Cuba (15 March – 24 April)
We are approaching Cuba. Our first visit to a communist country. As we enter the 12-mile zone, I start calling on the radio. This is required by regulations. The Cubans don’t want anyone to sneak in unannounced. I call the marina Jagua in Cienfuegos on channel 16, but receive an answer in English from the Cienfuegos pilot boat. He tells me that the marina listens on channel 19A, a US channel that we don’t have. He is kind enough to relay our message to the marina, and confirms that they have a free berth. The entry channel into the Bahia de Cienfuegos is well marked. We pass the Guarda Frontera station on the west bank. Huge letters on a concrete wall say: "Bienvenido a Cuba Socialista. We proceed to the marina, where two men are waiting to take our lines. The dock is rough concrete and some of the cast iron mooring cleats are broken, but with the help of our "welcoming committee" we manage to dock safely.
We have heard stories about Cuban entry procedures, and are a bit anxious about what is going to happen next. First comes a doctor. He asks us if we are healthy. I say yes and he asks me to fill out and sign a statement that no-one on board has died during the voyage to Cuba, and that we have no suspected cases of typhoid, cholera and some other horribly infectious diseases. He tells us that we will be charged US$30 for his visit, and leaves. Later I learned that he should have given us a health certificate. Thanks to the kind help of the marina management I got it a week later. Next come two customs officers, an immigration officer and two lady officers from the ministry of agriculture and the veterinary ministry. Tania offers all of them a drink. Most of them want beer, at eleven o’clock in the morning. One of the customs officers fills out a form similar to the ones you find in most countries: measurements of the boat, material of construction, type of engine etc. Together they search the boat for about half an hour. They ask me to watch them as they are doing this. We should consider ourselves lucky. We heard stories about cruising sailboats being searched for 6 hours. One customs officer issues a "despatcho" for entry of the boat into Cuba (US$10). He charges an additionalUS$20 for overtime because we arrive on a Saturday. The immigration officer issues visas valid for 30 days ($15 each). Together with Tania, the two lady officers go over our food stores. The lady from the ministry of Agriculture is looking for bugs in our flour, rice etc. She finds a bag of rice containing bugs, and takes it with her for "incineration". The lady veterinarian wants to know about our frozen meats. Tania tells her that it was bought in Curaçao and so she is happy. There is no mad cow disease in Curaçao. Of course we do not tell her that in Curaçao all meats are imported… All together the entry procedures took about two hours. It was of course horribly expensive, but otherwise not unpleasant. All officers were very friendly and polite. They took off their shoes before coming on board, and were clearly very relieved when they learned that we speak Spanish.
We decide to go out for dinner that evening. The dock master tells us that there is a restaurant in the building of the former "Club Nautico" close to the marina. On our way over we witness transportation Cuban style for the first time. There are few cars on the road. The cars we do see are either American cars from the 1950’s (obviously from before the revolution, and often in a remarkably good condition) or slightly younger Ladas and Scodas. There are also a few modern cars. We later found out that these usually carry a red license plate, and are rental cars for the tourists. Other forms of transport are horse drawn carriages, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles (some with side car), and some bicycles on which the owner has cleverly mounted some kind of two-stroke engine from a lawn mower or chain saw. The horse drawn carriages are numerous, and are clearly the main form of public transport.
The Club Nautico building was obviously built in the time before the revolution, when the rich could live a life of luxury. It is now beautifully restored, and houses a bar with live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Downstairs is a cafeteria. The pizza we have here is not very good but it is cheap.
The next morning we take a horse drawn carriage to the centre of Cienfuegos. The driver takes one look at us, decides that we are tourists, and charges us $1 each. The normal price is probably one Peso each (you get 26 Pesos for a dollar). On the main square in Cienfuegos, Parque Martí, we find a lovely bar called "Palatino". A live band plays the old traditional Cuban songs that we know so well from our CD by the "Buena Vista Social Club". We are just about to sit down when two busloads of German tourists descend upon this small bar. We decide to make room for our eastern neighbours, and come back later. The Germans do not stay long, and when we return the atmosphere is relaxed, and the music is very enjoyable. Sitting at a table next to us is Laurens, a Dutchman, retired, who is touring Cuba on his bicycle. He tells us that there will be a flamenco dance performance that evening in the Teatro Tomás Terry on the opposite side of the square. We decide to give it a try. He lends me his bicycle, so I can go back to the boat and fetch some long trousers for the occasion. The theatre dates from 1886 and is beautifully decorated. It could do with some restoration, but its condition is not bad. Inside you get a wonderful sensation of days gone by when there were many rich people in Cuba. The performance is by students of the dance school, some of whom are about to graduate. The first half is pretty amateurish, but the enthusiasm of the public makes it fun. Some of the performances after intermission are actually quite enjoyable. After the performance we go out for dinner together with Laurens. He proposes to go to a "Paladar", a private house that serves dinner at a handful of tables. The Cuban kitchen is very basic. We have a piece of pork, some rice and a tomato and cucumber salad without any dressing. They charge dollar prices (not Pesos), and considering the simple food we had, it isn’t cheap.
Cuba uses two currencies: the peso and the US dollar. A Cuban salary ranges from 200 pesos a month for a manual labourer to 500 pesos a month for a doctor or university professor (i.e. between US$ 8 and US$ 20 per month). Cubans can buy basic necessities at very low (pesos) prices. Luxuries are available only in dollars, and are out of reach for most Cubans. Tourists on the other hand spent mostly or only dollars. Hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurants etc. are all priced in dollars. Cubans who work in the tourist industry are very well of. Many earn as much as a month’s salary in tips every day.
The next morning Laurens pays us a visit on board. The rest of the day it is raining hard and we stay on board. The next day we go to "Palacio del Valle". This was once the private house of one of the wealthiest men in Cuba. It is now beautifully restored and houses a restaurant. The menu is what you would expect in a typical upmarket international restaurant, and so are the prices. We make reservations for dinner in the evening. Unfortunately we find out that evening that the skill of the cook is not up to international standards.
We make arrangements to visit Trinidad, a lovely old city with cobblestone streets, which hasn’t changed much since colonial times. It is about a hundred kilometres from Cienfuegos. We rent a car for 3 days and pack some things for an overnight stay in Trinidad. Like everything else, car rental is a state monopoly and is very expensive.
There are few signposts in Cuba, but this turns out to be no problem at all. As soon as we get to the edge of Cienfuegos, we pick up two hitchhikers who know the way. This is a nice chance to chat with the locals, and find out more about life in Cuba. They don’t mind that we take the scenic route, and that we stop a lot for taking photos. If we hadn’t stopped they could have waited as much as six hours for a car to give them a lift. We have hitchhikers on board all the way to Trinidad and back. Whenever we drop off a hitchhiker, another one takes his place. The scenic route turns out to be quite a long detour, and the road is very bad in places, but the views are excellent.
As we enter Trinidad we see a yellow city bus, with destination "Amsterveen". Apparently Holland donated or sold a lot of used busses to Cuba, and many of these ended up in Trinidad.
One of our hitchhikers is Miguel Angel. He lives in Trinidad, and works in a cigar factory. When we arrive in Trinidad he directs us to a "Casa Particular", a bed and breakfast, owned by his uncle and aunt. The place is simple but clean and the owners Mandy and Marilyn are very friendly. Their grand daughter of 5 is ill with a fever. A medicine is not available from the normal (pesos) pharmacy, so they have to go to a tourist (dollars) pharmacy. The medicine costs US$ 5, a huge amount to Cuban standards, but lucky for them they could afford it because they work in the tourist industry.
After enjoying a delicious dinner prepared by Mandy we go out for drinks and live music with Miguel Angel. His cousin Damian joins us later. At the first bar, Miguel Angel is turned away. This is a "tourists only" bar, so we go to the next place. The live music is very enjoyable. The drinks are on us. A beer cost $1.50 and a mojito (Cuban cocktail) $2.50. Although these prices are quite normal in Cuba, they are totally unaffordable for most Cubans. When a policeman looks around the bar, Miguel Angel keeps his head low. Officially, Cubans are not supposed to socialise with foreigners. This doesn’t stop him inviting us for dinner in his home the next evening however.
The next day we tour the "valle de los ingenios", a cane growing area, where old sugar mills can still be found. On our way there we see a bright red 1950’s American convertible with the roof down, and what appears to be a beauty queen in the back. They turn off at the mirador (viewpoint), and we follow them in. It turns out to be a young girl celebrating her 15th birthday. For a Cuban girl this is a very important day, almost as important as her wedding. She dresses up like a beauty queen (dresses can be rented for the occasion), and then they go to scenic locations and take photos. Tania also takes some photos and promises to send her a copy.
Miguel Angel lives in a small house with his wife Nadi and her father. Dinner at their place is very special. We have shrimp, rice and beans and a salad of tomato, cucumber, cabbage and carrot. Only weeks later we found out that it is illegal for Cubans to have shrimp. It is for tourists and export only. Knowing this makes the dinner all the more special. We bring beers to go with the dinner and give them some used clothes, which they are very happy with.
The next day we stroll around the city of Trinidad and visit some of the museums. Palacio Brunet used to be the home of a very wealthy family in colonial times. Their wealth was based on sugar cane and slave labour. The house is now beautifully restored and contains priceless antique furniture from the same era.
Damian sells sculptures on the handicrafts market. Most of what you find on the handicrafts market is typical tourist junk, but his sculptures are very original and very artistic. We buy one of his works of art.
Miguel Angel wants us to meet his mother before we leave. She lives in a house together with Miguel Angel’s sister and brother in law. His brother in law proudly shows us his Italian made mountain bike, a gift from a tourist who became a friend after coming to Trinidad three years in a row. Like Miguel Angel, his brother in law also works in a cigar factory. We buy a box of cigars, very hush hush, supposedly for much less than the official price.
On the way back to Cienfuegos we take a different scenic route, and again we have hitchhikers on board most of the way. After passing through a coffee growing area, we are stopped at a checkpoint. The officer wants to know what is in the bag our hitchhiker has on his lap. Luckily it turns out to be all right. Labourers who work in the coffee fields often take some beans home for their own consumption or private sale. The government tries to stop this by putting up roadblocks.
In Cienfuegos we visit the home of Jesus Maria. We met him earlier in a hotel, where he was selling beautifully handcrafted wooden cigar boxes. He makes these at home, and he proudly shows us his workshop. We get talking with him and his wife, and before we know, several hours pass. His wife’s father fought in the revolution. He died since, but according to her he would be sad to see what had become of his ideals.
I have been wondering how the Cubans survive on a salary of $10 a month. How can they afford to be reasonably well clothed and have a TV and a stereo set in their home. I was beginning to learn the answers. Those who work in the tourist industry, or know someone who does, are much better off than the rest. A porter in a hotel brings home much more money in tips than a doctor could ever earn. Running a "casa particular" or selling handicrafts to the tourists is also very profitable. Some people earn a living riding their bike around town, looking for tourists who are lost. When a tourist asks for directions they offer to show the way on their bike. The tourist follows in his rental car, and hopefully gives him a tip at the end. When they direct a tourist to a casa particular, they get a commission from the owner. A lot of Cubans have family or friends overseas who send them gifts. There is a big Cuban community in Florida, many of who fled from Cuba on makeshift rafts. According to what I have been told, most Cubans "steal" in a small way from their employer (i.e. the government). A truck driver siphons off some of the fuel he gets, and sells it on the black market. A fisherman doesn’t bring all of his catch into port, and sells some of it privately. A worker in a cigar factory takes home some cigars etc.
Cubans are still trying hard to flee the country. Some try to cross the 90 miles to Key West in a raft made from the inner tube of a tire. No wonder we were warned to carefully lock the outboard motor of our dinghy. During our stay in Cuba two local flights were hijacked and diverted to Florida. According to the Cubans we talked to, the US offers the hijackers a residence permit rather than sending them to jail. A ferry was hijacked as well, but ran out of fuel and had to return to Cuba. In Cuba the "terrorists" were sentenced to death and executed within a week. Also during our stay, Fidel Castro’s regime arrested many "dissident" writers and journalists, and sentenced them to long terms in jail.
Our stay in Cienfuegos is lovely, but it is time to move on. We want to sail around the western tip of Cuba (Cabo San Antonio) to Havana. This is some 400 miles, and we make several stops along the way.
Cay Largo has been developed as a tourist resort, where Cubans are not allowed (except those who work there). It has beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear water and international style hotels. Obviously this is not the real Cuba we have come to see, and we don’t stay long.
We anchor at Cayo Cantiles to shelter from a passing cold front. Shortly after we arrive, fishermen come to offer fish and lobster. We offer a bottle of rum and some beers in return. For two days we have winds of 25-30 knots, firstly NW and later NE. It is surprisingly cold. For the first time since our arrival in the Caribbean we use a blanket on our bed. On Cayo Cantiles there is a troop of monkeys that has been introduced there for "scientific reasons". The monkeys live in the wild. Three men live part-time at the monkey station (the only settlement on the island). Their accommodation is extremely basic. Once a day they feed the monkeys, at which point they have the opportunity to count and observe them. A pair of binoculars would have been useful, but this is not part of their equipment.
On our way to Isla de Juventud we sail for miles in waters varying in depth between 2.1 and 3.0 meters. We draw 2.0 meters, so this is quite exciting. There is no way we could have made this trip when the winds were up at 25-30 knots with matching waves. In Nueva Gerona, the capital of Isla de Juventud we get an opportunity to spent pesos instead of dollars for the first time. We have lunch in a Chinese restaurant, where a main dish costs 9 pesos ($ 0.40). We both have a haircut. Mine was 2 pesos ($ 0.08). Tania’s haircut was more fancy at 3 pesos. At the market we buy a carrier bag full of fruit and vegetables for a total of 50 pesos ($ 2.00). For mooring the boat on the town key we pay tourist prices: $ 20 per night. We hire a horse drawn carriage to take us to a museum a few km out of town. On our way there, the driver is stopped by a policeman. He does not have a license to carry tourists, so he gets a fine for trying to make a living.
Our next stop is Maria la Gorda, a diving resort on the mainland. The day after we arrive, we join one of the dive boats to make a dive here. The water is incredibly clear, with a visibility of some 100 meters or more. The dive master says it is usually better still. There are beautiful corals and interesting passes through the rocks. In the afternoon we find out that a new cold front is on its way. If we hurry, we can make it to Marina Hemmingway in Havana before the cold front. We leave the next morning around 6 AM.
Cabo San Antonio at the western tip of Cuba has a bad reputation for rough seas, but when we round the cape, the seas are very calm. Right at this point, Alegría reaches a major milestone: 10,000 nautical miles. We quickly bake an apple cake to celebrate this occasion. During the night the wind drops and we have to motor for some eight hours. The next morning the wind returns, and we arrive in Marina Hemmingway at around 2 PM.
Despite the fact that we were already cleared into the country, the reception by the authorities is very formal and takes about two hours. After the formalities we move from the customs dock to the marina itself. We are just in time before the cold front arrives with heavy rain and a strong wind from the NW.
Havana is a big surprise to us. It is completely different from the rest of the country. The old city centre, Havana Vieja, could easily have competed for beauty and atmosphere with cities such as Paris, if only it had been maintained properly. As it is now, much of the city looks like a war zone. The beautifully sculptured facades and Spanish style balconies are dirty and falling apart. Nevertheless the city still breathes the atmosphere of a very wealthy past. In colonial times, ships laden with treasure form Central America stopped in Havana before continuing their journey to Spain. Some of this wealth must have stayed behind.
Unesco has named Havana Vieja a world heritage site. Nowadays quite a few buildings and even a number of streets in Havana Vieja have been restored. Restoration works are still ongoing, apparently with UN money. We visit the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. It feels as if we are stepping into history. The building is beautifully restored and filled with doubtless very expensive antiques from the same era. The entrance fee is $2 per person and an additional $5 if you wish to take photos. This money of course goes to the government. The guides receive a salary of $10 a month. We decide not to pay for taking photos. Once inside, a lady shows us around and explains about the things on display. She lets us take photos and even shows us into rooms that aren’t open to the public. At the end we pay her a tip. The money is better spent this way then paying $5 at the entrance.
Havana Vieja is full of tourists and of course there are many Cubans who are trying to tap into this source of foreign currency. People are offering cigars "cheap" in the street. Beggars are asking for money, soap, cooking oil and other things. Unofficial taxis are offering their services. Every bar and restaurant has a live band, the musicians invariably asking the customers to buy their CD or give them a tip.
We also visit El Capitolio, which resembles the Capitol Building in Washington DC. El Capitolio was built at the beginning of the 20th century, well before the revolution. At the entrance is the 17m high Statue of the Republic, which is covered in 22-carat gold leaf. The Chamber of Deputies and the Parliament are on the opposite sides of the building. They are now used for conferences and symposia.
The province of Piñar del Río is the main tobacco growing area in Cuba. The rustic village of Viñales in the centre of the province is popular with tourists. It is surrounded by odd shaped hills called mogotes. We rent a car in Havana to visit this beautiful area. On our way there we take several hitchhikers again. One of them takes us to his friend who has a tobacco farm, and shows us around. He explains why you can always find Royal Palms in a tobacco field. The trunk and the leaves of these palms are used to build the storehouses where the tobacco is dried before transfer to the cigar factory. Several palms in this field died because they were struck by lightning. The remainder however, survived the hurricane that struck the area last year. The owner of the farm offers us home grown coffee before we continue our journey.
Once in Viñales we meet Jorge, who gives us directions to his lovely casa particular. The room is nice and clean with private bathroom. His wife Sara is very friendly. She shows us their guest book. All their guests strongly recommend the place. We decide to stay. Sara prepares a lovely fish dinner and in the evening we sit on the veranda and chat with Jorge and Sara about life in Cuba whilst we enjoy a mojito prepared by Jorge. In the morning we enjoy a very elaborate breakfast with fresh fruit, omelette, coffee, tea, fresh fruit juice etc. We stay three nights whilst we explore the surrounding areas. The area has a very interesting geology, with odd shaped hills called mogotes and very extensive limestone cave systems.
A memorable trip is a hike up the hill to an area where the aquaticos live. This group of people has limited contact with the outside world. Spring water comes out of the mountain at several locations. They believe that this water has healing power. They drink lots of this water, and of course they use it for bathing and irrigation of the land. When they get ill, they bathe three times a day, and let their skin dry in the wind, rather than use a towel. At the first house we pass we are invited to have a seat and a rest. The owners tell us about their lifestyle. At many of the other houses we are invited for fruit juice, coffee, lemonade or just to sit down and chat. From most verandas we get a spectacular view on the valley of Viñales.
It is sad to say goodbye to our hosts Jorge and Sara. In three days they have become friends. On our way back to Havana we take a different route. First we pass through farmland, mostly tobacco plantations. It seems like time has stood still. A man is ploughing the fields walking behind a plough pulled by two oxen. Then we pass through beautiful mountainous terrain. Of course we take hitchhikers again to show us the way.
When we arrive back at the boat a security guard indicates that we should pass by the customs office to have our bags inspected (in case we try to smuggle something out the of country). It is getting late, and we decide to go out for dinner. Our tourist guidebook recommends a restaurant that belongs to a school for the hotel and restaurant business. The food and the service are very good and the prices are very low.
We spent a few more days in Havana. Many of the Cubans we met stressed that we should go and see the museum of the revolution. We decide to go there, even though war isn’t really our cup of tea. The museum is housed in the palace of the former dictator Bautista. Bullets that were fired when the revolutionaries forced their way into the palace are still visible. The museum displays an interesting though not necessarily accurate view on history. Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are of course portrayed as the big heroes. Bautista and the USA appear worse than the meanest bad guys in a cheap Hollywood movie.
We visit the former home of Ernest Hemmingway, who became quite a national hero. It is interesting to see the house, but we are disappointed. The entry fee is overpriced and the security guards want tips in return for little favours. Obviously mass tourism has spoiled the market and the place has become a major tourist trap. On our way there and back we use an unofficial taxi, a very old Lada. The driver gives us a copy of Trabajadores, a local newspaper and obviously a means of distribution for government propaganda. The paper reports in detail on the worldwide protests against the US led war on Iraq.
When strolling around the streets of Havana viejo we are joined by a 20-year-old Cuban. He is a student learning to play the saxophone. At first we are not sure why he tags along as we visit the Cathedral and other historical buildings. But it is nice enough to chat with him, and we invite him to have a drink with us on a terrace. Then it becomes clear what he wants. He is convinced there is no future for him in Cuba and he wants to get out of the country. Perhaps we know a businessman in Holland who would be willing to pay his ticket to Holland. He would offer to work for a low salary in order to repay this businessman. We explain to him that it isn’t just a matter of money. He would need an exit visa from the Cuban government, and in Holland he would need an entry visa and a work permit. He believes that money opens all doors, and is hard to convince otherwise. We are sorry to let him down.
On the 24th of April we sail the 90 miles from Marina Hemmingway to Key West. A bigger contrast is hard to imagine. We feel we really got to know Cuba during our 6 weeks stay. Under dictator Bautista the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The leaders of the revolution no doubt had very honourable ideals. All children in the country go to school and are getting a decent education (although basic materials such as books, pens and paper are often lacking). Medical care is free for all citizens, and is of a very high standard (although medicines for minor ailments are often available only at dollar prices and therefore unavailable to many). These are major achievements of the government, especially compared to other South American countries. At the same time though, most Cubans don’t make enough money to live on and depend on gifts from family and friends abroad. It feels like the whole country is run like a military operation. Many people are employed in "control" functions: policemen, national guard, customs etc. It seems like most jobs are spelled out in detail with rules and regulations. People are afraid to violate any of the rules, even if they seem silly, because they are likely to lose their job.
The people of Cuba are extremely friendly and hospitable. They are also very resourceful. The casas particulares are basically run as private businesses, capitalist style. The Cubans certainly have no trouble catching on to the principle. There is no doubt in our mind that with the right government this country would be very prosperous.