Cuba, lying strategically in the middle of the Caribbean, has not been visited by cruising sailors in droves, mostly for political reasons. So what is it like? Here cruising sailors Andrew and Clare Payne, sailing their yacht Eye Candy in the Caribbean, describe their land and sea adventures with fellow cruisers Angela and Tony on Tana Vika in Cuba:
Cuba -mysterious because rarely visited. photo by Freakygaming.com
We have experienced a very busy first week in Cuba. On Monday we took a cab into the city of Santiago de Cuba with our English friends Angela and Tony from 'Tana Vika'. We spent the day following a walking tour of the city taking in the Old City, the first Governor's residence (built 1522) and Museum of Local History, the Cathedral (built 1922) the Town Plazas, the one-time Military Barrack were the first shots of Cuba's Castro-led revolution were fired in 1953 and finally the Hotel Casa Grande where Fidel Castro appeared on the balcony in 1959 trumpeting the Revolution's triumph.
Our First Impressions:
The people are well dressed; there is no litter or beggars on the streets. The housing is very basic and the city's pollutions is choking. The narrow streets originally designed for pedestrians are now swarming with motor cycles and a lot of old (mostly Russian) cars belching black smoke. However we have also seen a number of very nice modern cars such as Peugeot, Toyota and Mercedes. The local busses are trucks and look very much like a cattle truck with bench seats along the sides and a canvas canopy; they are always crammed packed with people hanging out the back. Cuba is a country undergoing rapid change and so therefore everything we have read or been told by other cruisers is out of date. The people are very aware that the tourists present opportunity. Some are eager to provide a service to earn some money while others just ask for pens, soap, shampoo, t-shirts, caps, rum and cigarettes.
Living amongst it:
There are two currencies used in Cuba, the convertible pesos CUC$ which is worth around $US 1.10 and the Cuban Peso which is selling at 25 to one CUC$. To be able to get around we need both and the trouble is that they look very similar. If we have your glasses on we can read 'convertible peso' written on the CUC$ but it would be very easy to hand over CUC$ for pesos. We decided that I would keep the pesos and Andrew would handle the CUC$. So far we haven't made a mistake. We found a fresh fruit and veg market in one of the narrow streets and I paid the 5 pesos (20 cents) for three small lettuces and 10 pesos (40 cents) for a lb of beans. Our friends Angela and Tony paid 5 pesos for a small pizza for lunch. I had made sandwiches and the four of us sat in the Plaza to eat lunch and have a much needed rest. We hoped to do some people watching but we were harassed by a guitarist serenading us. He was standing so close that his guitar was right in my face. If I crossed my knees I would have kneed him in the groin - man was I tempted. In the end I got up and walked away.
Our marina experience:
Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and English is spoken in the tourist areas. The four marina managers speak perfect English so to do the girls in the marina's gift shop and bar. The marina suffered damage with hurricane Sandy in October. Some wharves were destroyed along with buildings and water supply pipes. The bathrooms are clean but there are no toilets seats, no hot water, no shower roses (just a pipe sticking out of the wall) and taps without handles. Andrew said the missing handles match the office door that is also without a handle. But we soon discovered that in fact the office door did have a handle but it was in the desk drawer and had to be handed out the window if you wanted to come in. Due to hurricane Sandy and broken water pipes the water supply to the marina is via a tank on top of the hill which is filled by a water truck. So I was happily washing my hair in cold water standing under a dribble from the shower pipe and the water ran out. I was totally soaped up so all I could do was wrap myself in the towel and return to the boat covered in bubbles.
There is a cement works not far from the marina that discharged muck from the chimneys leaving brown spots all over the deck. One of the marina staff recommended a toilet cleaner which apparently everybody uses on the spots and can be purchased from the marina office (after they had passed the door handle out through the window etc). The marina man then proceeded to scrub the deck for us. Andrew reimbursed him for his effort but he was reluctant to take the money as he just wanted to help us.
On Tuesday we went across to Granma Island which is located half a mile across from the marina. We could have taken the dinghy across but the cruisers are not allowed to drive around in their dinghies. We took the ferry which is free to guests of the marina. The community consists of some 800 people and has a couple of restaurants a church and no shops. We walked to the top of the hill to see the church.
A few people asked us for biros and were delighted when I had some. Another young girl asked for soap which I also had in my handbag. She disappeared and returned later to give me two small shells. It truly was a humbling experience, these people have very little but she found a reciprocal gift for the soap. I still have the shells; I somehow just can't throw them away.
At the top of the hill we meet up with Elan a local guy we had spoken to a few times at the marina. He came running out of his house and introduced us to his wife and produced a photo of his two sons aged 12 and 9. He proudly told us that they had been in the house for two months but before that Elan and family had lived with this father and mother. We think the timber used for the house came from houses destroyed by hurricane Sandy. Elan walked us down the hill and we stopped off to meet his father and buy a beer at his small restaurant.
A night to remember:
We went back into the city Tuesday night to see the night life, experience some Cuban music at Casa de la Trova and drink some Mojitos and Pina Coladas on the balcony of Hotel Casa Grande overlooking the Plaza.
We had ordered a taxi but our usual taxi and driver could not come due to a medical emergency in the family. He sent a substitute taxi, a forty year old Russian Lada which looks a bit like a Fiat and can only be described as a Russian rust bucket. A taxis driver earn CUC$ and it costs around 10 CUC ($11) to travel from the marina into the city. It seems that any guy who has a car and can speak English is in the Taxi business as this is an opportunity to earn good money. We have been told that the average wage is 30 CUC a month.
Andrew was squashed in the front seat with the driver and the interrupter and I was in the back seat with Angela and Tony. There were no door or window handles and no internal door panels. The driver switched the engine off and coasted down all the hills after pumping the brakes. When traveling through the city on a one way street and with right of way he crossed a number of intersections at top speed. Bad luck if a distracted tourist stepped off the pavement. I couldn't watch it, I just closed my eyes.
Coming home was another matter. When driving up a steep hill the car started to kangaroo hop. Angela and I (after a few Mojitos) were silently shaking with laughter. The car couldn't make it up the hill and so we rolled to the bottom and then the driver jumped out and lifted the bonnet. Andrew was in the front seat and watching with interest, he thinks the driver put water in the clutch. He said also that the driver drove with his right foot on the brake and his left foot on the accelerator to rev the engine up. Angela and I had just about got the giggles under control when we stopped off at a fuel station to put 2 litres of fuel in the car; we were off again. Fortunately, we did get home and Angela said she hadn't laughed so much in years, but it could have been a miserable story had the car failed and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
We left Santiago de Cuba around midday Wednesday and sailed 100 miles to Cabo Cruz arriving Thursday morning. We caught a huge Mahi Mahi, we got it up on the back step but the line snapped and we lost the fish and the lure. We had no sooner dropped the anchor when a local fisherman swam out to our boat with a bag of lobsters. We bought 4 large lobsters for 10 CUC and a second hand T-shirt. We went into town which didn't look much from the boat but turned out to be quite a nice little community.
There wasn't much English spoken but between the four of us we knew enough Spanish to get by. I bought 9 bananas for 25 cents and when walking around the back streets a fellow tried to sell me eggs and lemons but I didn't need them. Later when considering his limited opportunities to earn some extra money, I regretted not buying them. The houses in this country town were humble but in good condition; some were even painted. Most homes had flowers, shrubs and some land out the back for chickens, goats and a pig.
The next morning we sailed 45 miles to the Canal de Cuatro Reales and caught five barracuda along the way. We threw them all back but once again as soon as we dropped anchor the local fishermen came around with more lobster. They wanted to trade lobsters for Rum and so we got seven lobsters for a small bottle of Rum and a packet of cigarettes. They couldn't speak any English but gesticulated that they were going to drink the Rum and then go to sleep. We did some snorkeling but the visibility was poor and the coral very disappointing. However it was nice to be in the water.
Yesterday morning we sailed seven miles to Cayo Media Luna (Half Moon Cay). As the name suggests the bay is a crescent shape giving good protection from the current north easterly blow. By now we are sick of lobster and we are hoping not to see any more fishermen for a while. We have had a quiet time here reading and catching up on a few chores. Angela and Tony are anchored close by and we are enjoying their company.