Sailing along the Cuban coast, I can’t help but think about Christopher Columbus. Columbus made landfall in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba more than 500 years ago (3 countries we visited). Now, we’re sailing Amanzi along the same coastline and quite possibly we’re finding refuge in some of the same anchorages where Columbus and his men may have been.
What really jumps out at us traveling along the northeast Cuban coast is the lack of cruisers out here. Aside from ships moving goods up and down the coast between the United States and the Caribbean in designated shipping lanes (these lanes are similar to a big highway or expressway for ships), we’ve not seen one other cruising sailboat. The only other boats we’ve seen are local fishing boats and boats coming out from the large tourist resorts for the day. It was 10 days ago when we last met three other sailboats at our first Cuban port of entry, Puerto Vita. That’s been unusual for us as we’ve come from one of the busiest cruising areas in the world – the Caribbean. We can’t recall one anchorage in the last year and a half where we were the only boat. But, here on the northeast coast of Cuba, we ARE the only sailboat around. We’ve had every anchorage or cay to ourselves. And with calm weather, it’s been a cruiser’s paradise.
With anchorages close together, we decided to check out a number of them doing short hops over a couple of days. Our routine – leave an anchorage in the morning, anchor for the afternoon in another, and drop the hook for the evening at new spot. So, we’ve been able to check out a number of new places. We also decided to spend three days in a remote anchorage – Pasa Boca Chica – before pushing on to our last port of entry, Varadero. Tucked in behind a cay more than 5 nm from the main coast, the anchorage is a wide open bay surrounded by mangroves. It provides excellent shelter to boats and local fishing boats frequent the bay. In the evening, lights from the fishing boats surround the bay. For the local fishermen, seeing a sailing vessel with a Canadian flag is a bit unusual, so we’ve had a number of boats come over and check us out. Although language is limited, we’ve managed to trade goods for hogfish and lobster with several fishermen – lobster, crabs, and several kinds reef fish are the main catch. Their catch is sold to the resorts rather than being sold locally.
We were told that Cuba sees the tourist industry as the market for all their crops, catch and food production and it’s ultimately their main source of income and employment for their people. As a result, availability of produce is very limited on the local market. In Varadero, there is a farmer’s market every two weeks. Local Cubans get a chance to stock up at that time. In the local Mercado (supermarket), I recognized frozen chicken and bologna but that was about it. In the smaller villages and communities, people also sell vegetables they grow in their yards. So, food is available but just not in the same quantity as in North America. In fact, when I think about what is at my local supermarket – I recall being overwhelmed by choice even when I shopped there. I can only imagine I’ll feel even more so when I return. And I can’t help but think what a Cuban visitor would think if they went into the same supermarket.
Our arrival in Varadero, was similar to Puerto Vita. We were greeted with a warm welcome by the Dockmaster, Julio, of Marina Darsena. In fluent English, he described the process of what to do after docking and where to go after check-in. The check-in procedure was incredibly fast – yes, it included a search by the Customs official and one dog – and within 45 minutes we were securely tied up in our slip, along with 10 other Canadian flagged vessls. A visiting cruiser came by to say hi and it turned out to be a fellow we’d heard about from friends in Marathon, Florida but didn’t think we’d meet. AND he’s a fellow Newfoundlander – Ernie Forsey – who’s traveling with his wife, Dianna (sv Acappella). I come to find out, Ernie grew up in Gander Bay – not 100 km from where I did. Once again, the world as a small village is proven.
Breakfast at a beach cafe with the Canadian Gang.
Ernie having a haircut on the front veranda in the village near the marina.
We took the time to explore Varadero by bicycle with one of the fellows, Mel (on sv Metal Magic) who’s been here for 15 months. He remembered meeting David at our yacht club a few years ago. We rode to local spots I doubt we’d been able to find if we were on our own – small cafes and favourite local spots. Later in the day, we met up with Mel’s Cuban friend, Sylvia and were invited to her home. With food from our boats, we walked into the local village to Sylvia’s and cooked up a storm, Cuban style. Sylvia’s kitchen is more-or-less an add-on to her small dwelling with two walls and a roof. It had electricity, running water, a diesel stove as well as an open fire to cook on. The wonderful part of Sylvia’s home is she is surrounded by all of her family. They all live on the same piece of land and while we were there, brothers, sisters, daughter-in-laws, and a little nephew came to visit as is the usual evening routine. With enough food to feed everyone and good music, speaking different languages didn’t seem to matter.
Something we had not seen throughout the rest of the Caribbean was great Public Art – it was all over Cuba.
Roadtrip time – Havana here we come. We’d decided not to sail Amanzi to Havana, but instead travel overland, see a bit of the country (like we had in Puerto Vita to Santiago) and spend a little time in the capital. Six of us piled into our rented van and we set off for Havana about 130 km away. Around 10:30 in the morning, we stopped at a roadside restaurant where they were selling food and souvenirs. On the open terrace, an eight piece male band started playing and singing, and all of sudden there was a Cuban party happening with locals dancing and enjoying themselves. It was instant magic.
Doing the washing Havana style.
We decided to spend the one day we had in “Old Havana” surrounded by remnants of stunning architecture and history. To our surprise, a significant number of buildings were being restored. European investors were coming in to help with the restoration of these incredible buildings and you could see splendor was returning to the city. Oddly, the capital building where “parliament” used to sit is strikingly similar to America’s capital building in Washington, DC. (an interesting coincidence). And of course, the plazas and open spaces for pedestrians were wonderful. For the better part of 5 km, between the north and southbound traffic lanes was a large pedestrian space (as wide as the lanes themselves) with benches and trees where people gathered. There was a buzz on the streets with vendors selling a local delicacy – pork sandwiches, tour guides hustling for customers, bici-taxis ringing their bells and musicians playing at terrace cafes, as well as locals on their way out of the tourist district. One street east of the main thoroughfare and the energy was different – a little more quiet but also very safe – a couple of hotels, galleries and museums and one or two restored buildings. We spent our time at the National Art Gallery and for a moment we both thought we were back in Canada at our own National Gallery, in Ottawa. Powerful artwork and an impressive collection.
Striking the pose at Hemingway Marina
Before leaving the city, we all agreed we had to visit Marina Hemingway, the International Marina that was named for the famous American writer, Ernest Hemingway. Interestingly, the Marina has more than 1500 members – the majority from the US (who are forbidden by their government to visit). Enroute to the marina along Embassy Road, we saw more than 60 flags of countries represented with their embassies, with the one exception – the Stars and Stripes. In the marina, there were dozens of Canadian vessels and a few american flagged vessels that had obviously been there a while. The Marina is gated and under development with many condos being built in the area. So, obviously, there is a feeling or expectation that business is going to take off in the near future. And when it does, they’ll be ready.
After a 10 day stay and with the weather window we needed, we left Marina Darsena with a marvelous send off from our new marina and cruiser friends, promising to return someday. Our next destination was 93 nm away – Marathon in the Florida Keys, south of Miami. We were going to visit friends Peggy and Joe (sv Calcutta) who we’d met at the start of our trip on the Intracoastal Waterway in the Fall of 2005. Twenty miles off the coast of Cuba, I noticed a vessel on our radar, 4 nm away. I alerted David as I felt the vessel was approaching quickly. We both started scanning the horizon, even though it was midnight and saw nothing! The vessel continued to approach and we were getting quite uneasy. The vessel was now 2 nm away and still nothing was visible to us. All of sudden we were hailed on our VHF radio and asked to identify ourselves. This was the US Coast Guard. Phew…Giving them our details, they then turned on their boat lights. They were 1.5 nm beam onto us. After 15 minutes of communication and satisfying them we were not Americans or on an American registered vessel, they politely wished us a safe passage and a good evening. No sooner were we finished the conversation when the horizon was black once more. We watched on radar as they silently moved away.
Approaching land in the morning, we mentioned it had been a while since we’d been in continental USA and we both seemed to have mixed feelings. We’re excited about meeting up with our friends and being in easy reach of our families but at the same time, the excitement of traveling to new countries is now truly behind us. Although the trip still has new ports and anchorages to visit, the focus is on returning home. I know there is lots more excitement ahead of us but I will miss the simplicity of countries like Cuba. Although Cuba is hard for Cubans, we felt its warmth. It truly is a special place.