Cruising: Bound for Cuba
It would be easy to say that President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba is what brought us there in our Island Packet 38. Truth is, six months before our visit we began planning our tour of the western Caribbean. The original route was Key West to Isla Mujeres, off Cancun, and then south from there. We’d entertained thoughts of visiting Cuba, but made no decision until a week before we left, when the president made his announcement.
It’s difficult to say no to the president. Reports that Naval patrols had been reduced or eliminated eased our reluctance, and the fact that we usually take the road less traveled meant that we never had any interest in going to Havana. Following our original plan gave us a perfect opportunity to simply turn left a little early and enter Cuba at the western tip of the island, at Cabo San Antonio.
Marina Los Morros at Cabo San Antonio is truly a frontier outpost, and the officials there are very serious about identifying vessels in their waters. We were hailed on VHF 16 (in good English) when we were still 7.5 miles away from the marina, with nothing but the coastline visible. After several questions (including if we’d had any exposure to ebola), we were invited to approach within a mile of the marina and stop there. The conversation ended with a hearty “Welcome to Cuba!” We dropped sail a mile offshore and were then told to approach the entrance markers and enter the marina, but not to tie up until medical authorities visited the boat.
A doctor wearing latex gloves was brought to our boat by dinghy and climbed aboard with a big smile and a kiss for my wife (which he asked permission for). This was unique among our 12 Cuban boardings for one reason: it was the only time a Cuban official boarded without first removing (or offering to remove) his shoes.
The doctor inspected our food storage and sanitary facilities and remarked “Looks better than mine!” Afterward we shared a cold beer together, he returned to shore with a new bar of Irish Spring soap (a gift that was offered, not requested), and we tied up to the dock. The marina manager, the port’s Guarda (border patrol) captain, and the dockmaster all helped, and then the young Guarda officer came aboard. He verified our identities and asked if we had guns, but asked no other questions and never mentioned the four cases of beer visible under the chart table. Because the agricultural officer was out diving, the captain handed us a form warning of the restrictions against importing vegetables. He also took a $35 “boat entry fee” that I am fairly certain went directly into his pocket.
We were then invited to proceed to the marina offices to finish the process. Total time for check in: two hours. Total cost: 120 CUC (about $135), one bar of soap and one pocket knife. (I purchased 100 knives for $100 before departing for just this purpose.)
The fact that this was a frontier outpost probably explains much of our treatment over the next few days. The staff is here 24/7 and loves having visitors, perhaps due to boredom, as the marina’s occupancy rate seemed very low. We were consistently invited to join marina staff for rum at happy hour (we contributed American cerveza), were offered use of the staff showers and traded stories in the evening, which often devolved into charades, as it is a rare Cubano who speaks more than a few words of English.By the end of our five-day stay we had been fed no less than four delicious meals and for our part gave gifts of soap, pocket knives and some batteries. There were hugs all around when we left. What a phenomenal first taste of Cuba.
Thirty miles east lies Maria la Gorda, named for a woman stranded there by pirates. Maria la Gorda lies on the southeastern shore of the Bay of Currents. Protection is good from the prevailing easterlies and checking in here was a 15-minute process. (The coastal despacho must be completed by Guarda officials at every “official” stop.) This was the only “official” stop where the boat was not boarded and inspected by the Guarda.
Having to check in and check out at every port is not as bad as it sounds. Although the Guarda take their job seriously and only want you to go ashore at marinas, we were never questioned about why it took five days to cover 100 miles or whether we stopped at any cays along the way. All the Guarda care about is knowing that you are not smuggling drugs into the country or people out. So, yes, you have to check in everywhere, but they make it easy. You want to leave at 0400 on Tuesday? Let them know ahead of time, and they will do what it takes to accommodate you. If the weather makes an anchorage untenable, the Guarda are the first to suggest a nearby spot that is calmer.
Maria la Gorda is a resort dive center, and even though the snorkeling in the anchorage (8ft to 30ft in coral and sand) was nominally interesting, it’s, well, a resort, and frankly, we did not come to Cuba to hang out with Europeans on vacation. Moving east into easterly trade winds, even on days when they moderated, was tough. The National Park of Cayos San Felipe is halfway to Islas Juventud, our next “official” stop, 100 miles away and too far to reach before the next blow. Nigel Calder’s cruising guide states that Cayos Juan Garcia (site of the park headquarters) “is no place to be in a Norther,” but we had few options. Calder’s description of the entrance was spot on, and we dropped the hook in 8ft in a sandy bottom with excellent holding. Protection was quite good for the 30-knot north-northeast wind that arrived later.
The park superintendent spoke no English, but we managed to answer his questions when he rowed out to welcome us. In the morning we took our dinghy to shore and were welcomed like royalty, receiving a package of four disposable razors as a gift, which I countered with a gift of three very good cigars. The park rangers’ research here involves counting sea turtle eggs and shepherding the turtles to sea after they hatch. They also stand guard against poachers, as eggs and hatchlings are highly prized delicacies.
A slight windshift the next morning gave us a wonderful sailing leg from Cayos San Felipe to Islas Juventud, where we negotiated the shallow entrance to anchor at the port of Siguanea. Thankfully, we were able to fetch the Guarda dinghy out to the boat and back before the clouds of mosquitoes rose from the swamp that covers the southern half of “La Isla.” We studiously made plans to visit Nuevo Gerona, our first real city in Cuba, the next morning.
La Isla was once a pirate hideout that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries political undesirables (including Fidel Castro) were exiled here. Following la revolucion, tens of thousands of young people volunteered to study here in specially built rural “live-work” schools, creating vast citrus plantations and prompting the island to be renamed from the Isle of Pines to the Isle of Youth.
Parts of Nuevo Gerona (like the pedestrian market through the center of town) are notably well kept and clean, but outside those areas it’s pretty rustic. It was also our first chance to provision since arriving. A dozen eggs cost about 60 cents, with a loaf of bread going for a dime. Add good rum for $8 a liter and beer for $1 a bottle (I’ll take 24!) and we were ready to catch a taxi back to the marina.
We moved to the northern coast of Las Isla (Ensenada de los Barqos, where we saw only fishermen) and waited a day for wind. A leisurely afternoon cruise brought us to the northwest tip of the island, where we anchored in sight of Presidio Modelo (where Castro was imprisoned) behind Punta Bibi Jagua. Next morning was a reach to the scientific station at Cayos Cantilles, one of two islands in Archipelago de los Cannareos that are given over to monkeys. The three staff members on Cayos Cantilles are stationed there for a month at a time and love visitors. I brought a six-pack of beer to enjoy with the staff when we came ashore. Soon afterward a lobster boat stopped by, and the staff passed some beer to the fishermen, who were thrilled. Out here it was always “I have some, you don’t, so here you go.” We left the island with 17 lobster tails. I think we gave them soap, fish hooks, a little rum and toothbrushes. And beer.
We departed in the afternoon, bound overnight 80 miles for Cienfuegos, and had a glorious sail for the first 30 miles. Katabatic winds came up on the nose just after dark and began punishing us, so we stopped at Cayos Guano de l’Este, described by guide books as a terrible anchorage. It’s true, but the hook set easily and sleep was welcome. Next morning we finished our run in rapidly moderating conditions and arrived at the well-protected Cienfuegos harbor in time to check in with the Guarda.
Cienfuegos is an industrial city with a population of over 100,000, an easy entrance and a comfortable anchorage off the marina. The more frenetic pace of a real city was a little overwhelming, but it became easier with each passing day. One thing does not change from the boonies to the cities: when Cubans see you making an effort to speak Spanish, they will return the favor. Not knowing Spanish is no excuse for not visiting Cuba, but you should always carry a pen, to agree on prices in writing.
It took us two days to find the farmers’ market, but it was worth it. Armed with pesos (worth about 4 cents each), you can buy any fruit or vegetable (in season) for next to nothing. The real prize was on our second visit, when a large Cuban greeted us with loud announcements of “papas, papas!” After being propositioned on the street multiple times for “good cigars at a great price,” which means that you can buy banana peels that look like cigars, I ignored him. My wife realized papas are potatoes (we’d run out a week earlier), and acquired three pounds for 70 pesos, or just under $3. Tomatoes, onions, plantains, pineapple, breadfruit, even lettuce were all available at minimal cost.
Cienfuegos is also a great base for shore excursions to other cities. We took a 1.5-hour bus trip to Santa Clara, a much older city. Among other things, this was the site of the battle that established Che Guevara’s victory and ended Batista’s rule. After Santa Clara fell, Batista left Cuba, and the revolution was secure. To this day, Che’s image is everywhere, and there are several monuments to this battle that are well worth visiting.
The Cubans we met sincerely appreciate the three things the revolution provided: universal education, universal healthcare and virtually no crime. However, they are also very sincere about wanting a better standard of living and an end to the U.S. embargo. (The flip side of the three “triumphs” of education, healthcare and civic order are the three tragedies: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.) We met several Cubans old enough to remember Batista, and still they universally despise him.
As we worked to re-provision in Cienfuegos, layers of the Cuban onion kept peeling back. Cubans smoke cigars, but with monthly incomes of 30 CUC, I knew they were not paying 1 CUC for cheap ones, let alone the 15 CUC that Cohibas cost. Enter a new friend, a marina employee I will call Mac, who gave us the scoop. Cubans pay 1 peso per cigar. Finding them is another matter; Mac found a pack of 25 for me, so I didn’t have to leave Cuba without getting cigars (and they are everything Cuban cigars are famous for).
Next comes beer: I know the Cubans are not paying 1 CUC per beer, but that was the price for me. Mac explained that Cubans purchase a case of beer for 10 pesos a bottle, but must return a case of empties to get this price, and it is not the beer a tourist gets. Cubans drink beer that is almost like a home brew, except the three varieties we tried were remarkably similar to the best ale produced by microbreweries in the United States. Mac was kind enough to furnish two cases of empties and purchase full ones on our behalf.
He also arranged a cheap taxi to Trinidad for us, as the bus schedule did not allow a day trip. Trinidad is beautiful: cobblestone streets, several town squares, a 400-year-old church. We easily could have spent several days here, and many cruisers do. Unfortunately, our visas were running out, and a very attractive weather window was developing for us to cross to Jamaica, so we had to be content with just one afternoon.
The distance between Cienfuegos and the next “Port of Entry” forced us to check out of Cuba at Cienfuegos. The original plan was a noon departure and an all-night run to Cuervo Cay, about 100 miles distant. But after I settled up with the marina, I learned the Guarda captain was dealing with a boat with a case of dengue fever and at took four hours for him to get to us. Meanwhile, the afternoon sea breeze had blown up, and we now faced 20 knots on the nose to get out of the harbor. After struggling to reach the harbor entrance it was clear that we could not proceed and I decided to drop anchor just inside the entrance to wait.
We had freely anchored several times on passage since arriving in Cuba, so I didn’t think anything of it, but an hour later, we were boarded by a Guarda patrol and (very politely) informed that we had to return to the marina or continue to our next destination. Returning to the marina with our tail between our legs, we re-anchored. Then, at 0100 the next day we proceeded to Cuervo, arriving just after sunset, to find that the single navigation aid at the entrance was extinguished. I found the light on radar, and after a few tense moments we were inside this well-protected anchorage. We dined on grilled salmon and slept like babies.
During the night and in the morning a steady stream of shrimp boats arrived. Then it occurred to me: it was Sunday. As we watched, all the shrimp boats (each about 100ft long) rafted into groups of three, and the music started playing, and what else did they need? Well, rum, which we provided in exchange for the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen. Much as we would have liked to stay, we had a weather window coming for the crossing to Jamaica, and couldn’t afford to burn another day.
We and our cache of seafood ran another 50 miles to Cayos Grenada (shown on some charts as Cayos Grande), arriving just before sunset, which was lucky, because some light is absolutely necessary for making this anchorage. Another good night’s sleep and we were underway for our final staging point for Jamaica: Cabo Cruz. Entering here is easy, and the anchorage is substantially more sheltered than it appears on the chart. After that we looked around for the Guarda boat we had been told to expect. A large patrol boat came past, but showed no interest in us. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of grilled prawns, and just as the sun was setting, I noticed a rowboat approaching the only other sailboat anchored here. Twenty minutes later we heard voices, so I lit up the deck light and looked outside. (In other parts of the Caribbean, the first concern would be for pirates, but not in Cuba.) Four men in a boat were close by, and they immediately identified themselves as Guarda. We invited them aboard and explained that we were already checked out of the country and bound for Jamaica in the morning. They reviewed our international despacho, and performed the usual walk-through. And then we all shared some rum. s
Jim Osborn grew up sailing on the Great Lakes and became a full-time cruiser four years ago. He is currently cruising the Caribbean aboard ULLR, an Island Packet 38.