Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   July 2009

Western Cuba Cruising Update

Part One: Marinas and Anchorages

by Suzanne Austin

The author and her photographer-captain husband are currently cruising the mid-Caribbean aboard their catamaran. Here she shares details of their recent cruise of the western half of Cuba.

Our Routes to Major Ports
From Isla Mujeres, Mexico, east-northeast across the Yucatan Channel (Gulf Stream) to Cabo San Antonio and Havana.
Southwest via anchorages back to Cayos de la Leña, around Cabo San Antonio to Maria la Gorda, southeast and east-northeast to Puerto Cortés.
East-southeast to Cayos de San Felipe, east to Isla de la Juventud, southeast to Cayo Largo.
East to Cayo Guana del Este, north-northeast to Cienfuegos.
We followed the recommended counterclockwise route from Havana around Cuba’s west end and along the south coast, but those sailing east to west along the south coast had an easier time of it, prevailing wind- and wave-wise.

Entry WP 21°55.5N, 084°55.6W, then follow red and green buoys to the concrete marina dock. This marina is new, but a bit rustic, though international clearance is available as well as expensive diesel fuel, a bar and restaurant, scuba diving and minor supplies. No electricity or water at dock. Shortly after we arrived, fishermen came to trade lobsters for rum. No problem!
Fuel = 1.4CUC/liter (CUC is the Cuban tourism currency; as this issue of Compass goes to press, one CUC = US$1.08)
Marina berth = 18CUC/day
Officials include Customs, Immigration (US$15 per person), the Guarda (who do a very thorough interior vessel inspection with a sniffing spaniel), Agriculture (who will confiscate fresh meat and eggs) and Veterinarian for pet clearance (US$10). Lots of paperwork, but all Cuban officials are polite and friendly.
Customs did not have the required “stamp”, so that US$20 fee was collected at Marina Hemingway, an overnight passage away. Half of that passage can be done inside the reef for shallow-draft (less than six feet) vessels. Exit the reef at Pasa Roncadora, WP 22°37.8N, 84°12.6W. Buoys absent.

Entry WP 23°05.4 N, 082°30.6W. Visiting yachts must stop first at the Guarda dock to clear in with many officials, and then receive a berth assignment along cement canal docks. Have good fenders ready on both docks. Potable water and electricity available on docks. Internet (6CUC/hour) at new hotel on site (The Old Man and the Sea Hotel is closed). The hotel pool may be used with discretion, or the official free pool is a walk or bike ride away. An on-site snack bar can be used for potlucks, and there are several good restaurants (especially Pizza Nova) as well as a mini-market with good prices on rum, wine and beer. Supermarket and cajeta (money changer) nearby.
Currently, Euros bring the best exchange rate, as a 20-percent levy on US dollars is deducted. Future US-Cuba policy changes may allow the US dollar to become legal tender again. Only credit cards and ATM cards from non-US banks can be used at present. Use of cash in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) is the norm for foreign visitors. National pesos (cash intended for citizens’ use) may be used in markets and street stalls.
The free shuttle bus into the City of Havana (30 minutes) has been replaced by HAVANATUR double-deckers that operate on three different routes every hour. 5CUC allows you to ride all day on any route. Points of interest are announced en route.
It is still worthwhile to buy a temporary membership in the on-site Club Naútico Internacional Hemingway (Hemingway International Yacht Club) at US$10 per boat per week. While membership no longer provides a marina-berth discount, the yacht club facilities are very nice, with excellent 2CUC mojitos, light food and satellite TV, and occasional barbecues and entertainment nights for yachties. From all appearances, there is still an affluent class in Cuba that can afford boats, competitive sailing, kayak instruction and regattas for their young.
Marina berth = $.50/foot/day, plus small fee for electricity and water.
Fuel on the dock = 1CUC/liter. Fuel from private supplier = .80CUC/liter

Quebrado de la Mulata reef entry: WP 22°57.6N, 83°23.4W. Follow stakes marking interior shoals up to the channel between Cayo Morillo and the mainland. This is an idyllic anchorage in the mangroves with perfect all-round protection. Boats with more than six-foot draft will need to anchor nine miles east in Bahia Honda.
Quebrado la Galera reef entry: WP 22°41.4N, 84°12.6W, marked with a buoy. Well-protected anchorage off the beach, in line with a lighthouse.
Shallow draft vessels can continue south-southwest inside the reef all the way to Cabo San Antonio, hugging the outside reef until the Golfo de Guanahacabibes widens up.
Many cruisers anchor near the fish station here while awaiting weather to round Cabo San Antonio, but with a strong norther coming, we chose the Canal de Barcos. Enter from the northeast at WP 21°55.5N, 84°48.5W. The deep-water canal is bordered by mangroves and offered excellent protection to wait out a three-day norther.
Easy rounding of the Cape is best done early with a light northeast wind; then it’s an easterly overnight slog in prevailing winds to the next anchorage.

WP 21°49.0N, 83°30.0W. The anchorage is in sand off of the beach of the dive resort. Officials (no dog) will come to check your papers and the boat. Great snorkeling and diving.
We intended to round Cabo Francés for Puerto Cortés, but the head-on winds and waves made our progress slow, dangerous to our boat, and uncomfortable, so we found a “new” acceptable anchorage for the night, albeit an open roadstead, off the small fishing village of La Furnia: WP 21°54.736N, 84°02.850W. We had the protection of the peninsula before Cabo Francés against the prevailing easterlies, the holding in sand was excellent and no one approached the boat.

East/west entry and exit, WP 22°03.067N, 83°57.534W

WP 22°02.330N, 83°58.001W. This is an IMPORTANT change from Calder’s and Charles’ entry instructions*. Hurricanes have silted in the previous passage between the reefs and we went aground on the expanded sandbar, fortunately gently. After bumping slowly inside, carefully watching the other shoals, we anchored on a small bay around the hook of the land in the scenic western part of the Laguna to wait out three days of very strong easterly winds and waves, perfectly protected by the mangroves and land.
Across the Laguna was the large fishing port of Puerto Cortés, from where we were paid a visit two mornings later by the local Guardia, ferried out to our boat by a fisherman. He just checked our papers, with no dog, and the fisherman clued us in to the hurricane damage, recommending a straightforward western exit, which had been cleared by the fishing vessels. Nothing beats local knowledge!

WP 21°58.6N, 083°37.4W. This idyllic anchorage is off the west end of the Cayo and offers clear warm water for swimming and snorkeling — a perfect respite from the really hard motoring in the preceding days, though the southeast day sail from Laguna Cortés was most pleasant with light easterlies. From there on to Isla de la Juventud, we had the wave-flattening protection of the Cayos de San Felipe and the Cayos de los Indios. Had we not needed fuel, we would have gone directly to the top of the island, but not wishing to go into the city of Nueva Gerona, we opted for the southwest corner instead.

Entry WP 21°37N, 82°59W. Originally intending to just fuel up at this dive-oriented “marina”, and then proceed to the protected anchorage at the nearby Bahia de San Pedro, a temporary electrical glitch with our autopilot/navigation instruments forced us to remain at the dock overnight. Because of this, the initially cursory glance at our papers turned into a lengthy official process, complete with dog, the next morning. The most stressful part of this was waiting for two hours until all the individual divers had been checked in for their daily scuba trips. Berth = 16CUC. No services.

WP 21°53.708N, 82°44.920W. Sailing (actually!) north and making excellent time up the west coast of Isla de la Juventud, we bypassed the usual northwest anchorage of Ensenada de los Barcos, and sailed past the capital of Nueva Gerona to the second bay on the northeast of the island. As promised by Calder, the hilly landscape was dramatic, and it placed us well for an early morning motor through the main Pasa de Quitasol (entry WP 21°55.895N, 82°39.571W) into the relatively calm Golfo de Batabano for a pleasant full-day southeast sail.

WP 21°37.806N, 81°56.507W. This was a tranquil way station on the east side of Cayo del Rosario, protected from the outside reef through which we would need to pass to make our way east. There is another anchorage on the west side near the Monkey Refuge.

Western reef pass WP 21°34.538N, 81°56.50W. The entry buoys have been changed and are a bit confusing. We anchored overnight outside of the marina and never encountered any officials. This is a beautiful spot, with much wildlife and clear water. The five-hotel resort is extensive, though completely separated from the mainland and everyday Cuban life. We exited the well-marked channel via the eastern reef pass.

WP 21°39.8N, 81°02.4W. This stark, rockbound island couldn’t be more of a contrast from lush Cayo Largo. The lighthouse makes a good landmark. Arrive early to get the best holding, as several charter boats out of Cienfuegos struggled for over an hour to get successfully dug in. They blindly crossed through the “prohibited zone” of the infamous Bay of Pigs, with no consequences from helicopters or patrol boats, so we decided to chance it the next day for part of the way due to the more favorable course “inside the lines”. No problems.

Entry WP 22°03N, 80°27.3W. Well buoyed up the narrow river into the wide bay to the marina: WP 22°07.5N, 80°27.2W.
The marina docks in the Punta Gorda quarter are well maintained, with good management and Immigration/Customs offices on site. No dog. Very friendly officials, though it would have helped save us an entire day if we had known that the required “stamps” for our exit clearance from Immigration were also available at the marina and not just downtown at the bank. Not realizing that Cuba had changed to “Summer Time” on March 1st, with the bank closing at 3:00PM (2:00PM our time), required several trips back and forth from bank to Immigration to the marina over two days. Also, the bank only had 50CUC stamps, but two 25CUC stamps (one for each passport) were required! The wrong stamp could not be refunded on site, and we had to wait until it was resold to another customer. We certainly got to know the local transportation system well: horse-drawn carts with benches.

Within walking distance from the marina are excellent restaurants, bars and hotels, as well as an on-site mini-market with duty-free wine, rum, etcetera. We arrived just in time to celebrate this writer’s birthday at the nearby four-star Hotel Jagua. Serenades by the bar pianist and the guitarist in the dining room were really lovely, and a special moment came when several of the European hotel guests came up after dinner to add their felicitations.
Our favorite eatery (other than the great Coppelia peso ice-cream parlor downtown) was the beachfront Club Cienfuegos, a mansion next-door to the marina with ornate marble interiors and French-influenced cuisine.

The horse-and-cart route (or the variant with a bicyclist pulling the cart) passes for three miles to the downtown city along the scenic Paseo del Prado or Malecón — the longest waterfront street in Cuba. Cienfuegos is on a manageable scale, with the pedestrian-only Avenida 54 (called “El Bulevar”) filled with cafés, shops and market stalls. The colonial architecture is fairly well preserved, with Creole echoes from the French planters who left Haiti after the Toussaint slave revolt in 1797 to establish the sugar plantations which made this area wealthy in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Marina berth = US$.40/foot/day
Fuel = 1CUC/liter

* Calder, Nigel. Cuba: A Cruising Guide, Revised 1999; Charles, Simon. The Cruising Guide to Cuba, 2nd Edition, 1997.

In next month’s Compass, read Part Two: Sightseeing in Western Cuba and a list of useful resources.


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