13/04/2011/5:22 pm, Varadero
With Debbie as our guide, Chris, Tom, Jim and I walked over to the delightful town of Santa Marta on Tuesday. One of the lovely things about being at Marina Darsenas is that it is just a short walk to this little town where we can shop at the local market, the bakery, eat at a fine little restaurant - all with pesos. (Remember roughly 24 pesos to the dollar!) The market (every day except Monday) is much smaller than the Santa Lucia one, but it has all the produce we need - and some very fine pork. We bought squash, peppers and potatoes, 100 pesos worth of smoked pork chops (about 6) and then stopped at a little bakery for a loaf of that crusty white bread that shows up regularly.
It is the perfect place to watch the 1950's cars, to see bicycles of every description, to wave to the immaculately uniformed school children - to see more than the hotel strip along the beach. And so, we determined that this is what we wanted to show the visitors who came on Wednesday.
Friends from Ottawa, Caroline and Brian, Francine and Rick, were vacationing up the way at Jibacoa and they hired a car to bring them down to Varadero for a day. We wished we could have taken them out for a sail, but that is one of the difficulties in this country. We cannot go out for a day sail unless we get the paperwork done by Customs, Immigration etc. both departing and returning. It wasn't worth the effort for an afternoon. And because we could not use our dinghy either, there was no opportunity to cruise up and down the canal. So - we entertained in the cockpit and gave them a tour of our grand home on the water, and they just had to imagine what it is like to go sailing on Madcap. After picture taking opportunities, we walked over to Santa Marta - across the road, across the old runway, around a couple of corners. I forgot one of those corners so we did a little detour, but eventually made our way to the little restaurant especially recommended by Gail. For about 30 pesos each, we dined on chicken or fish or shrimp along with rice and salad all served by the smiling Michael. He has a job waiting for him in Saskatchewan if he can get a visa from the Canadian government. His English is excellent; his smile is wide; his personality is charming; his ambition is clear - and we all hope he is able to come to Canada.
The six of us walked across the bridge to Varadero and hopped on a horse drawn carriage for a drive to the centre of the town. Rick was anxious to see the Hotel International where he and Francine stayed a number of years ago, so from there, we walked along the beach, splashing our feet through the crystal clear water, and enjoying the sight of families enjoying themselves. It seems odd that in all the time we were at Varadero, we never once went to the beach to swim. I guess we had done lots of that in the Bahamas - and we were here to do other things. Some of the other cruisers took advantage of the bus that runs up and down the strip and the daily rates to enjoy the services of some of the hotels.
From the Hotel Varadero Internacional, (opened in 1950 and while not as big and fancy as the newer ones, still maintaining an elegant retro look) we took a taxi back to the marina. It seemed only fitting that it be in a 1954 Buick that the driver was clearly pleased to see us enjoying. The windows were down, the radio was blaring and the six of us were crammed in there as if we were teenagers back in the day (but none of us is old enough to have done it then!!)
After a full day of enjoying each others company in Cuba, the others headed back to Jibacoa (where they were very pleased with their resort - the snorkelling opportunities - the entertainment - the facilities) and we joined our fellow cruisers for dinner - back at that same little restaurant near the market in Santa Marta.
Gail and Peter (Jabiru) were leaving the next day to head south, so it was a farewell dinner for them, along with Debbie (La Vida Dulce), Rick and Donna (Lorbas), and Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer). Once again, we dined well for little money, and enjoyed practicing our Spanish with Michael.
It was a fine day - of visiting with the folks from Ottawa, and of celebrating the connections with cruising friends. We were thankful - for about the hundredth time this year - for our good fortune.
10/04/2011/5:17 pm, Varadero
By Wednesday, April 6, both winds and timing were right for us to drop our lines in Puerto de Vita and sail westward. Camelot and Amazing Grace had left for the Bahamas the day before, and Polar Pacer and Madcap were headed for Varadero (and Havana).
We had a wonderful stay in Puerto de Vita (usually slurred together like PuertoBita - all V's are pronounced like B's.) Tina in the office, and Ali, on the dock were wonderfully helpful. The guards were watchful but not intrusive and were so appreciative of the sodas and little gifts we gave them. While we were away, Tina even went on board Madcap daily to empty the bilge. We have had a slow, small leak and Jim showed her what to do if the high water alarm went off. She decided she wasn't taking any chances and kept it empty!
Checkout was simple. With assistance from Tina, we sorted out the procedure. We got the official stamps from the bar (15 CUC's) for our cruising permit, and she arranged for the officials to come at 8:30 Wednesday morning (the earliest time). We thought we might have to wait a while, but they were there right on time. Customs, Immigration officers and Marina Manager all visited us once more, filled out more paperwork, gave their approval for us to anchor along the way, wished us well, and by 9 o'clock we were on our way.
Our first stop was planned for Paradon Grande, an overnight trip. Duncan and Joan (Talisa) along with Bill and Barb (Suncast) had made this trip a couple of weeks earlier and were immensely helpful in sending back information. They had stopped here too, figuring it was the first well protected anchorage along the way, and it was nice to get some miles under our keel - it is a long way to Varadero.
We had a beautiful wind for sailing - and by the time we pulled in there, 30 hours later, we had had the engine on for only 45 minutes. Along the way we passed two sets of windmills busily churning out power and skirted the beautiful beaches of the north shore. The Cubans are skittish about letting pleasure craft land along this shore - too close to the USA - so we were pretty sure we wouldn't be allowed ashore despite reports form several years ago about the beautiful anchoring opportunities.
We pulled in under the impressive lighthouse and Guarda station, identifying ourselves, and expecting to be questioned. But it was all very easy. We didn't ask to go ashore, and we didn't put our dinghy in the water. Next day we were off again, under sail again - ahhh. As we approached Caiman Grande - another lighthouse and a very impressive Guarda station - we had our identification lines all rehearsed in Spanish. (fractured perhaps but understandable!) Este es el velero, Madcap. Nacionalidad, Canada. Hay dos personas a bordo. Canadian. ... Procedente de Puerta de Vita. Con destino al puerto de Varadero. Queremos anclado uno noche. (We want to anchor for one night) Esta bien? and if all else failed, No comprendo, hable Ingles?
The officer who called us spoke passable English, and he liked our English better than our Spanish, and this time we asked, in Spanish, if it was possible to come ashore. He answered us - "no problem" and our jaws dropped. Within a few minutes however, he was taking Polar Pacer's information and said "No coming ashore! You understand for both boats?" Yes, we understood. Too bad.
We decided to make our next stop one where there was no Guarda station and chose Boca Chica. Talisa and Suncast had stopped there and I had read in some information from Eileen Quinn and David Allester (Little Gidding) from several years ago that they liked this place very much. We left at 0700 hours and had to motor most of the day - darn! Along the way we saw a huge ship, the Eagle Venice (a tanker) about 10 miles off, and looked it up on AIS. It was 0.180 nautical miles long! How is that possible? It had a 188 ft beam and draft of 36.7 ft. What a huge ship. After a whole darn day of motoring, we pulled into Boca Chica at 1615 hours and dropped the anchor in a beautiful little bay - around a sandy spit and with no sight of a Guarda station. Within minutes, we had the dinghies in the water and we were on the beach. I was delighted to discover, almost immediately, a well worn but still beautiful large helmet shell. These are gorgeous creamy coloured shells with whirls and swirls and toothlike brown markings along the mouth. It was empty too, although something had been in there because it was foul smelling.
Tom and Chris came over for dinner - BBQ'd pork tenderloin that had been in the freezer since we left Florida - and was still tender and tasty. There were a few little fishing boats around, no bugs, a beautiful sunset, and it was a perfect place to be. We planned to leave there at 4 the next afternoon for another overnight to Varadero so we fell into our berths knowing that we had time to explore the next day.
We were up and ashore in good time on Saturday - having our first swim in Cuban waters - and oh it was so lovely and warm - about 30 degrees! Jim and I dinghied around the corner past a permanent fishing station, where we waved to the fishermen, and to another beach. I found some prehistoric looking shells inhabited by hermit crabs. I gathered a few, not feeling any particular worry about stealing the homes from the crabs since they had already stolen them, and there were dozens and dozens of them.
After lunch we dinghied back to another beach and discovered a little trail through to the other side where we swam some more in clear warm water. As we returned to Madcap, we saw that a fishing boat had pulled up to Polar Pacer. They were looking for engine oil and Tom graciously offered a couple of bottles from his store. In return, the fishermen were handing over fish. We hurried home to Madcap, gathered some soap and razors, added a few pesos, and got a couple of snappers too. Dinner solved!
We hoisted the anchor reluctantly - we could have happily stayed here for several days - and set sail for Varadero. It was another idyllic sailing night - to top off an idyllic day. We both felt that this is what our cruising life is all about - discovering new places and travelling with the wind. It doesn't get any better.
We started seeing the hotel strip of Varadero about 4 hours before we reached the entrance to the canal where Marina Darcenas is located. (There are other marinas but they are not presently accepting transients - and besides, this one is ideally situated for facilities and another taste of real Cuba.)
One more fabulous experience was yet to happen. We followed the well marked canal in. Duncan (Talisa) called on the VHF to tell us they were waiting for us. Debbie (La Vida Dulce) called with precise details of where to go. As we turned into the marina, I spotted Lorbas - a Canadian boat we had met 3 years ago. And so it was a wonderful arrival. All these familiar faces stood on the dock waiting to take our lines. Jim did a flawless job of docking and we were soon talking excitedly with Debbie - a Canadian woman who lives on La Vida Dulce 10 months of the year, Donna and Rick (Lorbas), Duncan and Joan (Talisa), and we learned that Gail and Peter (Jabiru) were here too. What joy! What excitement! I had heard from Gail several months ago that they were thinking of coming over here from the keys, but then I forgot about it. And now here we all were! We met Jabiru in 2007 when we were both having engine troubles in Green Turtle Cay and have only briefly glimpsed them since. Christian and Christin (Ella) a Norwegian couple we met in Puerto de Vita were here too - just returning from a land trip. We knew we were set for one more wonderful Cuba experience. It was astounding to discover that of the 15 or so boats on the dock, we knew so many of them.
The officials came on board almost immediately - Customs, Immigration, Health, and one other one. The dock master came along later with our contract (only 40 cents per foot here - electricity and water are extra but minimal) The health lady took our garbage away immediately. The others filled out their forms (they all have carbon paper :-) checked our permits and passports, did a very cursory search (a look into the forward berth and a look in the head and that was it) and we were soon cleared in. No fees needed to be paid - that would happen later - no doctor and no dogs this time.
We settled in for naps and then joined the others for the nightly Happy Hour at the picnic table on the dock - happy to be in Varadero and ready for the next week or so.
(the pic is the Paradon Grande lighthouse)
04/04/2011/5:10 pm, Camaguey
With a few more days at our disposal before winds that would blow us westward, the crews of Madcap and Camelot decided not to let any grass grow under our feet.
Jackie liked the look of Camiguey, about 3 hours west of Puerto de Vita so off we went. It was a good choice and we had the opportunity to discover yet another distinctly flavoured Cuban city - the third largest at 325,000. We read that it had a labyrinthine layout to its streets, developed over two centuries of fighting off pirates. There aren't pirates there today - well at least we didn't run into any - but the winding streets and alleys (many of them one way) are still hugely confusing. We used the same technique as in Santiago. Keep going, keep cool and eventually a street will match the map and it will all become clear. Once again, Jackie did a masterful job. We parked near a casa particular that was listed in our guide book and looked interesting. Alas, there was no room, but the helpful man led us around a corner or two to an amigo who did have space. Only one unfortunately, so John and Jackie stayed there and Jim and I stayed in yet another casa around another corner. We were told that the city was pretty well full because many tourists had been relocated due to some sort of problems in another area. These were not quite as grand as the Santiago place, but were still most interesting, with inner courtyards that can't be imagined from the street.
We had read that there was more danger from pickpockets here, but we saw no sign of it ourselves. What we did see was a more modern city, with considerably more restoration and renovation happening. It didn't have the gorgeous old stone buildings with ornate carvings and railings, but it had a charm all its own. Calle Republica is a pedestrian street with shops of every kind. We stopped by a recreation facility and found a bowling alley, an arcade, and in the back, a swimming pool chock a block with children happily splashing away a Sunday afternoon. We chatted with a woman at the bowling alley - amazed to hear the voice from a Spanish looking woman - it was distinctly New Jersey! She was here visiting relatives. Farther along the street, we came across a huge ice cream shop - with lines too long to wait for. (We ate Nestle ice cream products all over Cuba!) The shops are full of products - a little out of date and not as expensive by North American standards, but very hip and very expensive for Cubans. Once again, we were reminded that many Cubans rely on money sent home from relatives abroad, and from CUC's they manage to earn on the black market and from operating casa particulares and paladars (home based restaurants)
John and Jackie's "Casa Mama" suggested Bodegon Don Cayetano for lunch and we were pleased with the food we ate in the attractive outdoor patio. Jackie and I had the chef special described in our book - steak in red wine and mushroom sauce, and it was delicious indeed.
In the evening, we dressed up and visited the Sala Fiesta El Colonial. We were expecting a cabaret style show, and it wasn't quite like that, but we did see a show! The clientele was mostly African/Cuban (and the Spanish fellow we met earlier didn't recommend going there - he said there is often trouble later in the evening.) We went anyway and didn't see any sign of trouble although the sexual energy was almost palpable. Those drums were intoxicating and the scantily dressed young women wiggled those hips. We left about 10 and Jim and I drifted down to Parque Ignacio Agramonte to catch the last bit of beautiful music from a full orchestra on the steps of the Cathedral. While we enjoyed the music and rhythms of the Colonial, I couldn't help thinking I'd be much happier to have my children in the orchestra here. Unfortunately they wrapped up shortly after we got there, and there didn't seem to be music at the Casa de la Trova, so we sat on a marble bench for a while to watch the families - grandparents, parents and children - before making our way back to our casa.
Before leaving the next morning, we walked to Plaza del Carmen, a quiet little square where the tinajones (large clay pots once used for catching rainwater) are now used as planters, and where life sized statues of Camagueyanos seem to be going about their daily business.
It took us forever to find our way through the maze of one way streets - and more than once we ended up going the wrong way or driving on an alley meant for bikes - and we all breathed huge sighs of relief as we crossed the Rio Hatibonico and left the city behind us. Don't let me influence you to avoid Camiquey though - it is well worth a visit - just be patient and persistent!