A Song for Jardines de la Reina

Exhalted by Crown and El Caballo

By Seth Fields

I can’t quite make out the lyrics to Rigo’s tune, but I pick out a few words here and there and piece together a story.

My Spanish is asi asi at best, but matters of el corazon are universal, and all clues point to a sad song about a beautiful girl—the one who got away. She left without reason, without so much as a goodbye. Maybe it’s about a long-lost love of Rigo’s, or maybe it’s just a popular Cuban tune, but one thing’s for sure: I wish I had paid better attention in Spanish class all those years ago. I guess I could ask, but it’s probably best left unsaid.

While we are pushing our way through the web of a rigid forest of mangroves and turtle grass, his song is cut by the wind and the noisy chorus of royal terns and cormorants basking among the emerald treetops of Jardines de la Reina.

With the pushpole as a great metronome, we glide through the clear waters to the rhythm of Rigo’s ballad. Each heaving effort elicits a strained note, but still his song continues. As the sun sinks lower, I can’t help but wonder who she might be and what other life awaits Rigo when his song ends and the boat docks back at Júcaro Port.

When we round a corner, the skiff begins to slow, and Rigo breathes heavy as a headwind diminishes our efforts to reach the inner clearings where resident tarpon are more accessible.

The fish here use the roots of the mangroves as underground tunnels, but there are a few places deep in the maze where the trees are scattered and fish are easier to spot. Regardless of where you find them, shots are problematic at best. Bringing a fish to the boat is often an afterthought, but in the end, the effort is half the fun and, as Rigo taught me earlier, De los cobardes, no se ha escrito nada.

He said this to me as I, armed with only a large tarpon fly, took an improbable shot at a large bonefish leading a small school in the mangroves. Unlikely to elicit a strike in most places, but this is JDR, and most of these fish have never seen a fly before. Minutes later, with a nice bonefish in hand, he translated the saying in English: “Nobody writes about cowards,” and I believe that it is a fitting maxim for Cuba and Jardines de la Reina as a whole. The waters and the land here are striking, but behind the veil of sprawling views and vibrant habitats is a formidable and rugged landscape of immense proportion and uncultivated possibilities.

Sight-fishing among the mangroves, though only a sample of the fishing that awaits anglers here, is a demanding arena, and neither the poling nor the fishing is exactly easy. To reach the target, anglers and guides must often adopt a mentality akin to that of a hunter or backcountry brook trout angler in order to avoid a gauntlet of obstacles and remain unseen, unheard.

Deep in the forest, you’ll find barracudas, bonefish, various snapper species, and juvenile tarpon—we’re focused on tarpon. These aren’t your typical juveniles, either, but rather a sturdy brood of 8-to-20-pound residents that manage to appear and disappear amongst the mangroves like apparitions. Like the girl in Rigo’s song, they captivate and elude, yet we keep searching.

Once, from the casting deck, I noticed a single tarpon hiding under the roots of a solitary mangrove, maybe twice the length of my fly rod distant. With the fly held at the barb in my left hand, I pulled tight on the line and released a textbook Appalachian bow-and-arrow cast only to land the fly a few inches from the peering eyes of the oblivious tarpon. It ate without hesitation but was quickly lost after a series of crashing jumps through the brush. The defeat was lessened by the smile on Rigo’s sun-worn face.

We battled fish until the late afternoon, when the sun began its shift toward the shimmering edges of the horizon, and I could feel the energy fading as Rigo’s song dwindled to a soft hum. As we exited the remaining patches of mangrove, only the melodies of the fauna remained.

BENEATH THE FLUORESCENT GLOW OF A CONGESTED RIO DE JANEIRO CONFERENCE ROOM, President George H. W. Bush and Primer Ministro y Presidente Fidel Castro traded well-concealed blows to an audience of gathered political insiders and international press at the first-ever Earth Summit in 1992. Both a product of their times and equally fervent in their principles, both leaders stood squarely at the podium, green fatigues and tailored suit, and addressed the issues of economic growth and environmental impact of their prospective countries.

“An important biological species— humankind—is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it,” Castro remarked to the council. “The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. . . . Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature.”

Cuba, recently being left to its own limited devices by Russian withdrawal, stared at an uncertain future, while the United States and President Bush—still looking to reaffirm their authority at the end of an economic recession—eyed a place at the environmental table and a contentious balance between rapid growth and stewardship. “There are those who say that economic growth and environmental protection cannot be compatible. Well, let them come to the United States,” said Bush.

The 1990s were a turning point for Cuba, as the end of the Cold War left the island scrambling for a new identity and economic relief. If the Cuban government were going to survive and provide for its already suffering people, it would have to open its borders. It would have to create a new, more marketable Cuba— one that would have appeal on the international stage of tourism, yet hold fast to its Malthusian ideology. The country would have to begin showcasing its beautiful beaches, oceans, and its robust fisheries if tourism were to thrive. But at what cost to its already fragile marine environments?

In a country with so much to gain and so little to lose, it’s hard to imagine placing its economic needs ahead of its environmental desires, but the design of its leader and the genetic makeup of its Marxist ideology led Cuba down the path of protectionism.

Even El Caballo could not right the economic wrongs of his nation and its deeply flawed system, but he would eventually use his enduring powers to safeguard its natural resources, especially that of Jardines de la Reina, or the “Gardens of the Queen”—an area considered by many to be the crown jewel of Cuba’s marine ecosystem.

It is no secret that Castro coveted the Gardens and their uncultivated lands and virgin waters above all others. Once regarded as his secret diving and fishing playground, the Garden would eventually become a staple of his environmental reform, and he set forth a plan to make sure that its legacy would endure.

Before sickness began to overtake him in his latter years, Castro would aim to protect more than 25 percent of Cuba’s entire coastline, including the Gardens, by relabeling them as marine parks and banning little to almost all human impact within their boundaries. In 2010, he bestowed the title of national park to the Gardens of the Queen. Twenty-six years later, all the protections have created one of the largest and most pristine protected inshore fisheries in the world. Today, only a small number of divers and fly anglers are permitted to revel in its beauty each year.