|Our introduction to
Cuba was in Havana - a total of 7 officials and a sniffer dog took about
an hour to give us our clearance . We later heard that this was amazingly
quick - some cruisers take up to 5 hours to be processed! We were now "free"
to explore the marina, the city and the country - subject only to being
checked in and out of every port (and the marina) by the Guardia Frontera!
Our welcome to Havana was made much more enjoyable by Mark & Eva Scrancher and their two delightful little girls, Ruby and Ivy. Before leaving the USA we'd had a massive shopping spree on their behalf for all those bits and pieces not available in Cuba but which make life pleasurable. It was great fun unpacking everything and hoping they approved our choices They also took us to a great "paladar", the Cuban private-enterprise restaurants which are generally far superior to the "state-owned" restaurants. Thanks, guys! We hope that Mark will be able to join us for some diving and sailing when we get somewhere with good sailing winds!
Havana looked as one imagines Beirut must have been - a mixture of derelict buildings with some signs of restoration here and there. We visited the Museum of the Revolution which was interesting but included lots of nondescript items that one doesn't really need to see. The Bacardi building, a remnant of the 1920's and survivor from the pre-Castro era, has a spectacular façade.
In the marina we met Dianna, Find & Erik aboard
"Fai Ta De", a Danish yacht. They had just finished cruising
the south coast of Cuba and we have found their help and advice great
during our own trip.
So far we've been to a mixture of deserted islands (generally of the mangrove rather than the sandy beach/coconut tree variety) and some "tourist resort" places. The tourist hotels have telephones and internet access (sometimes) and Cubans are not allowed to stay at them (although they work there!), but we found these resorts useful for trying to contact the outside world and also as a relief from the struggle of everyday Cuba.
The Cuban people are wonderfully friendly and helpful - but their life is very hard because of the trade embargo. They are healthy and educated - it is delightful to see the children in their school uniforms - but just to get the basic necessities of life is a daily grind. Transport within towns is by foot or horse-and-cart and the different stores are scattered all over town. One shop might have eggs one day but none the next, bread at another location, while the vegetables are home grown and sold at the front of people's homes. We got really excited one day when out for a walk up a mountain we saw someone with a bucket of potatoes for sale; much to his amazement we bought the lot! Then, of course, they don't supply bags for the produce - we carried our own recycled supply of grocery bags and egg trays; otherwise whatever you've bought gets poured into your handbag! We bought from outdoor markets meat butchered on site - with the pig's head on display to illustrate the type of meat and its freshness! Mind you, using the word "butchered" is a slight misnomer; hacked into unrecognisable hunks and with a scattering of flies would be a more accurate description. We've been really pleased that we stocked up so well before leaving the US! It is a luxury to be able to return to the boat for meals - although the local pizzas have been great.
We had been told that we'd get fed up with eating lobster (well, not Christine because of her allergy to shellfish), and that has certainly been true. When anchored out at some deserted island we've been visited by local fishermen on some truly amazing home-built boats; they row out of nowhere and offer lobsters, and fish occasionally, for sale. The going rate is US$1 per lobster! After two months even Keith was getting sick of eating lobster and got really excited one day when a shrimping boat came nearly alongside (rather closer than was comfortable) and, for half a bottle of rum, we got about 3 large buckets of prawns on ice! Another day we got two lobsters and two fish for half a bottle of rum (the cost of the rum was also about US$1). The commercial fishing boats go out for 20 days a month - and they're not allowed to take any alcohol on board - so they trade in either beer or rum. By now Keith's beer supply was getting low so we had to use the rum we'd bought in Havana
One day, early in our stay, we hired a car and driver to visit the mountains which were geologically spectacular. We heard about a walk through the hills back to town and decided to do this. (Our driver thought we were nuts, since a car is an expensive privilege, but to people who live on a yacht, going for a long walk is exciting!) On the walk we met Roos & Vincent, a Dutch couple cycling around Cuba. They'd only started their adventure a couple of weeks previously and she was finding the cycling difficult and was homesick. When we explained that we were cruising Vincent was full of questions and it turned out they had done some sailing in Holland and Vincent was keen to do some blue water sailing. In the end we invited them to join us for about 4 days to cruise to the Isle de Juventud. Rather daringly, considering we'd only just met, they agreed to meet us 3 days later at a place called Maria La Gorda - a 120 kilometre ride on a dead end road! Their relief at seeing Poco Andante at anchor when they duly arrived was apparently considerable! They'd cycled and we'd had a wonderful down wind sail with spinnaker up - our last down wind sail until we get to the Virgin Islands, at least another 1-2 months away!
Maria La Gorda was a dive resort with about 20 chalets, 2 small restaurants and a small shop - but in the most crystal clear turquoise water we'd been in so far. We anchored in about 7 meters of water and could see the star fish on the bottom! The coral was colourful with loads of tropical fish - and snorkelling was great with the water temperature about 28ºC. After ferrying Roos & Vincent, their 2 mountain bikes and 14 panniers on board via the dinghy we all enjoyed exploring the dive sites for a couple of days. At about 10pm we set sail for the Isle de Juventud via some deserted islands (departure time is determined by the need to arrive during the afternoon to navigate through the coral reefs!). Unfortunately our first leg involved rounding a headland; immediately the seas became confused and we had the wind on our nose - we hadn't taken this into account when planning to give our visitors a taste of cruising Vincent suffered a nasty bout of sea sickness and their much looked-forward-to night sail was not a nice experience! However upon arrival at the deserted island, the miracle cure for sea sickness of "sitting under a tree" worked and we were all able to enjoy exploring. By the time we got to Nueva Gerona on Isle de Juventud, we'd agreed to spend Christmas together (2 weeks later).
At Nueva Gerona another yacht arrived called "Ed Hunter" with two young Norwegian guys who had just finished their National Service (we had first met in Havana) and had used their lump sum to fly to Florida and buy the best cruising boat they could afford. Anders and Erik were great fun and the six of us had lots of meals and drinks together. We all agreed to spend Christmas together at Cayo Largo, a resort island - which turned out to be fabulous. We celebrated Christmas on an abandoned jetty off a picture-postcard white sandy beach complete with palm trees! By now we were getting concerned about our slow progress along the south coast but bad weather held us there until after New Year (and Keith's birthday, of course!). Mind you, we all enjoyed some free drinks and meals at the "all inclusive" resorts - and using their Internet cafes and swimming pools
We eventually got away on 3rd January intending to do a long slog along the outside of the reef to Santiago de Cuba but bad weather forced us into the coast. By now Roos & Vincent were well and truly ready to continue their own adventure so we waved them goodbye at Casilda. It had been really great to get to know them and we hope they enjoy the rest of their travels around Cuba and Central America.
At last we got some good weather and day-sailed to the south east coast ready to cross the Windward Passage to Haiti (by-passing Guantanamo Bay!). It was great to experience a few nights anchored off deserted islands undisturbed by visits from the Guardia Frontera! Although usually the local fishing boats would come alongside - sometimes just to chat and look at the wonders of our boat compared with theirs! Or selling lobsters, prawns, ice, etc - all for just a can of beer or a glass of rum! These few days made us realise how much we had missed the freedom to cruise and anchor where and when we choose - it was definitely time to leave Cuba!
To understand Cuba today you must know a little of its history and politics. Castro's and Che Guevara's struggles. From their "invasion" on the south east coast and heavy losses (81 landed, 16 survived for 3 years in the bleak and inhospitable mountains of the Sierra Maestra) to the eventual overthrow of the Batista regime - whatever your political opinion one must admire the determination of this group. The country enjoyed reasonable affluence during their association with the USSR, enabling Castro to build schools, hospitals, roads and provide the basic needs of all its citizens. You do not see poverty in Cuba; all children go to school, housing is free, basic food is free (bread, rice, beans, etc.), heath care is free. As a Marxist regime, just about everything is controlled by the state; bureaucracy is rife, "make jobs" are everywhere. Wages are egalitarian around US$15 per month (400 Cuban pesos) be you a doctor or the guy who checks the milk output of cows!
The collapse of the USSR was a blow and the US trade and travel embargo was a greater blow to the economy. To overcome this Castro has created a "Special Period" where tourism is high on the priority as a way to earn much-needed hard currency. He has even created a special currency called the Convertible Peso at par with the US$. The regime has set about to extract as many US$ from the tourists as possible. The regime is also paranoid about a possible US invasion á la Grenada and also about Cubans fleeing the country so there are huge restrictions on boat traffic throughout the country.
That's a little of the country the people are lovely. Friendly is not strong enough to describe them. As an example we were walking along the street and made a chance remark about a lovely fish that the local fisherman was carrying. The next moment he gave it to us! (It fed six people that night!).
We found that there are three ways to "holiday" in Cuba all very different and have their own delights.
1) The all-inclusive package holiday at a resort.
We did all of these. They are all totally different views of Cuba and all equally valid. So a favourite phrase for us was "Is this the real Cuba?"
1. The All-Inclusive Experience.
All around Cuba are special resorts mainly set in the most beautiful parts of the country. They are large, modern resorts with lovely beaches, pools, restaurants, bars, etc. Tourists have paid up front and all food and drinks are included in the price. Extras are paid for in Convertible Pesos and are very expensive by international standards. The problem with this is that, if you turn up at one of these resorts, there is no mechanism to pay for anything - or if you can, the cost is high. Cayo Largo was one of these, where we spent a fun Christmas and New Year with Ed Hunter- two valiant Norwegian lads Eric and Anders sailing from Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean then maybe back to Norway. Eric and Anders thought they were in heaven - anchored off a white palm-fringed beach with free food and drink. The staff assume that if you're foreign then you must be all-inclusive!! We enjoyed a number of days playing tourists at these hotels. Other all-inclusive stops were at Cayo Levisa, Maria La Gorda (lovely anchorage and great snorkelling/diving, beach lazing, etc.) and Casilda where a new marina was close to an all-inclusive hotel.
2. The Independent Traveller.
This is the most difficult but can be the most rewarding Cuba experience. The authorities, although not discouraging, make life difficult - especially if you're on a boat. At every port you are boarded on arrival by the Guardia Frontera to complete the formalities - which can take some hours. Upon leaving you also have to checked out and searched. This makes early starts impossible. It's not only cruisers who have a problem. At Vinales we met a lovely young Dutch couple, Vincent and Rose who were on a six month cycling trip; Cuba then on to Mexico and Central America ending up in Panama City. Rose was very home sick and Vincent, an avid sailor, was very interested in our adventures. They had also been forced into long journeys in order to reach the next "Casa Particular" the only accommodations allowed for independent travellers (or expensive tourist hotels, see above). A pleasant walking tour of the mountainous valley ended by us offering to take them from Maria La Gorda to Isle de la Juventud, a four day trip. They ended up staying with us for a month!!
As an independent traveller you can get onto the Peso economy and eat street food (the roast pork sandwiches at 5 pesos (20 US cents) were particularly tasty). Shopping in markets for fruit, vegetables and meat was an experience. Bread was almost impossible to buy (because it is free to Cubans as part of their food allowance) although the bread distribution centers would sometimes give you some for free. Unfortunately, in the markets, not much was available so every day one has to search for everything and it was great excitement to find cheese, smoked chicken and even eggs!!!! Also there were "dollar" shops (where only the Convertible dollars were accepted), Government-run stores stocking a reasonable selection of canned and packet goods, beer and rum. The prices were very expensive compared to the US so it was preferable to use our provisions on board. We had stocked up in Key West with over four months supply!
Travelling this way brought home to you the daily struggle and friendliness of the people. In some of the isolated communities like La Esperanza and Pilon it is quite common to be invited into peoples' homes for a meal. Sandra at La Esperanza was particularly obliging and did some shopping for us, organised a car and cooked us an evening meal. She did not expect anything, and was overwhelmed by our farewell gift!!! Our arrival in Havana was made easier with the help of Mark and Eva Scrancher and their two daughters -family of Christine's ex-employer! Havana is a large bustling city attractive in parts but has huge scope for renovation of the once-magnificent buildings. Old fifties-style Buicks and Chevrolets give Havana its extra appeal. Outside of the cities horse (or bullock) and carts are the main means of transport - as well as the imaginative "Camel" buses on the back of articulated trucks.
3. The Self Sufficient Holiday.
For the cruiser THIS is the real Cuba. Anchoring off a deserted white sandy beach, behind a coral reef teaming with fish. lobsters, snapper and hog fish all easily harvested. Most of the anchorages were behind Cayos (islands) sheltered from the prevailing winds and often protected by coral reefs. Although the beaches were accessible by dinghy, often the islands were covered in low lying dense scrub or mangrove so exploration was limited. Monkeys, iguanas and other creatures wandered around. On Cayo Campos we lit a huge bonfire and barbecued freshly caught lobsters together with potatoes and sausages - and consumed lots of rum!!!
The only other people around were the fishermen who spent 20 days at sea and 10 days ashore. They would often come over and chat, offering to share their catch and provide ice just for a glass or two of rum or beer. We got a bucket full of prawns at Cayo Algodon Grande, fish and lobsters at Cayo Zaza de Fuera, and lobsters at Cayo Paraiso. Lobsters were caught by free diving so snorkel flippers and masks were prized possessions.
At Cayo Cantiles we visited the monkey sanctuary - a "conservation station" with four Cubans on the island - only to find that there were no monkeys!!! And the conservation work consisted of keeping a path clear into the scrub we never found out why they kept the path clear. It didn't go anywhere and no tourists came to the island!! We saw a few of these stations on the out islands - often near major passes through the reef - so we suspect they were really just lookout posts. Cuba is paranoid about possible invasion by the US and expect another Bay of Pigs attempt. They have little defence capability and rely on the fishermen and others to provide early warning. At Nueva Gerona we accidentally witnessed military manoeuvres where a heavily camouflaged fishing boat loaded with troops was escorting a torpedo camouflaged on a makeshift raft propelled by two 5 HP outboards!!
Sailing in Cuba.
The sailing, pilotage and navigation is certainly testing. Charts and pilots are reasonably accurate, but the hurricanes during the previous six months had changed some of the topography, moved sand banks and removed some of the buoys and beacons. Inside the reef, the water was shallow and with our two meter draught this often caused problems. On the north coast this came to light. At Cayo Paraiso the horseshoe shaped bay beloved of Earnest Hemmingway had been changed to just an island with a sandbank and all marks removed. Around Cayo Levisa it had shallowed considerably and I had to launch the dinghy to find a way through, after running aground so often. (Although usually you can just reverse off.) You soon learn to read the water colours and, as the water is so clear, you can often see the bottom - even in twenty meters of water - and eyeball navigation becomes the norm.
Once around the western cape of Cuba we were going east and usually beating into the wind and seas. If you strayed outside of the reef there was often a long fetch across the whole of the Caribbean causing 2-3m head-on seas. Winds were affected by the local topography and could blow up to 25 or 30 knots in the afternoon. Not much fun if you are caught in this - hence short hops inside the reef became the preferred route and delays caused by bureaucracy exacerbated this problem. Getting diesel was not easy, you often had to rely on the generosity of the local dive or fishing boats to sell you a few gallons. Where it was available it was expensive and complex to arrange. At Cayo Largo it took all day to get 240 litres! And at 60 cents a litre it was some of the most expensive we have bought.
All in all we had a great time in Cuba and enjoyed
the friendliness of the Cubans - but were glad to leave after two months!