket in advance won’t be a guarantee that you’ll have a place in that bus. One really really needs to arrive early and do the check-in. Thankfully I never had any situation alike, so I have no way to know if this is really a fact or not. But just in case…

Church Square in Viñales
Church Square in Viñales

The bus trip took 8 hours, with a few stops for pee and lunch. Nothing amazing, absolutely normal. I used this trip to get to see a bit of Cuba via a bus window and to enjoy a bit the country side. It is a very rural country, you can tell that by the houses and that cubans live for the day. Very modest houses, always with plowed fields around their houses.

The bus stop reminded me of how Portugal used to be in the 90s, where there is always that restaurant where all truck drivers and buses stop for lunch, with options of buffet or sandwiches. Maybe in Portugal things still work this way, and I am being judgmental here… Correct me if I am wrong, but I have the idea that nowadays in Portugal these routes are almost direct without intermediate stops.

A flash visit to Cienfuegos

The moment I arrived in Cienfuegos I felt an odd feeling. Regret. I completely discarded that city from my plans simply for being a city, and I was so wrong. The architectural style of the city is really interesting , with a french vibe. Then later I understood why the architecture made me think of New Orleans and classical France once I arrived. That was simply because the city was founded by french emigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana, with the goal of increasing the percentage of white families in the island.

A few photos of Cienfuegos
A few photos of Cienfuegos

Besides the predominant architectural style, the urban planning also followed a classical style. In an octogonal shape converging to a central square, where you can find a seal that marks where the city started. In fact, one afternoon and an evening isn’t enough to visit that city, and that helped to build up the feeling of regret I already had. But despite the lack of time, I tried to enjoy every single second in Cienfuegos.

With some heat, and only with a bag on my back, I walked to the casa particular. Still two kilometers walking, though even that walk helped to get a better feeling of that city. You can see the cuban poverty, but also the classical charm.

First impressions of Cienfuegos

As soon as I arrived at the casa particular, the first thing I did was asking what one could see in just one afternoon. My host drafted the perfect itinerary for a few hours, which I followed religiously. I tried to use my time at the most optimal way, which lead to even more regret the following morning when it was time to leave…

Government Palace and Provincial Museum
Government Palace and Provincial Museum

Punta Gorda is the place to be for sunset, and to get there I would have to walk 3 or 4 km. As an alternative, I could take a bicytaxi. Since I love to walk, and I didn’t want to spend money for a short ride, I opted by taking my chances and walk.

Considering I had the full afternoon, I went straight to the historical center where one can find the seal of the city foundation. I didn’t stop taking photos, to the old houses, to the church, to the old cars and to the sky that was gorgeous. I tried to get lost in those streets, but always aiming for the bay, and from there following the water. The goal was simple. Get lost on my way to Punta Gorda.

Walk to Punta Gorda

I had a very relaxed walk to Punta Gorda, a bit long but always with a nice view to the bay, and of course I took several photos. Unfortunately the bay of Cienfuegos is highly polluted and it is not recommended to swim, though still a lot of locals still use the small beaches inside the bay. Even regarding eating fish, I’ve been told to avoid eating fish in Cienfuegos for that same reason.

Visiting Cienfuegos and Playa Girón for a few days for diving
Visiting Cienfuegos and Playa Girón for a few days for diving

After 5 or 6 km walking, I finally arrived to Punta Gorda. At the casa particular they suggested to enjoy the sunset at the Palacio de Valle. The moment I saw it I felt like it was a nice place, with a classical style and with an amazing terrace. Nowadays it is used as a restaurant, bar and for events. The bar is at the roof top terrace, and if you’re as lucky as I, you might even get a table with view to the bay. The view is stunning, and the sunset gorgeous! I am not sure if I was just lucky, though during the whole time I was there enjoying my piña-coladas there was a bank playing cuban music during the whole time, mostly salsa. It was a really pleasant afternoon.

Of course after the walk to Punta Gorda, I had to go back. Next to the palace there were already a few bicytaxis waiting for tourists. Some were even pre-booked , I overheard two girls agreeing with the taxi cyclist to pick them up after a while. And by chance they left at the same time as me. Though, I walked! Not just because I am cheap, which I am a bit…, but also because I wanted to enjoy the walk back to the casa particular. With a stop for dinner on my way.

Dinner was the least pleasant part of the day, though another suggestion of the casa particular, but the only that left me disappointed. As soon as I arrived I felt like leaving, the guy who welcomed me looked me from top to bottom, and didn’t like the fact that a guy wearing flip flops was going for dinner alone…, though he still let me in and directed me towards the rooftop.

Sunset in Punta Gorda
Sunset in Punta Gorda

Right there I thought that maybe it could be nice, and since it was so warm outside, I thought that it would be a good idea to eat outside. But the moment they tried to place me right next to the band, but literally next to the band, I refused. I did want to listen to music, but without becoming deaf. Then they placed me on another table quite far way, which was nice…, if not for the fact that the waiters were constantly in front of me to watch the band as well. Yep, they were there, just standing to listening to the band waiting for people to call them, ignoring completely whoever was behind them. In general they were nice. I ate. I paid. I left.

Morning walk in Cienfuegos

One of the main challenges tourists face when they visit Cuba is the use of debit/credit card. Most don’t even work in Cuba, and in almost every place they only take cash, so every now and then we need to go to the bank and exchange some euros by Pesos Convertible (cuban currency for tourists).

That was my plan for the morning, I woke up early and I went straight to the bank to avoid queues, and exchange a few euros by CUCs. And since I managed to be done with it fast, I used my extra time for another walk around the historical center, and for a few more photos. That central square is really nice, and a lot of local inhabitants also go there, not just tourists.

From there, the only thing I had to do was having my breakfast, prepare my bag and go towards my next destination. Everything going smoothly, until…, after I walked about two kilometers to the bus terminal, I noticed something in my pocket…, my bedroom keys!!! Since I like to leave early in case something happens (like this), I had enough time to go back to the casa particular, return my key, and have some water (they offered the water, in Cuba everything is paid…), and I still was back on time for the bus! Everything ended well, though I did sweat quite a lot!

What to do in Playa Girón?

Why Playa Girón?

I’m not going to lie, my priority in Cuba was really diving. It is by far the subject I researched the most, which places to visit, which places are more accessible and how to get there, prices, where to stay, and a bit more. My planning was always around this subject, where will I dive?

The Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos in Spanish) is one of the most popular areas, not only because of its recent history, but also for the impressive underwater canyon. 50 meters from the shore there is an almost vertical abyss of 400 meters! But still, this wasn’t my first nor second option. My dream trip would be visiting the Jardines de la Reina, but besides being absurdly expensive, it is also quite remote. There aren’t many options to get there, only by tours of at least 7 days. The Bay of Pigs is the most accessible diving destination in Cuba, and in a perfect place for a quite interesting itinerary in Cuba.

The first day in Playa Girón

I must admit, the first thing that crossed my mind when I arrived was “Three nights here??? I am going to die out of boredom…“. It is a really small town, with a quite interesting urban planning. The town’s center is located about a kilometer away from the housing zone, with a big field in between, where there are a few horses grazing. And it is also in that town center where the main hotel is, the museum and where the buses stop. The beach is also right there. Though, the very few restaurants that exist are in the housing zone. It makes absolutely no sense!

As soon as I arrived at the casa particular, I only thought I would be away from everything. By then I haven’t realized how the town was structured. But it actually ended up being quite okay, I stayed in a house with two houses and three beds just for me for three days! Completely in private!

Sunset in Playa Girón
Sunset in Playa Girón

After setting down, I went for a walk to the beach and explore a bit. The feeling of what the hell will I do here for three days increased by each step I took towards the beach. And the beach? Really small, but quite nice.

Traveling alone isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, and going to the beach is one of those moments when being alone isn’t the best thing ever. Firstly, because I hate going to the beach just to tan, I’d rather swim, take photos, read or do anything else than just being there toasting. Then, if I want to swim I can’t get too far, since I will always be afraid that someone might steal my stuff… In Sydney I was lucky to have lockers to store my stuff, but in a small beach in Cuba I wouldn’t find such thing.

Playa Coco is the beach in Playa Girón, probably the name is due the amount of coconut trees that exist at the beach. And where did I leave my towel? Right under a coconut tree. Yep, not really a smart move…, but thankfully no coconut fell. However a few people who were lying near me noticed it and kept looking up. The girl who works at the beach bar came to talk to me and relaxed me a bit. She said that the coconuts were too small to fall and that I was under no danger. Of course it would be much easier to just move the towel…

I talked with the girl for quite a bit, she shared with me a bit of her life and the life in Playa Girón. She assured that the area is really safe, and that I could go to the sea. I guess she noticed that I was concerned over my stuff… So I did it, I went a bit to the sea, but quickly I noticed that I couldn’t go much further. The coral reef was very close to the beach, making it almost impossible to swim. One needs to cross the coral reef, which is a quite wide stretch, and then finally being able to swim. But I didn’t go that far.

In the meanwhile I interacted with the group that was right by my side, the asked me to take a photo of them, but that was as far as our conversation went. I ended up going back to the town without company for dinner, but I still took my chances and I went to a restaurant on my own and see if I could meet anyone else. But nope, no luck that night. Since I had a dive for the next day, I didn’t even drink anything alcoholic, just a juice. And then back to the casa particular and rest for the big day!

First day of diving in Playa Girón

The diving center is right next to Playa Girón’s hotel, which if I am not mistaken it is the only hotel there. But since the town is a bit far away from the “center”, the diving center has a bus to pick up whoever scheduled a dive for that day.

First dive in Punta Perdiz
First dive in Punta Perdiz

The bus didn’t disappoint, a really old bus, like an old american school bus that we see in movies. The first person I met was a german girl that was staying right next to my casa, really nice girl with a really good level of Spanish. She told a bit of her adventures, a month crossing Cuba from East to West! I must confess I felt a bit a lot of jealousy…

While more people were joining the group, I started recognizing a few faces, like several of those who were at the beach the day before! Even the group that asked me for the photo! So, yeah, it is a really small town, and in fact there isn’t much to do there, being diving the major reason to visit such an isolated place…

Diving in Punta Perdiz

The first impact was the bus, though I already expected something alike in Cuba. Though, regarding the diving gear, that surprised me from a negative point of view. No, I wasn’t expecting anything top of the range…, though I also didn’t expect to hear air leaks when everything was ready to dive and on my back…, air is something kind of important when you are a few meters under water…. And alike me, a few others mentioned the same, to what we’ve been told that’s all okay… I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though once I got under water I almost forgot about that air leak.

We had our debrief, where they split us in some groups, and then by pairs. Which is the norm, for security reasons. The plan would be two dives, and the groups would also be divided in two, each group for a different dive (area), and then switch. So far so good, but at first I even had doubts if we would even have a debrief…, but yes, it did happen.

Corals as seen during the second dive in Punta Perdiz
Corals as seen during the second dive in Punta Perdiz

The dive it was really nice, some corals and an impressive abyss! We went down a bit, but not too deep. Apparently we went to the 14 meters mark, but not even the instructor was sure about this, so he gave that number in the end. We spent 46 minutes under water, and for me it felt like if I was in a marathon, always trying to keep up with my dive buddy, whom was constantly ignoring the diving security norms. Even the other divers commented on this in the end, everyone noticed how solo his dive was…, but thankfully the second dive things went a bit smoother.

On our second dive we even saw a small wreck, but nothing amazing. The other group, with more experienced divers, they went much deeper and they even went under a tunnel. They loved their dive, while we only saw the tunnel from above. It requires more practice from our part, and while we don’t have that experience to take risks, the instructors also need to take into account the safety of the whole group. But with time and more dives I will get there!

Enjoying the rest of the day with a new group of friends in Playa Girón

The ice was broken, by diving! So we spent the rest of the day together. We went to the same beach where we all were on the previous day, but this time all together as a group. In fact, going alone to the beach alone isn’t the same thing as going with a group… And while chatting that’s when we realized that we all saw each others the day before, and apparently they all noticed the “dumb guy” under the coconut tree…., myself…

It was really nice to spend the day with that group, and I guess the feeling was shared between all, so we decided to have dinner together as well. The options for dinner in Playa Girón aren’t that great, and even Lonely Planet doesn’t help much. It is a small town and still doesn’t take advantage of tourism, which it is also a great thing. That way we can discover new places, like the restaurant that the german couple in our group suggested.

Goats at the beach in Playa Girón
Goats at the beach in Playa Girón

We all went to El Butty, a restaurant almost at the end of the town. I ate an amazing lobster! Really tasty and cheap. Of course, properly moisted with a few piña-coladas… And Portugal being represented everywhere, I even saw a scarf of the Portuguese Football National Team hanged.

I was the first one to arrive, and I had a great chance to chat a bit with the owner, which was really happy to know a big group was about to arrive, all without bookings! In places like this, in Cuba, a group of people going out for dinner makes a huge difference. Of course he presented us with the best service possible!

Second day of dives

The following morning we were all waiting for the bus, but since it took a long while we decided to walk. The distance wasn’t that much anyway. We arrived all almost at the same time, we paid, we loaded the bus with the diving gear, and off we go to the next diving spot!

Diving in El Tanque

Another two dives scheduled for this day. And again, everyone set in pairs and in two groups, like the day before.

These dives were much more interesting than the previous day, we dove a fair bit down the abyss, to the mark of the 24 meters. Diving is an amazing feeling, hard to explain really, but when we are next to such a deep wall like the one in the Bay of Pigs… It is a feeling of almost like flying, to the point that I even felt a bit of vertigo due to the depth of the canyon. Of course one can’t see what’s down there, which is also a fear factor, after all there are sharks in Cuba…

Shipwreck at El Tanque
Shipwreck at El Tanque

We had a new instructor for the day, with a different style from the other one, much more chilled out, but also a bit less…, professional? He was the source of a few comments when we went back to the town, after all, all of us there did a diving course, and one of the most important rules is: do not touch anything, we are there just to observe. And he did exactly the opposite…, it is true that I saw much more animals thanks to him, but he could have just pointed to the holes and hiding places so that we could see them in their natural habitat without disturbing them. There was no need to grab a massive crab from a hole to show us. It kind of spoils the fun of observing wild life.

But despite that, the divings were much better than the day before! On our second dive we passed over a wreck bigger than the one we saw the day before, so big we could even get inside it. Though none of us had the courses nor experience for that…

Another detail about these two dives was that I consumed almost all the air I had! On my first dive I ended with just 10 bar, while the second I ended with 20 bar! So that you have an idea of what this means, both times we started with a 210 bar bottle. And an English couple that was with us ended both dives with 110 bar! I think they basically didn’t breath under water at all…

One of the safety practices is to constantly ask how much air our partner or team has, and the instructors never forget about this! Under water we need to use a kind of sign language, some international diving language that we learn when we are taking the diving courses. And it is also part of the debrief to refresh this knowledge. So when he asked me how much air I had, I replied with a closed fist, which means 50 bar or just being in the reserve. Which means, not so much air! He got a bit confused, and asked it again, and I replied the same way, 50 bar!

To be honest I wasn’t even concerned, we were almost at the end of our dive, I think we were about just two meters deep. And I guess the instructor thought the same way, considering we kept exploring a bit longer until we reached the shore.

All the dives I did in Cuba were from the shore, direct dive to the sea without using a boat nor a platform.

Spending the rest of the afternoon in Calleta Buena

Around Playa Girón there is a lot to see and visit, but unfortunately transportation to get there isn’t the best. Thankfully there are loads of taxis, so we can go anywhere anyway, after negotiating a bit of course…, and before visiting Cuba you must set your mindset for this. Tourist always pays more.

Portuguese and Irish flags at Playa Girón
Portuguese and Irish flags at Playa Girón

I want to underline and highlight this information again, there is a lot to do around the bay, and Calleta Buena is one of those places. However, I am not so sure if I would recommend that place. It is interesting, a bit different, but it doesn’t worth the money you have to pay to get in. 15 CUC with all included, and for the entrance. The food isn’t the best, but edible. The beverages are okayish…, and the place? It is kind of a mini-resource for local people, nothing special. But if your goal is to spend a day to relax without spending too much money, maybe this place would worth it. 15 CUC with all included for a whole day would pay off, but only for a full day. Which wasn’t the case for us.

Calleta Buena was our plan b), the goal was to visit the Cueva de los Peces, which is towards the opposite direction, but since we didn’t have any snorkel nor diving gear, we decided by Calleta Buena.

The last few hours in Playa Girón

That was my last day in Playa Girón, and I must admit that it was hard to leave. I honestly think that area deserved at least another day or two to explore it better… But the day wasn’t over yet, we ended up meeting a Spanish couple at the pizza stand and then we went for a walk in town.

Just keep in mind that street food in Cuba is whatever they have. Due to the way food is distributed through the country, it is normal that they lack some ingredients from one day to the following one. For example, the pizza menu is whatever they have, one day can be ham and cheese, the following day the cheese might be another type of cheese, and maybe even without ham.

In my opinion, it is with these small details that we start to feel immersed in the Cuban reality and the challenges that people have to go through and adapt. Everything is really nice for the tourist, who sees the country through a bubble, that the bubble is quite fragile and if we know how to look we will see exactly what’s right in front of our noses.

And that was my experience in that small town, that at first I thought I would get dead bored, but I ended up regretting not staying longer…

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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