CRUISING IN CUBA
Since it was our first trip to Cuba we knew we had to see Havana. The sight of old American cars filling the streets in Havana made us feel like we had been catapulted back to 1958, and the vertigo of time warp was enhanced out in the rural areas where we’d see horse-and-buggy taxis passing fields being plowed by oxen. Though the transportation seems lost in time, the Cuban people are not; they are universally well-educated, and, like nearly everywhere else, plugged in to their smartphones.
Our plan was to move counterclockwise around mainland Cuba, visiting a wide variety of islands before reversing our course to come home. Our m.o. is to seek the remote settlements and uninhabited places, and we spent two-thirds of our time in these places, anchoring in far-flung areas for 40 days and spending 20 days moored or docked at marinas.
From Havana we circled to the west and soon slipped through an opening in the barrier reef to shallow passages dotted with quiet mangrove islands. We were pleased to find a string of lighthouses marking the dangerous reef and channel markers leading us in. Cayo Levisa was our first stop in this island group, and we chose to anchor alone in a cove out of sight of the small resort there. But soon we were joined by a sailboat flying the Canadian flag. Immediately the captain lowered his dinghy and came over to say hello. Turns out he was a co-author of the freshly published Waterways Guide to Cuba, Addison Chan! He was generous with his advice, and our long chat over coffee and charts was absolutely invaluable. Who gets that lucky?
A favorite island in this group, Cayo Buenavista, is veined with creeks and lagoons. On our first day there, a downpour caught us off guard while we were exploring in our tender. It was well worth getting drenched to pause silently in a lagoon, listening to the birds and the drumming of approaching rain. The barrier reef nearby is lush with corals and loaded with colorful sponges and tropical fish. In three days there, we loved having the place all to ourselves.
Ringing Cuba on the south there are three archipelagos of small undeveloped islands and cays, all protected from the open Caribbean by coral reefs. We anchored at seven of these islands.
the outside of the reef was impossible; but those were good days for tootling around in the tender or kayaks.
At Cabo Frances, clear water over white sand made the boat appear to be floating in mid-air. Although there is wind protection only from the north, it was a perfect anchorage for scuba diving. The crest of the steep coral wall is only 27 feet deep, so you can make a deep dive over the dropoff or poke around the shallow reef for as much bottom time as you like.
Most of these southern islands are protected as national parks or wildlife preserves. Some of our most interesting days were visiting with the game wardens who work these outposts. We met the wardens on both Cayo Juan García and Cayo Campos. Wardens live in bare rustic cabins for 20 days per shift, then return to their homes for 10 days. One day we noticed the rangers at Cayo Campos rowing hard against the wind, so Don took our tender and offered to tow them back to their camp. In return we got a gift of nine lobsters and an invitation to come to lunch the next day. We asked what we could bring and got a veritable shopping list: cooking oil, toilet paper, toothbrush and toothpaste, disposable razors, a bath towel, fish hooks.
Lunch was awesome, though: snapper, lobster, rice and beans, amusing storytelling by the rangers, and surprising entertainment by a troupe of crab-eating macaque monkeys that live on the island.
Further east, Cayo Largo del Sur is a different world from the smaller islands. It has been developed specifically as a resort with several luxury hotels, a floating dock in the marina, a small chandlery, a dive shop, and an exceptionally helpful marina manager named Pire. The Sea Turtle Rescue Center is on Cayo Largo, and if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time of year, you may either walk the beach with the head biologist, Gonzalo, to recover eggs from a turtle nest, or watch the hatchlings released into the sea.
During our trip, our excursions ashore not only carried us to colorful small towns, rich agricultural areas, and glorious waterfalls in a national park, but provided us with offbeat ventures in provisioning and gave us the opportunity to spend whole days with our Cuban drivers, learning more about life in this unique country.