Gardens of the Queen: Learning Adventures in Cuba


Visit Cuba’s Spectacular Gardens of the Queen

Cuba's Gardens of the QueenOcean Doctor’s educational trips to Cuba, including Cuba’s spectacular Gardens of the Queen, are now available for booking. Travel to Cuba under this program is legal for U.S. citizens and residents. Ocean Doctor is licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department for educational programs to Cuba and we work to ensure that all activities are in full compliance with U.S. Treasury regulations. Under the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens for tourism is prohibited. However, licensed “people-to-people” educational visits are permitted.

Legal Travel to Cuba for U.S. Citizens

Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Travel Program examines the relationship of Cuban citizens with their natural environment, including burgeoning socioeconomic and cultural issues brought about by Cuba’s growing ecotourism industry. The exchange also represents an opportunity to explore important environmental issues that impact the marine waters that both nations share through face-to-face interaction. The environment, and particularly the marine environment, is something that both biologically and culturally joins Cuba and the U.S. and the exchanges build upon the strong relationships Ocean Doctor has forged through since 2000 through its scientific research programs in Cuba. Visitors will meet with Cuban scientists, resource managers, ecotourism professionals and community members. Six days of this 11-day/10-night trip will be spent aboard a floating hotel or liveaboard dive vessel in the heart of Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) National Park, located 60 Miles off the southern coast of Cuba, an archipelago comprising a chain of 250 virgin coral and mangrove islands extending along 75 miles of turquoise waters. Gardens of the Queen was recently featured on an award-winning segment of the CBS news program, 60 MINUTES hosted by Anderson Cooper. Gardens of the Queen is Cuba’s first marine park and the largest no-take marine reserve in the Caribbean, where much of the story lies underwater. U.S. visitors will accompany Cuban specialists and be able to scuba dive in one of the healthiest marine ecosystems remaining in the Caribbean. Map of Cuba Indicating Location of Jardines de la ReinaSpace is limited. Visitation to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen is limited to only 1,000 divers per year by the Cuban government. Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Travel Program is in partnership with our travel providers, Avalon Cuban Diving Centers and Marazul Charters. All trips are led by Dr. David E. Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor and Cuba Conservancy director and/or experienced Ocean Doctor representatives. Your travel helps support our work!

Ocean Doctor's Cuba Travel Program is the cover story in Scuba Diving Magazine

Ocean Doctor’s Cuba Travel Program is the cover story in Scuba Diving Magazine

Cuba's Gardens of the Queen was voted Best Marine Park 2014 by Readers of Scuba Diving Magazine

Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen was voted Best Marine Park 2014 by Readers of Scuba Diving Magazine

Book Your Trip

Our Cuba trips run throughout the year, based on demand. Prospective travelers and groups submit their preferred dates of travel and we do our best to schedule a trip around those dates, depending upon the availability of vessel space and establishing a minimum group size. Please take a moment to complete our online booking request form below. We recommend that you book early as space is limited. We’ll follow up with you to confirm your request, arrange for deposits, etc. Visitation to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen is limited to only 1,000 divers per year by the Cuban government.We look forward to working with you to create a memorable and meaningful trip to Cuba! And remember, your travel helps support our work!

Planned Activities

Our trips are 11 days/10 nights in duration, departing on Wednesdays and returning on Saturdays via direct flights between Miami and Havana. During our journey, we will visit Havana and vicinity, the Sierra del Rosario mountain range — a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — in Pinar del Río Province, the Cuban countryside, the fishing village of Jucaro and Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) and learn from Cuban scientists and experts about the important marine research and conservation efforts underway, including collaborative efforts with U.S. institutions. We will also learn about the management of Gardens of the Queen — Cuba’s first marine reserve and today the largest “no-take” marine reserve in the Caribbean — and observe how ecotourism activities, including scuba and catch-and-release fly fishing, are managed in the park. We will have the opportunity to visit research sites throughout Gardens of the Queen, both above and below the water.

 

 

Hotel Parque Central in the heart of Old Havana

Hotel Parque Central in the heart of Old Havana

Accommodations

While in Havana, participants will enjoy 5-star hotel accommodations and Havana’s finest cuisine.In most cases, our travelers will be booked at Havana’s Parque Central Hotel, in the heart of Old Havana. In Gardens of the Queen, participants may choose to stay aboard one of three liveaboard vessels or the Tortuga floating hotel.

  • Avalon I, is a modern liveaboard which can sleep 16 in 8 state rooms. It is air conditioned with private bathrooms.
  • Avalon II is the newest, most spacious and luxurious vessel in the Avalon fleet, placed into service in April 2014. It has 10 state rooms and is air conditioned with private bathrooms.
  • Georgiana is a smaller liveaboard with 6 state rooms, air conditioned with private bathrooms.
  • Tortuga is a small floating hotel with 8 state rooms that accommodate 2 or 3 guests each (for a total of 16-21 guests). It is air conditioned with private bathrooms.
Avalon II at Gardens of the Queen

Avalon II Deluxe Live-Aboard Vessel

Avalon II Schematics (559.0 KiB)

 

About Gardens of the Queen

Coral reefs are healthy and abundant in Cuba, like this Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) which has declined by 95% in the Caribbean (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

In a world where corals are dead and dying, the corals of Gardens of the Queen are thriving, including elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) which has diminished by nearly 95 percent in the Caribbean over the past 40 years (Photo © David E. Guggenheim)

Los Jardines de la Reina or the “Gardens of the Queen” was named by Christopher Columbus to honor Queen Isabel of Spain and the area remains as spectacularly beautiful and wild as when Columbus experienced it over 500 years ago. Covering more than 837 square miles, Jardines de la Reina is one of the largest marine parks in the Caribbean and among the healthiest Caribbean marine ecosystems. Coral and fish populations appear remarkably healthy and abundant here in sharp contrast to other parts of the Caribbean. Myriads of robust fish populations include black grouper, bonefish and Cubera snapper. Even the critically endangered Nassau grouper and Goliath grouper are found in large numbers here. The area also harbors an abundant shark population, including silky sharks, Caribbean reef sharks and whale sharks.

Our Cuban colleagues on site at one of the research areas adjacent to the Gardens of the Queen

Our Cuban colleagues conducting research in the Gulf of Ana Maria, adjacent to the Gardens of the Queen

Top predators, including sharks – like this Caribbean reef shark – and grouper are abundant in Gardens of the Queen (Photo © Noel López)

Top predators, including sharks – like this Caribbean reef shark – and grouper are abundant in Gardens of the Queen (Photo © Noel López)

Cuba Conservancy is working with the Cuban Center for the Study of Coastal Ecosystems (Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros, CIEC) and the University of Havana’s Center for Marine Research (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, CIM) to study this unique ecosystem and its surrounding “life support systems,” such as the virtually unexplored Gulf of Ana Maria, in order to better understand why these marine ecosystems have been able to thrive in a world of corals that are dead and dying. We are also working with our Cuban partners to assess the economic and social value of such a healthy ecosystem. Finally, we are working to research and protect the unique and pristine ecosystems of Jardines de la Reina in order to ensure that these protections will endure in perpetuity, serve as a compelling model for marine protected areas worldwide, dramatically advance human understanding of how healthy coral reef ecosystems function, and yield critical insights to inform management decisions for protecting coral reefs globally.


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60 Minutes - CBS Our work in Cuba’s “Gardens of the Queen” was featured on an award-winning segment of the CBS news program, 60 MINUTES hosted by Anderson Cooper.
Cuba's Gardens of the Queen was voted Best Marine Park 2014 by Readers of Scuba Diving Magazine

Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen was voted Best Marine Park 2014 by Readers of Scuba Diving Magazine

Watch on YouTube
60 Minutes - CBS Our work in Cuba’s “Gardens of the Queen” was featured on an award-winning segment of the CBS news program, 60 MINUTES hosted by Anderson Cooper.
 
 
 

About Us

Cuba Conservancy, an Ocean Doctor program, is built on more than 13 years of work of Ocean Doctor president, Dr. David E. Guggenheim, who directs the program. Strong collaboration between Cuban and American scientists and conservation experts is at the core of our program At the core of Cuba Conservancy’s mission is to establish sustained collaboration between Cuba and the United States to:

  • ensure enduring, locally-supported marine research and conservation programs in Cuba.
  • contribute to major advances in the scientific understanding of Cuba’s natural resources.
  • achieve meaningful, long-lasting conservation for Cuba’s marine ecosystems and shared ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico.
  • forge long-term collaborative relationships with our Cuban colleagues.
  • help train the next generation of Cuban marine scientists.

The Program builds upon a strong foundation of scientific research. Research not only serves the purpose of advancing science and informing conservation policy efforts, but also helps forge strong, long-term collaborative relationships and credibility, facilitating efforts in the policy arena. Further, collaborative scientific research is a long-supported activity by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, presenting fewer political hurdles for licensing, approvals and permits.

Cuba Conservancy - an Ocean Doctor Program

Learn more about Ocean Doctor and its Cuba Conservancy program.

Our Travel Partners

Travel to Cuba's Gardens of the Queens is in Partnership with Avalon Cuban Diving Centers

Avalon is an Italian company that runs several of Cuba’s premiere diving centers, including the only diving and sportfishing operation at Gardens of the Queen. For more than 17 years Avalon has run a modern, low-impact operation at Gardens of the Queen and serves a worldwide clientele. Their dive center at the Gardens is staffed by a team of 14 with CMAS, SSI and PADI certifications. Avalon is responsible for all in-Cuba travel arrangements for those traveling with our program, including hotels, ground transportation and, of course, our stay at Gardens of the Queen.
Marazul-logo Marazul is the largest and oldest Agency in the United States — founded in 1979 — providing travel to Cuba and is by the U.S. Treasury Department as both a Travel Service Provider (TSP) and Carrier Service Provider (CSP). Marazul is responsible for all air travel arrangements to Cuba for those traveling with our program.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

I don't see a schedule of trips. How often are trips run?

Our Cuba trips run throughout the year, based on demand. We’re averaging around one trip per month. Prospective travelers and groups submit their preferred dates of travel (using the “Book a Trip” tab above) and we do our best to schedule a trip around those dates, depending upon the availability of vessel space, hotel space, flights and establishing a minimum group size.

Are you planning any FAM trips? If so, when?

Yes. We are conducting FAM (familiarization) trips for travel agents, dive shops, etc. throughout the year. Please contact us for details regarding pricing, etc.

Is there a different pricing structure for travel agents, travel wholesalers, dive shops, etc?

Absolutely. We also offer commissions/referral fees and/or FOC trips for the Gardens of the Queen portion of the trip. Please note that commissions and referral fees are not determined by Ocean Doctor but by our Travel Service Provider, Avalon Cuban Diving Services. Please contact us for details.

How much scuba diving can we expect? How difficult?

We average 15 dives over the 6-day stay at Gardens of the Queen. Diving conditions are typically ideal (high visibility, low current, calm surface conditions) though they can change with weather, of course. Visitors will be in close proximity to several species of large marine wildlife, include sharks and Goliath groupers. Several deep dives (90+ feet) may be included.

Will there be the possibility of adding additional dives for an extra fee?

Unfortunately not. We are not permitted to deviate from the program we submitted to U.S. Treasury Department in fulfillment of licensing requirements. 

Is this program suited for non-divers, too? Is there a different price for non-divers?

Scuba diving is important in order to see many of the research sites and best understand the issues. However, we recognize that often those who dive are accompanied by those who don’t. For that reason, we can accommodate non-divers with visits to shallower areas where snorkeling is suitable, along with visits to small islands where it is possible to go ashore with Cuban experts. Each evening, we will review video and images from the day’s dives so non-divers will be able to see what was observed during our review sessions.Because this is an education program, non-divers must also participate in the program and exchange and must therefore be accompanied by members of our team. This means the costs to deliver the program for non-divers is essentially the same as for divers, so snorkelers participate at the same price as divers.

Should we bring our own scuba gear or can we rent it once we're there?

It’s best to travel light, especially since you could end up paying a fair amount in excess baggage fees. For a small fee you can rent everything you need from Avalon Cuban Diving Centers once you arrive. Avalon rents new, modern equipment, primarily from Cressi, including wetsuits, masks, fins, snorkels, regulators, etc. Current prices are as follows:

Equipment
Rental Charge per Day ($USD), Payable in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC)
Mask $3
Fins $3
Snorkel $1
Wetsuit $5
Regulator $7
BC $7
Underwater Light (Isotta) $6
Underwater Light (Lucilla) $2
Tanks/Air Fills INCLUDED
Weight Belt INCLUDED

Prices are subject to change without notice.

Is Nitrox available?

Yes, Nitrox is available for all Nitrox-certified divers at no extra charge.

What's the best time of year to visit Gardens of the Queen?

The Gardens of the Queen are accessible year-round. In Cuba the dry season runs November through April, the rainy season May through October. Hurricane season runs June 1 to November 30, peaking from late August through September. During the winter months, the northern portion of Cuba, including Havana, is subject to period cold fronts. However, Gardens of the Queen is protected from most cold fronts. Water temperature ranges from the mid-70s (F) in winter to the high-80s (F) in summer. Water visibility is generally best early in the year, peaking in February, and lowest in early summer. A whale shark migration traverses the area in October/November.

We look forward to participating in the trip! We'd like to take a side trip in Cuba on our own before or after the official trip -- is that possible?

Unfortunately you are not permitted by U.S. law to travel in Cuba on your own. Our license provides for legal travel by U.S. citizens and residents so long as they are participating in the full-time schedule of educational activities we have developed. “Self-directed” education on your own is expressly prohibited by U.S. regulations. However, if you are interested in visiting a particular area or meeting with a particular institution during your visit and it is related to the educational theme of our program, we might be able to work with you to develop an addendum to the program — please contact us in advance and we’ll let you know what’s possible.

I work for a governmental agency and/or have a security clearance. Can I travel with your program without jeopardizing my job/clearance?

The only way to be sure is to talk with your superiors. This is a legal trip licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. We would be happy to provide you with a copy of our license if you need to share it with your agency/organization. Travelers on our trips to Cuba do receive a Cuban stamp in their passports. When returning to the U.S. through customs, each traveler will have a copy of our license and a cover letter indicating they are authorized to travel under our license. None of our travelers have ever reported having any subsequent problems. While we are confident that our trips are legal, we cannot speak to specific situations and therefore encourage you to review it with your superiors to be sure that participating in this trip won’t create any problems.

I'm traveling solo. Is there a single supplement surcharge?

Because of high demand and limited space, there is a single supplement surcharge fee of 65%. 

How do the flights work? Do we fly to Cuba directly from the U.S?

Yes. We will be flying direct to Havana from Miami on a special charter flight through licensed Travel Service Provider, Marazul Charters in New Jersey. When available, we provide Priority Check-in for all of our travelers. Travelers are responsible for making their domestic flight reservations. Because of the early check-in time, you will probably need to overnight in Miami for the outbound flight. The cost of your trip includes round-trip airfare to Havana from Miami. Below are the flights we will be using for most groups. Note that the schedule is subject to change without notice.

Wednesday Charter via American Airlines – Flight AA 9440
Depart MIA 11:00am
Arrive HAV 12:00pm
Check-in at 8:00am – Con. D – 2nd floor

Saturday Charter via American Airlines – Flight AA 9471
Depart HAV 3:40 PM
Arrive MIA 4:45pm
Check-in at 11:40AM – Term# 2 – José Martí

This isn't an inexpensive trip. Can you explain some of the costs that affect the price?

The majority of the costs are determined by what we must pay our Travel Service Providers, Avalon Cuban Diving Services and Marazul Charters. Our program is designed for legal travel by U.S. citizens and residents. Because of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, there are many additional expenses required to comply with U.S. regulations. Tourism by U.S. citizens and residents in Cuba is prohibited by the U.S. government. Our program complies with U.S. regulations because it includes an educational component that promotes “meaningful interaction” with the Cuban people. Developing and running such an educational component requires additional staff and costs. We are also required to have a trained Ocean Doctor representative accompany all groups. There are additional costs associated with licensing including recordkeeping/administrative and legal costs. Since there is no regular commercial air service to Cuba and we are limited to regulated charter flights from the U.S. or costly trips through third countries. On the positive side, our program delivers rich content with top-notch accommodations and service. We’re the only program offering an opportunity for U.S. citizens to dive legally in Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen. Finally, a portion of the travel fee supports Ocean Doctor’s research and conservation work in Cuba.

What about insurance. Are we covered traveling to Cuba?

Included in the price of the trip is Cuban health insurance coverage for the duration of your stay. We recommend that you check with your own health insurance company regarding coverage while you are in Cuba. A hyperbaric chamber is located in Havana.
Squaremouth.comWe recommend travelers purchase travel insurance, including travel cancellation, travel interruption, baggage loss, etc. A number of U.S. travelers to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen have recommended Squaremouth, a highly-rated website that helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance products from every major U.S. travel insurance provider. Established in 2006, Squaremouth is headquartered in St. Petersburg, FL, with offices in Fort Wayne, IN.Squaremouth allows customers to investigate and compare travel insurance policies. The comparison engine provides an unbiased platform based on price and benefits.

I have DAN (Divers Alert Network) insurance. Am I covered in Cuba?

Here’s what DAN says: “Due to the embargo the US imposed on Cuba, we would not be able to pay/settle any claims for accidents while actually in Cuba. However, we would be able to evacuate a member from Cuba and transport them to a medical facility in which we would be able to pay claims as stipulated by the policy. If you have specific in depth questions, please feel free to contact our claims department. You may reach them at 1-800-292-8381 during office hours.

Do U.S. credit/debit/ATM cards work in Cuba?

Due to the U.S.-imposed economic embargo against Cuba, there are no banking relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. Therefore, U.S. credit, debit and ATM cards will not work in Cuba. This means that you need to bring cash for incidentals, such as tips and souvenirs. We cover this and many other topics in detail in our Cuba Travel Handbook, which you will receive after you are registered.

Can we access the Internet in Cuba? Will our mobile phones work? What about bringing our electronics into Cuba?

Due to the economic embargo, U.S. mobile phones do not function on the Cubacel network. Wifi is available for a fee at our hotel and at no charge aboard the Tortuga Floating Hotel. You can use your smart phone’s wifi functions to send/receive email/messages. It is fine to bring mobile phones, laptops and tablets into Cuba for your own use. We cover this and many other topics in detail in our Cuba Travel Handbook, which you will receive after you are registered.

Contact Us

Our international team can best answer your questions via email. Please use the contact form below and we’ll reply as soon as possible. If you haven’t already consulted the FAQ section of this page, many of your questions can be answered there. Please also be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to receive updates on our Cuba travel program. You may also call us at: +1 (202) 695-2550.

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