15 January 2016 | Cuba
Jane warm and sunny
As I write this we are having a kind and gentle sail between Cuba and Cayman Brac, one of the three Cayman Islands. The sun has just risen, always a wonderful sight at sea with it’s deep red sphere promising another beautiful day.
Cuba is a truly fascinating country. It is one of the first islands in the Caribbean to be settled by Europeans and bigger than we realised, in fact not much smaller than England. It is rarely explored by the cruising community and we are really pleased that we managed to visit it before we leave the Caribbean. We saw very few boats of any kind while we explored the southern coast. We think the waters may be busier in the spring, but by then we will be in Panama and so had no choice in timing our visit. The weather is always unsettled around Christmas, but although some anchorages were a tad rolly, even in our Catamaran, we felt we lucked out with the weather.
We arrived in the Cayos de San Felipe, and over four days made our way east around the north part of the reef system to Cayo Largo to check in. Not the best of routes as the wind on the whole was on our nose, but luckily there was not much and the iron donkey (engine, normally only use one) did her job. We hardly saw a soul, although on our second night we enjoyed an anchorage with a lobster boat. They came alongside to give us 12 huge lobsters and seemed very happy when we offered a bottle of rum as a gift.
Our wine cellar (or should I call it booze cellar) is under our bed. Well sadly three in the bed does not work. Birdie Num Num had not left us, but without our knowledge had snuggled into a gap in our pillows. We were so upset when we found him under the mattress, both of us had become quite attached to the wee little thing, but it was certainly lucky we found him when we did. We like to think that we gave him a few extra days, for if we had not appeared he probably would not have survived. We still wonder how long he might have stayed on board with us.
Our next night in Cayo Rosario another boat came up to us and gave us a huge grouper (enough for four meals); which they had just caught. They did not want a gift, just lots of smiles and odd words from our Spanish dictionary seemed to make them happy. We were quickly finding out how friendly and generous the Cubans are. Checking into Cayo Largo was easy and everyone was so helpful, however there was no fresh fruit and vegtables anywhere. We only found one shop; which was at the marina, so not sure where the locals get food as they were not allowed access. Every item I bought was written down in a book, not that there was much to buy except for some eggs, bread and cheap rum. The Cuban diet is very basic and it was lucky I had food in our freezer and stores to help add to meals.
We used Nigel Calder’s pilot book while we were in Cuba, but since the latest hurricane and with silting, a lot has changed. Going into Cayo Largo we found there were now two channels not one, most confusing. Even our charts were way off and we were constantly on our toes with reefs, steel piles for fish pens just above the water and depths/reefs not as marked. Like Belize, Cuba is not for the faint hearted, as in ski-ing we would call the sailing triple black diamond, and in a monohull it would have been even harder. We saw a brand new Catana Catamaran on the reef in the Cayos de Dios, a reminder how careful one has to be.
Our plan was to go back west and around Isla de la Juventud before heading back to Cayo Largo for Christmas. For once our itinerary worked and we had a fantastic time. We had anchorages all to ourselves, sunshine and beautiful unspoilt scenery with not a hotel or house to be seen. Well there was one hotel on Juventud, but it was pretty rundown being built before the revolution and having only about six guests when we were there.
We visited Cayo Hijo de Las Belleatos, a favourite spot for locals close to Cayo Largo. At Cayo Rosario we had a tense night with thunder and lightening very close to the boat, but it was a beautiful spot. In Cayo Largo we had met a French 57 foot lagoon at the marina who had been hit by lightening. They lost all their electrics and were wandering around the boat at night with their head flash lights (torches) on. Always a fear with boating and bad weather. We put our phone, ipads, laptops and hand held radio in our microwave to keep them safe.
At Cayo Campos we were led into the anchorage off the island by the two wardens; it looked impossible on the charts/pilot. They look after the monkeys and iguanas on the island, ten days on, ten days off – what a job. We gave them a bottle of rum as a thank you, total cost $4 and they brought us 20 lobsters the next morning and insisted we come ashore to visit. Next was Cayo Matais and then onto Caleta Puerto Frances at the bottom of Isla Juventud.
Puerto Frances was a stunning spot where we went ashore to see the wardens who look after the area and to explore. A dive boat came into the bay every day and the snorkelling was great. Our last night there a charter boat with four Swiss guys arrived and invited us over for sundowners. The captain charters a Cat every year over Christmas and knew the area well, however although they had been very successful fishing they had not had any lobster. I gave them eight of ours and in return they gave us a new fishing lure that they said caught them fish every day. Well we have just caught a three foot baracuda with it, so it is now our favourite.
Our pilot book said that it was worth taking a land trip to Nueva Gerona and our Swiss friends said that there was a large market on Sundays. The timing was right and so we decided to go into Marina Siguanea for a couple of nights. We have never touched bottom, but I suppose there is a first time for everything. The narrow entrance to the marina is now mainly silted over and we hit sand on our way in. We do not draw much (have 4.6 feet below us) so hopefully they will dredge the canal soon. Security is tight in Cuba and we were immediately boarded by the Guardia (police) who needed to check our papers. Must admit it was a change to not see firearms on government personnel and they always take off their shoes when boarding ☺ They came out at 5am in the morning to check us out of the country in Cienfuegos and to make sure there was only the two of us on board.
The other reason we went into the marina was because a cold front was forecast to come through. A good call as we hardly felt the strong winds, being very protected from the hills all around. Our day in Nueva Gerona was interesting. We like to take public transport and experience the locals, being Sunday everyone was dressed up and in party mode, such fun. The town was certainly different and not what we were expecting. After walking everywhere we never found the market, but did see one person selling pork on a street corner. However we did meet Tony and he made our day. No one speaks English and our Spanish is next to nothing, but we were able to explain that we were looking for fresh fruit and vegetables. “Come to my casa/house” he says, so off we go expecting oranges to be picked from his back yard. However, over wonderful fresh brewed coffee, he raids his family’s kitchen and finds us eggs, onions,
peppers, tomatoes and lemons. Not only that he wants nothing for them (not sure what his wife thought later). Tony brought out a beautiful box of cigars; which we bought for next to nothing for Russell’s Christmas present. Such a charming man telling us that we were now family and if we needed anything ‘anything” we were to let him know.
There was only one restaurant in town and on the menu there was pork, pork, or pork cooked six different ways. Small perfect sized servings and joy of joys it came with a little salad. There we met Dennis a local entrepreneur who spoke a bit of English and found us eggs and a friend to take us back to the marina. All in all a fascinating day out.
Then it was back to Cayo Largo with more lobster being traded on the way, this time for cooking oil and rum. When we got to Cayo Rosario Russ was not feeling well, a runny tummy we put down to too much lobster. I managed to get us back to Cayo Largo in crazy seas and wind, but it was a very quiet Christmas day with Russ sick in bed for three days before I managed to get him off the boat to a doctor. The medical system in Cuba is excellent and he was immediately looked at, injected and put on two drips for a couple of hours. Feeling much better we set off for Cienfuegos on the mainland two days away.
Russ was as well as we thought and it was a long trip, but we made it and as soon as we arrived at the marina the doctor there knew exactly what the problem was. A new virus is being carried by mosquitoes and the new anti biotics and strict diet that we were given did the trick. It is probably the longest I have ever seen Russ go without a beer and both of us lost a lot of weight as I also had some kind of bug that I was fighting. Thankfully we are both back on form and made up for lost time when we explored Trinidad and Havana after enjoying a quiet New Year on a friends boat as Russ was still on the mend.
Trinidad is one of the oldest cities in the New World, first settled in 1514 and is a wonderful colonial city. It is now on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites with some of the buildings having been tastefully restored. We found it charming. In contrast Havana looks like it has just come through a war. Many of the oldest buildings are in a state of imminent collapse, held together by planks of wood, luckily we saw lot of restoration happening in the city. We stayed in the old town which has many grand old buildings and a lot of the larger homes all lovingly restored. It is a fascinating place to explore and on top of that there is the buzz. Everywhere we went there was music. We went to a concert where everyone was dancing, the moves were some of the best I have seen. The bands where we heard the flute played with amazing energy, the sax with such style, the best live music we have heard in years. For any music lover Cuba is a must. In Havana our best dinner was at Ernest Hemmingway’s Florentina, a circular dining room with huge stunning paintings and yummy food. Best band had to be in a restaurant in the Plaza Vieja. Artwork and crafts in Plaza San Francisco and old books Plaza de Armas.
I did not mention money. Luckily times have changed and ATM machines can be found in most cities. The bank at Cayo Largo also cashed money for me with my passport and English Visa card. Our Canadian Mastercards cards did not work. Apparently American cards are not accepted, maybe there was some link. Cubans love Canadians, so much that we are the only country that can stay longer than a month without having to get an extension; which was lucky as we ended up spending more than a month in the country. No one takes credit cards, it is a cash society with two currencies, one for locals (used in markets, stalls, bakery) and one for everything else. We stayed in people’s homes at $30 a night, there are a lot of them and costs vary. Breakfast was an extra $4-$5 and huge. Hotels seemed very expensive in the cities, although the all inclusive ones in Cayo Largo were cheaper. We could have eaten and drunk for free when we went to get some wifi, as they have no wrist bands for guests. Wifi is very, very limited. You have to buy a card, valid for one hour and they are not often available. It can be used (if there is wifi available) in a large hotel lobby or city square. We lost touch with the world for a month.
We could easily have stayed longer in Cuba, we loved the rich culture and traditions dating back hundreds of years. The people are some of the most spontaneously generous and friendly we have come across. Visiting Cuba is a an educational experience and one for the self sufficient cruiser as provisioning is difficult. However a meal of chicken only costs $3.50 with a cocktail for $2 at the marina, so we went out and socialised as much as possible whilst adding to the local economy. It was like going back 50 years, a time warp and the old cars were like being in a museum. Fuel is expensive and scarce, so a lot of people use oxen for farming, horses, horse and cart, or bicycle and cart for getting around.
Time now to enjoy treats not had for a while in the Cayman Islands. We have so many pictures to share that we have broken them down into three parts. Hope that they do not bore you too much, but pictures are better than words and we hope that you enjoy. As Piglet said to Pooh “what day is it today?” “My favourite Day” Pooh replied.