Jun 14th, 2016
Jardines de la Reina is a remote archipelago of islands lying some 50 miles off the southern coast of the Cuban mainland. This is a protected marine area with a limited number of catch and release anglers, divers and eco-tourists allowed to visit annually. The habitat here is pristine and untouched, enabling bonefish, permit, tarpon, barracuda, jacks and snapper to flourish. With a total fishing area greater than the Florida Keys, anglers are given a large area per skiff to fish, ensuring that they rarely see other fishermen. In fact, Avalon only allows a maximum of 15 skiffs fishing JDR at any one time. Fishing is consistent throughout the entire year. While tarpon under 30 pounds are always available, the truly giant fish arrive in April and stay through the end of June, and sometimes into July. September is generally a month reserved for boat maintenance and guide vacations due to hurricane season.
Given its remote location, getting to Jardines de la Reina is somewhat more complicated than other Cuban destinations. Guests overnight in Havana, and with an early wake up call board a bus for a 5 hour cross-country ride. After a few break stops and lots of time to view life in Cuba from the window, the bus arrives at the port of Jucaro. There, guests either join the boat they will be staying on or a transport boat if staying on the Tortuga, and travel another 3 – 4 hours to the fishing grounds. Standard packages here include five full days of fishing and typically a few hours on both the arrival and departure days.
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Jardines de la Reina, Cuba
Anglers search for their last shot of the day in the Jardines de la Reina.
Fly Water’s Jon Covich hoists a beautiful juvenile tarpon from the Jardines de la Reina.
Hooked up to a beautiful tarpon on the turtle grass flats.
The 107 foot long Avalon Fleet I rests while anglers regroup for another day on the flats.
Expert Interview with Dylan Rose
On the Jardines de la Reina
1. The Jardines de la Reina is one of the most remote, expansive and well preserved saltwater environs left in the world.
2. Experience the wonder of Havana and the country as a whole before U.S. interests alter it.
3. Good opportunities for a grand slam (catching a bonefish, tarpon and permit all in the same day).
4. The Jardines de la Reina is larger than the Florida Keys and is fished by less than two dozen flats boats.
5. A great combination of culture and world class fishing.
Where is the lodge?
The Jardines de la Reina is located on the southern coast of Cuba, and is not a singular lodge but rather a region serviced by three mother ships and a floating lodge.
How do I get there?
Guests typically fly into Havana, overnight and then are transported approximately 7 hours by bus to the town of Jucaro. Anglers staying on La Tortuga will embark there or, if staying on one of the mother ships, further transport of up to 5 hours on the boat may occur from Jucaro.
When should I go?
Trips are available year-round excluding September. Peak season occurs from March through May. Those interested in migratory tarpon opportunities should book in May.
Where do they fish?
The Jardines de la Reina is a massive area. Flats boats either depart from La Tortuga near the launching point of Jucaro or from one of several mother ships positioned deep inside the JDR. Avalon typically rotates fishing zones each day and throughout the week so anglers continually have a chance to target fresh fishing zones.
Where do we stay?
The Jardines de la Reina is serviced by Avalon’s floating 24 person hotel called La Tortuga and three mother ships including Avalon Fleet I, Avalon Fleet II and the Halcon. These boats take four to 14 anglers.
What are the accommodations and meals like?
Rooms aboard the vessels are simple, comfortable and air conditioned. Both single and double rooms are often available. Although smaller in general than a land-based operation, ample room is provided for clothing and tackle. There is plenty of hot and fresh water for showering and rinsing tackle. Meals are plentiful with rice, fresh fish (often catch of the day), poultry, fruit and vegetables.
How would you describe the general vibe and atmosphere?
The atmosphere is casual, fun and service oriented.
Is there an on-site manager, owner or point person at the lodge?
Yes, each boat has an on-site manager or point person capable of responding to any on-site requests or issues in English.
Is there internet and cell service?
No. Avalon boats are equipped with emergency satellite phones and radios in case of an emergency.
How do they fish?
Guides utilize 17 foot Dolphin flats skiffs. Anglers fish two per skiff with one guide and rotate fishing opportunities with their boat mate.
What fish will I catch?
The Jardines is species rich with bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, barracuda, various jacks, grouper and snapper. On any given day you may run into one of these species or all of them!
How many fish will I catch?
Any time you catch more than 10 bonefish it is a good day. In season, encounters with tarpon can be a daily occurrence but landing them is often tough. With permit if you catch even one in a week that is an accomplishment to be proud of. Many anglers spend years trying to connect with their first permit. Various catches of jacks, barracuda and snapper are also regularly encountered. The Jardines tends to offer a wide variety of opportunities but how many of those opportunities are converted into caught fish varies greatly from angler to angler and from week to week.
Will we see other anglers?
Typically any anglers encountered on the fishing grounds will be those from your same trip or outfitter. In many cases you will not see other boats but there may be times when boats elect to fish the same channels or regions.
Do the guides speak English?
Spanish is their first language. The degree to which they speak English varies, but most guides will have basic knowledge of “fishing English”. Sometimes distances are given in meters rather than feet, since the rest of the world uses the metric system. I would advise you practice up on your conversion of meters to feet!
What are the guides like?
Avalon’s guides are well trained captains and familiar with the needs of fly anglers. Like anywhere else, the skill and experience of their guides varies but all guides have gone through an Avalon training program. Cuban guides can be overly passionate which some anglers find offensive. Our advice is to never suffer in silence. If you are experiencing an issue with your guide, it is important to bring the issue up with the manager or guide in question.
Is there wade fishing?
Fishing is done primarily from the boat, however, there are opportunities to wade fish as well. Anglers should speak directly with their guides if they are interested in wading to evaluate the pros and cons. Guides will usually feel like they can cover water more effectively while fishing from the boat.
How far is it to the fishing grounds?
A short run is 10 minutes and longer runs can be as much as an hour depending on your fishing goals.
Does the lodge provide equipment?
Most of the time, no. Aboard La Tortuga some equipment can be rented. La Tortuga also has a small but well stocked shop with various tackle and flies.
Are there other activities?
Some snorkeling and diving opportunities may be available on certain boats.
What is your favorite rod(s) for the trip?
A high quality fast action 9ft. 9wt. is the single most versatile rod. It’s suitable for bonefish, baby tarpon, snook and most permit. Although it’s common for anglers to bring as many as four rods per day.
What are the physical demands?
This trip is suitable for anyone, however, physically active people with good balance will excel when fishing from the flats boats.
Are their special skills required?
Anglers that can reach distances of 60 feet or more in less than three false casts will greatly benefit. Some proficiency with the double-haul is a huge advantage in the saltwater particularly when dealing with the wind.
Are there any dangers or annoyances?
There can be a few mosquitoes after rain events, but typically the wind is blowing enough to keep them at bay. A light mosquito repellent will work wonders. Also, there can be a few sandfleas around camp like elsewhere in the Caribbean. In the summer months biting horse flies can be a nuisance if fishing near the mangrove edges. It’s important to be aware of sharks and barracuda if you are wading.
Are there heath concerns?
There are no immediate health concerns for Cuba. It’s always a good idea to check the CDC guidelines before traveling internationally.
Travel in Cuba
By Dylan Rose
Are there special permits needed ? How much are they?
U.S. Anglers are currently required to make a $250 donation to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (a great organization doing excellent work) which allows them to travel under a fully legal license stating that their travels in Cuba are for educational purposes. “Educational purposes” are one of 12 legal reasons that U.S. citizens may travel to Cuba. It’s likely that this restriction will become moot in the near future when direct U.S. commercial flights commence next year. Other than the educational license the only other documents you need are a valid U.S. passport (not expiring within 6 months of your return date) and a Cuban tourist visa. The visa is acquired at the departing airport prior to your arrival in Havana. The cost is approximately $20 – $25 USD.
Who is the ideal Cuba traveler?
The ideal Cuban travelers are those that are aware of the many challenges that accompany visiting a county mired in a totalitarian communist government. Those visiting Cuba should be aware that the potential is high for lengthy delays, lost reservations, early wake up times, imperfect travel itineraries and high costs. In short, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the travel-related punches and be ready to go-with-the-flow when traveling in Cuba. If you are not that traveler, then there are other destinations that are less expensive where these variables are easier to control.
On the other hand, if you appreciate traveling to countries to experience cultural differences and want to visit a place undergoing immense change (the likes of which we may never see again), and also appreciate pristine fisheries and remote environments, you might fall in love with Cuba.
How do I deal with the money exchange?
There are two forms of currency in Cuba. One for the locals and one for the tourists. The locals pay in Cuban Pesos which is only academic since as a tourist you will never deal in this currency. As a tourist, you will pay in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), which are nicknamed Cuc’s (kooks). The CUC is pegged at roughly the same value as an American dollar. Since most Cuban establishments will not accept U.S. dollars (or charge a 10% fee), our advice is to travel to the country with Euros. Once you arrive at your hotel you may exchange Euros into CUC’s at the front desk, a local bank or a money exchange window. Changing money at the hotels is convenient and safe.
What happens when I arrive in Cuba?
Anglers typically arrive in Havana and are met by a lodge representative after clearing customs and collecting their bags. Guests are then helped into a local government licensed taxi and driven to their hotel. In the event that no one is there to meet you, our paperwork will detail your hotel reservation so you can simply hop in a taxi on your own. Many cab drivers speak English well enough to get you to your hotel, and I have not found one yet that couldn’t figure out where I was going, even if they didn’t immediately recognize the hotel name.
Taxis to/from the airport are not included in your fishing package and since you likely do not posses CUC’s when you arrive, it’s common to pay the cab driver in Euros. The typical cost from the airport to downtown Havana hotels is about €25 Euros.
What is Havana like?
Havana is full of rustic beauty and old world charm. It’s a lively, loud, hot, bustling, smoggy (no emissions control for vehicles) and intensely charming place full of wonder and immense change! For the most part the locals are incredibly warm, friendly and are yearning for daily life to improve through better relations with the U.S. Are there destitute populations of people begging for money? Yes. It’s important to realize that as an American tourist, you look like a walking sack of money roaming down the street looking for a place to call home. Yes, in old Havana this means that poor and desperate people will try and pry money out of you (not forcibly, as in a begging sense).
In all other parts of the city and country, this is very rarely the case. My advice is to leave your massively expensive looking Canon digital camera at the hotel if you go into old Havana, throw on a black t-shirt and jeans (in a lame attempt to blend in) and wander around like you own the place. If you look like you are there to hand out money to the poor, are sporting expensive clothes, wearing expensive jewelry and flashing wads cash (or a wallet) then you should expect to draw some potentially unwanted attention.
It’s also important to add that while some poor Cubans may persist with asking you for money, petty crime is relatively low in the city. I have wandered the streets of old Havana at all hours of the day and night and felt safer then in most big cities in the U.S.
How do I get the most out of my time there?
Our strong advice when in Cuba is to slow down, take a deep breath, drink a cold Mojito and realize that everything will work out. You will get where you need to be one way or the other. Sure, the process may be slow and fraught with error, but everything will work out. This is Cuba after all!
How are the hotels in Havana?
Hotels in Havana are like anywhere else. Some of them are great and some of them are pretty rough. We can help you dial in the right lodging and in particular the outfitters tend to partner only with four or five star hotels for fishing packages. The larger issue is a serious lack of availability at the best hotels during the peak travel months (February through May). Tourism is quickly becoming big business in Cuba and with all the increased attention, getting a room at a quality hotel can be a real challenge. Couple this with the fact that sometimes the hotels struggle with getting you checked in, sometimes lose reservations altogether, are generally pretty slow at getting your room organized and the whole process can be a bit of a headache. Working with Fly Water will help minimize your exposure to these annoyances as we check and double check all of your reservations.
Cuba is new for Americans. Are the fishing destinations new as well?
There are a lot of myths out there about Cuba and it’s important to understand fact from fiction before you go. Anglers from Canada, Europe, Central and South America have been fishing these waters for decades. It’s just the Americans that have been left out of the party all these years! Many anglers call me and allude to the fact that they want to go to Cuba because the fisheries have “just opened up”. This is not the case. The vast majority of these fisheries have been fished over the last 20 years plus.
What is remarkable, however, is that the regime for the most part has done an incredible job of preserving and protecting their natural resources, thus creating some truly incredible fishing opportunities. There is not another country in the Caribbean that has done a better job of preserving and protecting their fisheries than Cuba. Part of this may stem from the fact that one would have to be foolish to poach or fish illegally in the face of Castro’s regime.
One of the other pervasive myths out there is that the fishing is a Shangri-La full of massive bonefish, permit and tarpon as far as the eye can see, and that they ALL will bite your fly with reckless abandon. Like many places, sometimes the fishing can be truly amazing, but more often then not, saltwater fly fishing is still saltwater fly fishing and it can be extremely difficult. Those with the most skill, experience and preparation will do the best every time when it comes to catching fish. Saltwater fly fishing is the most difficult form of fly fishing there is and just because you are in Cuba and have spent two or three times as much money to go there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your rod will be bent all day long.
Another myth about Cuba is that tourism is only just getting going there. This is totally untrue. Europeans, Canadians and Central and South Americans have been visiting the country for decades. In fact, some 2 million tourists visit the country every year, even before the American onslaught.
How many destinations are there?
There are many destinations across Cuba as the island is actually larger than the state of Florida. We’ve identified six amazing destinations and focus on the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), Cayo Largo, Isla de Juventud (Island of Youth), Cayo Cruz, the Zapata Peninsula and Cayo Santa Maria (aka Gardens of the King).
Who are the outfitters?
Cuba’s main fly fishing outfitter is Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers. Avalon is a large organization with a plethora of destinations including both mother ship and land based destinations. Avalon has the infrastructure, experience, in-country relationships and people on the ground to offer a wide ranging and diverse selection of destinations. Like dealing with any large company or organization, working with Avalon can have it’s pluses and minuses. We are experts at helping you interface with Cuban outfitters and look after your best interests when booking a Cuban adventure. Your time is valuable. Let us help you.
Fly Fishing the Run is another outfitter that works closely with Avalon and is supported with Avalon trained guides, boats and personnel. Fly Fishing the Run offers well run, slightly less expensive options at Cayo Santa Maria (Gardens of the King) and the Zapata Peninsula.