June-July 2001: Cuba
Cuba was an amazing experience. There is a month of cruising described below. We apologize for the length.

First, the disclaimer: Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, US citizens and residents are not allowed to spend any money in Cuba. Of course, we complied with this law to the fullest, and have "fully hosted" letters to prove it -- two from Canadians and one from one of the marinas we visited. They all testify that the writers paid for all our expenses while we were in Cuba. (These claims overlap a bit, but we figure, better safe than sorry.) So throughout the following, please read "our car" as "the car the Canadians rented for us", etc. However, we do have to wonder, in what sense is Cuba the "enemy"?

If you were arriving in Cuba from the U.S., your first impression would be that Cuba is poor. Yet, coming from the Windward and Leeward Islands, we found it to be much better off in many ways than some of the countries we've been visiting this winter. The farmlands are huge, and appear to be productive. Admittedly, the villages still have wells for water, thatched roof houses, horses and bikes for transportation; but on the other hand, there are TV antennas on the thatched roofs. People are well-clothed and seem healthy. According to Fodor's, the literacy rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere (including the US). We saw no real poverty, of the kind one sees all over the Caribbean. The only begging we saw was at the cathedral in Santiago ("Almas, por favor") but there was plenty of hustling for our American dollars -- offers to guide us, find us a place to stay, sell us fruits and vegetables, cook us a meal, and (of course) watch the car while we were away from it. These offers can all be turned down easily, and there appeared to be little resentment when we did so. On the other hand, having somebody lead you through a city to a really nice private hotel beats the hell out of trying to find one yourself, and costs a dollar.

Cubans are allowed to shop in "dollar stores" as well as in the more common stores accepting pesos only. The latter are almost bare-shelved, whereas the dollar supermarkets, which only exist in the cities, look like small supermarkets in the US, with anything you'd usually buy there (except beef, which is for export only). This means there is a high demand for American dollars, and after awhile one gets the feeling of being in an "Everything's a Dollar" store. A fresh-caught fish bought from the fisherman costs a dollar. A guided tour of any tourist place, a handful of mangos, a coke, a beer, each cost one dollar. In fact, on the Cuban streets, where of course there's no change, everything that might cost less than a dollar anywhere else costs a dollar. Dollar stores, on the other hand, give correct change (though not pennies). The change is in Cuban-minted "quarters", "dimes" and "nickels", which bear no resemblance to the US coins but are interchangeable with them. One store owner explained carefully to us that these were good only in Cuba, and not in the US. Duh.

Cuban law forbids Cubans not involved with the tourist industry from dealing with or even talking to foreigners, but though some Canadian and American friends had a bad experience with that law, it was totally ignored by the Cubans we met. As one said, "What can they do to me?" Given Fidel's penchant for locking up political dissidents for practically ever, we didn't know how to answer that one.

The biggest evidence of the communist regime is the slogans painted everywhere, many in places where advertising billboards or signs would be in a capitalist country. "Vigilance!" "Socialism or Death!" "Defend the 27th of July!" (That was the day Castro attacked the police barracks in Santiago, a raid that failed disastrously but marked the beginning of the Revolution.) And, of course, the famous picture of Che, everywhere. Interestingly, we rarely saw any pictures of Fidel.

The effect of the US embargo is hard to assess. We brought extra soap and toiletries to Cuba as gifts, having heard that these were scarce, and while the people to whom we gave them accepted them graciously enough, they didn't seem overjoyed. They probably would have preferred dollar bills, which could be converted to soap or to something more desirable in the dollar stores. Most of the brand names in the dollar stores are American. When we were cruising the offshore cays, we stopped at Cayo Guillermo, where there are three major 5-star resorts, and visited an independent beach bar that caters to resort guests. The bar rents sailboats for $5 an hour, and though this was too steep for us, we took a look at the boats -- all brand-new Hobie Cats, made in the USA. In Varadero, the last marina we visited, tobacco products were on sale in the marina store. You'd expect Cuban cigars, but instead they had American cigarettes, from Virginia Slims to Camels and Marlboros. Together with the fact that dollars seem to be the standard currency, we'd say the embargo has little impact; but our investigation was pretty superficial, and it may be important for other commerce. It certainly restricts the market for tourists, and tourism is Cuba's biggest industry.

--------------------------------------------------------------------- Puerto de Vita and Santiago, June 6 - 10

We cleared into the country at Puerto de Vita (our experience is described in another message). Marinas, like the tourist resorts, have total security: no Cubans (other than employees) can enter the marina or resort complex. The Capitan de Puerto asked us to come in to the dock, but we anchored out instead and were glad we did. Vita is in a mangrove swamp, and the mosquitoes, flies, and no-see-em's were intolerable at the dock, whereas at anchor they were only a minor annoyance.

The village of Vita is very small. Local families will cook meals (illegally) for cruisers at very reasonable prices. We had been referred to a couple by a cruiser we met in Luperon, and enjoyed two excellent red snapper dinners, while learning a bit more about Cuban life from Cubans.

We rented a brand new bright blue Peugeot and drove across the country to Santiago de Cuba. It's 180 kms -- 105 miles -- away, but a 3-4 hour drive. The roads are generally good, but 2 lane. You share them with other cars, busses, trucks (some of which are for goods, but more are for transporting people, much like Army truck transports), bicycles, motorcycles (some with sidecars), pedestrians, men on horseback, the occasional ox-drawn wagon, and horse-drawn 6-8 passenger cocheros. So, there's a fair amount of weaving around obstacles.

At every major intersection stand scores of Cubans of all ages and both sexes, hitchiking. There are lots of old (vintage late 40's to late 50's) US cars, more of them in the cities than in the countryside. Most of these are well painted; we think the paint is holding them together.

When we arrived in Santiago, we decided to start with finding a place to stay. We couldn't find ourselves on the Fodor's Guide map, so we pulled over to figure things out, and were immediately approached by a young man who offered to take us to the neighborhood with the "casas particulares", which are private homes licensed to put up tourists. We had no room for him in the car, so he grabbed a friend with a motor bike and led us to the neighborhood, where we found a place for $20 a night. (For his efforts, we tipped him -- you guessed it -- $1.) The proprietor's husband teaches linear optimization techniques in the economics department of the Universidad de Oriente, near Santiago. Rob and he tried to discuss optimization techniques, but he didn't speak English well, and Rob's Spanish was certainly not up to a discussion of Simulated Annealing. That evening, we ate at a "paladora", which is the restaurant equivalent of the casa particular. We had grilled lobster, arroz, and platana frita, for $9.00 a person. Unfortunately, there was no butter to dip the lobster in, and we all had beer, because they had bought beer to serve us -- no water or juice was available.

We went downtown and toured the second-oldest house in the New World and the cathedral, which is quite active, with masses daily. There we met a pleasant young man named Yordan who's studying English via TV broadcasts. Afterward, we took him to a local bar, where we bought him a beer and talked to him about what America is like. His principal source of information is shoot-em-up American movies. He was measurably relieved to learn that people are not gunning each other down everywhere. That night, we went to the "Casa de Tradition", which Yorgan had recommended, for some music and dancing. C de T was in a less central part of town, where there appeared to be a disproportionate population of women standing alone on street corners. Whatever else they do there, they provided excellent guidance, and we found the C de T after only a couple of trips up blind alleys. The place itself was the first cousin to the Greenwich Village cafes we had visited as kids in the 50's, even to the back room where amateurs were singing to a cello accompaniment and reading (or rather, proclaiming) their own poetry. The guitar music in the front room was pretty professional, the crowd was exceptionally friendly (Rob and Andi each danced with Cubans), and all in all it was a fun place to be.

Next morning, after a big breakfast at the casa particular, we got good directions from our hosts and took off for San Juan Hill, which you'll recall was made famous by Teddy Roosevelt riding up it. As it turns out, there are lots of big stone markers commemorating the fallen US soldiers, the fallen Cuban soldiers, and all the soldiers of both types that didn't fall, but no mention of Teddy's role. We went downtown to the Bacardi Museum (which has nothing to do with rum) then to El Morro, the fort overlooking the entrance to Santiago Harbor, then home. When we got back, our Canadian friends, who had gone to Santiago over the same two days, reported that they had had a horrible experience. They had struck up conversations with two different Cubans (of dark complexion), who were then interviewed and hauled off by the police for talking to tourists. The Canadians then went and bought black-market gasoline at a private house (pouring it into the car from buckets), and later their car wouldn't start. So it looks as if we were partly lucky and partly smart.

--------------------------------------------------------------------- June 11 - 23 Coast of Cuba

We cruised for two weeks along the deserted cays ("cayos") of Cuba's long north coast. Most of these cays are unpopulated, and we frequently anchored in totally deserted bays or tucked behind the barrier reef. Other anchorages were near stations of the "Guarda Frontera", an organization apparently dedicated to spreading the alarm when the Americans invade. All the Guarda personnel we saw had uniforms on, though several had no insignia of rank. Some of the Guarda stations have radar, but not all. The ones we saw reasonably close up had 50 mm guns mounted on their roofs. Many do not have boats, which must hamper their effectiveness.

Though we had been assured by the authorities in Vita that we would be allowed ashore anywhere except military installations, in fact the Guarda routinely told us that it was prohibited to go ashore anywhere. This included trips to deserted beaches to pick up shells (of which there were lots), attempts to visit one of the numerous beautiful lighthouses, and at one cay, even a lobster-hunting expedition to a pile of rocks near the boat. Ironically, if you rent a car you can go anywhere, presumably including those same beaches, if they are accessible by road. The Guarda only look outward, toward the US.

One morning, Rob and Andi went skinny-dipping just after dawn, while Dennis and Jodie slept. As we swam around looking for conch on the bottom, we saw a motorboat approaching. So we raced like Olympic freestylers to the dinghy, up into the dinghy, one jump up into Akka, a dash to the forward hatch, down, clothes on, and up the companionway to meet the Guarda: "!Ola!" They turned out to be Militia, rather than Guarda, and said they had seen some Cubans swim to our boat and jump aboard. Rob said, "No, es yo y mi esposa." They said, no, they were sure it was two men, and how many people did we have on board, anyway? Now, Andi topless could not easily be mistaken for a man at any distance under a kilometer or so, so when she stuck her soaking-wet hair up through the companionway, the chief Militia guy started to back-pedal. He finally said "Me culpa, lo siento," (or something like that) and left. He never did come on board Akka to check anything!

Once, the Guarda came on board to check our despacho and various papers, then asked us to open some cupboards. "You understand, we have a problem with illegal drugs on our coast," he said, almost apologetically. "I understand," Andi answered, "so do we." He smiled. We think maybe that he was 17 years old. Didn't look like he shaved yet.

We only saw two other cruising boats the entire trip, an American and a Canadian traveling in company. One day, the other cruisers found some lobsters in a reef where Rob had already looked but hadn't seen any, so of course Rob had to go off looking again. He got the lobster out of its hole and on the snare, but couldn't get the bag open to put it in -- the clasp on the bag is hard to open with two hands, let alone with one hand and a lobster in the other!

We trolled a fishing lure behind us as we sailed between cays, and had mixed results. There was no problem catching fish; the only problem was that they were almost all barracuda, which the Cubans consider a delicacy but we stayed away from for fear of ciguatera poisoning. Most days, we stopped fishing after awhile because we were tired of pulling in barracuda. But one day, Rob added some extra green plastic steamers to the lure and hauled in a mackeral, a yellow-tailed snapper, and a jack (which he lost off the gaff). Then it was back to the 'cudas, but at least we had sushi that night.

After one Guarda encounter, Andi asked where we could find lobsters, and they said "on any reef." Andi replied that we had seen no reefs, and they waved vaguely at the big bay we were in and said "They're everywhere." So Andi, Dennis and Rob set off in the dinghy just before sunset, to see if we could find a reef. After a mile-long dinghy ride in rough water, we came to a reef near a little deserted cay and jumped in. There were more fish than we'd seen anywhere, even at Thunderball. But no lobster. So Rob swam over to the island itself, and just under a rock about 10 feet from the cliff there was a huge lobster. In the increasing gloom of sunset, the lobster started to venture out of his cave, and Rob snared him immediately. The next few minutes were like the scene out of "Annie Hall", as Andi held the bag, Rob held the lobster, and Dennis helped to guide it into the bag. The only problem was, the lobster seemed to have a definite aversion to the bag. One of its antennae hit Andi, who dropped out of the fray momentarily, leaving the bag half-caught around the lobster. But eventually Dennis and Rob solved the problem by simply closing the wire top of the bag on the lobster's head. So, lobster for dinner that night. This lobster was big enough to feed all four of us adequately, but cooking him was another Annie Hall moment, because he didn't fit into our lobster pot. The solution of first cooking the head, then the tail, is not for the faint of heart. We'll leave it to your imagination. (But we're getting a bigger pot!)

We had gotten a cruising permit to Cayo Coco, about halfway to our ultimate destination, because there was supposed to be a marina there. Imagine our surprise when we found that the "marina" described in the guidebook is now a commercial port (where we're not allowed to venture) and there isn't enough water to get into the new marina! The Capitan de Puerto came out in an American-built speedboat, took Rob into the boat with him, and zoomed off to show him a place Akka could anchor. It turned out to be a sand-and-grass spot in wide open water, but we were apparently protected by some unseen reefs to windward, as it was very calm (or as the Capitan del Puerto said, "tranquil").

We had provisioned for the whole trip, knowing that it might be impossible (and, of course, illegal) to buy anything along the way. At Cayo Coco, Rob discovered the beer was running out. He was joking that "when the beer runs out we go to Key West, no matter where we are," and so the crew rationed him to 2 per day. Water was also getting low, and our fuel was only sufficient as long as we didn't motor long distances. We had hoped that the marina in Cayo Coco would at least provide some basic needs (including cervesa). When we found out we couldn't get into the marina, we sent off a half dozen 2-gallon water containers on the speedboat, and soon the Capitan de Puerto returned with full containers. At our fairly conservative rate of use, that extended our cruising range by 4 more days.

The Capitan de Puerto told us that the next morning the officials would arrive to inspect our boat, and give us a new permit to Varadero. Rob was a little worried about the "manana" part, and asked him to specify a time. "8:00?" Rob suggested. "No," he responded, "around 9:00." So next morning at 9:00, we were sitting there waiting for the authorities to arrive. Called on the VHF, no answer. 10:00 came and went, tried again on the VHF, no joy. Finally, at 10:30 we raised somebody at the marina, who said it was OK to leave without the inspection or paperwork. This is typical of how the rules change, without reason and without warning. Anyway, this left us with a cruising permit to a place we had already passed, and no permit for the waters into which we were venturing. We hoped it would all work out without intervention from the Swiss embassy (which takes care of Americans in Cuba).

One evening we anchored in the lee of a tiny cay named Cayo Datton. It's off the coast near the city of La Isabela, but about 30 miles away from mainland Cuba, and comprises barely an acre of sand and coral, with two trees and a big reef of staghorn coral. It was so idyllic that we spent two days there. Rob went lobster hunting the morning after we arrived, with great success; he caught 3 large lobsters and saw 3 more but left them there. Later, Andi, Dennis, and Jodie dinghied into the beach and spent the day exploring, shelling, snorkeling, and just lying around. We decided it would be fun to cook the lobsters over a fire on the beach and have a picnic dinner. As we were about to prepare the lobsters for dinner, we discovered one was a pregnant female. We threw her back in, but we still had more lobster than we could eat, so we built the fire and began to cook. Just then, a huge storm built up over the Cuban mainland to the south, and soon it appeared to be heading our way (not a usual phenomenon, as the prevailing winds are from the east). We packed up everything and raced back to Akka, planning to continue our dinner aboard. Then the storm hit with a vengeance, the wind went 90 degrees right, increasing to about 30 knots, and the anchor started to drag. The lobster-infested reef was about 100 yards to leeward, so we started the motor and got the hook up.

By now it was dark and we were unsure of being able to navigate back into the safe harbor without hitting any reefs, so we simply put to sea. Once we were a few miles off the coast, we put the helm on autopilot and sat down to a fantastic lobster dinner. We sailed overnight, arriving at another tiny cay the next morning for more snorkeling and lazing about.

--------------------------------------------------------------------- June 24 - 26 Varadero

Varadero was the only place we could get fuel and water, unless we wanted to go all the way to Marina Hemingway, 100 miles farther down the coast, near Havana. In addition, Varadero is a port of entry/exit, so we decided to put in there before crossing the Straights of Florida to Key West. The cruising guide showed three marinas there, all accessible from Bahia de Cardenas, a large, shallow bay inside the cays. We had a lovely run downwind into the bay through a well-marked channel, and, since Marina Gaviota was closest and we were now really running out of fuel, we decided to stop there. Alas, they were closed, and in any case had no fuel. "Maybe tomorrow," they said. But they indicated that the next marina, Marina Chapelin, would have fuel for us.

So we proceeded down the narrow channel to Chapelin, only to run hard aground. We were attempting to kedge off into the water to the south of the channel, where we had seen a big motorboat go and therefore thought the deep water was, when a 64' sailing catamaran full of tourists from one of the local resorts showed up. "No, no," the captain shouted. "That's the wrong way," he said, indicating a small red ball to the north of the channel. "You must leave that to port," he explained. Let's see ... Red Right Returning, most of the time?

Anyway, he took a line from our stern and, in a masterful piece of seamanship, pulled us off the bar. As he left, to the applause of the tourists (and us), he told us that there was no way we could get a 6-1/2 foot draft boat up that channel to the marina!

So we turned our attention to the remaining marina, which the cruising guide said could be entered either from the bay or from the Straights of Florida, on the other side of the peninsula. Just then, another Cuban boat came by, and in response to our questions the captain told us that the bridge across the bay entrance to the marina was closed, and we couldn't go that way. We would have to motor and sail all the way around the peninsula, about 15 miles total. It was getting late for that, but we put about and started around the point.

We realized that we would be arriving after dark, and the cruising guide indicated a torturous route into a poorly dredged harbor, staying to the starboard side of the channel here, then crossing to the port side there, etc. So we called "Marina Acua". They didn't reply for a long time, but eventually they did, identifying themselves simply as "the marina". As it turned out, the guide had the marina's name wrong, and it's really Marina Darsena Varadero. They very obligingly sent a boat to meet us, and asked what assistance we required. We indicated that we needed a guide in, and they shrugged with a look that indicated we were crazy, but led us in. It turned out that the channel has been dredged since the guide was written, and the entrance is straightforward -- you don't even have to stay in the channel!

The marina was pretty much like an American one, with showers, electrical hookup (US standard), and eager-to-please dock crew. There was a restaurant, a chandlery, and a souvenir shop. There was also a very helpful, efficient public relations person who spoke excellent English and could arrange anything from rental cars to fuel. She provided us with a "fully hosted letter," which stated that our boat and crew had been guests of the marina. The one unusual feature was the two gunboats tied up at the "fuel dock." As soon as we arrived, we started to enquire about getting fuel. "How much do you need?" they asked. "About 400 liters," we guessed. Our tanks hold 100 gallons, and a liter is about a quart, so we figured that would be about right. "Manana," they said. Now, we all know that expression; as one cruiser in the Dominican Republic said, "I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it doesn't mean 'tomorrow'!" But this time, we were assured that we really could get fuel next morning.

We all would have liked to see something of the area around Varadero the next morning, but knowing that we would have to maneuver around to the fuel dock, we held all the crew on board. "Eleven o'clock," we were told. At eleven, it changed to 1:00 PM, then to 1:30. Just before 1:30, one of the gunboats cleared out of the harbor at flank speed, and we were told we could go over to where it had been. So we moved to the dock there, and were met by the fuel guy -- in a truck, carrying two 50-gallon drums of diesel fuel. He created a siphon and ran the fuel into our starboard tank, more efficiently than most pumps could do it. When that tank was full, he said we'd have to turn the boat around for the other tank, as his siphon wouldn't reach across Akka. In the situation, Rob was very reluctant to turn the boat around, as getting off the pier again in the increasing wind would be difficult. So we said that would be enough fuel. "No, no," he replied. "We bought 400 liters and put it all in these drums; we can't return the extra fuel."

So we turned the boat around and repeated the siphon process. Just as we were topping up, the gunboat returned with a little white speedboat in tow. They proceeded to raft up the gunboat outside the other gunboat (as we were occupying its normal spot) and put the speedboat right behind Akka. Now we had no room behind us to maneuver. We had to get out of there, but even with four guys pushing Akka off the dock, we managed to scrape up one side pretty badly. As we left, the gunboat crew escorted a man off in handcuffs. There were different opinions at the marina about what he had probably done, and even whether he was Cuban or American.

That evening, we enjoyed a really fabulous dinner at one of the Varadero restaurants. According to several sources, Cuban restaurants are mediocre, ostensibly because of the embargo; but that was not our experience. We left the marina shortly after returning from the restaurant, with little official hassle -- only three people came on board, and the search was cursory. As we left the harbor, Andi caught her finger in a cleat and mangled the end of it, and we returned for medical attention -- but that was the subject of another message.

---26 June Key West

After the Coast Guard helped us rush Andi off to the hospital, Dennis, Jodie, and Rob went to the Federal Building to clear into the US. Nobody had any problem with the fact that we had come from Cuba, and the customs people (who enforce the embargo greated us with "Can we see your Fully Hosted letters?" After duly copying those letters, they returned them with a smile and said "Welcome back." We did have to fill out forms stating that we hadn't spent any money in Cuba, and in fact they asked that Andi come in as soon as she wa able, to fill one out, too. While we were filling out the forms, two other boatloads of Americans came in, armed with their Fully Hosted letters, and said they were arriving from Cuba. So apparently it's pretty common. Next day, Dennis and Jodie took off in their rental car to catch a plane from Miami to Seattle, and our Cuban adventure came to an official close.