Friday, April 27, 2018

Heading to Havana

We left Cayo Largo not really with any great plans beyond our first night stop at Cayo Rosario, we had a lovely slow sail on the outside of the reef and then went through a well marked reef pass to a gap in-between two islands. One of the islands has monkeys on it and we had heard the rangers may offer lobster.

Shortly after we anchored a fishing boat approached us - did we want lobster - of course we did! We asked for two and how much - no, no money! Then he came over with five live lobsters and wanted nothing... of course we gave him a bottle of rum and he didn't refuse. That's dinner sorted yum!

We got the weather that evening and saw light westerly winds coming our way which would be perfect to make a run for Havana so next morning we got up early and started the long trip around the West End of Cuba. We were sad to miss the island of Juventud which apparently has great diving but this weather window looked too good to skip and our time left in Cuba was fast passing by. Once you get around the West tip you can anchor but no go ashore and we hadn't heard great stuff about the places we could go so opted to go offshore and do it in one shot with two nights at sea.

As we passed by Maria La Gorda, we spotted the boat belonged to Addison Chan who is co-author of the guide book we are using and the guy who started the Cuba Land & Sea Facebook page which has been so helpful. We were sorry not to meet him, and we later found out he was helping out a lovely family who had quite a scare when the forestay broke - we later met them in Hemmingway and learned what an amazing community sailors can be when shit happens!

Dolphins on the West Coast of Cuba

The trip was pretty uneventful with light winds and mostly motorsailing in glorious hot conditions- although the current was a bit tricky going against us for alot of the way. We did however pole out for one day of slow sailing and had dolphins and a lovely bird come to visit.

Coming into Marina Hemingway
We arrived at Marina Hemingway, just West of Havana just before 3pm on 24th April - the entrance chanel is only about 100 feet wide and any north swell breaks on either side. The fairway buoy was vastly off position, they did tell us this on the radio however they said it was West not East of where it should be - too funny! At the end of the narrow channel you turn hard to Port into the Customs dock area, a speedboat with a water ski-er zoomed by - that's a first in a marina.

At the customs dock
We cleared in quickly, re-fueled and then made our way to the slip on canal #1 - the music from the bar played the song Havana and the dock master and his mates were all dancing - so cheesy but what a perfect arrival in this city of cities!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Cuba South Coast Cayos & Diving

So we got up at 6.30am after a big night out in Cienfuegos but I forgot to mention a Cuban thing that happened as we planned to leave - they closed the port! Well, what actually happened was we had cleared out, had our cruising permit on board and were just going ashore when the dock master appeared, in his very unseaworthy speed boat! He told us the port was about to be closed so we had to leave immediately or wait until it reopened. Why was it closing? When would it re-open? He didn't know either..... One yacht quickly upped their anchor but we had plans.... so handed over our cruising permit reluctantly and went ashore. An hour later the dock master comes over to the bar with our cruising permit - the port is open and actually it wasn't closed, it was another port that was closed and the harbour master misunderstood... hilarious!

We motored out of the harbour and at the entrance passed a swarm of local fishing boats bobbing and rolling in the swell but no wind on a glorious day. Rhapsody followed us and we both set a course for Cayo Sal. The wind finally came in about 10am at 15-17knots and we had a fantastic sail all the way past the Bay of Pigs. We came onto the bank where the depth came up from hundreds of metres to 6 within a mile. The swell was still rolling in but we managed to get pretty close to the island and get enough protection for a comfortable night in this pretty open anchorage. We jumped in the water to check the state of Askari's bottom....

The anchorage at Cayo Largo

Oh my goodness, we have never had such a dirty boat. We spent a few hours trying to clean off as much as we could but it was just so thick with worm, it needed a second and third attempt finally with dive gear later. Cienfuegos is a great town but the water must be thick with sewage! Next morning we sailed on the inside of the reef down to Cayo Largo in 15-20 knots and we were much faster. We got permission to anchor in the bay in a truly spectacular spot. Rhapsody, Hummel and Tara all arrived and we had quite a crowd at Cayo Largo. We moved into the marina as rain was due for a few days and air-conditioning was calling.....

Wow - South Coast of Cayo Largo

Swimming pool

I can't get enough of this

It really doesn't look real

We had lobster lunch

Cayo Largo is completely a tourist island and the all inclusive resorts are dotted all around the island. No Cubans live on the island permanently they just come for work 4 weeks at a time - the lovely lady in the Marina Office had done this for 29 years. She shared her office with her ex-husband, the harbour master, who had a similar term. He said they were best of friends, her face told a different story. So when I gave her a bag of beauty treats, so she could always look her best, she gave me the biggest hug and almost a tear. I guess when you have a good job in Cuba you don't give it up whatever the personal circumstances - we have heard stories of people paying to get jobs that give exposure to tourist tips especially. The good news is that the marina is overrun by tourists during the day but not in the evening when it's just the yachties and the locals, who have accommodations in the area near the marina. On a Wednesday they have a big party that starts at 10.30 - it's alot of fun!

Selfie of course

The birds are not afraid here
Tree on our long walk
We walked to the beach - a round trip of nearly 20kms and found one of the best beaches I have ever seen (yes a big call), even if you have to be subjected to the clothes optional areas. Despite the lack of Cuban culture we actually really liked Cayo Largo - it was so beautiful and the sea around the island is so special. We had a fantastic day diving on the reef just off the marina area where there are small islands. 

I loved this sign - very trusting at the airport
We finally said our goodbyes to Rhapsody - Ada gave us a stone she had painted to remember them - it's a bit heavy (ha ha) but we love it. It has the words 'We remember the moments! We do not remember the days....' We hope to meet up again in the Pacific next year - we miss you guys!

Saying goodbye to the Rhapsody crew

So much laughter with Ada and John

And finally here's a few diving shots - the water was just so clear. We even got to see mating loggerhead turtles but no pictures sadly.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Life in a Cuban Town

We hadn’t really planned to spend quite so long in Cienfuegos, however one of our guidebooks calls it the Goldilocks City and I think that is very true. For us it has just enough tourist action to have some nice restaurants and amenities, whilst also giving us exposure to real Cuban life and a great community around the marina.
Punta Gorda near the marina
We ended up spending 23 nights anchored off the Marina Marlin and it was a real challenge to leave, especially when good friends arrived and we had made so many new ones at the marina and around the City. We did both get a horrid cold after we spent the day in Trinidad with European tourists that put us out of action for a week, but mostly we had a fantastic time sightseeing, socialising with the other yachties, going out for fantastic music nights and getting a few jobs done here and there around the boat and helping some others along the way.

The anchorage at Cienfuegos with the Jagua hotel in view

Everyday we walked the Malecon to town we would pass the famous Coppelia Ice-cream parlour, finally one day the queue was less than 20 people so we ventured in. Coppelia is the government run ice-cream chain that was established back in 1966 and has held a monopoly on ice-cream for 50 years, however now private ice-cream parlours also exist. At Coppelia you stand in line and are allocated a table, often you share a table with strangers and chat while you wait to be served. A bowl or glass of ice-cream starts at 2.50 CUP (about 10 cents) for three scoops. The atmosphere is noisy and very social, most of the Cubans had several different bowls on the go – this place is cheap even for them. It’s a great mixture of people from all walks of life - kids in school uniforms, teenagers winding each other up and comparing pictures on their phones, scruffy looking street workers and government officials all seated together with bright coloured plastic bowls and often bags of groceries around their feet. We of course went back after our first to try the different flavours, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla!!

Street art picture of Cienfuegos on the Prado del Paseo

Ice- cream an Coppelia

On the Malecon we also got to know many of the bici-taxi drivers – one who called us ‘Marina Marina’ and another called Andrew ‘Captain Camino’ – they’d often stop for a chat and a laugh or just give us big waves. There was also Dario, a taxi consolidator we never used, but always had a big smile and time for a chat. However, one of our favourites was Gianni. He was a tout for one of the tourist restaurants and when he learned we lived on a sailing boat always had a hundred questions, first off it was the usual ‘Cuban questions’ what about when you want to see a doctor or about your friends (very different to the pirate and storm questions we usually get), but he wanted to know about everything from sleeping, routes, phosphorescence in the water at night, and food – he checked in with his girlfriend who said she didn’t fancy it as she can’t swim – I think he was quite inspired! It’s so nice when you have been so long in a town you stop being treated as a source of cash and find friends all over town. Even in the market they stopped trying to over inflate prices for us. I admire that they will try and charge in CUC what is a CUP price – ie 25 times more but we have been in Cuba long enough to know the costs and only occasionally get caught out.

We had planned to leave so arranged a final night out with John and Ada from the Rhapsody. It was also Ada’s birthday the next day so we went back to our favourite restaurant; Dona Nora and received a really warm welcome from Yarek, the owner. After dinner we headed to the Teatro Café Terry where the Salsa was just starting at 10.30pm and wow can the Cuban’s dance. We sat in the courtyard and watched the fantastic band and dancers, many of whom didn’t know each other, they just danced then parted – very transactional. Ada and I thought we’d brave a bit of a dance and had a lot of fun, even though we were no match for the locals.

Salsa night at the Teatro Cafe

We didn’t end up leaving, maybe something to do with a very late night, but instead decided to go and explore El Nicho. A national park area in the Sierra del Escambray mountains with waterfalls and swimming holes. We couldn’t imagine there would be much water as we have not had a drop of rain since we arrived in Cuba but it’s always good to get into the countryside. We drove out to the mountains via the bustling market town of Cumanayagua, which was where our driver Yuniel was from. On arriving in the mountains Yuniel took us to his ‘friends’ restaurant where we had a fantastic countrystyle buffet lunch – he joined us and ate huge portions and kept recommending more things for us to try on the rustic counter. After lunch we all enjoyed a Cuban Coffee – he went for a nap while we had to hike the falls! The area was absolutely stunning and going in the afternoon there were not many tour groups so we had the top pool all to ourselves for quite a while. It was really a magical spot and the falls were numerous and so pretty. Yes we were impressed and clean too.
Lunch with Yuniel

Mirador lookout

clean sailors

On the way back, when near the market I casually asked Yuniel if they might have limes for sale here….. The Cubans always have a solution for everything you put their way. Yuniel stopped a few people in the street to enquire about the availability of limes – no luck, but no problem…. On the way out of town he pulled off the road pretending to go for a pee and ran into a field and filled his t-shirt with limes for me. Sadly they turned out to be oranges that were just very small but the thought was there and definitely genuine, just no good for Mojitos.

Escambray Mountains

Saturday night is a big night in Cienfuegos, we went out for dinner at another of our favourite spots – Casa Prado and tonight had dinner on their roof terrace with live music, including a fabulous flute player. Then we walked the Malecon with every other person in the City. It was a fantastic atmosphere; music, laughter, games and the odd bottle of rum being shared. We really enjoyed watching the innocent fun as the teens use this promenade alongside the bay as their social club, all amazingly well dressed with mostly brand new designer trainers, no trouble just laughter and music. Back near to the marina we paid 2CUC to go into the ArtX venue where there was a live show, complete with cabaret dancers. Later the stage was handed over to the locals for dancing to music videos on the big screens, it was fun despite the arena kind of looking like a prison.

Prado at night with horse n carts

the city at night is lovely

Social club on the Malecon

Cuban entertainment

Sunday is of course a family day and Punta Gorda is the place to go. Right at the end of the Malecon, past the lovely mansion houses and hotels there’s a tree shaded park on the water. There’s small food stalls cooking up all sorts of snacks, a bar area and then huge groups sitting around picnic style while the kids swim off the rocky beach. Many people who live in this town live in apartment blocks so I guess getting out and enjoying all these lovely open spaces is what they do and it creates a sociable atmosphere in all the public places; as Cuba becomes more free I really hope this doesn’t change.

Punta Gorda - Family Fun Sunday

Punta Gorda
It wasn’t all fun fun fun though, our fresh water pump decided to pack up again – and much to our delight our favourite Oyster representative is back in his job and was able to get us some support so we could shower. We also spent hours at the hotel Jagua trying to research insurance as our insurance is up for renewal and the company we are covered by can no longer cover Australian yachts – it all sounds a bit dodgy to me as there is a duopoly in Australia for the cover we need and it’s ridiculously expensive. It’s really hard trying to do stuff like this living in Cuba!!

With Crystal Blues, Tara and Rhapsody at Marlin Bar
Our favourite band Esceive at the Club Nautico - we could hear them play from the boat most nights
We heard that Neil and Ley on Crystal Blues were coming in so we stayed a few more days to catch up with them. We have been in touch all through the Bahamas and Cuba but have always been a few weeks ahead. So we had a great time catching up with them, and on our last night Neil orchestrated a music ‘jam’ at the Marlin bar, then we went out for a fabulous meal and we ended the night back at the Teatro Café for one of the best music nights I can remember.
Neil's music jam

Our favourite bar man and a local kid join in the singing

With Ada

Back at Dona Nora - our third visit and always a warm welcome

The music started at 11.30pm and was still going when we left at 3am. ‘Rolo Rivera’ was the main act with his band plus he included what seamed like all his friends that came and joined in with the odd song, tweak to the sound system or a bit of backing vocals. It turned into a huge party that everyone was involved in. ‘Annalie Lopez Cabellero’ was sitting in front of us and when she came on stage and sang with the most incredible voice the audience was stunned. We shared the night with a brother and sister who were out together that we met in the queue – he tried to teach me salsa – I was terrible but had a lot of fun trying to dance with a real Cubano dancer. She was a Psychiatrist and really interesting to talk to, she also introduced me to Rolo as I’m now his biggest fan!

Benny More statuue

Rolo and his band


With Rolo

What a perfect end to our amazing time in Cienfuegos – we left at 6.30am next morning to sail West. Our eyes were slightly bloodshot from 3 hours in bed but the wind blew the cobwebs away and when we saw the clear blue water again we were excited for the next leg of our journey.