By Lázaro David Najarro Pujol
Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) was the name Admiral Christopher Columbus chose during his second journey to Cuba on May 1494 to call an incredibly beautiful archipelago lying south of Camagüey coasts, as a tribute to the Queen Isabel of Spain.
Doce Leguas labyrinth stretches along 135 kilometers, being splendid sites for scuba divingNavigating through this maze of small isles and keys turns rather difficult, the Admiral himself almost goes astray when he sailed deeply into this area.
However, this wonderful site has been an important route for the maritime navigation for centuries. Sebastián de Ocampo, a Galician pilot and servant of Queen Isabel from Castile visited the Jardines de la Reina archipelago in 1508.
Once he cruised the coast of Cubanacan or Isla Juana as they called this nation then, the Spanish sailor could inform Governor Nicolás de Ovando in the neighboring the Hispaniola “that Cuba is an island, and not a continent, like Columbus believed."
The main wonder is appreciated in the labyrinth of the Doce Leguas (Twelve leagues) that occupies a third part of the Jardines de la Reina and can be considered one of the most beautiful areas in the 70 000 km2 of Cuba’s plunged shelf."
The Doce Leguas labyrinth stretches along 135 kilometers, being splendid sites for scuba diving, with colonies of sponges and large coral reefs.
Dozens of kilometers in length, superb beaches of a wide fine sand strip, sea bottoms up to 20 meters of admirable landscapes, are some of the characteristics of the Doce Leguas labyrinth.
At the Island’s shelf break, the divers can see the black coral and diverse species of the wildlife which are the natural heritage of an ecosystem meticulously preserved. This wide area , sometimes of rough sea, keeps in its inside important marine secrets.
Communities settled down in Doce Leguas
The beginnings of the fishery in Santa Cruz del Sur was based in the keys of the Doce Leguas archipelago, where entire families built their houses in the 1930’s. Slums emerged in those keys formed by small and middle cottages like the typical bohios of the Cuban peasants, but built of valued hardwood brought from mainland and logs of red mangrove which abounds in the south of Cuba.
Life began there with dawn. Hundred of keys, separate by small straits, made up the Jardines de la Reina whose eastern extreme is situated before the coasts of Santa Cruz del Sur.
Cabeza del Este, Cachiboca, Boca Rica, Media Luna, Cayo Caguama, Boca de Piedra Chiquita, Boca de Piedra Grande and las Cruces stand out among the most important keys in the area.
Nature is impressive beneath the waters covering the submarine shelf of this stunning area. An extensive zone made up by 661 keys and coral reefs features this archipelago of crystalline waters and flawless beauty.
Those who lived in the Doce Leguas labyrinth speak
Santa Cruz del Sur dockIgnacio Corzo lived a great deal of his life far from civilization and mainland. A man who was born in the sea and turned old on a dinghy. He didn't take too much interest in playing games when he was a boy, instead his toys were fish hooks and keepnets.
Life was actually healthy in that world which was at the same time a magic, wonderful and tough existence, like in all the distant and socially underdeveloped places. The fishermen community of Doce Leguas was so.
"We devoted ourselves to the sponge and the chelonian fishing, we also caught the lobster and other species. In addition, we collected feathers of heron, the fur of the Cuba hutia and the bark of the red mangrove. Those were time of amazing fish abundance when we could catch plenty of them.
"With time the families grew in Doce Leguas and many people settled down in Las Yanas cay in search of illusions and hopes.
"I was fascinated with the hunting of the Hawksbill turtle (Carey) and the sponge, but my mother didn’t want me to go to the keys.
"When I turned 17 year old I got back to Doce Leguas. I liked to fish much more than being in land, because like they say “The one who fish once, he is a fisherman”. Like Luis García Villarreal the first mayor of the community of the southern archipelago who settled down his headquarter in Juan Grín key."
Also in those remote places of the Cuban archipelago Braulio Suárez Miranda was born, specially in Cachi Boca key: "Mom felt my sister's first labor pains in Doce Leguas. Just before delivering the baby, dad transported her in a little boat to Santa Cruz."
Those who were with her remember that she gave birth to my sister on the craft in front of Punta de San Juan. They say that that childbirth was exasperating in those precarious conditions and with the constant swaying of the boat.
"I forged my life on the cabin of The Eugenia, since the time I was born. We lived in Manuel Gómez' key, in a house built by my old man. We also fished in Los Indios and Cachi Boca.
"Neither had we schools nor teachers who taught us the first letters. For Christmas Eve and until the first days of the new year, we moved for Santa Cruz del Sur. The rest of the time, near 356 days and nights we stayed in Doce Leguas.
"One night, when we sailed across La Pasa de Boca Grande, my brother Manuel who was one year old, fell in the water, fortunately the old man realized. Then he loosed the helm of the El Orza, and dove into the sea and rescued the baby.”
The fishery became the only economic source of José del Risco Martínez’ family:" When I was 8 year old, my eleven brothers and I fished together with our father, basically the Smalltooth sawfish, the lane snappers, the Mugil liza.
Some years later, an uncle of mine nicknamed “Chino” and I started to hunt the Hawksbill turtle He traded the salted meat of the chelonian, sponges and seabird feathers for clothing and other provisions with the people living in Doce Leguas.”
Pedro Guerra Cabrera: the labyrinth’s turtle breeder
Cacaseno continued the tradition of his father Pedro GuerraPedro Guerra Cabrera was born in Santa Cruz del Sur in 1911. He did not learn how to write nor read, but he did learn the art of fishing since he was a toddler, besides he learned by himself math, architecture and navigation.
He designed and built a farm for turtles and explored the archipelago of the Doce Leguas, as a result of his experience and intelligence.
"Seven days after my birth, my parents took me to Doce Leguas, particularly to Cayo Caguama. I returned to my hometown when I was 8.
"It was a custom of my old man that when one of us turned one year old, he put the baby in the handrail of the boat with a rope in his little hands. He threaded a fishhook in the extreme of it and when the little one caught a fish, my father ran to pull it out. That was one of the reasons why fishing took roots in our lives. That’s why we can say we are natural born fishermen.
"There were not schools in the community of Doce Leguas, the girls could study a little. At first we lived like savages, civilization came in 1918 with the arrival of the motors."
Fernando García Villarreal, was always a sea wolf and expert of the labyrinths: "They know me by the nickname Long Chinese. There in Doce Leguas I founded the neighborhood mayorship, in 'Juan Grin' key, where they basically used the fishhook to fish.
"There were plenty of lane and cubera snappers, Smalltooth sawfish and Nassau grouper in that area. We could hunt the turtle only at the first dive."
The economy of Edelmiro Yero Bello’s family depended on the capture of the Hawksbill, that is its salted meat and its shell. "The shell of the turtle were in a better demand because they were exported for Germany.
"With time, my father decided to go into retirement and sold the craft. Four brothers Manolo, Emilio, Luis and me made up our minds to go into a partnership. We decided to continue fishing. We bought two boats: La Marola and La Marolita. Afterwards we ordered to build El Veterano. We sold the fish to diverse managers. To avoid the expenses I had to make some carpentry, in order to repair our own crafts."
A true natural wonder of the world
The charms of the keys, swamps, marine pastures and coral reefs make of Jardines de la Reina a true natural wonder of the world; also enriched its high levels of bio-diversity and conservation, where more than 900 species of fish and 66 of plants have their habitats.
A Cuban endemic mammal known as Cuban hutia (Capromis pilorides) resident of this warren is another curious thing of this archipelago because unbelievably, this rodent can travel from key to key throughout 150 kilometers of small pieces of land and sea.
Several centuries after Jardines de la Reina’s discovery, this is still a place of special beauty and wealth, where history grew thanks to its people’s steadiness and sweat. A place full with charms and legends, now protected and preserved for the sake of the environment.
Note of the editor
lane snapper (Lutjanus synagris)
cubera snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus)
Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus)