“¡Viva la Cuba!” Opening relations and opening doors for saltwater anglers
By Dylan Rose
A sunset session in the Jardines de la Reina. Photo: Jon Covich
man in a straw hat plows his field with oxen under the searing midday heat. A pink 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible rattles and growls its way around Revolution Square. Men gather under late afternoon shade trees to play dominos and argue about the local baseball scene. A drumming session breaks out at sundown on the famed Malecón esplanade, and an impassioned couple embrace nearby. Elsewhere, a 30-pound permit flutters in plain view behind a meter-wide stingray, sucking down tasty morsels that scurry out from under its wings. Cuba. The mere mention of it elicits a treasure trove of iconic cultural imagery. Cuba’s cultural identity permeates every moment of a trip to this rebellious island paradise. The wafting smoke of cigars, the sweet aftertaste of rum, the poetically beautiful streets and eclectic colonial architecture of old Havana, and a passionate population of locals willing to dance the cha-cha, mambo, or salsa at a moment’s notice. For Americans it has remained the illicit garden, a place where bountiful bushes hang low with forbidden fruit. There is something for everyone: incredible history, beautiful beaches, saltwater slams and fine cigars. With the continued easing of travel restrictions, more
and more American anglers are identifying Cuba as a nearby and now legal stronghold for pristine marine ecosystems, large bonefish, abundant permit and burly migratory tarpon.
Lifting the Curtain On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos succeeded in leading a guerilla army against the authoritarian dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista. The Cuban Revolution had widespread effects on the U.S. and eventually led to the inception of the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. Until quite recently U.S. anglers illegally visiting Cuba risked hefty fines and legal action levied by the U.S. Treasury, not to mention the stress of lying to a U.S. customs agent about your whereabouts upon your return. Yet, as we know, many diehard saltwater anglers did so more than once and found it well worth the risk. With recent policy changes and the relaxing of decades-old rules, American anglers can now take advantage of a special allowance that provides 100% legal entry in to Cuba and, more importantly, re-entry back to the United States. This allowance entails making a donation to an approved charitable
“¡VIVA LA CUBA!” organization, in our case, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT). improved over time, benefiting from a national ethos that emThe BTT is a highly respected organization dedicated to prebraces the protection and preservation of its natural resources. serving and protecting saltwater species and their habitats. Fly anglers are offered a truly unique cultural travel adventure The process of obtaining the license is straightforward and coupled with a plethora of pristine saltwater eco-systems. simple. Upon booking your reservation with Fly Mangrove lagoons, channels, thousands of cays and Water, a donation of $250 is made to the BTT an endless array of pristine flats provide an abunvia their website. Once all members of your dance of angling opportunities. group have made their donations, a letter of Without a doubt, the largest and most licensure is issued to anglers explaining their qualiestablished outfitter in Cuba is Avalon Cuban Avalon fying reason for travel to Cuba. Also notable is that Fishing Centers. With a fleet of seven yachts, some Crab Fly travelers can bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, of them in excess of 120 feet long, and several including one box of cigars or 25 singles, and a bottle of rum! resort/land-based options, they have the history, experience and infrastructure to support anglers in some of the most remote and Havana pristine eco-systems in the Caribbean. Avalon’s motherships are purpose-built specifically for anglers and divers. Every considerLike an aged starlet still dressed to the nines, Havana’s beauty ation has been made aboard these yachts to ensure the comfort shines through the wrinkles and a sparkle still glimmers in her of their guests, including plenty of fresh and hot water, spacious eye. A trip to Cuba is simply not complete without spending rooms, 110v power with American plugs, bar areas, and lounges. some quality time in Havana, particularly if it’s your first trip. A walk through old Havana is as close as one can get to time The Time Is Now travel. It’s as if someone pushed the pause button in 1959, walked away to order a Mojito and then forgot to hit play With the recent openings of embassies and American cruise again. From every hollow, open window and sidewalk café ships getting in line to service the country, my sense is that musicians and ghetto blasters create a soundtrack for the city. Cuba will be a very different place in coming years. Tourism is The soulful sounds of brass horns, acoustic guitars, conga already a big part of the Cuban landscape but it seems somedrums and heart-filled choruses echo through busy cobbled how manageable without the pressing interest of Americans. streets. From the crumbling corners and ornate architecture Thankfully, the fisheries are still incredibly well-protected and to the brilliant Malecón Boulevard lying seaside against a setthere’s zero evidence to support that vigilant preservation of ting sun, the whole scene is ridiculously charming. Tours, extra their fisheries will suffer from the coming American masses. days and side trips can all be easily arranged with most fishing However, a big part of the experience of visiting Cuba, and packages. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982, more specifically Havana, is the intrigue that comes with a Havana will easily captivate you for a day or an entire week. well-preserved old-world city. It’s hard not to wonder how a roWhether you like the idea of strolling through old-town and bust interaction with the United States will affect the country stopping in for a powerful Cuban coffee, or are planning to and furthermore, what it will look like with cruise ships, visit one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, or just prefer to Coca-Cola, and the indiscretion of advertising media. In spend the day touring the city in a 50s-era classic car: if you essence, I think the time is now to visit Cuba, experience can’t have fun in Havana, you can’t have fun anywhere! the wonder of Havana and take advantage of some fantastic fishing opportunities. Fishing Regions & Destinations One of the biggest challenges in planning a trip to Cuba To put the sheer size and scale of Cuba’s offerings in perspecis deciding exactly which destination best meets the goals for tive, the country is nearly the size of Florida and about eight your trip. Important considerations should be made with times the size of the Bahamas. It has an incredible amount of regard to target species, seasonality, pricing and travel with terrain and fishable territory that, unlike many other places, has those interested in activities other than fishing. Each option
“Like an aged starlet still dressed to the nines, Havana’s beauty shines through the wrinkles and a sparkle still glimmers in her eye.”
Top: Iconic Castro propaganda art; a classic Edsel; Fly Waterâ€™s national sales rep and Cuba specialist Jon Covich with a permit from the Gardens of the Queen. Middle: Working the flats of Cayo Cruz. Bottom: A typical Cuban tarpon; Afro-Cuban stilt walkers in Havana. 1-800 -552-2729 PAGE 67 Photos: Dylan Rose & Jon Covich
“¡VIVA LA CUBA!”
In essence, I think the time is now to visit Cuba, experience the wonder of Havana and take advantage of some fantastic fishing opportunities. offers unique features and propositions that may help define your perfect trip. Below is a quick synopsis of the options and their respective offerings:
Jardines de la Reina The Jardines de la Reina (JDR), which translates to the “Gardens of the Queen,” is located off the southern central coast of the country. This massive archipelago is formed by some 600 cays and parallels the Cuban coastline for nearly 100 miles. It alone is bigger than the entirety of the Florida Keys. The JDR is a vast and prolific marine sanctuary and is serviced by Avalon exclusively, meaning it’s likely you will never see another fishing boat other than those from your trip on the water. This area offers anglers true variety and fantastic biodiversity. Both migratory and baby tarpon, permit, bonefish, jacks, snapper and barracuda are all available. Anglers access the fishery aboard Avalon’s floating hotel called La Tortuga or aboard one of several motherships located in the area.
complete with several restaurants, swimming pools, activities, eco-excursions and amenities, or the smaller and more casual Villas Merinera. Suitable for families and couples, both options provide a perfect home base for general vacation tourism and saltwater angling.
Isla de la Juventud Isla de la Juventud (Island of the Youth) is located just off the southwestern coast of the country. This destination has quickly become a mecca for large migratory tarpon from March through June. While large migratory tarpon are the main attraction, good opportunities for bonefish and the odd permit exist. This is an off-the-beaten path destination for serious tarpon anglers. Anglers access the area via mothership.
Cayo Santa Maria
Cayo Santa Maria has an established track record of providing amazing tarpon opportunities. Located on the northern coast of the country, approximately a 4.5-hour drive due east of Cayo Cruz Havana, this area known as the Jardines del Rey (Gardens Cayo Cruz features one of the most healthy, untouched of the King) is a prime destination for both resident and and pristine marine environments in Cuba. Located on migratory tarpon. Some opportunities for bonefish and perthe northern central coast, this newer destinamit are available as well. This diverse region offers flats, tion from Avalon is still being explored and beaches, deep channels and mangroves. Most producing impressive results. This fishery fishing takes place from the boat. The best time is defined by great wading opportunities to visit Santa Maria is March through July, with and fantastic fishing for large bonefish, permit peak months being May and June for migratory Bl ac k Death and migratory tarpon in season (May). Anglers tarpon. Anglers stay at a large luxury resort in Fly access the fishery via Avalon’s mothership. close proximity to the waiting fishing skiffs. Santa Maria also remains one of the more budget-friendly options in Cayo Largo experiencing Cuba. Cayo Largo offers an immaculate and highly productive flats The Zapata Peninsula fishery coupled with great options for those interested in a If you’re interested in experiencing some of Cuba’s most wide range of resort-based activities. Absent of commercial diverse and economical fishing opportunities, the Zapata fishing pressure, Cayo Largo (Long Cay) is a meticulously National Park may be your place. The principal focus here are managed biosphere preserve and the area is designated “fly the flats and Bocas of Las Salinas, the Rio Hatiguanico, and fishing only.” Trips to Cayo Largo avoid the confines of a San Lazaro areas. Fly Fishing the Run operates the 100 foot mothership and give guests the ability to explore the island’s long yacht Georgiana in this area offering groups of eight a beaches, tours and dynamic ecosystems. The primary targets luxury mothership option. Also available is Fish Zapata, a for anglers include large bonefish and permit with a few simple land-based operation that accesses the fishery through opportunities for resident tarpon. Anglers can either stay a long mangrove channel terminating in an enormous bay at The Sol Club, a large (296-room) all-inclusive resort
Top: Tight to a bonefish at Cayo Largo; a dinner toast on Avalon Fleet 1, Cayo Cruz. Middle: A classic car cruises past Havana Parque Central. Bottom: Avalon Fleet 1; an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana; Jon Covich with a trophy bonefish from Cayo Largo. Photos: Dylan Rose & Jon Covich
“¡VIVA LA CUBA!” with an endless array of habitats. This region offers great bonefish and permit flats as well as mangrove habitats for juvenile tarpon. The Zapata peninsula is only 2.5 hours from Havana and is perfect for shorter custom packages.
Seasonality & Pricing The month of May brings peak season fishing and stiff competition for availability in Cuba. In terms of pricing, May bookings can represent as much as a 35% increase over the same trip booked during the low season (namely December–February and July–September). A big factor in the May increase has to do with the expectation of migratory tarpon at the various destinations. Large tarpon begin appearing in April, peak in May and taper off in June. However, anglers that are not overly concerned with migratory tarpon can take advantage of lower mid-season and low-season rates and still experience fantastic fishing for bonefish, permit, resident tarpon, jacks, barracuda and snapper, depending on location. For many anglers, mid and low season pricing provide nice savings, sacrificing only the potential for larger tarpon.
Conclusion Cuba is a vastly different place than the United States. It takes an incredible amount of effort, skill and hard work for outfitters to function successfully within a totalitarian communist state. Interested anglers need to be ready to roll with the travelrelated punches. With all of the required documentation, less than ideal flights, long check-in times, lengthy in-country transfers, and several currency issues at hand, a prospective
Jardines de la Reina La Tortuga: $5,950-$8,450 per person for a 9 night/ 6 day package Halcon: $5,550-$8,050 per person for a 9 night/ 6 day package Avalon Fleet I: $53,990-$76,800 for a 9 night/ 6 day package for up to 8 anglers Avalon Fleet II: $67,500-$96,000 for a 9 night/ 6 day package for up to 10 anglers
Cayo Cruz Avalon Fleet I: $53,990-$76,800 for a 9 night/ 6 day package for up to 8 anglers Avalon Fleet II: $67,500-$96,000 for a 9 night/ 6 day package for up to 10 anglers
traveler must be patient and willing to deal with a little thirdworld adversity. Things on the ground in Cuba just happen on “island time” and the more you fight it, the more it will hurt. Luckily, Fly Water functions as a facilitator to make your trip as smooth as possible and we work diligently to limit surprises. We’ll help you by providing prompt correspondence, accurate billing, and assistance with confusing foreign exchanges. Furthermore, it can be thoroughly confusing just trying to figure out where to go! Our experience in the country is an invaluable tool for you as you begin the process of making an informed decision and considering all of the available options. Throughout the process, Fly Water will be your personal advocate and help you navigate all the options, and most importantly, we will allow you peace of mind while traveling in a new country. Cuba’s diverse and varied fishing programs are in a class by themselves. The fishing can be spectacular and the call of wild, unpressured flats remains the stuff that angling dreams are made of. However, beyond all of this, it’s truly a magical time in history to visit this remarkable island nation. With so much history, transition and possibility, a trip to Cuba makes for a fantastic travel adventure all by itself. The culture, personality, and unyielding charm make for an attractive and almost addictive atmosphere. A journey to Cuba blends cultural interest, travel adventure and world-class fishing better than perhaps any other destination in the world today. Just don’t be surprised if you return home only to find yourself becoming disturbingly preoccupied with creating the perfect Mojito, salsa dancing alone in your kitchen, and unexpectedly shouting “¡Viva la Cuba!”
Cayo Largo Sol Club Melia: $6,400-$8,850 per person for a 9 night/6 day package Villa Merinera: $4,700-$6,990 per person for a 9 night/6 day package
Isla de Juventud Perola: $46,450-$31,700 for 9 night/6 days up to 6 anglers
Fly Fishing the Run Gardens of the King: $3,640-$5,320 per person for a 8 night/6 day package Zapata: $25,600-$32,000 for a 7 night/6 day package for up to 8 anglers
Fish Zapata Playa Larga: $3,745 per person for a 7 night/6 day package