Snorkelling in Cuba

We went on a catamaran boat tour in Varadero, Cuba, this past Xmas. We were first taken out to a concrete pen in the middle of the ocean to swim with some dolphins. I’m not a bleeding heart animal activist, but that whole experience felt wrong. It was also a case of false advertising. A dolphin did some tricks for us and we got to touch it, but we never got in the water and swam with it. After that we stopped at a coral reef for some snorkelling.

Everyone put on a small floatation belt, masks and snorkels were handed out, and we jumped off the end of the boat after receiving not a word instruction. We just jumped into the water, the warmest ocean water I’ve ever been in.

This is the part where I nearly died.

I looked under the water and could see colourful fish swimming past my face. I saw coral, white sand and the bluest water everywhere. Then my mask began to fill up with water and I went back to the boat and got a new one. When I returned to the water, for some reason, I couldn’t breathe through the snorkel. I kept trying but it kept getting worse. I wanted to go under the water, but I just couldn’t get my breath. And then panic kicked in and I felt like I was drowning in the middle of the ocean. I tried to swim back to the boat but the current made it nearly impossible. I swallowed several mouthfuls of sea water trying to catch my breath. When I finally made it to the boat, I was shook. But I pretended everything was cool because everyone else was having a great time. I discovered afterwards another guy had a similar experience, and he sat there and smiled like me even though he felt like he had almost drowned. I can easily imagine now what it must be like for a drowning fisherman who’s boat has just sunk to the bottom with no land in sight. It was one of the most unsettling feelings of my life.

Then the boat moved on, the brain dead party music was cranked to the hilt again, and some guy began feeding pieces of his ham sandwich to the seagulls following the boat. I was happy when we made it back to shore. Except for nearly drowning, it was a good time.

UPDATE (Mar. 21/11): I should have mentioned that my swimming skills are okay. You won’t find me doing laps in an Olympic sized pool, but I’ve never had problems swimming in the ocean. It was a weird occurrence. That’s why it freaked me out so much. It was odd that they didn’t give any kind of instructions to us. They just pulled out the masks and snorkels from a bucket of what I assume was disinfectant and pointed to the end of the boat. I definitely wouldn’t consider doing it again unless I had my own mask, snorkel and fins. I’m not sure what caused me to lose my breath. It could have been the floatation belt was pushing too tightly into my diaphragm. I’m not sure. It certainly didn’t do much to keep me afloat. Maybe it was water logged. But whatever happened, when you can’t breathe, it’s game over… If you wear glasses and can’t see anything in front of your face without your glasses, you can forget about seeing anything through the swimming masks too… The constant boom-boom-boom of the party music on the boat was enough to turn me off. Had I know that in advance, I wouldn’t have signed up… The tour boat operators passed out a questionnaire near the end asking use to rate various aspects of the tour experience. But the guy passing them out read through them the second he got them back while he was standing there right next to us. So I didn’t exactly answer my questionnaire honestly. Most of the 30 or 40 people on the boat acted like they enjoyed it, but I suspect I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a great time.

More posts about our trip to Cuba are filed under Varadero.

About Phillip

Phillip Cairns is a beekeeper in St. John's, Newfoundland, who writes about beekeeping at

8 Replies to “Snorkelling in Cuba”

  1. Hey, how much did this snorkling adventure cost? Im heading to Varadero next week and want to do some activities. What do you recommend? Thx :)

    • Kris, it depends on what you enjoy the most. If you want to get drunk and party 24/7, you won’t have any trouble satisfying those desires. Pretty much everything I saw at the resort caters to that kind of fun, though it can easily be avoided too.

      I’ll get back later today with more specifics about our experiences and the tours that are available.

    • You should look through all my Varadero post for more info.

      I think the snorkelling / swimming with the dolphin tour was around $150, maybe a little more. For me, it wasn’t worth it. Had the snorkelling worked out for me, I still might not have felt differently about the package overall.

      Swimming with the dolphins seemed wrong. First of all, we didn’t swim with them. That was blatant false advertising. And secondly, I don’t think the captive dolphins were having a great time doing tricks for a bunch a dumb tourist. You can get your photo taken with the dolphin kissing you, but I’d tell them no. Then again, I’d skip the whole dolphin thing from the start.

      The tour ends on a beach on an island where you’re served a half-decent cooked lunch with some extra time to walk around or lounge on the beach.

      Variations of the tour are available. You can do the dolphin thing or just the coral reef thing.

      And the boats, catamarans, play loud dance music the whole time (it’s a 9 to 5 tour). The music is so loud you can hardly hear the person next to you. And of course they have an open bar from the minute you get on the boat. The boat operators will try to get everyone dancing on the way back once half the group is liquored up. So brace yourself for all that if it’s not your thing.

      If I went again, I would do the coral reef but I would bring my own mask and snorkel for sanitary reasons, and I’d bring flippers or fins so swimming around the ocean currents would be considerably less tiring.

      I’d bring my own snorkel, mask and fins anyway. All of that would improve the beach experience at the resort. If we had fins, we could have swum out to see fish and things close to the beach, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The water is so warm, we stayed in easily an hour at a time. Your own mask, snorkel and fins might cost a bit, but you’d end up spending that much money on tours anyway.

      Other tours are available. The one where you get to drive a jeep around the country side seemed like a lot of fun. I can’t remember most of them. We didn’t have time to do many. The only other tour we did was a day trip into Havana on a bus. I would skip that too.

      The best way to see Havana, especially Old Havana, is to stay at a hotel in the city for a weekend or more and explore the city on your own to give yourself time to experience the culture first hand. Except for gawking at everything, there’s really no time during the day tour to experience the culture. I know people who have stayed in the city and found hotels that are clean and cheap with excellent authentic Cuban restaurants nearby. If you ask around the resort, you can find drivers who will drive you into the city at a fair price. You can also rent motorized scooters near the resort, which I think would be great for riding around the Varadero market.

      So that’s about it. If you like to drink and party, you won’t have any problems with any of it.

      If we went again, we’d try to find a way to spend time in Havana on our own. We’d at least visit the Varadero market on our own. Then we’d just stay on the resort and live it up and hang out on the beach and swim around with our fins and lounge around and read on the beach. I’d skip the tours and spend my money on the beach activities like sky diving, kayaking, sea-dooing, etc. That stuff is cheaper and I think would have be more fun than any of the day-trip boat tours.

      But that’s just us.

      And you might want to bring along a simple Spanish-English dictionary, or look up some basic phrases on line. You can probably get by not knowing anything, but it doesn’t hurt to speak the local language or at least try.

  2. phillip I have had aquanitances who have stayed at B&Bs in Cuba and this appears to provide a more authentic experience…if that is what one is looking for….

  3. Wow, thanks for the info. Would love any other bits of advice if you get a chance. We are heading down on Sat the 26th and staying at an all-inclusive 3 star resort for the week (coming from Vancouver). Where should I exchange currency and how costly is it in the town? Is the water ok to drink? Thanks again!

    • As far as I know, you can exchange your money on the resort. (Check my previous posts. One of them shows what the exchange door looks like. They all look the same.) Make sure to get plenty of single coin convertible pesos. You’ll need them for tips. Don’t worry about being a big tipper. Most waiters etc will be happy with a single peso, and very happy with two pesos.

      We didn’t stay anywhere except on the resort, so I’m not sure how much it costs in Havana. But apparently there are inexpensive hotels around. I guess you have to ask around.

      Don’t drink the water anywhere, even on the resorts. Ask them for as much bottled water as you can get, even for brushing your teeth. It probably won’t kill you to drink the water on the resorts, but I know people who got a little sick from it, and our travel agent did not recommend it.

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