CRUIS­ING IN CUBA

Passage Maker - - News & Notes -

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.

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