May-June 2008 Cuba
sailed to Santiago de Cuba from Porto Antonio, Jamaica on May 10,
2008 and left that country, bound for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on June
28th, arriving the next day. During our almost 6 weeks in Cuban
waters, we saw and experienced so many new things that it's difficult
for us to compile them in a single document; so instead of writing
an essay, as we normally do, we've put here excerpts from our log,
emails to family and some observations about Cuba and the Cubans
under Fidel and Raoul Castro.
But first, a few facts: Cuba is HUGE! It's by far the largest island
in the Caribbean, almost twice as large as its nearby neighbor Hispaniola
(Haiti/Dominican Republic). At about 600 miles e-w, if moved north
it would reach from our old home in Hampton VA to Chicago. It's
shaped somewhat like an eyebrow, and under the arch of the eyebrow
are a series of gulfs and bays dotted with hundreds of cays, as
well as several archipelagos separating the shallow gulfs from the
deep Caribbean Sea. Depths drop from six feet to over 1000 feet
within ½ mile of the shores, and the incredibly clear water
changes from limpid pale green or turquoise to deep blue-black in
a few hundred meters. Fewer than 10 of the islands are inhabited.
The country is a true Communist state: With the exception of personal
possessions such as clothes and cars, everything is owned, and controlled,
by the State. In a nearly complete reversal of American values,
the Cuban Constitution guarantees a number of individual economic
rights, from food to housing to health care to education, but does
not guarantee political rights such as freedom of speech and of
the press. Those economic guarantees mean that every Cuban is provided
free housing, enough food to keep from starving, free education
to whatever level he can attain, and free medical care. This is
not just a formality; for example, the Cuban Community-Oriented
Medical Care system provides every little village with at least
one doctor, and Cubans visit their doctors regularly. This is made
possible by training far more doctors per capita than are trained
in the US. The direct result is better routine health care than
in the US - for instance, the Cuban infant mortality rate is a fraction
of that of the US.
Every Cuban is given food and household goods, distributed through
"dispenseries" and regulated by ration booklets. This
has its benefits and drawbacks: While the world was rocked by soaring
prices for rice and consequent starvation in many poor places in
the world, Cubans had plenty of rice -- they grow enough for everybody
and the world price is irrelevant. On the other hand, decent soap
is in very short supply -- tourists are frequently accosted by beggars
requesting it -- and fish-hooks are rare and extremely valuable.
All Cubans who work (and employment is high) get paid in local
pesos. As far as we could determine, the only things a Cuban can
buy with these pesos are extra food, cheap non-export quality cigars,
ice cream and street food, public transportation, and utilities
such as electricity. Local pesos cannot, in theory, be converted
to dollars or other hard currencies.
For all other goods, including nice clothing and all restaurant
meals, there is another currency, Convertible Units of Currency
(CUCs). Tourists buy CUCs with their hard currency and use them
to pay for everything from hotel rooms to charter boats. Cubans
can also buy CUCs with local pesos, at a fixed rate of 25 pesos
for 1 CUC. Using CUCs, Cubans can buy pretty much anything a tourist
can buy: restaurant meals, TV and stereo equipment, music CDs, mobile
phones, good rum and whiskey. There are, however, some tourist places
where ordinary Cubans cannot go, for example some exclusive Havana
nightclubs, all yacht clubs, and tourist-only areas such as the
island of Cayo Largo.
Average Cuban earnings are the equivalent of about $30 a month,
but that has to be put in the perspective of free food, lodging,
education and medical care. In effect, nearly 100% of a Cuban's
earnings are discretionary income. But given the low wages, this
doesn't amount to much.
Now for our log:
Sunday, 11 May: Arrived this afternoon in Santiago, Cuba.
Sailed in good breeze about halfway from Jamaica to Cuba, then sat
around waiting for the wind to blow; finally motored in, only to
find that customs etc. are closed on Sunday! We're restricted to
the boat (quarantined) until tomorrow morning, but fortunately we've
got good fresh albacore for a sushi dinner.
Wednesday, 14 May: It took about 3 hours and 12 officials
to clear us in, Monday morning, including a full examination of
all cupboards and a general sniff-over by a cute Cocker Spaniel.
Our hand-held GPSs are now securely sealed in official tape. Why,
nobody knows. Radios are apparently OK. We have some 6 official
documents we don't entirely understand. Fine aged rum costs about
$2.00 a liter on the black market; all is well.
Based on our first impressions, this place is much more prosperous
than we remember. When we were here in 2001, the city was a bit
run-down, but now at least the central area is in great shape, with
paint on all the buildings and the usual bustle of commercial life.
The first night here, we had supper (our favorite - arroz con
pollo) in the main square, accompanied by "the best mojitos
in Cuba," a boast we heard at every establishment, and which
we tried our best to verify. We then went to the Casa de la Musica
with some Norwegian cruisers for salsa, dancing, rum and beer. The
latter is very good -- there are 3 brands, ranging from an American-style
pilsner to a fine full-tasting lager.
Yesterday Rob went to the local sailing center and gave a lecture
on the rules - in Spanish! Then to a local family's house for supper:
arroz con cerdo. (Last week, the Norwegians bought an entire
pig for this family; we were dining for free on the leftovers.)
Our hosts, Pedro and Rosa, live with their three children in two
rooms of a large, pre-revolution building (warehouse? - it had no
windows) with a closed-in porch containing the kitchen and tiny
living/dining room. Pretty small for a 5-person family, at least
by American standards, and rather squalid. But at the end of the
porch sits a large TV with DVD player. The TV programming features
the South American equivalent of soap operas, but also includes
news in the familiar talking-head-with-clips format. Despite all
this, our hosts seemed remarkably out of touch with current affairs,
and even with geography. Rosa expressed surprise that the United
States had coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific, and when we
related our story about the authorities sealing our portable GPS's,
Pedro said it was so we couldn't stand next to a military installation
and report its exact position to the American government. He clearly
was unfamiliar with Google Earth!
One of the houses across the little bay here is pretty nice, with
palm trees and shrubbery; nothing at the level of Larchmont or Ft.
Lauderdale, but nice. Turns out, it's a vacation home of Fidel and
Raoul! Haven't seen them yet.
We were surprised upon arrival that our Italian friend, Marcello,
wasn't there. We had met him during our brief stop in Haiti and
then saw him again in San Antonio, where we went with him on a rafting
trip. Marcello really appreciated the quality of Jamaican ganja,
and on the raft trip we stopped for about half an hour while he
and our guide compared the quality of their stashes. Marcello is
single-handing and decided to take advantage of a good weather window,
sailing to Santiago 3 days before we left. So when we had cleared
in, we went to the marina office and asked about Marcello (given
his fondness for drugs, we didn't acknowledge that we knew him by
name, identifying him as "an Italian"). It turns out he
did show up 3 days before we arrived, the drug-sniffing dog got
excited, and the authorities found some 600 cannabis seeds on his
boat. As the marina manager said, a few seeds might be for personal
consumption, but 600? (From what we'd seen, we were not so sure
Marcello didn't intend to use them for personal consumption, but
we didn't say anything.) In any case, we were told that the Cuban
authorities took Marcello to town in a taxi, where he exchanged
enough money to cover his marina fees, the taxi and the US $500
fine; then they took him back to the marina and cleared him out,
departure immediate, destination Haiti. All in all, we think he
was pretty stupid, but very lucky.
Friday, 16 May: Well, our first impressions of Santiago
weren't entirely correct. We walked all over town yesterday, and
outside the center, the buildings are not well maintained. On some,
the paint is peeling; on others, it's long past peeling. Many of
the doors are so weathered that it's impossible to tell what color
they were, originally.
The marina is quite far from the city (people who live near the
marina refer to going to Santiago for the day) and the busses are
unreliable, though cheap (US 5 cents), so we've had to resort to
private cars occasionally. We've now ridden in a 1954 Chevrolet
and a 1984 Lada (or Muskovi, we're not exactly sure). In addition
to busses and taxis, public transportation modes include horse-drawn
carts and bici-taxis, or bicycle-powered rickshaws. When cars (or
busses) drive down hills, they turn their engines off, presumably
to save gas. At the bottom of the hill, they pop the clutch and
off they go. We decided this is Cuba's answer to hybrid cars. No
vehicle - whether powered by gas, animal or human, and no matter
what size - seems to go faster than 35-40 mph, which makes for a
nice leisurely pace of living.
We went yesterday to museums featuring heroes of the War of Independence
(1896; we call it the Spanish-American War) and of course Castro's
Revolution. One display said that the Cubans were assisted in the
War of Independence by an army of "Norteamericanos".
Which Norteamericanos would that be, do you suppose? Canadians,
maybe? Teddy Roosevelt would not be amused.
The Revolutionary Museum is housed in the Moncada barracks. It
was here, in June 1957, that a group of revolutionaries including
Fidel Castro launched an attack to begin the revolution. The attack
was a spectacular failure - Fidel's car ran over a curb and stalled
- but it did set the stage for the revolution to come. The barracks
are now used as a school, except for the corner building, now the
museum, which still shows the bullet holes from the attack. (Well,
not exactly. The Batista government repaired the holes after the
attack, but when the revolution succeeded, Castro's government put
the bullet holes back!)
Afterwards, we went to the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia, where a number
of notables are buried, including Jose Martí and the "Heroes
of the Attack on the Moncada Barracks". There, we watched the
Changing of the Guard; pretty impressive, with goose-stepping guards
and martial music blaring from multiple speakers.
Saturday, 17 May: We finally left Santiago yesterday, but
not without difficulty - and a little drama. A New Zealand boat
we'd met in Port Antonio had entered the marina the night before.
When we saw them in Jamaica, two of their crew had been hitting
the ganja pretty hard. Unlike Marcello, they knew better than to
bring any Jamaican weed into this country, but Dave, one of the
crewmembers, apparently had an emotional attachment to some paraphernalia
he had with him (something about a girlfriend). So instead of throwing
the pipes in the sea, he stole off the boat late the night they
arrived, and hid them in the men's room of the marina.
Bad mistake. The pipes were found, and the entire crew subjected
to lengthy interviews. They finally got off with a $250 fine, but
meanwhile the Guarda Frontera had come to our boat and taken
away our despacho, or cruising permit, without which we couldn't
leave the harbor. There was, of course, no explanation; we think
they were simply making sure that potential witnesses (or accomplices?)
stayed around in case they needed some questions answered, but who
knows? In any case, the despacho was handed back to us about
2 hours after our scheduled departure, again with no explanation,
and no apology.
We had planned to stop for the night in a little bay on the coast
west of Santiago, but because of our delay in clearing out, when
we arrived at the bay the sun was too low for us to be sure of seeing
the coral heads at the entrance. So we continued on all night, arriving
at Cabo Cruz around noon May 18th - 110 miles in almost exactly
24 hours, about half of that motoring in dead calm.
Upon anchoring, we immediately took the dinghy to the nearby reef
and went snorkeling. Wow! Thousands of fish of all colors and sizes,
as well as BIG conger eels and hundreds of Queen Conchs, but
no lobsters. We distinctly remember being told there would be lobsters
in Cuba. Oh well, we have plenty of provisions on board.
Tuesday, 20 May: Yesterday we enjoyed a nice 6-hour jib-reach
to a little clump of cays out in the middle of Guacanayaba Sound,
getting there in plenty of time to clear up sheets and halyards
and go snorkeling. The snorkeling was poor - mainly sea-grass -
but Rob found 5-6 lobsters hiding under an old ship hatch. Three
days without seeing a lobster might not seem long to you, but if
you had any idea how many angelfish he had to look in the eye before
finding those things, you'd sympathize.
Anyway, we had two nice-sized lobsters for supper, boiled and doused
in butter. With some Cuban wine somebody gave us; now we know why
it was free.
The fridge repair on which we spent 5 days (and at least 10 miles
of walking back and forth) while we were in Jamaica, has failed.
No big problem as we're living off fresh seafood and stuff from
cans anyway, but it would be nice to have cold soda and beer. Oh
well. We've put a buoy on the lobster nest and Rob will see if he
can nab another one later this morning. Alas, the biggest two are
Thursday, 22 May: A long sail Wednesday, to the Jardines
de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), an archipelago separating the
Guacanayaba Sound and the Caribbean - 10 hours, mainly under spinnaker
- in 6-8 knots of wind. We used the autopilot but still, it was
a long sail.
Our cruising guide, written in 1999, tells of a French-run tourist
resort on one of the islands of the Jardines de la Reina. We jibed
and approached the shore where the resort was reported to be. Either
the French have backed out or a hurricane came through, but there
was nothing one could call a resort - just two small buildings and
a dock, so we sailed on by. Nice-looking beach, though.
We passed some fishermen in a small boat, and tossed them a beer.
Of course, we didn't actually throw it at them, but into the water
nearby. As we sailed off, the fishermen were staring forlornly at
the floating can - their boat was attached to their nets and so
couldn't move, and apparently they couldn't swim!
We finally arrived at one of the few passes through the island
chain that was deep enough for us to enter, and dropped the hook
in a little patch of sand. Rob went spear-fishing and was immediately
joined by a huge (almost 6-foot) barracuda. He (Rob) was a little
leery of hitting a fish with "Barry" around, but pretty
soon Barry grew tired of watching Rob and disappeared. Rob then
found a nice grouper and speared it. It flapped around on the spear,
and suddenly, there was Barry. One chomp and the grouper was in
two pieces; another couple of chomps and it was completely gone.
The spear lay on the bottom, and Barry had disappeared.
Just as Rob was returning to Akka to relate this story to Andi,
a 40-foot fishing boat cruised past, then turned and approached.
The three fishermen hailed us, came alongside, and handed Andi a
bucket of 6 fresh snappers! They didn't want anything in exchange,
but we gave them a pint-sized bottle of cheap Cuban rum that Pedro
had given us in Santiago.
So we had fresh fish for dinner, just like Barry.
Friday, 23 May: After that long sail the day before, we
spent all day Thursday at anchor, resting up and enjoying the solitary
life. Went to the nearby beach & picked up a few really beautiful
shells - Rob complaining about bringing more stuff on board but
agreeing that these are too nice to throw back. He dove under the
boat and speared a grouper, which this time he didn't have to share
with Barry or any of his kin. Dinner was arroz con grouper
a la criollo (Creole). It was delicious, though we haven't
got the Creole sauce exactly right, yet. Guess we'll have to spear
another grouper and try it again!
Our isolation was interrupted in the afternoon by a visit from
the Guarda Frontera, in uniforms but bare feet. Nice guys,
signed our despacho and wished us well. Never asked about
our sealed-up GPSs, though. The fishermen who brought the Guarda
to Akka offered us free fish, but we had the grouper.
We plan to head west again today, after hoisting Rob to the masthead
to check out the wind sensors and to lubricate sheaves. Beautiful
weather, 8-10 knots from the east-southeast, blue sky all day but
some rain-squalls at night.
Sunday, 25 May: Again, we've spent two days in one place.
This time we weren't resting up; we just like it here in Pasa Caballones.
We had an easy 5-hour spinnaker run Friday, passing the cay where
Fidel reportedly used to bring his girlfriends. We stared at that
cay through the binoculars, but could see no buildings or signs
of girlfriends. Probably just a CIA rumor.
When we entered Pasa Caballones, our depth sounder suddenly went
bonkers, reporting 2-3 meters when there was clearly 4-5 meters
of water (it was easy to estimate the depth in the bright sunlight
and crystal-clear waters). Then the navigation/radar display at
the helm went out, making navigation a bit awkward because the display
serves as a "repeater" for the GPS. Without it, somebody
has to be below at the nav station to see where we are, which means
there's nobody on the bow to judge the water depth. Still, we found
a good patch of sand in about 2.5 meters of water (we draw 2 meters)
and dropped the hook.
Soon after we anchored, we dinghied over to some fishermen anchored
nearby to say hello. They asked us if we wanted any lobster. Rob,
wanting to catch some himself, said no. Andi, the crewmember ultimately
responsible for dinner, said yes, but we couldn't pay for them.
The fishermen responded by bringing 6 big, live lobsters to the
side of their boat and simply dumping them in our dinghy, causing
us to lift our bare feet quickly. We've been eating lobster ever
since. Did you know the tails are delicious split in half and sautéed?
Incidentally, everybody agrees that it's closed season on lobsters
(roughly, April through mid-June); but everybody also asserts that
this law only applies to lobsters for sale, not to eat one's self.
It also turns out that we are in a National Park where all fishing
is prohibited - except for the local sportfishing for tarpon and
bonefish, which is world-renowned. Again, there also appears to
be an exception for catching food to eat rather than to sell.
Saturday morning, we inspected the wires for the depthsounder,
found nothing wrong but shined up some contacts, and now the thing
seems to work again. We also found the problem with the navigation
display power wire and jury-rigged it with some little connectors
we had bought at Radio Shack in Puerto Rico. Saturday evening, we
accepted an invitation to visit the floating hotel on nearby Cayo
Anclitas. We were told there was a guest at the hotel, newly arrived
from America. Just after we pulled into the dock, the employees
who had invited us to the hotel arrived in their fishing skiff and
unceremoniously handed us a 10-pound jack they had caught. They
must be used to our strange non-spending American ways here, because
they didn't even ask us for money, and gave us some ice as well!
So we've got Sunday lunch and dinner, at least.
There was indeed a guest at the hotel, but he was South African,
not American. He bought us beers and we swapped stories about our
respective hobbies, in our case sailing and in his case, fly-fishing
for tarpon and bonefish. He's been all over the world in search
for the perfect catch, landing tarpon weighing up to 220 pounds
on fly equipment in places like Belize and the Seychelles. He had
hooked a 100-pounder Saturday, his first day here, and was looking
forward to his week of fishing. Hotel Tortuga (it's actually a series
of large barges converted to houseboats) is apparently world famous
as a fly-fishing resort, and usually has 30-40 guests at this time
of year. Nobody has any idea why there's only one guest now. With
Raoul loosening restrictions, you'd think there would be more tourists,
Today's plan is to head into Ana Maria Sound to explore some of
the inner cays.
Monday, 26 May: After the spinnaker runs of the last few
days, we finally had to beat to windward. We get wind forecasts
by e-mail over our satellite telephone from Maxsea (the producers
of our navigation software), and until yesterday their predictions
have been uncannily accurate (they say they're using a new, high-resolution
weather model, and we believe it). But yesterday's forecast was
off by about 6 hours, so instead of the east wind we had anticipated
at mid-day, we had the north wind they had predicted for the evening.
No matter - we had a lovely 15-mile beat in 8-10 knots, flat water,
into the Golfo de Ana Maria; it made us think nostalgically of our
racing days. We settled down at anchor in a lovely deserted tropical
lagoon at about 3 PM. Seeing thunderheads over the mainland (well,
the big island), we put up our awnings - and are we glad we did!
Overnight we got 3-4 inches of rain, judging from the amount of
water in the dinghy in the morning. There was some wind, too, about
25 knots, so we missed some sleep while checking our position periodically.
But this morning we rose to a cloudless morning, to find Akka was
still where we had parked her.
Did we say 'deserted' lagoon? Well, almost deserted. There's one
fishing boat plying these waters, a 40-some foot single-screw fiberglass
boat named Plastico No. 350. (Only a totalitarian regime
could come up with a name like that!) The boat came near, its six
crewmembers hailed us, and Rob went over in the dinghy to talk to
them. They insisted that he take some red snapper they had just
caught. They wanted to give us two, but Rob convinced them that
the smaller one - which was still twitching -- was more than enough
for us. One of the crewmen quickly and expertly filleted it. Rob
was right - the resulting meal was too much to finish. They also
had tons of ice, naturally, and gave us a plastic bag full - definitely
welcome, with our fridge broken.
The next morning our new friends showed up with 5 lobsters they
had just caught, ranging from 2 little ones of questionably legal
size to a large one, about 6 inches long in the carapace and 6 inches
in the tail. It turns out they had dived this morning and got them
just for us! We gave the skipper an Atlantic Braves baseball cap
and one of his crew some ibuprofen for a headache he'd developed.
If that breaks any laws, we'll just have to suffer the consequences.
The Cuban fishermen's behavior obviously transcends the definition
of "friendly local population", and we have no good explanation
for the overwhelming generosity we've encountered. The best we can
come up with is, the lobsters are of no commercial value (being
out of season) and the fishermen could easily be sick of eating
them. And considering that they catch hundreds of fish a day, one
red snapper means nothing to them. There's also the fact that it's
not their fish - everything is owned by the State, remember? And
of course they're happy to meet anybody out here in this isolated
place, let alone exotic foreigners. But we think the best explanation
is, they're just plain friendly.
Well, we've (again) got lobster to cook, a new weather prediction
to download, and some sailing to do.
Monday, 26 May: We're speaking Spanish every day, as no
Cubans speak English except the people in tourism-related occupations
(this, despite a requirement that every Cuban take 9 years of English
in school - though one Cuban said he'd received instruction only
one hour a week). Despite our daily use of Spanish, we actually
aren't improving much, simply because we're having the same conversation
over and over:
"Where are you from?" (This, despite the little bitty
American flag flying from our backstay.)
"The United States."
"Do you want fish [lobsters]?"
"Yes [No], thank you.
Oh, no, that's too much!
Thank you so much!"
"Goodbye, and good luck!"
That's about it. If anybody asks about, say, quantum theory, or
even if we want a tow, we're flat out of luck.
Tuesday, 27 May: Got hit with Hatuey's Revenge last night
(Hatuey being the native chief here when the Conquistadors arrived,
the equivalent of Montezuma in Mexico). We think it's the water,
but whatever it is, man, were we sick. So we're taking today off,
Funny, we've been drinking the local tap water all over the world,
including places like Morocco and here, and never had a problem
until now. We changed tanks yesterday and Boom! We got clobbered.
Not sure where this batch of water came from - maybe Santiago, maybe
Jamaica, maybe the DR. We're boiling everything now, and in any
case, we're running short of water so we'll have to put in somewhere
and - you guessed it - fill our tanks with tap water!
Friday, 30 May: Nothing particular to report. We've been
wandering from mangrove cay to mangrove cay, motoring more than
we normally would because we want to get to the town of Trinidad.
Running out of water -- 6 gallons left -- and have rigged the awning
to catch rain from the nightly squalls. Still have plenty of fuel.
We were offered a free lobster the other day and turned it down
-- yes, there is such a thing as too much lobster.
Sunday, 1 June: We made it to Trinidad yesterday, hitched
a ride into town and spent the whole day walking around the city.
Another Unesco World Heritage site, it's one of those "places
where time stopped", an old colonial town (founded by Velasquez,
and the point of departure to Mexico for Cortez and his boys) that
fell into decline in the 19th century (when the harbor silted in;
we can testify to this, as we ran aground). So the old buildings
weren't replaced or modernized as elsewhere, and then a succession
of governments have preserved it, so we get an unblemished picture
of what this place was like a couple of hundred years ago.
Impressions: Clean and well maintained; incessant begging, way
worse than in Santiago; drowsy backwater despite the tourist trade.
One odd thing: In the old city (with its cobblestone streets and
no motor vehicles), every home has a front room with tall windows
directly on the street, and in the heat, nearly all these windows
were open. The room behind the window was invariably large and airy,
with a high ceiling and patterned tile floor; very formal looking,
with wooden sideboards and pictures on the walls. In the middle
of each room was a small table with a dozen or so white ceramic
figurines - didn't look like an altar but could have been. Arranged
around the table and scattered about the room, there were a dozen
or so cane-seat chairs, an overwhelming majority of them rocking
chairs. In several of these rooms, there wasn't enough room amongst
the rocking chairs for a long-tailed cat. In a couple of the rooms
there were more than 20 chairs.
These houses are lived in - the next window frequently showed a
tiny room with a single bed - and everybody living there is definitely
poor. And, although these houses are old mansions, they are not
open to tour groups or anything like that (at least so far as we
know). So how to explain these big vacant formal rooms? One possibility
is that the place is like Williamsburg, where people are allowed
to live in the historical houses but have to maintain a colonial
façade for the tourists. Or maybe these were simply living/dining
rooms, unused when we saw them because it was Saturday morning?
A delightful courtyard bar-restaurant offered "the best mojitos
in Cuba," accompanied by live music. We whiled away the hot
midday, then made our way back to the marina. Waiting for a bus,
then riding along, we kept noticing people walking along carrying
large squares of birthday cakes. Most had gloppy white and blue
icing, and were being carefully carried home. Never did find out
The Cuban government apparently recently bought a bunch of busses
from Holland (according to a Dutch tourist we met, they were donated
by some bus company), and put the busses into service - without
removing the Dutch signs. (One, stuck to the outside of the front
window, says, in bold upper-case letters, "SOLD!") The
advertisements for Dutch products not available here fit in well
with the 1950s cars, the horse-drawn carts and the 17th Century
architecture to give an overwhelming feeling of disassociation.
Back at the marina, we met two English women of a certain age,
who want to go sailing with us. We offered to take them along with
us to Cienfuegos tomorrow and they took us up on it. Now we'll have
to see if the authorities allow it.
Tuesday, 3 June: We were told there's a joke here: "Fidel
and I have a deal. I pretend to work and Fidel pretends to pay me."
It certainly does seem that there's no two-person job in this country
that can't be done adequately by 5 or 6 people. Examples of rampant
featherbedding abound: It took 12 people (and a dog) to clear us
in; there were 3 or 4 men in white shirts - presumably some kind
of watchers - at the marina in Santiago, who sat at a table outside
the building, did nothing all day long and went home at night (when,
presumably, the bad guys went home, too); all the fishing boats
have crews of 5 or 6, of whom perhaps 3 are working at any one time;
at the floating hotel/fly-fishing resort, we counted 10 employees
for one paying guest; and there are two muchachos living on each
of the cays where the tourist day-trip boats go, even though the
boats have on board all provisions, booze, etc. for their passengers.
Presumably, the muchachos rake the sand and feed the jutias and
The marina at Casilda (i.e., Trinidad) presents an interesting
view into the featherbedding situation, and into an economy stumbling
toward capitalism. The manager and Rob had a long discussion about
how the marina works, and here's what Rob learned:
The marinas are owned by the Ministry of Tourism, which receives
no funding from the rest of the government (and in fact is expected
to support it, via internal taxes). So it's important for the marinas
to turn a profit, or at least to break even. The manager at Casilda
is responsible for five distinct operations: Renting out dock space;
daily tourist excursions to Cayo Blanco; a bar on the dock; bareboat
chartering; and 3 off-marina sites at hotels, where they rent out
Hobie 15's to the tourists. For these operations, the marina employs
a total of 45 full-time people, according to the manager.
The dock-rental operation makes essentially no money - we were
the only cruising boat in the place and of course there are no private
yachts to rent slips. The day-trip business, on the other hand,
is booming - passengers pay $35-$45 apiece for the trip, and there's
an average of 10 or so passengers a day. Better yet, only six employees
are involved, as far as we can tell: the captains and mates of the
two boats they use, plus the two muchachos who live on the
The marina bar opens at 8 AM, just before the day-trippers arrive,
and closes at 5 PM, just after the boats return from Cayo Blanco.
There's a full-time bartender, who serves coffee and soft drinks
to the tourists in the morning, but gets little business because
the boat fee includes drinks. In the afternoon also, there is not
much bar business because a) the tourists have been drinking all
day at Cayo Blanco and b) the busses are waiting when the boats
get in and the tourists are hustled onto them. There is no walk-in
business - and in fact it's not clear that walk-in customers could
get past the guard at the marina gate. So, the bar essentially has
no customers, though the employees do come over and sit in the shade
there, at lunchtime. The bartender has a fishing pole and occupies
himself that way, all day long. We never saw him catch a fish.
People do charter boats (Beneteau 363's) for about $350 a day or
$1400 a week. The marina doesn't own those boats, but acts in partnership
with two firms, one German and one Italian. The manager felt that
was a good deal, because those firms pay dockage even if there's
no business, and the marina also gets a cut of the charter fees.
The three off-site Hobie rentals are a complete bust. They are
run by a total of 5 full-time employees, who almost never rent any
of the boats. We saw one of these sites one day and understand why.
The Hobies were half-buried in drifting sand and were tied down
securely with a steel cable that runs through their rigs to a padlock.
There were no sails -- and no rental personnel - in sight.
Rob asked, "Can you tell the Ministry that the Hobie rental
doesn't pay, and simply cut that program?" The manager laughed.
There was a hint of hysteria in his laughter.
So, where are the 45 employees? There are two security guards on
duty, 24/7, so that accounts for, say, 8 people. The manager and
his bookkeeper make 10. Two marina dockhands, 12. The day-trip captains
and mates and the two muchachos on the cay, 18. The bartender
and the Hobie-cat renters bring the total to 24. As for the rest,
God knows; we were at the marina for three days and certainly didn't
see anybody else who could remotely have been regarded as an employee.
Even with all those employees, the broken boards in the dock aren't
getting fixed; the water-pressure pump breaks continually; and during
the three days we were there, the dockside garbage can never got
The British women can't accompany us to Cienfuegos; if we add them
to our crew list we have to attach tax stamps, and by the time we
learned this, the bank where such stamps could be obtained was closed.
Thursday, 5 June: The sail to Cienfuegos took less time
than we thought it would, but included a rainsquall and generally
dreary weather, so our Brit friends didn't miss anything. Cienfuegos
literally means A Hundred Fires. Although the city is actually named
after a Cuban hero, locals say it refers to the city's high temperatures,
and we quickly came to agree with their interpretation. Thankfully,
late afternoon thunderstorms brought brief torrential downpours
and cooled things off.
The center of Cienfuegos is a charming plaza surrounded by Spanish
colonial buildings and is (surprise!) a Unesco World Heritage site.
We enjoyed another "best mojito in Cuba" there. When we
tired of walking, we used the local public transportation: horse-drawn
buckboards. Each holds 8-10 people, sitting facing inward along
the 2 sides, under an awning or even protected by plastic side curtains
during the downpours. Sorry, no fringes or isinglass windows, but
a charming way to travel. The fare was always declared as one peso,
but it was never specified whether this was local currency or CUCs.
So tourists find themselves riding beside locals who paid 1/25th
of their fare.
We liked Cienfuegos, despite its heat. The area around the marina
seemed like 50's Florida, with nice sized cinderblock single-floor
single-family "ranch" houses set back from the streets
on good-sized lots. Some featured architectural flairs like a series
of circular windows or a tall central wall soaring up from a low
flat roof - effects that must have been all the rage when Elvis
was King. It was quite a change from the apartment buildings or
cheek-by-jowl houses in both Trinidad and Santiago. As far as we
could tell, single families lived in these sprawling homes - we
guessed that they must be Party officials. At the end of the narrow
peninsula where the marina was located was a lovely park and gazebo,
where we again enjoyed "the best mojitos in Cuba." These
very well may have been the best, but we were surprised to learn
from the bartender that Cubans don't drink mojitos, despite their
readily available contents (rum, sugar, lime, mint and ice).
We were standing in line for ice cream today. When we discovered
the ice cream shop only takes local pesos, we were about to drop
out of line; but then the guy behind us gave us the 2 pesos we needed
(worth about 15 cents US) to buy some ice cream. He seemed about
average, meaning he probably makes as much as $30 US per month.
So that's the same as someone at home who earns, say, $150,000 a
year, giving some strangers $62.50! Generous people, these. The
ice-cream parlor was weird in several ways. First, it's table-service
only, with indifferent wait-staff. The ice cream was good, but melting
in the heat by the time we got it. The other people at our table
all took out plastic boxes and scooped most of their servings into
these boxes to take home. We looked around and saw that many others
were doing the same thing. The ice cream must have turned to "soup"
instantly in the Cienfuegos heat - it was very puzzling.
Saturday, 7 June: Well, after a month of completely trouble-free
cruising (not counting the non-functioning fridge), we suddenly
have a multitude of engine problems. It all started, we think, when
a hose carrying salt water for our engine cooling system sprang
a small leak. The subsequent spray pretty much covered everything
on the aft part of the motor with salt water, including the starter
motor and all the electric fittings in the back of the engine compartment.
We replaced the hose and rinsed everything off with fresh water,
but apparently the damage was done. As we prepared to leave the
marina at Cienfuegos, we got the starter to work (with some effort)
but the engine refused to catch. We tracked the problem down to
a failed relay for the glow plugs - not a big deal as we can simply
short across it.
Just to the west of Cienfuegos on the big island is the large Bahia
de Cochinas or Bay of Pigs. It might have been interesting to see
this (in)famous place, but ever since the "Imperialist invasion"
it's been a restricted military zone.
So we left Cienfuegos and sailed 50 miles south and a bit west
to some tiny cays and reefs east of Cayo Largo. As we were approaching
the anchorage we tried to start the engine. This time, the starter
completely failed - even shorting the main power cable to the solenoid
terminal produced no results. So we had the interesting experience
of sailing into an unknown anchorage without backup power. The first
time we dropped the hook, it turned out we weren't over sand as
we had thought but instead over a hard, rocky, sandy-looking bottom.
So, in light winds and failing light, we set sail to look for another
spot. We found one, with deep soft sand but more exposed to the
westerly-running seas. Moving our anchoring spot proved to be a
good idea, as the wind came up overnight and we surely would have
dragged if we'd stayed in the first spot, whereas in the second
spot we stayed firmly in one place, horizontally at least, though
moving vertically a fair amount. Sleep was not perfect but not totally
absent, either. We were a bit slow rising this morning.
So today's job (in addition of course to the snorkeling) is to
mount the backup starter. Failing that, we'll try to take apart
the starter that broke. If both those efforts fail, well, we've
still got the sails.
Monday, 9 June: Well, we've got the backup starter installed
and it works fine. Still having trouble with the glow plugs, but
we can get around that by Rob hooking up our jumper cables (the
ones just like those in your car) from the start battery to the
glow plugs while Andi operates the starter button in the cockpit.
A bit of a hassle, but so far, this works.
We're moving slowly along a line of little cays and reefs, closing
in on Cayo Largo. We're snorkeling several hours a day, reading
a lot and trying to identify all these birds. Andi thinks we saw
a blue-footed booby; Rob was skeptical. Rob promised a grouper for
dinner yesterday but didn't come through on it. Andi didn't want
yet another lobster (having had lobster for dinner the night before
and breakfast that morning) so we had rice and peas for supper.
Saturday, 14 June: We're at Cayo Largo, the destination
resort island on Cuba's south coast. It boasts 6 all-inclusive resort
hotels, 3 of which are run in partnership with European chains (e.g.,
Barcelo). Playa Sirena, its famous beach, is a breath-taking white
sand beach ending in a spit that fades into water so limpidly clear
it's hard to tell where land and water meet. We anchored just inside
of the spit and enjoyed its beauty and the tourists enjoying themselves
on it. Cayo Largo's only permanent residents are the directors of
the various hotels and restaurants. All the other employees work
on the island for 20 days, then have 10 days off before coming back.
They are transported to and from the island by plane. On the island,
they live in dormitories and either eat in cafeterias at the resorts
where they work or in a general workers' cafeteria. They've clearly
had training in hospitality - their service and attentiveness is
outstanding. Example: When we arrived to check in, the Port Captain
not only processed our paperwork; he took the time to ask what things
we were especially interested in. Rob immediately said "arroz
con pollo" and El Capitan laughed. A little while
later, we encountered him ashore; he greeted us warmly and brought
us over to introduce us to the chef of a restaurant, whom he had
asked to prepare us arroz con pollo. So, we had a wonderful
meal accompanied by "the best mojitos in Cuba. (BTW, arroz
con pollo must be something like mac 'n' cheese or spaghetti
because everyone seemed amused - but pleased - that tourists from
the U.S. would want this simple dish).
We once again puzzled at the economics of these resorts - where
on the balance sheets does the cost of workers' transportation go?
How about their meals? Does it matter if an employee takes his dinner
at the restaurant or at the common cafeteria?
We went today to an "all inclusive" hotel. Once in, we
were treated like their regular customers, i.e., everything's free.
If the US government comes after us for trading with the enemy,
can we defend ourselves by pointing out that, far from trading with
the enemy, we've been stealing from him?
Tuesday, 17 June: One of the baffling things about this
place is how the US embargo works - or doesn't. U.S. citizens are
not supposed to spend any money here, under (believe it or not)
the Trading With the Enemy Act, under threat of a $50,000 fine.
And of course, we're not spending any money, just cruising on the
supplies we bought before we came, plus lots of lobster and grouper!
But some parts of this embargo seem pretty confusing. For example,
Coca-Cola is available here, at least to tourists (or more precisely,
it's available in tourist shops, to anybody with convertible pesos;
but given the price - about $3.00 US for a 2-liter bottle, we'll
bet not many Cubans buy it). The bottle of Coke we saw in the store
said "Made in Mexico by the Coca-Cola Company" and lists
an 800-prefix help number, presumably in the United States. But
what difference does it make that it's made in Mexico? Is Coca-Cola
(that most American of institutions) Trading With the Enemy?
Similarly, the rental catamarans on the beaches are Hobie Cats,
made by Hobie Europe, according to their decals. But what could
be more Californian than a Hobie?
Can these companies claim that they don't know their products are
being sold to the Cuban Government? Suppose a US resident arranged
a trip to Cuba through a Mexican or Canadian travel agency, paying
all fees to that agency. Could he claim ignorance of, and take no
responsibility for, any payments the agency makes to hotels, airlines
or rental car companies in Cuba, thus avoiding prosecution or fines
for Trading With The Enemy? No. So how do companies like Coca-Cola
apparently get away with the same ploy?
Airlines are another issue. How can US carriers, like American
Airlines, fly into Havana? Don't they have to pay for the gate,
airport taxes, etc.? And how about fly-over rights - US planes from
Miami to the Caribbean fly right over Cuba (we know this because
we've been on them). Didn't the US Government bargain with Fidel
for those rights? And if so, does this mean our own government is
Trading With the Enemy?
Presumably the purpose of the embargo is to bring the Castro government
to its knees. But then how do you explain the millions of tons of
wheat US companies sell to Cuba (at current world prices), or the
140,000 US citizens who come to Cuba legally under license from
the State Department every year? So from our point of view, it looks
as if little people like us have to toe the line, but the Big Boys
can find ways around the embargo. Doesn't seem fair, does it?
Thursday, 19 June: We just realized that we're almost due
south of our "home" in Ft. Myers, Florida -- almost 300
nautical miles south, to be sure, but feeling closer to home than
Akka's been in years. We're simply hanging out in this beautiful
shallow sound east of Isla de la Juventud, working our way in 20-mile
hops toward Nueva Gerona, the principal town on that island. We're
back to eating lobster - for dinner the last two nights, then for
breakfast (lobster bisque omelets) today.
Rob went aboard a lobster boat the other day, and in the hold they
had at least 100 lobsters - maybe 200 - all good-sized. He asked
how many days they had fished for those lobsters, and they said
that these were a single day's catch. Apparently the fishermen put
gratings - like pallets, but painted white - on sand patches on
the bottom of this shallow bay, each with a little buoy, then wait
for the lobsters to hide underneath the pallets. Some time later
(that afternoon? next day? Rob forgot to ask), the fishermen go
around to all the gratings in little rowboats. One of the guys jumps
overboard with mask, snorkel and rubber gloves, lifts up the grating,
and simply picks up the lobsters he finds there. The lobsters don't
really try to escape, as there's nowhere to go.
We visited a little cay where there are about 40 monkeys, cared
for by a team of four who work for the Ministry of Flora and Fauna
and, as far as we can tell, have absolutely nothing to do but feed
little pellets to the monkeys once a day to balance their natural
diet of fruit, leaves and bugs. The staff members live in a single
run-down shack on the island for 20 days (no electricity - a solar
panel powers the VHF radio) and then go home for 10 days (by boat
to Isla de la Juventud). They all gathered around us - eager to
have visitors from the outside, we imagine - and answered our questions
with good grace.
The monkeys were originally used to develop vaccines on the mainland.
It's not clear whether they were used for some research purpose
on the island, also, but now they just roam free. They eat, breed,
get into occasional fights with the huge fat iguanas (the iguanas
always win), and survive the hurricanes by moving to higher ground
and climbing into the palm trees to wait them out. In that event,
the staff retires to Juventud.
In turn, the guys asked us lots of questions about our cruising
life. We again got the impression that the locals' knowledge of
geography is very weak - for example, they had no idea how far Mexico
is from the west end of the island, and maybe not even that Mexico
is west of here. The names of the other places we'd been seemed
unknown to them.
When we left, the youngest (20-something) staff member gave us
a little homemade bracelet. He said it would protect us "en
camino", during our travels. Nice.
Saturday, 21 June: Yesterday was our forty-third wedding
anniversary. We celebrated by having a special treat - a meal that
involved neither fish nor lobster: coq au vin from a jar bought
in the Dominican Republic at Carrefour, the huge French supermarket,
accompanied by a bottle of French burgundy that we had bought in
the United States at least eight years ago. It was excellent.
This morning we sailed downwind in true cruising fashion, with
just the genoa, arriving in early afternoon at Nueva Gerona, the
capital, and only real town, on Isla de la Juventud. This large
island has had at least five names since Columbus dubbed it "Esperanza",
and we're betting it'll change names at least once again in our
lifetime - "juventud" means "youth" in Spanish,
and the present name derives from the years of Socialist Youth camps
and schools run on the island, for young communists from all over
the world. That project, like many in this land, was funded by the
Soviets and has been dead for many years. So the reason for the
name no longer exists. The island is profitable for the government,
exporting citrus fruits and, believe it or not, blocks of marble.
Its main historical interest is its "model prison" (now
empty), which once housed Fidel Castro.
Nueva Gerona is a pretty town, with a general feeling of prosperity
- the main street is a broad pedestrian boulevard of colonial buildings
fronted by deep shady arcades, crowded this Saturday morning with
reasonably prosperous-looking shoppers wearing new-looking clothes
(mini-skirts and patterned stockings, or spandex tights, for girls,
and droopy shorts or warm-up pants - unfrayed - for boys). We would
have stayed, but the only place to dock was a commercial pier with
a stiff fee for overnight docking, and we're not spending any money
in this country, so we left. Besides, it was beastly hot - not much
wind gets around the nearby hills, and, according to the locals,
the marble in those hills absorbs and radiates the sun's heat. So
we got the local officer of the Guarda Frontera to sign our
despacho, then went out and anchored in a nearby bay.
Sunday, 22 June: After a stormy night serving anchor watches
in unprotected water, we're now on our way to the southern part
of the island, where there's a tourist hotel and a crocodile farm.
There's also a little town named Jacksonville, founded by Americans
and home to a number of pre-Revolution immigrants from the Cayman
Islands. Last week in Cayo Largo (the resort island staffed mainly
by people from la Juventud) we met a bus driver who grew up in Jacksonville.
He spoke excellent English, and told us that English was his first
language - he had spoken it at home and with his friends for the
first nine years of his life, only learning Spanish as a second
language in school. Amazing.
When we entered this country, we didn't understand the significance
of the customs agent's question about how long we planned to stay.
We were our usual vague selves - "Gee, we don't know; 6 weeks?
2 months?" So, the customs official decided for us and chose
June 26th as the end date of the temporary importation of Akka.
Which means we've got to leave by then or extend our current license,
which we can do only if we apply exactly 3 days before our that
license expires. That's tomorrow, when we'd rather be exploring
crocodile farms and model prisons, so we may just be tourists tomorrow,
and take off to Mexico before the 26th. On the other hand, there's
a tropical wave headed this way. Although it's weak, we're monitoring
it and, if conditions warrant, we'll hunker down here at Juventud,
apply for an extension of our temporary importation permit, and
leave after the bad weather has passed.
Monday, 23 June: We didn't get an extension on our temporary
importation of Akka (it turns out the local customs office can't
do such extensions) but we did get the next best thing, a letter
from the local commander to his boss in Maria la Gorda asking that
we be given a break. In effect, we have a "get out of jail
free" card. So we'll tarry in Cuba a few days more.
On our way back to Nueva Gerona on the local bus, we met a couple
of medical students from East Timor (Get your atlas out)! They're
among 600 (!) from their country who are studying medicine here
for 5 years, a few of the thousands of medical students here from
all over the world.
Along the road, we passed a number of large abandoned concrete
buildings, all built in the same ugly style. These were all schools,
dating from the 1970-80s when Juventud was populated with many students
from all over the world, who, in addition to studying, planted,
tended and harvested huge citrus crops. Most of the citrus plantations
have become overgrown, but some continue to operate.
We visited the crocodile hatchery (criadero). Juventud has
an indigenous species of crocs that they're working to preserve.
This breeding farm was staffed by a young couple and the jefe.
Despite the heat, both men were wearing big rubber boots, and we
soon saw why, as they led us to the concrete pens that held crocs,
sorted by size/age (they're cannibalistic). The men jumped in over
the waist-high walls, chased down and caught crocs, and held them
for our inspection. The littlest ones, 1-2 years old and about 15"
long, were kind of cute, but they didn't improve with age! The farm
included an egg hatchery, and the jefe dug out an egg for
us to hold - bigger than a hen's egg and pure white. Each mama croc
lays about 40 eggs and buries them in black sand, which absorbs
the sun's heat, and the eggs hatch in about 90 days. The jefe
guided us along the walkways between the fenced-in ponds that house
the crocs until their final release into the wild. There we saw
a 7' long croc who did not seem amused - her mouth was wide open
in threat, and she was growling. We were glad of the fence, though
the jefe says they don't really attack.
Despite all the hype about preservation of this endangered species,
the jefe told us that they occasionally kill one of the wild
crocs to feed to charter groups of tourists at big outdoor parties
held at the criadero. We guess that as usual, money talks.
Thursday, 26 June: We've left Juventud and are in a really
safe anchorage - to the west of some cays over good sand bottom
with 2 anchors - and spent yesterday waiting out thunderstorms while
eating lobsters - Rob found several on the grass/sand bottom under
Akka, and simply picked them up. But we've got to get going soon,
and the next couple of anchorages don't look as good as this one.
So our dilemma is, stay or go, and if we go, how far? We listen
to a SSB weather net in the morning, but this morning we got no
reception. This happens.
Later that day: Looks like this tropical wave is passing
us by. We're aweigh; should be about 30 miles W of our last anchorage
tonight, and off to Maria la Gorda tomorrow morning. We'll check
out there, then off to Isla de Mujeres, Mexico, probably Friday
The gin is running out, and we've been out of single-malt scotch
for weeks now. Time to go, though we'll miss the unlimited supply
of lobsters and grouper.
Saturday, 28 June: The time has finally come for us to leave
this country and head for Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We're now at a mooring
off a scuba-diving resort at Maria la Gorda, and will leave later
today. Weather forecasts are all for settled weather, which is a
nice thing, because the Gulf Stream passes through the Yucatan Channel
on its way from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, reaching
speeds of up to 6 knots; and when the wind blows against the current,
it can be rough. As it is, even with calm seas we'll have an interesting
problem in navigation to compensate for the stream's effects.
This little resort is known for its diving, and the waters are
incredibly clear. We've gotten used to clear waters while we've
been here, but this is really amazing. The divemaster says that
visibility is never less than 25 meters (80 feet), and frequently
over 40 meters (130 feet)! It was weird to bring Akka close to the
shore and to be able to see fish and coral quite clearly in 6 meters
Last night we stopped by in the resort bar for our last "best
mojito in Cuba." The cook and the divemaster were there, and
when we mentioned that we had run out of butter (an essential ingredient
in our lobster-intensive diet) the cook went into the kitchen and
brought us a slab, courtesy of the resort. The pair then told about
the latest in Cuban emigration: According to them, Cigarette-style
boats show up a couple of times a week at Maria la Gorda and take
aboard Cubans who want out of the Communist paradise. The Cuban
fugitives fork over US $15,000 apiece and the boats take them on
a quick trip to Mexico. Before disembarkation, the Cubans pay another
$10,000. They then stroll over to the Mexican immigration office
and declare themselves as illegal immigrants. The authorities give
them 72 hours to get out of the country. The Cubans take a bus to
the US border, walk up to the US border station and declare themselves
as Cuban refugees. Under the US "dry feet" rule, they
are welcome to enter the country. The Cuban government can do nothing
to stop this trade, as they own no boats that could conceivably
catch the Cigarettes. Our friend the divemaster told us sadly that
his girlfriend had just taken this trip in July and was now in Miami.
He wondered if he'd ever get enough cash from tips (and possibly
stealing from the till, though he didn't say so) to join her.
$25,000? Gee, we've got a pretty good hiding spot just behind this
hanging locker, here
On second thought, maybe this idea is
not leading us in a good direction.
Sunday, 29 June: Safely in Isla Mujeres, Mexico; no Cubans
aboard. We had an easy passage, 140 NM across the Yucatan Channel
in about 22 hours. We haven't cleared into Mexico yet, because of
course it's Sunday; but everybody assures us that's OK. Went into
town and BOUGHT things! Ice cream, beer, diet Pepsi, chicharrones
We are back in the Capitalist world, where we can simply buy things
we need - but also where we will have to pay dearly if we ever regain
our appetite for lobster. Ciao, Cuba.