Cuba, on the Fly

On an is­land where time has stood still for half a cen­tury, the salt­wa­ter flats of south­ern Cuba have been left largely un­touched by tourism. As more vis­i­tors be­gin to en­ter the coun­try, sport­fish­ing tours are mak­ing it eas­ier—and more af­ford­able—to get a

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - BY PETER KAMIN­SKY

On an is­land where time has stood still for half a cen­tury, the salt­wa­ter flats of south­ern Cuba have been left largely un­touched—per­fect for a world-class catch.

I STOOD IN THE BOW OF OUR SKIFF, scan­ning the wa­ter. Be­hind me, on a plat­form in the stern, our guide Felipe Ro­driguez poled us along, gon­do­lier-style. It was sunny—ideal for vis­i­bil­ity—but what the sun gave, the 40 kilo­me­ter-an-hour wind took, ob­scur­ing our view of the un­der­wa­ter world. Fly-fish­ing for bone­fish has an as­pect of hunt­ing, but it al­ways takes awhile be­fore I can rec­og­nize my quarry. Un­til I could make out the ghostly shadow of a mov­ing bone­fish, Felipe would be my eyes. Ev­ery now and then, I caught a fleet­ing glimpse of a few bone­fish in the lee of the low-ly­ing man­groves. Ahead, all the way to the hori­zon, was a windswept ex­panse of emer­ald green, aqua­ma­rine and sun-bleached white.

For fly-rod an­glers, catch­ing bone­fish— sil­ver-scaled creatures that in­habit the sun-drenched ti­dal flats of the trop­ics— is supremely chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing. You must stalk with stealth: a sud­den move­ment or er­rant cast will send the fish rock­et­ing for deeper wa­ter. I’ve fished for them off the Yu­catán Penin­sula in Mex­ico and the Florida Keys, but I’ve long been en­tranced by the story of base­ball im­mor­tal Ted Wil­liams, who caught 40 bone­fish one day in Cuba and called it the best fish­ing of his life. So last fall, when my old friend Tom Rosen­bauer, now mar­ket­ing man­ager at the fly fish­ing–fo­cused Orvis Com­pany, called to tell me about a trip he had put to­gether off Cuba’s south­ern coast with five other an­glers, I was in.

De­spite re­cent changes in reg­u­la­tions, it’s still pos­si­ble to travel to Cuba as U.S. cit­i­zen, pro­vided we spend a cou­ple of days en­gag­ing with Cuban cul­ture and meet­ing lo­cals. While that makes it harder for in­di­vid­u­als to plan a trip, it doesn’t change much for or­ga­nized tours—Orvis made the ar­range­ments, hook­ing us up with a great guide, Or­lando Ochoa Mén­dez, a DJ who told us he’d learned English by lis­ten­ing to Eminem. We started with a whirl­wind tour of Ha­vana, a part of the trip I thought would feel rote but wound up be­ing a hit. We roamed art gal­leries and a mu­seum, at­tended a liv­ing-room con­cert by a folk singer, and mar­veled at a work­shop where jalop­ies are re­stored to their shin­ing 1950s glory. We drank mo­ji­tos co­pi­ously and had a su­per­nal suck­ling pig at Al Car­bon (53-78/639-697; mains from US$14). There was live mu­sic ev­ery­where. You couldn’t help walk­ing around with a mambo bounce in your step.

Our fish­ing des­ti­na­tion was lo­cated across the is­land, near the Bay of Pigs. A de­com­mis­sioned army tank marked our turnoff to the Ho­tel Playa Larga. Not a lux­ury ho­tel, but fine for a fish camp: clean rooms,

func­tion­ing air con­di­tion­ers, screens to keep the bugs out, and plenty of hot wa­ter. From there it was an hour’s drive to our boat launch. Each day, our group of an­glers bumped along through a thick coastal for­est and past ti­dal la­goons where pel­i­cans and roseate spoon­bills gath­ered. We drove to Cié­naga de Za­p­ata Na­tional Park, a unesco Bio­sphere Re­serve whose man­grove forests and coral reefs are among the few places in this hemi­sphere that look vir­tu­ally un­changed from the day the first hu­mans ar­rived there. No more than 10 catc­hand-re­lease fish­ing boats per day are al­lowed into its 6,280 square kilo­me­ters—a far cry from the crowded wa­ters of the Florida Keys and the Ba­hamas.

Our party set out in shal­low-draft boats. Tom was my fish­ing part­ner. Af­ter a frus­trat­ing morn­ing of try­ing to make out fish in the wind-whipped wa­ter, we came up on a shel­tered area, no big­ger than a walk-in closet, among the man­groves. I saw a fin flicker. I cast. The fish took my fly. It was all I could do to keep it out of the man­groves be­fore my line got com­pletely en­tan­gled. Not ex­actly your clas­sic open-wa­ter bone­fish run, but at least I’d put a score on the board.

That night, we re­hashed the events in the ho­tel bar, an al­fresco af­fair un­der a thatched roof. As we sipped, a quar­tet with a gui­tar and conga drums played what sounded like a love song. The lyrics, it turned out, were about Com­man­der Che and his “querida pres­en­cia” (beloved pres­ence). Come to think of it,

I sup­pose it was a love song of sorts.

We had din­ner at La Ter­raza de Mily (5345/987-376; mains from US$8), a nearby pal­adar (a fam­ily-run restau­rant typ­i­cal in Cuba). The spe­cialty was lo­cal seafood: crabs, broiled rock lob­ster and grilled snap­per, served with rice and beans, fried plan­tains or crispy yuca. On the nights that fol­lowed, we ate on the beach to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of Afro-Cuban bands and spon­ta­neous mambo per­for­mances. My fa­vorite restau­rant was Don Alexis (53-53/660928; mains from US$10), where, be­cause of a power out­age, we dined by the light of the owner’s mo­tor scooter. We sat next to the char­coal grill where the chef pro­duced lob­ster, blue crabs and red snap­per—sim­ply cooked and sim­ply served. They don’t do fancy in Cuba.

On our third day, Tom and I each caught eight or nine good-size bone­fish, but soon it was time to ren­dezvous with the group. We cruised past salt­wa­ter flats and a string of man­grove ham­mocks. Sud­denly, Felipe cut the en­gine. In front of us we saw a dozen bone­fish nos­ing along the bot­tom, their tails wig­gling above the sur­face, re­flect­ing the flam­ing-pink sunset. This was the peak of the bone­fish game. We tried a few shots. The fish ate our flies. It couldn’t have been more per­fect.

Af­ter some early clouds on our fi­nal morn­ing, the sun came out and lit up the un­der­wa­ter world as warm and golden as a baby’s smile. Here and there, we saw the sil­hou­ettes of bones eat­ing their way across the white and wa­tery plain. I slipped into the shal­lows to stalk the fish on foot. I was en­tranced, gaug­ing the dis­tance as I cast, try­ing to lead the mov­ing fish by a few feet, strip­ping my fly, hook­ing up. A song bub­bled up within me, “Lean­ing on the Ev­er­last­ing Arms,” an old hymn that be­came the sotto voce sound­track of the next hour. Why that? And why then? I have no idea, but fish­ing will do that to you. When the bone­fish fi­nally de­parted the flat, I looked up, as if wak­ing from a dream. Tom and I clam­bered back into the boat, lit a vic­tory cigar, and headed for home.

In front of us we saw a dozen bone­fish, their tails wig­gling above the sur­face, re­flect­ing the flam­ing-pink sunset

FROM TOP: Fly rods strapped to a car en route to Playa Larga, an an­gler's des­ti­na­tion; an Orvis fish­ing trip in Cuba's Cié­naga de Za­p­ata Bio­sphere Re­serve.

Bone­fish are known to feed in Cuba's trop­i­cal salt­wa­ter flats.

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