Ex­plor­ing Cuba’s North­ern Coast The LeShaw Fam­ily

Passage Maker - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JIM, CUQUI, NICO, & ANDY LESHAW

Af­ter spend­ing three days at Ma­rina Hem­ing­way on the out­skirts of Ha­vana, we be­gan our cruise west along the north­ern coast of Cuba, aboard our 34-foot PDQ pow­er­cat, Thing 1 Thing 2. We planned to cruise through the Ar­chi­pel­ago de los Colorados along the north­ern coast, stop at Los Moros Ma­rina at Cabo San An­to­nio at the north­west tip, and dive in the wa­ters off of María la Gorda, which lies un­der­neath the west­ern­most tip of the is­land. To­tal one-way dis­tance: ap­prox­i­mately 200 nau­ti­cal miles. We would then have to re­trace a por­tion of our route be­fore mak­ing the cross­ing back to Florida via the Dry Tor­tu­gas.


There are a num­ber of deep­wa­ter pocket bays along the coast­line west of Ha­vana, with many pro­tected an­chor­ages and a va­ri­ety of towns and small fish­ing vil­lages. The reef Ar­chi­pel­ago de los Colorados ex­tends nearly the en­tire length of this por­tion of the coast, usu­ally no more than three miles off­shore. Nu­mer­ous, typ­i­cally un­marked, chan­nels dot the reef, per­mit­ting pas­sage across it. These passes, il­lus­trated on the bet­ter charts of the area, are clearly vis­i­ble in mod­er­ate seas and aided by clear skies. Is­lands in­side the reef pro­vide pro­tected an­chor­ages dur­ing inclement sea and wind con­di­tions.

You will have two op­tions to tra­verse this por­tion of the Cuban coast. One is the shal­low-wa­ter route be­tween the main­land and Las Is­las de los Colorados. The sec­ond is the deep­wa­ter route that lies just out­side the bar­rier is­lands and the reef. We chose the in­side route due to our 3-foot draft, and our en­thu­si­asm to take it slowly and stop to see the small towns along the way. Our plan was to an­chor out each night, as we had al­ready been ad­vised there are only six mari­nas in all of Cuba into which for­eign boats are per­mit­ted en­try.


We left Ma­rina Hem­ing­way and headed west about 38 miles past Mariel to Bahia Honda, a large and well-pro­tected pocket bay. Fol­low­ing the ad­vice of the dock­mas­ter at Ma­rina Hem­ing­way, we cruised about three miles off­shore, pass­ing a num­ber of work­ing fish­ing boats. Most of the way, the wa­ter was too deep to reg­is­ter on our depth sounder. We cut in­side the reef through a marked chan­nel and into the wide, well-marked en­trance to Bahia Honda, which is home to a large ship-scrap­ping fa­cil­ity. There were a num­ber of scut­tled metal ships at the bay’s en­trance.

The Guarda Fron­tera (mil­i­tary) sta­tion is im­me­di­ately across the chan­nel from the scrap fa­cil­ity. We had been warned that be­fore we could en­ter land or even an­chor in an in­hab­ited area, we would first need to check in with the Guarda Fron­tera to ob­tain a despa­cho autho­riz­ing us to an­chor. We hailed them on Chan­nel 16, but failed to get a re­sponse or see a sin­gle per­son. Since a storm was mov­ing in from the south, we pro­ceeded into Bahia Honda and headed into a large cove called Ense­nada Santa Teresa. The in­let was sur­rounded by man­groves, com­pletely pro­tected, beau­ti­ful and des­o­late–not a sin­gle boat, per­son, or sign of life other than a house­boat on an­chor that looked like it was used as a fish­ing camp.

We low­ered the dinghy into the wa­ter for the first time since en­ter­ing Cuba, and ex­plored the beach in an ef­fort to find the Guarda Fron­tera dock and out­post. The dock ap­peared to be aban­doned: Only a group of old wooden pil­ings re­mained. The Guarda Fron­tera sta­tion it­self was dec­o­rated with a large pic­ture of Che and a num­ber of po­lit­i­cal slo­gans. The build­ing was pad­locked and two po­lice boats—small wooden row­boats with no engines—were chained to the rem­nants of the dock. The only other build­ing was a con­crete bunker with cutouts for shoot­ing and a thick metal door to pro­tect the bunker. No guards were present, so we took pic­tures to prove we had made the ef­fort, if we ever had to prove it later.


From there we pointed our dinghy in the di­rec­tion of a small village that was iden­ti­fied on the charts. As we ar­rived, we saw nu­mer­ous peo­ple in houses along the wa­ter­front of what we would learn is Punta Piedra, a small fish­ing village. They di­rected us to a dock where the lo­cal fish­ing fleet was housed–about 25 small, rick­ety row­boats with­out an en­gine among them. Each of these boats was a dif­fer­ent de­sign but all had lots of free­board, in­di­cat­ing that the chop some­times picks up in Bahia Honda. We were greeted by an older man who made a point of wav­ing his ma­chete as he ques­tioned us about our in­ten­tions. We stated that we were com­ing ashore to pur­chase eggs. He gave us per­mis­sion to tie up, of­fered to guard our dinghy and di­rected us to the bodega, the sole com­mer­cial en­ter­prise in town. As we walked down the only street, peo­ple stared at us but did not say hello. In hind­sight, we think our pres­ence made them ner­vous, think­ing they might get into trou­ble as a re­sult of hav­ing seaborne for­eign­ers in town. We found the store eas­ily. Its in­ven­tory con­sisted of half-pound bags of white rice, small con­tain­ers of

cook­ing oil and not much else. We re­turned to the dinghy a few min­utes later with­out eggs. We thanked the watch­man (who was still wield­ing a ma­chete) for watch­ing the dinghy, and Jim asked if we could take a pic­ture of the dock (he said no) and headed back to Thing 1 Thing 2.

Af­ter a rest­ful night on the hook in Bahia Honda, we headed to Cayo Paraiso with the plan of snor­kel­ing above a four-masted 1850s-era ship­wreck we read about in our guide book. Af­ter snor­kel­ing the wreck in about 15 feet of wa­ter, we met two fish­er­man in a small sail­ing “cata­ma­ran” con­structed of in­ner tubes, with a mast and boom of sticks and a sail made from a piece of cot­ton cloth. We did not know it at the time, but this would be the only lo­cal sail­boat we would see on our trip. We are not sure why, but fish­ing from sail­boats is pro­hib­ited in Cuba. We bought six lob­sters from the fish­er­men for $6.00 and dis­cussed ev­ery­thing from fam­ily to fish­ing and pol­i­tics.

Our boys, Nico and Andy, spent about two hours work­ing the coral heads with a spear gun and Hawai­ian sling. The boys were un­der in­struc­tions to get fish for two meals. Any ad­di­tional fish would be given to our new friends. The boys speared nine fish, in­clud­ing two par­rot fish, which are a lo­cal fa­vorite. We gave the fish­er­men the sur­plus fish as well as about 50 much sought-af­ter fish­ing hooks, said our good-byes, and made the six-mile trip to Cayo Le­visa, a small is­land re­sort built for for­eign­ers.


We an­chored on the south­east­ern shore and dinghied into the dock where we were greeted by a num­ber of the lo­cal mariners, in­clud­ing the crew of the sup­ply and dive boat. Ev­ery­one we met was pleas­ant and wanted to know what spare parts we might have to trade, with 5200 sealant be­ing the most pop­u­lar item.

We walked to the beach bar on the other side of the is­land where we met some of the other guests, pri­mar­ily Euro­pean cou­ples and fam­i­lies. The next day we spent a bit more time ex­plor­ing the is­land and the beau­ti­ful beaches where the kids gath­ered enough her­mit crabs for a stew. We also went about two miles out to a reef off the south­ern coast of Cayo Le­visa where we en­joyed some good snor­kel­ing in about 30 feet of wa­ter.

That evening, we ar­ranged to have the Guarda Fron­tera give us a despa­cho to depart Cayo Le­visa the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Af­ter check­ing out the re­sort’s $10-per-per­son buf­fet, we de­cided in­stead to grill fresh fish on board. That evening a small U.S.flagged sail­boat ar­rived. It was the only non- Cuban boat we saw from the time we left Ma­rina Hem­ing­way un­til our ar­rival in the Dry Tor­tu­gas two weeks later.


We took the in­side-the-reef route at about seven knots to Puerto Esper­anza, a small fish­ing village we read about in our cruis­ing guide. The sea bot­tom was lit­tered with starfish.

Af­ter an­chor­ing, we headed to­ward the com­mer­cial dock, which was filled with fish­ing boats that ranged from 18 to 22 feet, pow­ered by in­board diesels mounted amid­ships, and fully ex­posed to the el­e­ments. The en­tire ma­rina was en­closed by a “gate” made of sticks. Our ar­rival dock was sur­rounded by about 15 kids who were swim­ming and cheer­ing as we tied up. Be­fore we could exit the dinghy, we were con­fronted by a non-uni­formed man who in­formed us he was from the Guarda Fron­tera and we could not en­ter the town or re­main an­chored in the har­bor. Af­ter at­tempt­ing un­suc­cess­fully to rea­son with him, we re­turned to the boat and made the 90-minute trip to Cayo Ju­tias, an un­in­hab­ited is­land con­nected to the main­land by a bridge that was sup­posed to bring tourists to a re­sort. Due to a hur­ri­cane, the re­sort was never built.

At Cayo Ju­tias, we ex­plored a des­o­late white-sand beach, snorkeled, and re­turned for lunch and a nap. We were wo­ken from our nap by a mem­ber of the Guarda Fron­tera who had com­man­deered two fish­er­men and their boat to greet us. Amaz­ing how word gets out when a for­eigner ar­rives. We later learned that the Guarda Fron­tera spend the day watch­ing the coast with a tele­scope. He checked us in and gave us per­mis­sion to an­chor in a more pro­tected spot on the other side of Cayo Ju­tias.

On a beach at our new an­chor­age, we met three lo­cal men who had rid­den their bi­cy­cles two hours to the beach to fish and planned to camp that night. We agreed to re­turn for a camp­fire and bar­be­cue on the beach. We were swarmed by mos­qui­toes ( la plaga) un­til the fish­er­men got a smoky fire go­ing, and we ate hot dogs and talked about Cuba, the U.S., and specif­i­cally Mi­ami.

Af­ter a night at Cayo Ju­tias we made our way to­ward the fish­ing village of Los Ar­royos, an­other town we had read about in our cruis­ing guide. Be­fore we could even be­gin to lower the an­chor, a mem­ber of the Guarda Fron­tera ar­rived by boat, asked to see our papers, and told us we could nei­ther an­chor nor come into town.

Based on that episode and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pes­simistic about our abil­ity to en­ter any other towns along the coast, we headed for the ma­rina at Cabo San An­to­nio on the north­west­ern tip of Cuba. This ma­rina—a 45-mile run from Los Ar­royos—is one of the six into which for­eign boats may make port in Cuba. The ma­rina con­sists of noth­ing more than a sin­gle con­crete pier with an out­build­ing. No town, no road, noth­ing. There was not even a Guarda Fron­tera boat, a dinghy or a skiff tied up at the pier. We had not seen a sin­gle boat, village, or sign of life from Los Ar­royos to Cabo San An­to­nio.

Abel, the dock­mas­ter, greeted us when we ar­rived. He in­formed us that he would call a man with the key to the fuel shed, and that he might be able to ar­rive that night. We also had very lit­tle wa­ter, but the only wa­ter here was bot­tled.

The Guarda Fron­tera showed up while we were pump­ing

fuel. He said he had nowhere to be and would wait while we fin­ished fu­el­ing. Af­ter com­plet­ing our pa­per­work, he told us the next place we could go ashore is Maria la Gorda around the far­thest tip of Cuba.

De­spite the ghost-town feel, the ma­rina had a very nice mod­ern restau­rant and bar, which was only open to pass­ing cruis­ers. We went in for a drink and met the doc­tor and nurse as­signed to run the fa­cil­ity. The doc­tor ex­plained that since we were only 100 miles from Can­coen, med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als needed to be on site to ex­am­ine ar­riv­ing cruis­ers be­fore they can be ad­mit­ted into Cuba.


The next morn­ing we walked along the road and saw wild horses, pigs, snakes and bugs of ev­ery va­ri­ety, and later fired up Thing 1 Thing 2 for the 40-mile run to Maria la Gorda—around the north­west­ern tip of Cuba. The western shore of Cuba is com­pletely des­o­late. Again, we failed to see a sin­gle boat or struc­ture other than a small mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity and a large yacht or small cargo ship that ap­peared to have been on the rocks for many years. We were once more the only recre­ational boat. The an­chor­age is un­pro­tected from all but the east, which is for­tu­nately the di­rec­tion of the pre­vail­ing winds.

Maria la Gorda (Fat Mary) is one of the premier dive re­sorts in Cuba. It is also a heav­ily pro­tected ma­rine sanc­tu­ary where diving is per­mit­ted only with a Cuban guide. Fish­ing of all kinds is pro­hib­ited in the wa­ters around Maria la Gorda. Most of the guests we met were Euro­peans who had trav­eled to Cuba specif­i­cally for the diving, so while we were there, we hired a dive boat and guide to do some ex­plo­ration of our own. This was

eas­ily the best diving we ex­pe­ri­enced in Cuba and ap­par­ently this was just a pre­view of the reefs on the south side of the is­land, which are re­puted to be even more vivid and full of fish than the reefs on the north side.

We spent sev­eral days in Maria la Gorda, swim­ming, kayak­ing, and en­joy­ing the re­sort. Re­gret­tably, we were forced by an in­com­ing storm to break an­chor and be­gin our re­turn trip to Florida, which would in­clude a stop at the ma­rina at Cabo San An­to­nio where we would again be the only guest. Along the south side of Cuba we ran into 6-8foot fol­low­ing rolling seas. Once we low­ered our speed, the waves be­came quite man­age­able. Af­ter ar­riv­ing, we had din­ner at the ma­rina restau­rant where we con­nected with our new friends and learned that we were the only boat to have ar­rived at the ma­rina in more than three weeks. We had the best shore­side din­ner of the trip, in­clud­ing some of the largest lob­ster tails I have ever eaten.

The next stop was a three-hour run to Cayo Ra­pado Grande, our last stop in Cuba be­fore head­ing for the Dry Tor­tu­gas. Cayo Ra­pado Grande is part of a group of un­in­hab­ited man­grove is­lands sport­ing noth­ing more than a sin­gle aco­pio, which is a small fish­ing shack with a dock on stilts. Lob­sters are stored here in large un­der­wa­ter cages. We en­tered through the nar­row chan­nel be­tween the aco­pio and the in­ner shoal, an­chored, and spent the day kayak­ing through the vast ar­ray of man­grove trails. We also vis­ited the aco­pio where we learned a bit about Cuba’s lob­ster in­dus­try. At sunup we be­gan the 150-nau­ti­cal-mile run to Fort Jef­fer­son in the Dry Tor­tu­gas.

Our voy­age to Cuba was a unique op­por­tu­nity to see a largely un­de­vel­oped cruis­ing ground so close to our own home on the Florida coast. We met in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, and all the civil­ians we met wel­comed us with open arms. Some day we hope to re­turn to see the south side of the is­land, which is ru­mored to be even more pris­tine than the north, with its many is­lands, well-pre­served reefs, and colo­nial towns.

The gated ma­rina at Puerto Esper­anza, a fish­ing village on the west coast of Cuba, where we were de­nied ac­cess.

Right: Our fam­ily at Cayo Le­visa, a small re­sort is­land built for for­eign­ers. Top (left to right): A bi­cy­cle owned by one of the fish­er­men at Cayo Ju­tias. He rode the bike two hours to fish and camped for the night; An aco­pio— fish­ing shack— at Cayo Ra­pado Grande. The aco­pio is sur­rounded by un­der­wa­ter lob­ster cages where lob­sters are stored be­fore be­ing trans­ported to the main­land.

This photo: A de­serted beach at Cayo Le­visa, one of many beau­ti­ful beaches along the coast. Op­po­site (clock­wise from top): Nico at the helm of Thing 1 Thing 2, cruis­ing about 50 yards off­shore at Maria La Gorda re­sort; Andy, with a spear-full of fish off Cayo Paraiso; Two lo­cal fish­er­men at Cayo Paraiso. They were trav­el­ing in the only lo­cal sail­boat we saw, a small cata­ma­ran made from in­ner tubes, sticks, and a cot­ton sail.

Far left: Two lo­cal fish­er­men in Bahia Honda. Few of the boats had mo­tors and most were manned with two fish­er­men. Left: The Guarda Fron­terra sta­tion at Bahia Honda. The build­ing was dec­o­rated with a large pic­ture of Che. The dock con­sisted of a group of old wooden pil­ings to which two po­lice boats, small wooden row­boats with no engines, were chained. Far Bot­tom Left: Nico and Andy in front of a scut­tled ship out­side the metal scrap­ping fa­cil­ity in Bahia Honda. The fish sur­round­ing the re­mains of the ship were abun­dant. Be­low: The dock at Cayo Le­visa, a se­cluded re­sort built for tourists. The lo­cal fleet con­sisted of two dive boats, a ferry, and a barge used to bring in potable wa­ter for guests, and diesel fuel to power the re­sort’s gen­er­a­tor.

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