14/04/2011/5:24 pm, Havana, Cuba
When we set off from Ontario with Blair and Mary (Strathspey) in 2007, it was with the idea of making our way to Cuba to find the music of Havana. Four years later, we made it. We don't regret all the things we did in the intervening years, but we sure are glad we got here. (Mary and Blair - put it on your list again!!)
Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer) and Jim and I decided, on the recommendation of friends, to take the bus to Havana and it was a good choice. Parking is more difficult there and we had no need of a car in the city. We took a cab to the Viazul terminal in Varadero and boarded the 8 o'clock bus. These are modern, air-conditioned buses (built in China) going directly to Havana and the cost was 10 CUC per person. We made one stop on the way - at the pina colada stand. Well - there were other options - bathrooms, sodas, souvenirs - but who can resist pina coladas (where you add your own rum from the bottles on the counter) and music from the resident troubadours?
By 10:30 we were exiting the bus at the Centro/Vieja stop and off to find our Casa Particular. It's a good thing we had explicit instructions from the folks back at the marina. Debbie has a package of information that gets handed from person to person; Gail and Peter, Donna and Rick had been there the week before, so we were well prepared. The taxi drivers were bombarding us before we even got our feet off the last step of the bus, but we knew we needed to say no, turn left, and walk up one of the main streets toward Parque Central. It sure helps to know a thing or two ahead of time.
Debbie had called Dagoberto, with whom Jabiru and Lorbas stayed, to reserve rooms so we had the address (on San Miguel near Industria) and since our only luggage was our backpacks, it was easy to walk there. (We had a map, but it would have been easy to find from the map in the Lonely Planet Guide too - I didn't go anywhere without that book!) We found the spot; Lia, Dagoberto's daughter came down to let us in and we sat down for a cup of coffee with them in the attractive flat they let out to visitors. It was then that he told us he no longer had the rooms available. We learned later that Cubans generally give the rooms to the first person who appears at the door. The income is so important that they don't take the risk (considerable - since there is no credit card guarantee) of holding a room for no-shows. But not to worry! Cubans are so hospitable that we discovered they always locate another spot - and that's what Dagoberto had done. After our coffee, we walked with Lia and him to a house on Barcelona. Turned out Marie Elena had only one room but Marcelino across the street also had one available. We tossed a coin and Jim and I chose to stay with Marcelino and Pilar, while Tom and Chris stayed with Marie Elena. Our room had no window and a shared bathroom, and did not serve breakfast - we ate across the street at Marie Elena's - but Marcelino spoke excellent English (and loved to talk) so we were happy.
On the subject of Casa Particulares - there are many listed in the guidebook, and many many more with those blue, upside down anchor signs out. It is really just a matter of choosing an area, getting suggestions from a guidebook or friends, or wandering the streets, knocking on doors to have a look, and picking one. Both Habana Centro and Habana Vieja would be good, central areas to start looking, although the Vedado looks to be an interesting area too.
We dropped our bags and set off to find food and to sightsee. We found the food at the next corner. Like us, Chris and Tom are fans of street food, so we bought ham and cheese buns for a few pesos and continued on our way. Barcelona St brought us right out by the Capitolio Nacional - that magnificent building that was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, but now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the national Library of Science and Technology - and alas - was closed for renovations. It is impressive! It is similar to the US Capitol building but richer in detail.
The gorgeous and ornate Gran Teatro de La Habana stands on the corner nearby and our breaths were taken away by the ornateness. There were so many wonderful grand buildings in this area that we just swiveled our necks and gaped at the beauty. I felt like Dorothy, "Carvings and Tilework and Sculpture - Oh My!!!" Many of these buildings have had some restoration and there is clearly money going into preservation in some areas.
As we debated where to walk first, we passed a number of horse drawn carriages along the Prado. They all offered rides and we picked the smiling Ariel and his horse Sandy to take us on a one hour tour. It was pricy at 10 CUC each but he said the price was government controlled and non negotiable. It seemed to be a good way to start so we set off and it was indeed a good idea. We discovered the general lay of the land - passed some buildings that we might not have gotten to on our own - and found a couple of leafy squares to which we returned later. We looked at block after block of beautiful old buildings, and streamlined modern ones that seemed in great contrast. We drove down narrow streets lined with row houses 3 and 4 stories tall where laundry hung from balconies - some in perfect shape and some in terrible states of disrepair. We saw crumbling tile work and worn marble steps, and we found busy people everywhere - sweeping, shopping, coming from school, selling, buying, The market economy is alive and well - everyone has something to sell - from a few nuts and bolts and screws to shoes to CD's to books. We passed by the police station, housed in what looks like an old fort, and noted that it had a very modern security camera mounted on the wall.
Not least of the experiences, was the stop at Dos Hermanos - where we had the best mohitos! In tall glasses, tart and with loads of fresh mint, they were also more expensive (4 CUC) still less than we'd pay at home! We bought drinks for Ariel and his cousin Osvaldo and they were pleased.
As we walked home toward the end of the afternoon, we heard the sound of drumming, and searched for the source. It was Tom who spotted a young man in the open window of a third floor apartment, and when he waved and beckoned for us to come up, the four of us gladly agreed. (It was handy that we are all the spontaneous type!) We found a sparsely furnished room with three drummers, a woman in shorts and T-shirt doing freeform dance and a couple of children avidly watching the drummers - or was it the tourists? It was just fascinating to be here in this room with young men who were clearly into their music - not performing - just playing. Their drums were double ended and held on their knees. The beat was complicated and I kept watching them watch each other as they slid from one rhythm to another and back around again. The room itself was shabby - but had an intricate tiled floor, marble columns, ornate crown molding. We stayed for quite a while, then gave them some pesos (unasked for) and pens to the children and went on our way, feeling privileged to have been part of it. They didn't need to invite strangers into their home, but they did! It was moments like this that made Cuba such an absolutely wonderful experience for us.
Jim and I enjoyed having coffee with Marcelino when we got home. We were about to decline but he encouraged us, "Say Yes ! Say yes!" As we sat in the dining area of his second floor flat, (the tourist rooms are on the main floor) he introduced us to his daughter and grand daughter. His son the doctor who lives upstairs came home, and the doctor's 2 sweet children still dressed in their school uniforms, shyly came in and kissed our cheeks without prompting. As is so many other households, Marcelino grew up in this building. Most of the furnishings and decorative pieces date from the time of the Russian support when "We had everything." Now - "is not so good". He shook his head as he told us that his son the doctor earns 27 CUC per month. Marcelino provides us with a bed for one night and gets paid 25 CUC. The down side to the room rental business is that he must pay the government 200 CUC per month for each room he rents out. No wonder they don't save rooms for people who call ahead.
We ate at La Pina de Plata that night - on Obispo at Bernaza - a recommendation from Jabiru and Lorbas. We were early - at 7 - so the place was almost empty, but the food was plentiful and a good price - about 6 CUC each. Our wanderings afterward took us along Obispo - a wonderful store-lined walking street to Mercaderes, where we stopped in a charming little courtyard to listen to the musicians - whose music was gentle and their voices melodic. Guy - from Montreal - joined us as he finished his wine, and one of the musicians sat down as well. He is a veteran of the war in Angola, and brought out the carefully saved citations for valour that he kept in his wallet.
We were pretty well done in by the excitement of the day and we slept well that night.
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)