Cuba..."A place where the communist ideology continues side by side with the encroaching and inevitable capitalism." Andrei Codrescu
Why Cuba? Probably a combination of '60's era romanticism and plain old curiosity coupled with the excitement of the forbidden fruit. Also, the promise of unspoiled cays and stunning turquoise blue waters as promised by an American cruiser in Puerta Vallarta who extolled the beauties of Cuba's southern coast.
Many Americans, including us, are first attracted to the idea of going to Havana in the footsteps of Hemingway, quaffing mojitos and listening to the strains of the Buena Vista Social Club. I made a feeble attempt to visit the north shore returning one May from Antigua. Charts in hand, with some trepidation I headed north and west after Sailing Week. Hearing from the cruising community that the only place to check in was Havana, forcing us to bypass 400 miles of the Cuban coast, was just the ticket to put my fears to rest and change course for the Bahamas. Arriving later in Miami to the full U.S. homecoming of drug sniffing dogs and unduly officious customs officers, I knew I was back in the states.
The south coast of Cuba would do us well as it is an easy jump form Isla Mujeres, MX across the Yucatan Channel to the western tip of Cuba. The southern coast of Cuba makes a NW to SE arc some 240 miles long, hopefully offering protection from the prevailing Easterlies as we worked our way to the eastern Caribbean. Placing our trust in Nigel Calder's decades old "Cuba, A Cruising Guide" we continued on to Isla de Juventud rather than stopping at the more western port of entry of La Coloma. This was the first rule we broke in Cuba. It's important to remember that Cuba is neither a "can country" such as Mexico, not a "cannot country" such as the Estados Unidos. Rather it is a totalitarian country firmly held together with an unbelievable number of rules, not just avidly enforced against us Norte Americanos, we were told repeatedly, but everyone has to follow them.
With 40-45 kts. forecast the following day, we were looking for a good place to hide. There is a beautiful anchorage at Punte del Este on Isla Juventud that we visited later, but for this major cold front we were hoping for more protection. Most insurance coverage does not insure American flagged vessels in Cuban waters unless they have U.S. paperwork in order for an official visit. We were only planning to use commie Cuba as cover for our trip east, but now everything changed. We were going to the land of Che and Fidel, somewhat retracing the original dozen "freedom fighters" voyage from Mexico to Cuba in the "Granma". (Somewhat ironically, Fidel had purchased the Granma from an American in Mexico who had named it / misspelled it in honor of his grandmother.)
Arriving in the small, but well protected (5' draft) harbor of Marina Siguanea we passed the Guarda post complete with camouflaged guard tower (w. guard), barbed wire fences and a huge mural of Che. Really, not knowing what to expect with the stars and stripes flying, we crept into the harbor. A man appeared and motioned us to the quay. Once we were well secured there were smiles all around and Eduardo stepped forth speaking American accented English introducing himself as the marina manager and employee of the nearby Colony Hotel. He asked where we were coming from and when I cheerily replied "Isla Mujeres, MX" his face dropped. Turns out Calder has old information and it is no longer possible to do an international check-in at Marina Siguanea.
Guards were immediately dispatched to the quai to ensure that we remained onboard. Officials were called from the main town of Nueva Gerona and the drug and arms sniffing dog was brought onboard. No fewer than 12 Cubans were required to check us over and tell us that we could not check in except at an official international port of entry, this was a national port of entry. Each was very polite and smiling, curious to talk to us, friendly, yet firm in their rules. A few hours later, word came down from the higher ups that we were to be allowed to move about the marina but could not leave the fenced area, not even to go to the hotel for a drink.
My wife and I are antsy and inquisitive by nature, two days whiling our time in this gloomy marina was enough.....the forecast had the wind down to north @ 20-25 G30 and that's a comfortable ride reaching along the lee of Isla de Juventud in our heavy catamaran. They let us go on with promises to do a proper international check-in the following day in Cayo Laro. We knew from the outset that we would not make it to Cayo Largo in one day.
Our first and continuing impression of this part of island Cuba was that is was all but deserted.
There was one habitable structure and a giant white geodesic dome ashore at Punte del Este, but the weather was cold (it was a cold front, after all), so we were content to cozy up on the boat and watch a movie, "The Motorcycle Diaries", no kidding! We had each read Jon Lee Anderson's definitive 750 page solidly documented biography of "Che" while cruising Mexico the year before. By now our curiosity was overcoming our desire to hang out in the beautiful cays and the weather was gloomy. Next day we pushed on to Cayo Largo. While we had recently spent a month in the fabulously beautiful San Blas Islands nothing prepared us for the sheer beauty of Cayo Largo and the azure blues of the waters. The sand was blindingly white and waterways meandered to the interior of the Cay. We spotted a couple of boats anchored out and a handful of others in the impeccably kept marina. Waved to a berth, we were then greeted by Piero the self-described PR man who called the officials to complete our international check in. They had been expecting us as they had received a call from Marina Siguanea. Obviously, big brother was watching.
Once again, the dozen officials were extremely friendly, even sharing a beer onboard, and almost apologetic with the number of papers to be filled out. Piero, self-appointed, as our new best friend answered our many questions, arranged credit at the bar as we had no Cuban money and drank mojitos with us. Piero has had this cush job for 21 years, I wondered how he got it? Was he really part of the party apparatus, not spying really, but keeping an eye on the tourists....
Cayo Largo is a foreign exchange machine, and foreign exchange is what the Cuban government needs most. Facing economic disaster in the 90's Castro allowed a rudimentary market economy to take hold to service the tourists who were now, since the collapse of sugar and the loss of Soviet handouts, the main source of "real" money. You're not going to buy food or fuel on the world market with Cuban pesos. Enter the CUC - convertible pesos. At this writing one yanqui dollar is worth mas or menos 80% of one "kook." What a slap in the face! You can't even get one to one exchange for the worthless CUC's. There only use is in the parallel Cuban tourist economy.
The tourist hotels and the handful of marinas are largely joint ventures with Latin American, Canadian and European countries. Everyone is in business here except for the United States of America. We have a crushing 50 year old embargo against the kind people of this island. I'm just a simple cruiser, not a foreign policy scholar, but what is there that Cuba cannot purchase, if it had the money, from another country other than the United States? Mexico has joint ventured the many huge concrete plants and Hugo Chavez keeps pumping oil. I think the Cuban government gets more mileage out of the embargo than the U.S. government. If you're an American politician in favor of the embargo, you get to carry south Dade County which probably puts the whole state of Florida's electoral votes into your column. However, if you are the "bearded one" as the Cubans refer to Fidel, you get an all around enemy to whip your people into a frenzy....or at least to keep them focused on the fact that the glorious revolution has not been able to produce a functioning economy in spite of the beneficial institutions it has created for the mass of Cuban people, namely it's often touted health care system and universal education.
In Cayo Largo we made the acquaintance of Isabel and Michel, American Ivy League educated Parisians who cruise for about four to six months a year. They had become fast friends with Louis and Sophia, bona fide characters from the Dominican Republic over the VHF as each was crossing the Yucatan Channel. Louis had worked in many countries for Shell Oil and was enjoying two years of his retirement circumnavigating the Caribbean with his significant other Sophia who had until recently managed the National Symphony of the D.R. which had been founded by her grandfather. What were people of this caliber doing in commie Cuba? As they said goodbye to sail east, we did not know that we would, find out the answer to that question and share many experiences with them later on.
Enjoying some of the very scarce nice weather since we left Cartagena nearly a month ago, we decided to explore the island by bicycle. We haven't used our bicycles as much as we anticipated since leaving California, but when we have taken them out for a ride it has always been wonderful. This day was no exception as we rode from one end of Cayo Largo to the other. We stopped by several of the all inclusive tourist hotels and found an interesting old stone tower which now served as part of a landscape nursery. Passing the international airport, my wife commented, "have you ever seen an airport with only one car in the parking lot?" It was all very surreal. No towns. No Cubans other than the small village of dormitories for the workers. A tourist ghetto. Prices at the bar in the marina were the same as back home.
The concept of leaving the marina to anchor out overnight and continue on the next morning or the day after was not happening here in Cuba. You have to show up back at the marina for re-inspection and a national despachio to move your boat to the next town. By now I had reached my admittedly rather short limit of patience with officialdom and demanded to leave immediately. Paperwork was completed immediately after lunch and we were on our way to Cienfuegos on the mainland. Calder wrote that this was a very large bay entered through a narrow but well lit channel and easy to enter at night. Fortunately we had a full moon.
Sailing from the cays to Cienfugos on a direct course takes you through a "prohibited" zone. The moon was out, the wind 15-22 on the beam so we weren't going to be denied by sailing way our of our way. Then our imaginations got the best of us in the darkness seeing "Cuban gunboats" shadowing our course two miles to port. The next day we found out the "gunboats" were our friends from France and the D.R. I asked Michel what he thought about cutting through the prohibited zone, he replied "I'm French, I thought nothing of it!" I'm from California and I felt the same way...we became fast friends!
Arriving Cienfuegos, my nerves were a little shot... the fact that your insurance is invalid, that you have no rights, not even an embassy in the country, and that for all the romanticism surrounding Che and the revolution, you are operating in a totalitarian state. Facist or communist, totalitarian states are always bad news. We didn't have good charts as we only planned to use Cuba as a buffer to the east winds. Calder's guidebook is seriously out of date. We did know that the marina was located adjacent to a multistory hotel near the readily identifiable Punta Gorda and we had the moonlight. Bahia de Cienfuegos is far larger than it had appeared to me in the photographs I had seen on the internet. It was 5 miles from the entrance of the bay to Punta Gorda. We couldn't ID the marina in the darkness. With yet another cold front bringing the N wind it appeared that where the marina should be we would have a downwind entrance in 15 knots of wind. Not something we wanted to try at midnight. We headed around Punta Gorda and found a nice calm spot to anchor, complete with loud Cuban music, in the lee of the point. The second time we countervened the RULES!
Rounding the point looking for the marina the next morning we spotted two sloops coming up the channel. Louis and Michel had elected to anchor out behind an island. Seriously against the rules, this anchoring out of the restricted zone in front of the marina! We had to sign a confession, then another document promising to never do an infraction on any subsequent trips to Cuba!! Yea, right, I'm going to risk my boat on a lee shore rather than anchor ½ mile away in the lee of the point?? Guess what? It's their ball game and you play by their rules. I will say I had two of the marina officials tell me sotto voce that there were too many rules and this was a stupid thing for the officials to enforce. The Guarda official even blamed it on his superior when it was time to leave and I was passing out propinas...
Michael, our friend from Mill Valley had flown into Cancun and then on to Havana spending a couple of days carousing around the big city before taking the four hour bus ride to Cienfuegos. From his pictures we missed a lot of the Cuban experience, but truth be known, we are so comfortable living on our big cat that to have to endure that many Cuban meals out, and the shoddy hotels would have best been left to our backpacking youth. The food is horrendous by California standards. Not a Whole Foods in sight. (Just kidding!) Cienfuegos was city enough and we could escape the crushing poverty of the majority of the population by returning to the boat. It's heart wrenching to see a people literally starving to death. There appears to be little incentive to do too much. Many of the older generation are reportedly still believers in the revolution, but the younger people have already been seduced by hip western wear and trying to hustle a few kooks from the tourists. The beautiful colonial architecture is crumbling. There is one shopping street where you can buy foods and goods not available to the average Cuban, IF you have the CUC's. It's a two tiered economy.
Nonetheless, there is no begging as is common in Mexico and San Francisco. The people have a certain dignity, a grace in the way they carry themselves. Music is abundant. The regime has figured out that Cuban music is a valuable export. Returning to the marina one night I was surprised and pleased to see our immigration officer singing and playing his guitar at a pot luck party organized by the French cruisers. Once he retires in a few years, he plans to devote his time to his music. We bought vegetables at an organic farm on the side of the road for a pittance with the real Cuban pesos which are next to worthless. The rumor is that surplus produce is funneled to private markets. Some Cubans are allowed to open small two or three room hotels and the best place to find a meal is in one of these "Casa Particulars".
Flawed as it is, economic self-interest is the way to make people productive. That's why so many people want to see Cuba as it is now, before the creeping capitalism changes it for good. These are the thoughts of my French friends, Michel and Isabel. They said they can see many changes in the nine years since they were last here. A decade ago, the dollar stores didn't exist and the tourist facilities were just taking hold. They thought the people looked a little better fed now. Turns out, their reasons for visiting Cuba were the same as ours: Two parts curiosity and a desire to cruise the offshore islands.
The irony of the revolution has to be Che Guevara as the most commercialized freedom fighter in history! Even the Cubans, especially the Cubans are cashing in on Che. You can buy postcards, posters and books full of pictures of Che doing everything but killing people. He's smoking cigars (in defiance of his emphazema) laughing, frowning and leading his men. Fidel is not the commercial face of the revolution, but he was always in charge, using Che for his charisma and ideological zeal. Fidel was the master politician.
Santa Clara, located in the mountains behind Cienfuegos, houses the museum and final resting place of Che Guevarra. His remains were repatriated from Bolivia in the '90's. Both Santa Clara and the beautiful colonial town of Trinidad have been cleaned up and repainted to provide a backdrop for the tourists seeking the Cuban experience. One of the more interesting, but sad, experiences occurred on the way to Trinidad when our taxi driver took a wrong turn and we drove through the unvarnished Cuban countryside. Here is how the people were really living; dilapidated houses with openings for windows, people walking miles to the nearest main rode to try to hitch a ride, no cars at all, with only a fortunate few having a horse to ride...subsidence agriculture, but at a lower level than we had seen since Nicaragua.
In Cienfuegos there is a chain link gate on the dock and offices for the officials just outside. My wife was stopped leaving the compound with a portable VHF in her hand. The woman Aduana agent explained that communication radios and GPS units are not allowed in Cuba. I can't second guess the bearded one to know if he is still living in the '50's of his revolution and thinks we might vector in the contras with our handheld, or if it is just another ploy to remind the population of the dangers posed to their system by foreigners. Perhaps, the leaders are all just paranoid.
Once out of the compound life was pretty decent for the cruisers. We would go to the former yacht club, a grand structure rivaling any yacht club in the U.S. for mojitos on the terrace to watch the sun set. This huge terrace had about three different groups when there was seating for 40-50. A local jinataro convinced us of the superior food at his "friends" Casa Particular and hustled the seven of us into a horse drawn cart. The cart driver had to use the back roads to avoid the policia because the Caballos were not officially allowed to carry foreigners. Tourists were supposed to use the small fleet of "Cuba Taxi" owned by the state which charge ten times as much. Dining at this particular Casa was very pleasant. Certainly due to the fact that it was a private enterprise, the owners had decorated their open air bar and restaurant in a very comfortable setting. The food was reasonably good, just don't order steak, because there is no beef in Cuba. A very pleasant evening was had by all in a setting not even available to the average Cuban.
For us Cuba was a fascinating experience. To experience the reality of the totalitarian state, the combination of people still believing in the Revolution wondering why their lives are as hard as they are now, offset against the younger generation who were not part of the struggle against the fascist Batista rulers, who are already clothed in knock-off designer outfits and can only wait for a better life. The question on everyone's minds seems to be: What happens after 'the bearded one' passes?
We sailed out of Cuba, too soon to quench our curiosities, but the impending arrival of a major cold front gave us the opportunity to work our way east on the north wind rather than pounding it out against the easterlies. The other departing cruisers were waiting for the cold front to pass for a nice pleasant sail east. We had way too far to go so elected to go with the forecast 30 knot winds. A great choice as it turned out as we made a quick 400 miles to the east, before we had to turn the engine on to get us into Boca Chica in the D.R. a scant three and a half days later.
We'll have to return to Cuba one day to fully enjoy the beautiful waters and beaches of the cays of the southern coast...but that's ok, it was very enlightening to see communist Cuba before the unrelenting capitalism takes over.
We left Isla Providencia bound for Guanaja which is a small cay about 30 miles from Isla Roatan. The weather was overcast and grey when we arrived so we merely did a drive by in the dinghy and proceeded on to French Harbor in Roatan. This is the island where the television series from the 60's Fantasy Island was filmed and there is a dive spot of the same name adjacent to French Harbor where we were anchored.
The winds were blowing about 25 knots so we did some provisioning and awaited the arrival of Sue Sullivan and Mike who were on board to travel with us from Roatan to Belize and on to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. They proved to be great company, interested in learning about our cruising lifestyle and as much fun as we could handle. Anytime we have four people on board there is a fair amount of time spent playing hearts after dinner. Both Mike and Sue were great sports and willing to jump in and participate on all levels.
The weather was a bit colder than we would have liked with temperatures dropping into to the low 70's as we negotiated our way around the many reefs and coral heads inside of Belize's barrier reef. Standard operating procedure had Sue and I on the bow, Mike keeping us informed of the depth from the top of the house and Captain Greg guiding Escapade through the shallow waters, with often less than a foot of water under the hull. It was amazing that we only ran aground once softly and did not hit any of the numerous coral heads.
Once off the boat in Queen Cay in the very cute and quaint town of Placencia we spent the morning frustrating ourselves trying to find an internet connection. It was hopeless and as the search went on from place to place we never did find a connection where we could use Skype to call home. Turns out that not only are there few internet connections in Belize, the the government-run telephone service is actively suppressing internet telephony and you have to turn Skype off or you cannot even connect to the internet when do find a connection. It simply won't connect as long as Skype is enabled.
It was date night ashore at Ambergis Cay where we happened to catch the Women's Combined Olympics from Vancouver with Lindsey Vonn taking the Gold and Julia Mancuso from Squaw Valley taking Silver. Julia and my daughter Kellan grew up racing in Squaw and it was very cool to see her standing on the podium. Had an exceptional meal at Mango's with some celebratory Mojitos and then off to bed as tomorrow we have plans to snorkel in the Blue Hole.
The Blue Hole is very obvious from the air but next to impossible to locate without lat/long coordinates in the azure blue water that it surrounds. After circling it from one angle and then another we dropped anchor in about 25 feet of water and dinghied over to the edge. It was surreal looking down as it is 450 feet deep and gets darker and more ominous as it funnels down past reefs filled with so many different fish I felt like we were in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I can understand divers coming from around the world to enjoy this site. From here we headed North to Lighthouse Reef...it was challenging as there were so many coral heads to look out for and often times we were barely above the many reefs that surrounded us. The evening sunset was beautiful and lucky for us we followed a fishing boat into a safe anchorage. The fishing boat was about 24 feet long with 10 fisherman and their canoes on board...we anchored safely but the wind was howling and Escapade only had a foot of water under her hulls at low tide. The winds howled all night and the next morning we realized that with only a foot of clearance underneath us we were stuck here as a passage through the reef was too narrow to negotiate in 25-30 knots of wind. Greg and Mike talked to the fisherman and persuaded them to show us the way back thru the reefs, past the Blue Hole and back to Long Cay. It was arduous as we were all on watch with the depth as shallow as 4 1/2 feet in places. That evening we had a great dinner, good wine and a spirited game of hearts...just another day on the Escapade.
Mike and Sue's time with us was running out so we finished with a two night sail to Isla Mujeres...they even had their own night watch. Mike and Sue's two weeks with us was as REAL as it gets. First night out being chased by the Caribe Mariner and last night standing watch with too much fun and laughs in between. I can't wait to share some more time with them soon!
01/28/2010, Caragena, Colombia
The old walled city of Cartagena is gorgeous...rivalling the ancient and flowered cities of Europe. With it's wide array of charming and hip restaurants, street music and Spanish Colonial architecture, Cartagena gives the cruiser a much needed culture infusion. Life is good here.
How many Americans would even think of vacationing in Colombia? I don't know how dangerous the big cities are in the interior, wherever you are you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time or doing the wrong thing, but the word among the cruisers is that Cartagena is as safe as any mid size American city. Don't go to the wrong side of town after dark and don't go looking for shady deals involving drugs or sex and you should be just fine. The tourist areas of all countries are an important source of income so they are usually well policed and the tourist areas the safest around.
Rule Number One is don't be stupid, and Rule Number Two is stick to the areas frequented by tourists.
In the daylight hours we rode our bikes into the old town from the Club de Pesca where Escapade was tied up at the end of the dock. After dark, we would walk in to the center and cab back. We had our choice of Spanish, French and Italian food. There is a German bakery offering a wide array of baked goods. Flowers are everywhere and the horse drawn carts are a good way to sightsee and get the lay of the land. We were fortunate to be there during the annual Hay Festival which promotes literature, visual arts, geopolitics, music and the environment. One night we walked in and found an open air concert booming hot jazz into the plaza crowded with five hundred people of many nationalities.
Provisioning is good, not cheap, not too expensive what you would expect in a good sized city and a short walk from both the Club de Pesca, the old docks, and the anchorage. Note: the anchorage is known for poor holding. Watch your dingy and haul it out of the water at night. By the looks of the place many cruisers end up staying in Cartagena for extended periods.
When you get ready to leave, you better be ready to go (!) because once you depart the bay the wind is usually 20+ with good sized seas. Escapade averaged about 10 knots on the 24 hour trip from Cartagena to Providencia.
January 14th, 2010
San Blas Islands
We left Shelter Bay at the eastern entrance to the Panama Canal on New Year's Day looking forward to our arrival in one of the most beautiful areas in the world, Panama's San Blas Islands, a vast archipelago of more than 340 islands arcing southeast along the Caribbean shore. The islands are home to the indigenous Kuna Indians who have preserved their culture by peaceful and non aggressive means for hundreds of years. Looking around the offshore islands you can be lost in time as it could just as easily be 1910 as 2010.
The Holandes Cays have the clearest water in all of San Blas and we spent five nights anchored off of Banedup. Our days were spent reading, playing cribbage, swimming, snorkeling and completing a much needed bottom cleaning. One afternoon we were approached by a Kuna family from an adjoining island, Tiadup, selling beautiful lobsters and crabs for a minimal amount of money. Walking around their small island the next day we were able to take some pictures of the beautiful family and their eight children. It was wonderful to see such happy people existing on so little. When we returned the following morning we were greeted with warm smiles as we surprised them with many photos of their family. Oh if life could only be that simple!
Leaving this morning for Coco Bandero Cay we will look forward to returning in a few days to bring them more pictures and perhaps some miscellaneous medical supplies and clothes to remember us by.
January 18, 2010
A Dutch cruiser who has circumnavigated the world three times once told me that "PARADISE IS WHERE YOU ARE"! The San Blas Islands are PARADISE!!!
We have been talking about leaving here for the last couple of days and pushing on to Cartagena whilst knowing that as soon as we do we will be missing the beauty and serenity that these islands have afforded us for almost three weeks. Spending time on Coco Bandero Cays, Green Island and Morbedup have been as close as one get to Nirvanna. Clear azure water and temperatures in the 90's ,with little humidity set the stage for a boaters paradise. If this is retirement I am sold. Where else can you have lobsters and crabs delivered to your boat via dugout canoes and the smiling Kuna's.
Yesterday we spent the day at Isla Maquina, which means Mola Making Island in Kuna. Mola's are the Kuna's traditional embroidery work that often times tells a story while others are very geometric in their designs and passed down from one generation to another. As we found a place to anchor we were immediately surrounded by canoes with the Kuna women coming out to our boat to show us their Mola's . We felt a bit intimidated to go ashore as we had already purchased a couple of Mola's from Venancio a Master Mola Maker who had come on our boat while we were anchored in Bannedup Happily we made the venture in as we were immediately embraced by an English speaking Kuna, Alphonso who not only gave us a grand tour of the village but shared his family hut with us and allowed us to get some great photos both candid and posed. At our invitation Alphonso and his family came out to our boat for a visit where Greg printed up some of the photos that we had taken. We left with some beautiful Mola's and a wonderful insight into the village life of the Kuna's.
This leg of our travels was going to be interesting but quick...almost just a delivery to the Caribbean. We enjoyed Mexico but we are ready for the better sailing winds of the Caribbean.
This is the delivery home from our beautiful downwind sail from Cabo to Maui. Expectations are greatly lowered for this leg home.