How ACT Saved the Last Day of My Cuban Vacation

March 16, 2020

I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for as long as I can remember. From the history to the culture to the sights, Cuba was a definite “bucket list” destination for me. And the first eight days of the trip went exactly as planned – the people were welcoming and friendly, and the cities of Trinidad and Old Havana were exactly as I pictured (and hoped) Cuba would be.

For my final day I scheduled a day trip from Havana to Varadero, the city with Cuba’s nicest beaches and some of the best snorkeling in the world. I’d enjoyed perfect weather until then, but woke up the morning of my excursion to a chance of rain. I shrugged it off and took the $25 ride to Varadero. There was a light drizzle on the way, but nothing concerning. When I arrived, I went into an excursions office and was told that the sea was too rough and snorkeling wasn’t an option. I was floored. I left and walked to another office only to get the same response. I was heartbroken. I’d wanted to end my trip with a bang, but it seemed like it would be more of a whimper.

I paused and considered my options. I could return immediately to Havana, wasting $50 and six hours on my final day in Cuba. I could also continue going from office to office trying to find someone willing to take me snorkeling. The first option would have left me angry and disappointed. The second fed into my natural stubbornness and would almost assuredly leave me frustrated. And neither was especially likely to help me enjoy my final day.

Then there was the third approach, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) mindset. Although I’d come to Varadero for snorkeling, this was now an opportunity to be curious about whatever else the town had to offer. It turned out that there was a beautiful cave surrounding a spring-water swimming hole. The pictures online were lackluster, but the reviews all said pictures couldn’t do it justice. I hired a taxi and headed to Cueva de Saturno (Saturn Cave).

I walked down seven flights of wooden stairs surrounded by vines and trees until I heard splashing. The cave was breathtaking, with glistening stalagmites stretching to reach the shimmery stalactites above. The water was crystal clear aqua, exactly what I’d hoped to see while snorkeling in the Caribbean. I realized I’d never swum in spring water. Oceans were salty and pools had chlorine, so my closest experience would be a bath. This was nothing like a bath.

I descended to a wooden platform where about a dozen people had left their packs and towels. I dropped my own bag and stepped down a metal ladder into the cool water. It was refreshing and somehow more freeing than swimming in a pool. I’m not sure why, but it was. I found myself treading water and slowly spinning in circles, in complete awe of the cave surrounding me 270°. That was likely the most mindful and present I’ve been in my life.

On one side of the cave there was a small yellow sign declaring a depth of 20 meters. Nearby, several boys were diving headfirst into the water off a limestone formation. Unlike a swimming pool, or even most of the ocean where the bottom is flat, the stalagmites made any jumping risky, but a head-first dive flat-out dangerous. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but I do like to take some risks. I love to travel, and it’s rare I return to the same place – this would likely be my only visit to Cuba and to Cueva de Saturno. So, this wasn’t the time to squander an opportunity.

Taking ACT principles into consideration, I knew that living life in fear wasn’t for me. I value my life, but I also value a little adventure. I thought about the possible outcomes of not jumping, and was immediately struck by feelings of possible regret. As I climbed up the rock, I decided I wasn’t willing to risk diving and cracking my head open on underwater rocks, but jumping would allow me to have my adventure and (likely) survive to tell, even if my foot or leg hit the rocks. I took my leap of faith.

I felt my mouth break into a wide, wet grin as I crashed into the cool water. It was incredible. The feeling of freedom filled me again. I didn’t understand why this feeling continually reappeared. My best guess is that despite not discovering this secret place myself, the cave was still a natural development, which couldn’t help but remind me of the power of nature. I spent another 30 minutes floating and swimming before toweling off and heading back to my cab.

During the three-hour ride back to Havana, I was exhausted but incredibly happy. I didn’t let a change of plans ruin the excitement about my adventure or the trip overall. When I spoke with a few friends I’d met earlier and showed them my photos, they were quick to point out that snorkeling could happen anywhere, but this was truly a unique opportunity.

The unique opportunity, I thought, was to put my ACT skills to use – to test whether my instinct to over-schedule and reject spontaneity could allow not just for changing plans but for actually enjoying the change. I don’t know what would have happened if the cave hadn’t been so majestic, or if I hadn’t found another way to spend my day. But I don’t need to worry about that. Worrying about the past is a waste. It can’t be changed, so our only option is to learn and move forward. I learned that I’m more capable of intellectual flexibility than I thought (a shocking revelation) – and that curiosity might have killed the cat, but it saved my last day in Cuba.