In 1995 my family and I circumnavigated Cuba, collecting data for my book, Cuba: a Cruising Guide. I had assumed then that relations between the United States and Cuba would soon be normalized, and that the lifting of the embargo would unleash a flood of American sailors eager to explore Cuban waters. How wrong I was! Twenty years later, if Congress does not block President Obama’s move to normalize relations, this mysterious destination on our back doorstep may finally open to American cruisers over the next year or two.
In 1995 we found Cuba frozen in time. There is no reason to think much has changed since then. What do we remember? Courteous officials with reams of paperwork for us to complete at every harbor and anchorage, and an absence of corruption. (I fear this is one aspect that is changing.) The monitoring of phones in tourist hotels by the Cuban police state. The close supervision. Being chased by a small gunboat, getting arrested and being held for nine days while the government determined whether we were spying for the CIA. Our guards, characteristically, put down their rifles and took off their shoes when coming aboard. They also showed the children how to make and fly kites from bits of scrap paper and string.
Then there was the awful food in the government-run restaurants. The illegal private restaurants had great food, however, and kept someone posted to warn if officials were approaching so we could escape out the back door. We remember the lack of food in grocery stores, and the lighthouse keepers who raised jutias (a species somewhat like a large rat) in cages for meat to eat, and a fellow with a sackcloth-covered wheelbarrow who had illegally butchered and smoked a pig and was trying to surreptitiously sell it on the streets. (After several months with limited provisions, we happily bought a quarter of that pig.)
When we were in Cuba, a severe lack of fuel for public transport had led to the creation of a state-run hitchhiking system. Once when searching for diesel to fill our jerry cans, we traveled to the local gas station in a magnificent horse-drawn carriage that came straight out of the stables of a 19th-century mansion.
Why would anyone want to sail to a country like this? Because you can visit miles of pristine coast with not another boat in sight and not a footprint on the many sandy beaches littered with lovely sea shells. However, these are not your manicured touristed beaches of the West Indies; these are beaches in a state of nature, with scrubby vegetation ashore and almost no infrastructure. Offshore we found virtually untouched reefs, with lobster wandering around on the bottom in broad daylight. Fishermen happily traded dozens of lobster tails for six-packs of beer.
The coast is liberally sprinkled with superbly protected anchorages, although many are in mangrove-lined swamps where the mosquitoes come out in force as soon as the breeze and daylight fade. The crumbling colonial architecture in the coastal cities is magnificent, accentuated by 1950s-era American cars with engines held together with baling wire and ingenuity. Then there are the Cuban people, who are the friendliest and most hospitable we have met anywhere in our travels, not to mention generous to a fault. Above all, Cuba is an adventure, a time warp that will inevitably be absorbed into our homogenized Western culture.
Exploring Cuba is far removed from the stereotype of Caribbean cruising. It is for self-sufficient, resourceful sailors who want to blaze a trail and experience nature in a pristine (and often unkempt) state. It is for amateur historians and sociologists who want to see first-hand one of the great social experiments of the past century. And it is for all those who want to immerse themselves in an incredibly friendly and culturally rich Caribbean society. For some it will be frustrating and disappointing, but for many, a cruise to Cuba will be remembered and savored long after the island is left behind.
Photos by Peter Swanson; Illustration by Pip Hurn