We were aware from our cruising guides and other cruisers that conditions in Cuba were going to be much more arduous than anything we had experienced to date. We were warned that food would be in short supply and no luxury items available at all and that the internet and phone communications would be either slow or non-existent. For this reason we have been unable to post our blog until we reached Mexico, so apologies to those of you who must have wondered what had happened to us during the past couple of months. We take these facilities for granted and it’s a strange experience to go back to pre-internet and mobile phone days but much more peaceful.
Santiago harbour entrance and marina in the foreground
We sailed in to Santiago de Cuba on the western end of Cuba on 5th February to coincide with Barbara and Pat’s arrival in the country and checked in to a marina just inside the entrance to the river going up to Santiago city 10 miles further upstream.
Romano in the marina at Santiago
We wanted to use this as a base for exploring inland but first we had to endure the rigours of checking in to Cuba. The first person on board at 9.00 am was a very jovial doctor who after pronouncing us disease free explained that he really liked beer. We got the message and to get our clearance parted with one which he drank immediately and then explained that his wife liked beer as well so that was number two fortunately that seemed to be the extent of the beer drinkers in his family. We tried to explain the dangers of alcohol to health but he seemed to be quite hard of hearing. He was followed by a troop of officials once they knew we didn’t have the plague. This set the scene for the next 6 weeks in Cuba where we were subjected to stringent controls on where we could and couldn’t go – at least they tried!
We had heard that the Cuban authorities were very strict on imported meats, eggs, fruit and vegetables so Gill hid the eggs apart from a few to sacrifice, and as we were sailing into the harbour was furiously juicing all our fruit and heaving the evidence over the side. When we did go through inspection they were quite uninterested, only wanting to know if we had Brazilian beef on board, Gill’s efforts were unfortunately wasted as was all our fruit, apart from a miniscule amount of juice!
The marina staff was able to help us out in finding a driver to ferry us around Santiago and out to the airport to meet Pat and Barbara. We weren’t quite prepared for Noel and his car, Noel being quite delightful, open and friendly, and his car being a 50 year old Russian Moscovich wreck. Noel was a great help, he took us around Santiago, to the bank, shops, introduced to local markets and the challenges of a split currency and buying local bread on our behalf which was only available to Cubans. Having completed all our errands we set off in Noel’s jalopy for the airport and half way there the lights failed which he fixed fairly quickly and then a fire started under the dashboard filling the car with smoke so we pulled over while he phoned a friend to pick us up in an equally dilapidated Russian car. This all happened minutes before the plane was due to arrive and we got there as the plane should have been arriving. However, the arrival board showed an unspecified delay and after speaking to Pat (still in Havana) we returned to the boat to await their eventual arrival around midnight, five hours later! The next day he had fixed the car and became our driver and friend for our stay in Santiago, he couldn’t have been more helpful but we held our breath every time we rattled down the road in his jalopy.
Noel and his Jalopy
After celebrating Barbara’s birthday the following day, with a lobster dinner laid on by Michael Angelo – the friend of Noel’s who turned out to rescue us on the way to the airport who, despite his name, wasn’t a painter but a diver who then cooked his catch in his house, the terrace of which seconded as a mini restaurant.. When they heard it was Barbara’s birthday they insisted on laying on a celebratory dinner. That night we were treated a fabulous feast including a huge birthday cake that Michael Angelo’s wife had baked for Barbara, all for £7 a head including wine and drinks. It was a great night and we made some good friends.
During the day we had stopped for lunch when we were approached at the table by a very eccentric but charming gentleman who turned out to be a good con man and managed to sell us a blank CD of his music for £5.00. His stories of being a great Cuban musician had us fooled.
Barbara with the maestro!
The following day we attempted to sail west along the east coast of Cuba but only got as far as Chivirico and then decided to return to Santiago due to a complete lack of wind. Instead we decided to head for Baracoa, on the north east coast (the place where Christopher Columbus first landed on the island and reputedly a very pretty town), by another car and driver, again recommended to us by the marina. The photo below gives some idea of the state of this 1952 car which sounded like a Sherman tank and offered the same ride and the silencer (HA HA) represented a gun simulator, both machine gun and cannon very effectively, it cleared the road ahead of us and made people stop in the street and cover their ears). I don’t think they have MOT testing in Cuba and an individual can only buy a car older than 1962, all the modern cars are government owned. These quasi taxi drivers maintain their own cars to keep costs down a fact which comes to the front of your mind as you look over the precipices and descend through tight and very steep hairpin bends in the mountains
We shook, rattled and rolled our way over the mountains to Baracoa. The road took us through Guantanamo where we saw the Cuban defences against the US occupied territory. No Cubans are allowed to work there anymore however the American presence although heavil resented does provide a significant contribution to the economy of the region around the base.
In Barracoa we stayed in the most delightful Casa Particular (these houses are similar to our B&Bs where you stay in some one’s house for a very reasonable price and represent a first step by the Cuban government in allowing private enterprise). This one was run by a very jolly large woman with a personality to match.
Our B&B in Barracoa
Pat and Barbara meet with Columbus – leave him alone girls he’s much to old for you!
After saying goodbye to Pat and Barbara as they returned to the UK, Gill and I set sail in afternoon sunshine for Pilon on the south east corner of Cuba. After only a couple of hours of peaceful sailing the mother of all thunderstorms hit us, we couldn’t see more than 50 yards ahead in the driving rain with flashes of lightning hitting the water not far from the boat. All our electrical equipment was stuffed into the microwave and oven, both of which make useful Faraday cages in these kinds of conditions. The storm continued for a couple of hours – at least it offered Mike the opportunity to carry out his ablutions on deck and save water! While, more sensibly, Gill stayed dry down below! After arriving the following day in the mangroves in Pilon we were hit by our second thunderstorm but this time used the opportunity to channel water from the deck into our tanks and to have a proper shower on deck – this is the tropics, but it was freezing cold rain!
One of the areas we wanted to explore was the beautiful Archipelago of cays (little deserted islands) known as Los Jardines de la Reina (the Queen’s Gardens) which stretch for 140 miles to the west. We spent a delightful week island hopping, swimming, snorkelling and eating lobster presented to us by local fishermen – fantastic! Some of the islands had beautiful beaches where we saw stingrays and huge starfish in the shallows and on one of the islands was populated by large iguanas which came out to forage along the shoreline and scuttled into the mangroves as you approached. This was real desert island stuff with no human habitation and we didn’t see another boat sometimes for days.
Huge star fish in crystal clear water.
Our next port of call on the mainland was Casilda, just south of Trinidad, one of the most picturesque medieval towns (a world heritage site) in Cuba and well worth the visit. The centre of the town in Trinidad has been well preserved and is visually stunning if a little too tourist twee.
The local church and town square in Trinidad
The ornate organ inside the church.
An old man collects firewood
One of the highlights of our visit to the area was a drive up into the Escambray mountains where we enjoyed spectacular scenery and a lunch visit to a finca (small farm) where we ate a typical peasant lunch of pork prepared in very rustic and basic conditions. The farm was completely self-sufficient, growing its own crops and raising cattle, pigs and chickens in a beautiful setting at the foot of a waterfall.
The finca in the Escambrian mountains
The waterfall at the back of the property which provided irrigation and bathing
The kitchen where they cooked over a wood fire and the tap ran incessantly
After leaving Casilda en route to Cienfuegos we took a shortcut through the offshore reef, holding our breath with only a few feet between us and the coral but we passed without a scratch. Lack of depth prevented us from using the marina as planned, so we left the boat under the watchful eyes of the marina staff and left Romano swinging at anchor whilst we left with our fingers crossed to explore Havana.
Before we could leave we had to obtain an extension to our visas from the local immigration office – another experience of Cuban bureaucracy to add to the onerous task of checking in and out at every port we visit – time-consuming and frustrating but without the corruption evident in other parts of the Caribbean.
Another day, another driver – this time for the 150 mile drive to Havana – not a luxury but the most effective way to get around and even cheaper than the bus. The driver also arranged our accommodation in another Casa Particular in the old part of Havana, run by the eccentric Nuria, a larger than life landlady who talked non-stop faster than the speed of light – only Spanish of course. The next three days were some of the most interesting of our visit to this lovely country and it was good to see the restoration work on the many stunning and architecturally varied buildings. We were particularly interested to see the beautiful old squares (Mike’s favourite was, of course, the one with the beer factory!!), the impressive fortifications and the Museum of the Revolution which told the story of the past 50 odd years in Cuba in a most informative and down-to-earth way. Although the economy of Cuba is not as commercialised as the West, there are some strong compensations in the quality of education, health and community relations. We were both impressed by what’s been achieved under a very different regime which unusually works for the people and not for itself.
Café life in Havana
One of the traditionally dressed cigar sellers
The “Old Square” with the infamous Beer Factory in the corner – best beer so far this side of the Atlantic
We were stung by a couple of hustlers who took us to a restaurant where one of Cuba’s great musicians was playing , he was the man who wrote Guanta la mera and is now 87 years old but still playing. Great to meet him but expensive on drinks!
Back in Cienfuegos we refuelled at 80p a litre and topped up our tanks for the last bit of Cuba and the crossing to Mexico. Our first stop off was in Cayo Largo, a tourist island and were pleasantly surprised to be told the marina fees were 18p per foot per day so be tied up. Then a Canadian on the boat next to us asked how much we had been quoted for mooring and told us the real cost was 80p per foot – very expensive and this was a little scam by the marina manager to get people to stay – it explained why the place was empty and we moved out to anchor. The forecast however was for storms and we tucked in behind the island and dug in deep. The wind howled for 2 days and we sat tight and played cards and read while it blew overhead. Fortunately the anchor held tight and on the third day we set out for Isla Juventud a large island off the south west coast which meant crossing shallows for most of the way. As we approached 10 miles from the island we had to pass through the reef and although we followed the marked channel and the charts we ran aground. Our draft is 7ft and this means around the islands we have to be very careful. Mike had forward looking sonar fitted to the boat for just this situation but we were still unable to find a way through and the air was blue as we got off only to run aground again and again and again. After around 2 hours to our immense relief we found a passage through and made for Nuevo Gerona, the capital of the island, had we not we would have been stuck in the middle of nowhere and another tropical storm was brewing.
Our adventures continued that day when we entered up the river to the port only to be stopped by the authorities who told us we couldn’t stay since they catered for commercial shipping only. Gill did a brilliant job on this poor man finding every excuse why we should stay – because of the impending storm, because they were having a fiesta that night and we had travelled miles to see it, because we had heard it was the most beautiful town in Cuba etc etc. He didn’t stand a chance the poor man and relenting under Gill’s wheedling pressure he eventually agreed to let us stay on the ferry terminal while he checked the forecast the following morning. The next day he returned to say the weather was going to be bad and so we ended up staying there for 4 days while it cleared and went off sightseeing. The boat was under permanent guard and very safe, we were 5 miles up a river and well protected from the weather and as it was a commercial port they had no means of charging us so we stayed for free – not a bad outcome after all!
The river going up to Nuevo Gerona
A local island taxi – very eco and note the poo catcher
Part of the fiesta – A parade of fishing boats carrying a crew of scantily clad teenage girls
While we were there we visited the Presidio Modelo, the huge prison where Cuba’s political prisoners were held, including Fidel Castro, during Batista’s rule of the island in the 1950’s. It’s now a museum and an awesome place with thousands of cells and special concentration blocks built during the 2nd world war to house Japanese and German prisoners of war.
Once the weather cleared we set off again in flat calm conditions under motor to round the notoriously treacherous Cabo Antoine in the Gulf of Yucatan which takes the majority of the Gulf Stream and currents there can reach 7 knots. We had ideal conditions and arrived in our last port in Cuba for checking out of the country without any problems. The Navy officer here tried to charge us 55 US dollars to check out, we pointed out the pilot book said $10 and eventually we wore him down and he let us go for free. It would have been a nice little earner for him but not this time and it was the only time we had any attempts to extract bribes which was a pleasant change from other Caribbean countries.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Cuba, warm and welcoming people, a beautiful country and no violence or rowdy behaviour. We covered its near 2000 mile length in 6 weeks but we were ready to move on to our next adventure and explore Mexico and its many Mayan sites.