HAVANA, April,13th (telegraph) As the halogen bloom of our torches pierced the gloom, the Lake of Dreams snapped into focus.
In the silence of the bat-filled Caverna de losPanaderos (Bakers’ Cavern) beneath Gibara, a coastal town 480 miles east of Havana, I looked down on water which was crystal clear and, when I dipped my hand in, shockingly cold, too.
As I stood there contemplating whether to jump in or not, José Corella, my geologist guide, revealed a local secret: “Those who swim in the Lake of Dreams will find eternal youth.” Giggling, 100ft beneath the earth’s surface, I slipped into the unruffled lake and figured that my sharp intake of breath might roll back the years, if nothing else.
Subterranean geology is what Gibara is all about. Once known for its thriving port – the most important on the north-east coast during the 19th century – it has gained a reputation over the years for the three-day Cine de la Cueva festival, which is held every year, with subterranean movie screenings in the Panaderos caves.
This year it will coincide with the first ever Gibara International Film Festival, which takes place from April 16-22 and builds on the success of the town’s annual Cine Pobre (“non-budget film”) festival. The director of the international festival is Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría, who performed with Benicio del Toro in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic Che – and del Toro will be a guest at the event.
This cultural crescendo is no coincidence, marking as it does the 200th anniversary of Gibara’s founding in 1817. What I was here for, though, was the region’s spectacular caves. It was here in Gibara that the aboriginal Taíno people left their art on the rocks hundreds of years ago – 22 motifs in the Bakers’ Cavern alone – and their pottery is scattered in shards across backyard banana plots throughout the region.
Those who swim in the Lake of Dreams will find eternal youth
It was here too that, in October 1492, Christopher Columbus became the first European to encounter the inhabitants of Cuba, who offered him “boiled roots which tasted like chestnuts” (sweet potato). Columbus also saw for the first time cotton, tobacco, kidney beans and maize, and famously recorded in his ship’s diary that “this island is the most beautiful that eyes have ever seen”.
What he couldn’t have known is that Gibara’s beauty goes more than skin-deep. Set in a vast region underpinned by limestone, the town is surrounded by dozens of caverns formed nine million years ago. Some 40-odd have been explored so far, many of them by scuba divers.
To understand the thrill of subterranean diving, I met up with Arturo Rojas Cruz, president of Grupo Cársico, the only cave-diving club in Cuba. He is also national president of the cave-diving division of the Speleological Society of Cuba – perfect credentials for escorting me through the labyrinths of Gibara.
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At Playa Caletones, an 11-mile drive from Gibara along a road flanked by cacti and wild grape trees, with jagged limestone pinnacles as a backdrop, we loaded up Moro the packhorse with cylinders and diving gear and trekked nearly three miles through scrub to (Blue Tank), the largest flooded cavern in Cuba.
Local boys were diving off the sharp-edged rim, embellished with coral fossils, into the stunning aquamarine water below. I have had the good fortune to scuba dive in the sea off Cuba, with its brightly coloured corals, multicoloured parrot fish and sleek sharks, but nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
As Arturo and I descended into the inner chambers of Tanque Azul, the karstic debris of stalagmites and stalactites looked like a jungle of dragons and serpents tinged with amber. In chamber after chamber, the floor was coated in a frothy, dusty sediment in milk chocolate tones.
Knowing that the skulls of extinct giant sloths and even the remains of humans have been found in caves further west, I couldn’t help wondering if the “stalagmite” I had just glimpsed was a human spine – or perhaps the femur of a dinosaur.
The remains of humans have been found in caves further west
I was hooked but the best was yet to come. Hoyo Verde (Green Hole) is another cave almost buried in the jungle, its mouth plugged with henequen agave and bristling with marmalade-coloured butterflies which looked like they had fed on the same minerals as the subterranean columns.
Much closer to Playa Caletones, Hoyo Verde can be accessed on foot. Once under water, it felt as though we were moving through the remains of a city shattered by an earthquake, or the remnants of a thousand shipwrecks. There were stalagmites thrust out at angles, wrecked sheets of tilted limestone, thick columns that appeared like the figureheads of ships and others that resembled discarded cannon.
The ceiling appeared to be studded with a thousand large, elongated black thorns.
We emerged into a distant chamber where we encountered a halocline – where dense salt water meets a lighter layer of fresh water, creating a shimmering mirage effect. An optical illusion tricked us into thinking that above the halocline was fresh air and below it water, so crystal-clear was the upper layer.
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As we turned around to return to the surface, the sediment we had stirred up with our fins knitted together and floated; it was like diving above a slur of brownish clouds. Then, in the light of our torches, a blind, pregnant fish appeared, its eye sockets replaced with two black pin heads. This troglobite species, Lucífuga gibarensis, is little studied, as is remipedia, a tiny, blind crustacean that lives in the sunless Gibara world.
As we surfaced into the milky green light, past jigging translucent shrimps, I wondered if the creatures were edible. No, Arturo told me after surfacing, but there were plenty of other crustaceans to eat in the seafood restaurants of Gibara.
At La Culinaria, right on the bay, chef Alberto Gámez Ronda cooked me shrimp cocktail followed by sopa con música – a deeply perfumed soup made with rice and la coquina (a tiny, mauve-tinted mollusc, said to be an aphrodisiac).
He then served us jaiba rellena (stuffed jaiba crab, a local variety) presented in its shell and cangrejado Gibareño: a combination of crabmeat and legs, served in a carved gourd and accompanied by a wooden slab used to smash open the crab legs with a pestle. The four-course lunch came to CUC2 per person.
The meal does not include drinks, because Alberto – who also runs cookery classes for local children – can’t afford a second fridge in addition to the one where the day’s catch is stored. “This is an association, an NGO,” he explains. The absence of alcohol isn’t a problem, though, because diners can buy cold beer from a kiosk nearby for just CUC1 a bottle.
Relish it all now, before Cuba’s changing relationship with the world puts Gibara firmly on the tourist map.