In the winter of 2016, we decided we wanted to visit Cuba. We had been based in Sydney, NS, so after our circumnavigation of Newfoundland, we headed south to warmer climes. We followed the fall foliage down the east coast of the U.S. and used Key West as our jumping off point to Cuba. We waited for a good weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream. Local knowledge said that you did not want to head across the northerly flowing body of water when there was any northing in the wind. Wind against current would lead to sharp, steep waves and make sailing very uncomfortable.
There are two possible places to check in on arrival from Florida: Varadero or Marina Hemingway, just west of Havana. We chose to go to Marina Hemingway because we were going to stay awhile and were not interested in the vacation lifestyle that exists at most resorts. Varadero is a very popular resort.
The entrance to Marina Hemingway can be tricky in a northerly wind, as there is a bar and the waves come pounding in, sometimes closing the entrance. We waited about two weeks to get the weather we wanted. There was a north-easterly wind forecasted to swing to the east and we were rewarded with a great sail, although lumpy at times, and an easy entrance just after a beautiful red sunrise over Havana.
The Marina consists of long skinny concrete basins and you side tie to the walls. There is electricity and water at most slips. There are three basins; if possible request a spot that is NOT on the one closest to the ocean!
The northerlies that close the bar also push the boats very hard into the concrete wall. To counteract that, it is necessary to run lines across the basin to tie off to the other side. Old timers just leave the lines in the water, letting them sink when not needed, so boats further down the basin can leave when they wish. There is room for approximately 400 boats at the Marina.
We really enjoyed our six week stay in Marina Hemingway. Walking to and participating in the local markets made us feel like we were part of the community. Local buses stop just outside of the Marina and for under a quarter you can ride into downtown Havana, which is about 30 kilometres away. We spent many days strolling around Havana, stopping for coffee in the narrow streets of the old town. If you are interested in people watching and exploring beautifully restored buildings, as well as regular neighbourhoods, Havana is for you. It is a very safe, fascinating environment, and as a Canadian, we were welcomed by the local people wherever we went.
Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. If you go to a tourist restaurant, you can expect to pay about 2/3 of the price you would if you were in Canada. If you frequent local restaurants, you can have a decent meal for under five dollars. The menu will not be as varied and often you can ask for a few things, only to be told they are unavailable. We learned to ask what they had and ordered accordingly. The food is basic, not spicy. Chicken and pork are readily available, but it seemed beef was kept for export and the tourist industry. Lots of variety of fish is on hand and lobsters are readily traded for, once you are out cruising. Fresh fruits and vegetables were easy to come by in Havana, but once we left Marina Hemingway, it became a problem to procure them. There is not a lot of variety in the canned goods, so if you are attached to specific brands and certain tinned vegetables, you would be wise to stock up before arriving in Cuba. Just a note: peanut butter is very hard to find. I traded some nice soft toilet paper to another cruiser to get my fix!
The U. S. embargo on goods going into Cuba has created an interesting economy. Since parts are hard to come by, things just don’t get repaired. In the shower rooms at the Marina, about three out of the five toilets malfunctioned and the showers were either not attached to the wall anymore, or had the heads broken in some manner. The water was hot though, and it always ran. We were mystified to discover that none of the toilets had seats. All was explained when we went into a well-stocked plumbing store and found out they sell their toilets without seats in Cuba! If you have never been in a country where the sewage system does not function like it does in Canada, remember in Cuba, do not put the toilet paper down the toilet or there will be another non functioning commode soon. When the two American rallies arrived at the Marina, it was difficult to find a working toilet.
Old cars are one of the attractions in Cuba. Often the motors have been replaced by tractor engines, so they are noisy. Cars are handed down from father to son and men are constantly working on them. Walking around the Capital, it was not uncommon to see someone’s feet sticking out from under a car, right on the street. We rode in one taxi that had been converted from an automatic to a standard and you could see the hole in the floor where the stick shift was added. Often the doors don’t close properly, or the windows have light plastic to keep out the rain. Then there are also the meticulously maintained cars that are available for tours. The pink Cadillac convertibles were my favourite.
We had two land tours while we were in Cuba and I would highly recommend them. Land touring is not restricted in any way, which is not true for cruising. We visited the Cienfuegos and Trinidad area with former BCA members Ken and Wendy Squirrel, from Cop Out, who were holidaying from Canada. We had a great time wandering around Cienfuegos, with its old classical buildings and beautiful coast line, sampling the rum and the Cuban cigars.
There is a network of home stays in Cuba. Once you have hooked into it, the owners will recommend a spot in the next town for you to go to and even make transport arrangements. The rooms are closely inspected and it costs a lot of money for Cubans to get permission to open one; therefore, the rooms are meticulously clean and there is a bathroom exclusively for the guests. For a nominal price, you can order breakfast, which includes coffee, juice, fresh tropical fruit, eggs and some kind of bread.
Our second tour was to Vinales, where we went on horseback into the hills and experienced what farming in Cuba is all about. A lot of work is still done by bullocks and it is not uncommon to see donkeys or horses pulling wagons down the main streets in the towns. We had a great time in a cave and I went swimming in the underground spring, deep within a mountain.
Learning about the tobacco industry and how communism functions was an interesting educational opportunity. When the area was flattened by a hurricane, workers from other areas were bused in and rebuilt the tobacco drying sheds. The only cost to the owner was the food to feed the workers. The owner gets to keep a percentage of the crop and the rest belongs to the government. It differed in what crop you planted as to how much you got to keep for your own use. In the tobacco industry the government took 85% of the crop and the farmer was allowed to sell the remaining 15% and use the money to feed his family.
We left Marina Hemingway and cruised along the north shore to the west end of Cuba with the boat, planning on exploring the northwest and southwest shores of the Island. Our cruising guide, which was printed a few years ago, led us to believe we could stop in the villages along the north side to re-provision. This was not the case, as we were not allowed to come ashore in one small village. They let us stay anchored, but explained that the community was not set up for international visitors, and we needed to leave and proceed to the destination our paper work specified.
Yachts are welcomed wherever there is a resort and your passage is documented quite carefully. The guarda or military police keep a close eye on you, wherever you go. We believe that is to prevent any Cubans from leaving the country on pleasure boats. The guide book was great in describing possible anchorages and very accurate with directions on getting in and out of safe anchorages in the mangroves. This is where the fishermen would find us and the bartering for lobster would take place. After watching fishermen snorkeling for lobster in coolish water, we traded Barry’s aging, but still good, wet suit for a lovely large snapper.
On the south side of Cuba, we visited Isla Juventud. This is where Fidel and Raoul Castro and Che Guevara were incarcerated before the Revolution. The prison, which is no longer in use, is a magnificent structure. The circular architecture is quite unique and we had a great time roaming around the place. We had been told by another cruiser that it was possible to drop anchor in a bay close to the prison and walk in to see it. Once again, we were misinformed, and an alarm went out when we left our dinghy on the beach. On the way back from the prison, we were picked up by the military and escorted by jeep back to the boat, with firm instructions to vacate the area at once. Apparently, we caused quite a ruckus! Sometimes, not having a firm grasp of the language can have some benefits!
Further to the east of Isla Juventud, there was a series of islands that were set up for cruising, with good anchorages. There are lovely beaches, great trails ashore, and the snorkeling is excellent. Nature reserves had park rangers on them, where they stayed in isolation for a month at a time. They were grateful for anything you offered them. One fellow asked for razors and after a tour to visit the crocodiles in one spot, we gave away Barry’s rubber boots after noticing the fellow’s soles on his boots were barely attached. We were fascinated to watch the guys fashion a new gasket for their outboard motor from an old piece of rubber. Cubans are great at improvising to fix things. The rangers supplemented their meager income by cooking a lovely lobster dinner for a very reasonable price. Our most easterly anchorage on the southeast side was Cayo Lavisa, there was a resort and a small grocery store where we added to our provisions.
We did some diving on the south side and it was well worth the effort. At Maria La Gorda, there is an internationally-known dive site where the coral was outstanding, and there was a fantastic wall that dropped off into a seemingly bottomless abyss. The coral and the sea life in this area were magnificent.
We chose not to circumnavigate Cuba, and returned to Florida after checking out of the country on the northwest tip of the Island. We added our Dobson Yacht Club burgee from Nova Scotia to the collection hanging from the rafters at the Club there. We were very quietly asked by the manager if we had any cellular phones we were not using. Having a collection from around the world that we didn’t know how to make work again, it seemed a fair deal to trade for good Cuban rum. Instead of returning to Florida, we could have continued in an easterly direction and cruised the southeast coast of Cuba; passed through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, and then cruised up the northern coast up the old Bahamas Channel.
We are very glad we chose to cruise around Cuba, as we had a great time. The people are wonderful and the countryside is beautiful. As Canadians, you are granted a three month visa when you arrive, and are granted a further three months for the asking. We renewed our passports at the Canadian embassy in Havana, and they were returned in the promised two weeks. We probably would not return to Cuba, because of the limitations the government imposes on the movement of cruisers. But perhaps that will change once the old guard of the Cuban government is gone. It will be interesting to see if relations between Cuba and the U.S. will continue to ease, with their newly elected president. There are two Facebook groups for Cuba: Cuba Land and Sea, run by Addison Chan from Toronto, on Three Penny Opera. It is a great resource if you are considering cruising in Cuba.