Compass May 2007
by Ruth Ross-Thomson
Having followed the standard "Milk Run" from Europe to the Caribbean, we were keen to see some of the less visited islands - and Castro's failing health gave us an added incentive to cruise Cuba while it still retains its unique character. My father had visited Cuba before the revolution and was keen to see how it had changed in the intervening 50 years. Once my parents had booked travel to Cienfuegos on Cuba's south coast, we were committed to a time and a place - something we cruisers are always warned against.
We planned to arrive in Cuba in late November, allowing a leisurely cruise along the south coast before meeting up; however, that plan lay in tatters after delays caused by the need to change the engine head gasket in Curaçao. Mother Nature also didn't like my plan, and produced a week of strong tradewinds, which confined us and all our fellow cruisers to Spaanse Water. The extra days spent in Curaçao allowed plenty of time for final farewells and the odd shared bottle of wine with our cruising friends who were taking the more conventional route to Panama via Colombia.
Eventually, on 4th December 2006, we headed northwards on our longest trip since arriving in St. Lucia almost a year before. We covered the 644 miles in exactly five days, mostly tearing along under reefed sails and recording our personal record of 158 miles in 24 hours. We didn't stop on Haiti, but we did sail close enough to see its spectacular mountain ranges - maybe by the time we return to the Caribbean next time round it will be politically stable enough to visit. Arrival at Santiago de Cuba Our arrival in the marina at Santiago de Cuba was as surreal as one might expect of Cuba.
We arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour and were met by the smiling dock-master, George, clad only in his swimming trunks. I guess that if it is raining hard and you don't have a raincoat, then stripping down to your trunks isn't such a bad idea! Over the next 24 hours we experienced the check-in process for which Cuba is famous. As one Customs agent told us, "We learnt our bureaucracy from the Russians". First up was a doctor, who for £17 issued a statement that we were not contagious. She must have been telepathic, as she didn't ask a single question. Next was the vet - we don't have a pet onboard; the vet was there to inspect our dried sausages. Close behind the vet was the trio of a Customs officer, an Immigration officer and the Harbour Master. They tested our Spanish to its meagre limits, but all were keen to know where we had visited previously, and were especially interested in our Venezuelan visas.
Before they departed, they sealed our hand-held GPSs and flares in a carrier bag with "Aduana-Cuba" tape - to prevent us giving them to Cuban wannabe emigrants? Our final visitor for the day was "Whisky", the drug-sniffing Labrador - how did she get back up the companionway ladder? After a long afternoon of watching forms being filled in, we were happy to see George appearing down the dock with a tray of ice-cold Cuba Libres, made from the famous Havana Club rum, and the slightly less famous local brand of cola. When did you last arrive in a marina and get welcomed with a complimentary sundowner? The check-in process continued the next morning with a visit from the agriculture inspector who confiscated a slightly mouldy onion and a clove of garlic. Thank goodness he didn't see the weevil infestation lurking in our Curaçao muesli. Next was the "pest officer" who told us about Cuba's problem with large numbers of flies (he wasn't exaggerating), and then proceeded to fumigate the boat with peach-scented fly spray. By mid-morning our Cuban visas had been issued and we were finally cleared in and free to leave the marina. (As an aside, a Portuguese yacht arrived in Santiago shortly after us. We don't know what triggered it, but they were subjected to a full boat search by a half dozen guys in jumpsuits. Water tanks were opened, waypoints from their laptop and GPS were noted, and every single locker was inspected.)
Unlike many countries, in Cuba a scaled down check-in process is repeated every time you enter a harbour, no matter how small the harbour. In the very small harbours, the Guardia (police) will commandeer a local rowing boat and a fisherman (or woman) to row them out to your yacht. We have heard from some cruisers who have found the constant check-in process to be oppressive, but we found all the visiting officials to be friendly, smiling and interested in what we were doing. While conversations were hampered by our poor Spanish, we always managed to communicate, even if we needed the dictionary or our inflatable globe. We have even on occasion resorted to drawing pictures. Some Customs and Immigration officers in the Windwards and Leewards could learn a lot from their Cuban colleagues about customer care. Cuban marinas, sadly, could learn a lot from their friends in Venezuela.
In several of Cuba's natural harbours, anchoring is "no permiso", forcing cruisers to use the local marinas. Cuban marina docks are solid, but the concrete is crumbling along the edges, leaving nasty metal spikes reaching out to scrape your shiny topsides. There are electrical outlets on the docks, but the sockets are likely to be incorrectly wired. There are plenty of showers, but there may not be any water, any lights or a roof. There are toilets, but there may be no toilet seats, paper or water. The chandlery is well stocked, but it is stocked with cans of local coke and Havana Club rum. Maybe that's not really a problem! Our first stop in Santiago was to exchange some of our US dollars for local pesos.
A few years ago, the dollar was the standard tourist currency in Cuba. These days, thanks to George W, dollars are officially unwanted. We exchanged our dollars at a pitiful exchange rate, and then got ten percent commission deducted. Ouch! If heading here, bring Euros or ££ for much better rates. With pockets full of pesos, we hit the centre of Santiago de Cuba to soak up our first experience of Cuban life. We weren't disappointed. From the four elderly gentlemen playing "Buenavista Social Club" favourites outside the museum, to the young guys proudly displaying their bright yellow 1952 Chevy, we were entranced. There were none of the hustlers we had been warned about, and we even felt comfortable wandering around the town after dark. Santiago to Cienfuegos However, a schedule is a schedule, and after a couple of days it was time to start heading west towards Cienfuegos.
The southern coast of Cuba between Santiago and Cabo Cruz provides the most spectacular backdrop for a few days' sailing - from the rugged Sierra Maestra (peaking at 1,972 metres about three miles inland) the coast gradually sinks down as you sail westwards, to uninterrupted miles of uplifted marine terraces. The scene is completely awe-inspiring and impossible to capture on camera. At Cabo Cruz, we discovered that docking there was "no permiso", due to packages of drugs being landed along this remote coast from Jamaica, just 80 miles away. However, we were permitted to anchor off and snorkel on the reef. Sadly, the coral in Cuba, described in our guide as "the finest in the Caribbean", has suffered the same fate as further south, with many of the reefs now littered with dead coral.
The next stop along the coast is the Archipielago de los Jardines de la Reina - the Gardens of the Queen. This is about 120 miles of mangrove islets surrounded by shallow water and coral heads, a massive version of the Islas Aves in Venezuela. With just five days left before we were due in Cienfuegos, we decided to forego the labyrinthine inner channels and instead scooted up the outside in reassuringly deep water. We broke the trip up with a couple of overnight stops, both of which required a final approach into the anchorage consisting of a couple of miles' motoring with less than a metre of water below the keel. That's another few grey hairs added to my collection. Despite the remoteness of our anchorages, we received visits from fishermen who mostly just seemed to want a chat to add a bit of variety to their day.
If we did want a lobster for supper, they had several to spare. As compensation for not trading for lobsters (once a vegetarian, always unable to boil animals alive), we kept a supply of cold beers for visitors, so everyone was happy. Here's our prime example of the wonderful Cuban people we met. Having declined lobsters the night before, we had an early morning visit from the skipper of one fishing boat who brought us a plate of boiled eggs, freshly fried fish fillets and crackers. What a fabulous breakfast. I explained how happy I was to have eggs as I had not been able to buy any in Cuba so far - so the skipper promptly rowed back to his boat to bring me a tray of two dozen fresh eggs. Only in Cuba! Cienfuegos to Casilda We spent a couple of days in Cienfuegos to allow our new crew to get accustomed to life on board, and also to search out some fresh provisions.
Shopping in Cuba is like no other shopping experience. All Cubans receive a weekly allowance of staples such as bread, rice, pasta, sugar, beans and toilet paper from the government. This means that these "basic" products are not stocked in the stores - hence the need to stock up well before leaving Curaçao. Recently, farmers have been allowed to sell any produce they grow in excess of their required government quotas, so if you can find a market, you can stock up. Peppers, cucumbers, and muddy-brown root vegetables seem to be the only vegetables available, but the papayas, bananas, pineapples, oranges and guavas were delicious. We had planned a nice, gentle overnight sail back east to Casilda, from where we would be able to spend Christmas snorkelling off the nearby reefs, walking along the six-mile-long white sand beach and catching a horse buggy up to Trinidad, a wonderfully conserved old colonial town.
Ahh, those plans. An approaching cold front from the north caused us to have to beat the entire way to Casilda in strong winds; we took 23 1/2 hours to cover the required 40 miles. Still, we dropped anchor at 4:00PM, poured the tea and heaved a sigh of relief. Ten minutes later, we were underway again following a visit from an official who informed us it was currently "no permiso" to anchor at Casilda. There is a marina at Casilda, but the entrance is only 1.8 metres deep - not quite enough for our two-metre draught. So where to go with just over an hour of daylight? After a quick review of our guides and electronic charts we headed out into a coral reef and sandbank-infested maze. With only a mile to go to our alternate anchorage, we discovered that the critical buoys marking a narrow channel through a sandbank were missing. Having gone aground once in the fast-failing light, as we tried to ease our way across, we doubled back in hope of finding another alternate anchorage.
A small mangrove islet a little way to the north promised some shelter from the forecast wind, but for once our trusty 23-kilo Delta anchor just refused to hold in the soft, silty mud. After five attempts, it was pitch black, and there was no option to go anywhere else. We had read about using two anchors in series, but had never tried it. It seemed like a good time to give it a go. We secured our lightweight aluminium Fortress anchor in front of the Delta, dropped the whole lot over the side, and it set instantly. The new crew withstood all these rigours, but it sure wasn't the way I'd hoped to introduce my parents to the joys of Caribbean cruising. Once the weather perked up, we headed down to islands at the northern end of the Gardens of the Queen - Cayo Blanco and Cayo Zaza de Fuera. Both islands are dominated by mangroves, with a few palm trees planted near the beach bars that were constructed to serve the day-trippers arriving from Casilda.
The highlight of the islands was the wildlife; the beaches are criss-crossed with trails from the multitudes of hermit crabs and the dozens of prehistoric iguanas. Add to this the jutia - a four-kilo edible tree rat - and you may not have everyone's ideal range of pets, but they are fascinating to watch. Our last night in the cays was wonderful. We sat in the cockpit with our sundowners and watched for the green flash as the sun settled in the west and the full moon rose in the east. This is the aspect of the cruising life that I really wanted to share with my parents. Town Time We decided on an early return to Cienfuegos in order to visit Trinidad by road. We had briefly toyed with the idea of renting a hire car. After all, there are only a few cars around, so we thought the drive wouldn't be difficult.
Thank goodness we went for the taxi. There may not have been many other cars on the roads, but I would never have coped with the ox carts, horse-drawn buggies, goats, Tour-de-France-style cyclists riding four abreast, cowboys herding cattle, and stretches of potholes which force cars to drive for a mile on the wrong side of the road. The centre of Trinidad is frozen in time with a beautiful collection of opulent buildings from the 19th century. Armed with the "Lonely Planet" guide book, we hiked up to a point from where we could look out over our cruising grounds to the south, and also down into a valley to the north, once home to the prosperous sugar plantations. Carlos, our unofficial guide (actually the security guard from the communications station atop the hill), explained how it now costs more to produce the cane sugar than it can be sold for. He also told us how, following the "Triumph of the Revolution", an entire citrus plantation owned by a German family was bulldozed. Progress? Trinidad gave us our first opportunity to try out a paladare. These are unofficial restaurants where you are served home-cooked local food by a family in their own house. We were "guided" to the paladare by a friendly local lady and ended up enjoying a splendid lunch seated in the basic courtyard of someone's home.
Lobster figures large on the menu in Trinidad; I guess they are the "spare" lobsters that the fishermen land in Casilda, six miles away. Our family time together on Do It was complete, and Angus and I decided to have a holiday and head up to Habana for a couple of days. We booked a room in a casa particulare, similar to a "bed & breakfast". For a very reasonable price, we had a room in an old colonial terraced home - in a slightly dodgy-looking area. At street level, the place looked typically run down; peeling paint is a feature everywhere in Cuba other than the restored tourist centres. However, once past the three-metre-high doors and up the stairs to the first floor, a whole different world awaited us. The place was immaculately tidy, not a speck of dust anywhere, which was quite amazing given that every inch of flat surface was festooned with glass animals, porcelain babies, ornate gilt-framed mirrors, massive vases overflowing with gaudy plastic flowers, several complete tea sets, and dozens of rows of delicate glasses. I hardly dared to turn around in case I caused mass devastation with my backpack. Habana (yep, it is spelt with a "b" over here) certainly met our expectations.
On Day One, we followed the "Lonely Planet" walking tours around the partially restored old town, enjoying the spectacular architecture and cursing the fact that our digital camera had died a few days before. There was no hassle from anyone, and we felt completely at ease even when returning to our "casa" late at night. On Day Two we hit the museums - hard. To prepare ourselves for an arduous day, we started at the Chocolate Museum, which served drinking chocolate to wash down the chocolates handmade on site. Next up was the City Museum, housed in a baroque palace complete with a strutting peacock in the courtyard.
A short stroll across town brought us to the Museum of the Revolution. This former presidential palace with decorative touches by Tiffany displays the nation's history as told by Fidel's fans. (I'm not sure it is necessary to display the blood-soaked clothes worn by various "Heroes of the Revolution" as they died.) A swift reviving coffee in the art deco Bacardi Tower, and we were ready to tackle the Capitolio, which is a smaller-scale version of the White House in Washington, DC. Having seen the massive mahogany doors and mahogany table capable of seating 24 comfortably, we weren't surprised that there's not much local mahogany left! Back Aboard We returned to Cienfuegos relieved to find Do It still afloat.
This was the first time we had left her for more than a night since we left the UK. It was time to escape from life in the marina and head down to the white-sand anchorages promised in Cayo Largo. Once again, we have found it "no permiso" to anchor in places recommended by our guidebook. Rather than anchor off a nearby beach, the local authorities insisted that we anchor within sight of their marina (or better still, tied to their dock). Cayo Largo is a larger version of the earlier cayos we visited: a low island covered with mangroves and scrub. But in place of the iguanas and tree rats, there are thousands of tourists ensconced in their all-inclusive holiday resorts.
This is not the Cuba we knew from the earlier part of our visit, and as the Cuban economy places an increased dependence upon tourism, we can only hope that this type of resort tourism doesn't spread too far. From there, we headed down to Grand Cayman, a sharp re-introduction to the capitalist world!
So what has been the biggest surprise in Cuba? The tiny numbers of cruising yachts encountered. In six weeks, we only encountered eight other cruising yachts. I'm not sure why there are so few other yachts there, but we shall certainly return one day.
Cuba operates a dual monetary system.
Broadly speaking, Cubans use Pesos Nationales while tourists use Pesos Convertibles (CUCs). Prices in produce markets are in Nationales; you can pay in CUCs and receive your change in Nationales. The exchange rate during our visit was approximately 23 Pesos Nationales to 1 CUC. EXCHANGE RATES (in December 2006):
£1 = CUC1.70
Euro 1 = CUC1.17
US$1 = CUC0.93
Visa (first month) CUC15 per crew member
Cruising Permit CUC15
Entry tax CUC10
Departure tax CUC10
Visa extension (for one additional month) CUC25 per crew member
Our total for a two-month visit: CUC165 (£97/Euros 141/US$177)
0.43 CUC per foot (£0.25/Euros 0.37/US$0.46 per foot)
Included drinking water, electricity, showers
Cuba A Cruising Guide, by Nigel Calder, Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson, 1999
The "must have" Cuba pilot book, with detailed pilotage information, but few adjectives.
The Cruising Guide to Cuba, by Simon Charles, Cruising Guide Publications, 1997
Complementary to the Nigel Calder guide. It has more details about what awaits you ashore, but less detail on the tricky pilotage.
Cuba Lonely Planet, Brendan Sainsbury, 2006
Indispensable guide to what to see/do/eat once you get to your destination. Also loads of background information about the history and culture. Charts The Cuban hydrographic department has produced a series of seven excellent chart books that cover the entire coastline. We were given photocopies, but we saw the originals on sale in both Santiago de Cuba and Habana.
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