Tuesday 25 April 2017

Reflections on Cuba (from Old Bahama Bay Marina, Grand Bahama Island)

The Man!
And so, on the morning of Saturday 22nd April it was time to leave the strangest and most complicated country I have ever visited. I had coveted Cuba as my ultimate destination for so long and at times it had seemed so unlikely that I would actually make it, that to be leaving after experiencing only a small fraction of the landscape, beauty, desolation, colour, squalor, bureaucracy, music, history and people, left me feeling a little flat and a little disappointed. I had experienced crystal clear waters and a couple of enchanting anchorages and the beautiful beaches at Cayo Largo and Cayo Levisa, and I had snorkelled below the waves a few times and it was delightful, but the slow cruise around the south and north west coasts that I had imagined where I would snorkel on pristine reefs and swim every day for days on end, vanished under the demands of time and weather. Cuba has a huge coastline replete with numerous islands and reefs – a cruiser’s paradise, but I now realise a month is just nowhere near long enough to explore all that, AND do Havana AND do the interior - which I never did.

As always when sailing anywhere especially rocky reef strewn coastlines, the weather is the primary factor. In order to make my rendezvous with Tom in Bermuda in mid-May, I had decided it would be prudent to leave Havana in mid-April – that should give me enough time to visit a couple of the Bahamas on route. I planned to spend a week in Havana before leaving and therefore in theory I had three weeks to explore the coast between Cabo Cruz in the South East and Havana in the North West. That’s roughly 500 miles of coastline ignoring all the squiggly bits. The first 225 from the Anchorage at Cabo Cruz (where I had headed from Jamaica to wait for a change in the winds and where I had to stay on the boat) to Cienfuegos, I had to do in one hop because that is where I had opted to ‘check-in’ to Cuba. There are only a limited number of Ports where one can do that and only after checking-in can one go ashore. Indeed, strictly speaking I should not even have anchored there, but I got away with that.

Fish for Rum at Cabo Cruz
Cienfuegos is a sizeable town (but nowhere near the size of Havana) and I spent eight days there including a day trip to Trinidad which was a delight) exploring the place, listening to live music and simply experiencing Cuba. 

Town Square

Dancers Posing

Street Games

I also made friends with Laurent the Frenchman and went out a number of times with him and another friend he had made. Eight days was longer than I had planned on staying but I needed to wait for fair winds. From there it was a day hop to the tiny island of Cayo Guana de Estate for an overnight stop and then another day hop to Cayo Largo with its gorgeous beach, and rather scrappy holiday resort.

The Beach at Tropical Island, Cayo Largo

Laurent arrived there the day after I did and we spent a very enjoyable 5 days exploring the beach and resort together and just generally hanging out.

Laurent the Action Man
Then a day hop to Cayo Rosario followed immediately by another to Cayo Matias and another to the beautiful, Ensada Puerto Frances where I indulged in nude snorkelling in crystal clear waters. The next leg was to be a much longer and challenging one south of Isle De La Juventud (Isle of Youth) and round Cuba’s most Western cape, Cabo San Antonio. The seas off the cape can be very nasty in Westerly to Northerly Winds and even in the prevailing Easterlies my sailing guide book urged caution. With time marching on and the wind in the East I therefore decided to by-pass the enticing island chain of the Cayos De San Felipe to the North West of the Isle Dela Juvented and round the cape. A day and a half later I was anchored at Cayos De Lena. Not a pretty place but with lovely local fishermen who traded fish and lobster for rum.

The enchanting Golfo De Guanahacabibies lay ahead with the possibility of days of island hopping but the weather forecast warned of north easterlies arriving within the next few days and so I opted to make ground while I could and sailed outside the reef up to Cayo Levisa. Ironically, I was sheltered from the swell by being outside the reef in fresh south easterly winds and made great progress. Cayo Levisa was a jewel and where I met Dave and Kimberly who adopted me and we had great times together there and in Havana, but once again the weather forced me to make ground while I could. 

The north easterlies were delayed by 48 hours but the forecast showed them then entrenched for at least another week, so we spent one night there only and headed eastwards again. I made the passage to Havana in one hop whilst Dave and Kimberly did it in two. 

Arctic Smoke in Hemingway Marina, Havana
My two weeks in Havana are summarised in an earlier post, suffice to say it is one of the most intriguing cities I have visited. 

A typical Havana street

Cuba's Capitoli with Dave in foreground

Street art in Havana

The Cradle of the Daiquiri - inside Floridita - one of the haunt's made famous by Hemingway

Yet again though I left feeling I had not done it justice. I never got to the Museum of the Revolution. The day I was there with newly made friends Daniel and Anna who had sold up and sailed, the que was so long we bypassed it and went to the Art Museum instead. Nor did I get to Hemingway’s House Museum, although I did manage to get to Floridita a few times - the Daiquiri's were great!

Daniel and Anna outside the Museum of the Revolution, Havana
However, with Dave and Kimberly we did see a lot of Havana on foot and took in two Iconic shows – the Tropicana and the Buna Vista Social Club. The first an amazing extravaganza of dance and scantily clad – mostly female flesh, the second, simply wonderful Cuban music that got even this stick in the mud off his bum to dance.

Buna Vista Social Club
Cuban bureaucracy is second to none in its complexity, slowness and inefficiency and Cuban internet access is simply awful. The combination of the two equals hell on earth. My painful experience of trying and failing to get a US visa and only just succeeding in renewing my Cuban visa are also related in my Havana posting.

The most special experience of my time in Havana however, was the evening spent with Dave, Kimberly and new friend, Phillipe the night before he left Havana. We all went for a simple meal at a local restaurant in the village next to the Marina (which is about 10 miles East of the city) and then returned to Phillipe's boat for rum and yarning. I took my bottle of St Kitts rum - which went down very well.

Me, Phillipe, Kimberly, Dave and two of the locals
A fellow sailor has asked me whether I would recommend Cuba as a cruising destination. My answer is “Yes most definitely but……”

Sunset at Cayo Largo

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