Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   April 2008


Southwest Cuba
Part Two: Fascinating… and far!

by Christopher Price

Having purchased some fresh produce at Nueva Gerona, and after further inspections by the Guardia Frontera, our despacho was reissued with authority for our return from Isla de la Juventud to Cayo Largo.

Before heading back east, however, we detoured to visit the dive sites to the west. Here we hit the jackpot. Caleta Playa Francesa is a beautiful, well-protected west-facing bay with water clear as gin, a white sand beach and not another soul in sight. The daily visiting dive boat pottered around in the distance, dropping the punters off to explore the wall. Some local fishermen sold us a bucketful of lobsters for a ridiculously small sum. We stayed for a week, until the strong tradewind flow subsided and we began our long journey back east. It is worth bearing in mind that at this point we were 1,300 miles west of our starting point in Antigua and very conscious of the fact that our return was going to be uphill all the way.

Juventud to Cayo Largo
For the first two days we were lucky and sailed for much of the time as we worked our way around the north of Juventud, but from then onwards we motored to windward through an endless chain of islands. For the most part, the outer cays are like Cayo Largo, that is, long thin strips of sand, covered in dense scrub and lying with their eastern ends about 15 degrees north of an east-west line. Thus, the south sides of these cays offer little protection from the tradewinds and, as the outer reefs are low with large gaps, potential anchorages can be too windy and choppy for comfort. The obvious alternatives are the northern shores and the inter-island channels, but the former are almost always too shallow and the latter suffer from the mosquito problem. 
Detailed study of the Cuban charts suggests that the vast shallow area to the west of Cienfuegos, which includes Cayo Largo and Isla de la Juventud, will offer hundreds of superb anchoring opportunities. Our experience proved otherwise. We found three beautiful anchorages and numerous others that were good in light winds. We also found a number that looked good on paper, and are described with enthusiasm by Nigel Calder’s Cuba: A Cruising Guide, but which now involve unmarked reef and channel passages that we consider to be downright dangerous.
In spite of our reservations, we enjoyed our return passage to Cayo Largo where we were again inspected and stamped by various officials, and visited by a different sniffer dog. This one disgraced itself by peeing with excitement in the galley. Jeanette screamed at the top of her voice, “Get that bloody animal off my boat!” and despite its handler’s complete lack of English, the message was clear and the offending article was removed immediately. The men from the Ministry of the Interior were full of abject apologies and the rest of the paperwork was completed in double-quick time. More stamps, more glue and we were clear to proceed to Cienfuegos, in the middle of the south coast and another port of entry.
During the course of the final inspection before we left Cayo Largo, it occurred to me that the Cubans really don’t know very much about cruising sailboats — and why should they? Hummingbird is quite a large catamaran with a lot of internal space. Although they walked around the accommodation, it didn’t occur to anyone to look in the engine rooms, each of which is large enough for two adults to stand up and work in. Similarly, no one ventured near the foredeck, where there are two lockers each large enough to house three Haitian refugees! The men from the Ministry of Agriculture had asked to see our refrigerator, where they discovered our offensive salami. But they did not ask to see the freezer, which is in the other hull. (For this we were very grateful, because its contents sustained us for a large part of our six-week stay in an area in which good-quality meat was almost impossible to find.)
Before leaving Cayo Largo we refueled and had no problems with fuel quality. This was just as well, because we ended up motoring a very high proportion of the 1,150 miles back to Antigua.

Cayo Sal
The first part of the eastward journey was somewhat disappointing as we motored to the south of the chain of cays, but inside the reef. It was windy, shallow and choppy, with no comfortable anchorage for a lunch stop. However, at the end of the day and the end of the chain, we again hit the jackpot — a superb anchorage on the north side of Cayo Sal. It has the clearest water we have ever seen anywhere: the hook went down ten feet into flat white sand, I let out 80 feet of chain and, when snorkeling off the stern, the anchor could be seen clearly 130 feet away.
It is probable that there were a couple of lighthouse keepers manning the powerful light on Cayo Guano del Este (just think about that one for a moment) about eight miles to the east; apart from them it was unlikely that there was another soul within 30 miles of us. As we left the following morning, the wind was backing to the northeast and our isolated bit of paradise was becoming untenable.

And so to Cienfuegos. A narrow but well-marked deep-water channel leads into a huge enclosed bay that is a major port. Around it is a lot of heavy industry with distant views of a nuclear power station, two oil refineries and a vast cement works. But the city itself, with a population of 150,000, appears to be generally clean and unpolluted. It has a very large central square surrounded by some impressive public buildings, an attractive pedestrian shopping area and, best of all, a small and very busy public market. To top it all, across the road is an official cambio, or currency exchange, with a few hustlers outside offering even better rates.

Others have described, in previous Compass articles, Cuba’s extraordinary dual currency system. I will not, therefore, go into details; it is enough to say that if a visitor can exchange pounds, euros or Canadian dollars for local pesos, then instantly the cost of living — at least for things like fruit, vegetables, meat and fish — reduces by 95 percent. Yes, 95 percent! The combination of market and cambio meant that we were like pigs in the proverbial.
In Cienfuegos we hired a car for a couple of days, mainly in order to go to the city of Trinidad, which is the second oldest city on this side of the Atlantic. The car was fairly new, in good condition and for the most part the condition of the roads was also good. This was not surprising because there was very little traffic and frequently, once outside the towns, we drove for miles without seeing another vehicle. Trinidad is an absolute gem and anyone visiting south central Cuba should make a detour if it is not already on the itinerary.

Checking out of Cienfuegos and Cuba proved to be a fairly lengthy process, but by now we expected nothing else. We advised the marina’s resident officials at 0830 that we wished to leave that day, but by 1030 nothing had happened so a little gentle chasing seemed appropriate. We were told that the system required that they be given four hours notice of our departure, so they sat in their office for another two hours before bestirring themselves! By early afternoon we were ready to go, and our first objective was Port Antonio in Jamaica.

We expected a hard slog to windward but, much to our pleasure and surprise, the wind was north of northeast and once out of the lee of the coastal mountains we made the fastest 24-hour passage we have ever made.

Port Antonio, Jamaica
Jamaica was, to us, a revelation. The Errol Flynn Marina in Port Antonio is probably the best we have ever been into; on the other hand it sits in the middle of a town that is probably the poorest we have found in the Caribbean. We hired a car with the intention of driving over the Blue Mountains to Kingston and back round the east coast main road, but the quality of the roads was so bad that we had difficulty in maintaining a 20-mile-per-hour average and we aborted the trip near the top of the Blue Mountains. Nevertheless, a fascinating experience. 
We found a good supermarket a couple of miles outside Port Antonio and in the town center there is the best fruit and vegetable market we have found in the Caribbean. We left Jamaica with the fridge and freezer well stocked for what we anticipated would be a long, hard haul to the east.

To Puerto Rico
Our plan was to cross the Windward Passage to the western end of Haiti and then adopt Bruce Van Sant’s Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South strategy of making relatively short inshore hops at night when wind and current would be least unfavorable. We were amazed to find that on leaving Jamaican waters the wind dropped almost entirely, so we pointed toward Cabo Beata, the southernmost point of the Dominican Republic, and just kept going. A few miles to the northwest of the cape we found a beautiful and well-protected anchorage miles from anywhere. The only company we had were pelicans by the hundreds and a few fishermen camped on the beach a mile away.

After two days we set off to hop along the coast of the DR, but again, as soon as we rounded the cape we found near perfect conditions for motoring east, so we aimed at Puerto Rico and kept going. Our intention was to check in at Mayaguez and then work our way along the south coast of the island in true Van Sant fashion. The great guru believes this is one of the most difficult parts of his “thornless path to windward” and he usually allows 11 days for the west-to-east passage, hacking his way along the coast a few miles at a time. Our extraordinary weather window remained open and we motored on along the Puerto Rican coast, finally stopping at Ponce. We had covered 302 miles, almost entirely due east, in 52 hours! By our standards a lot of fuel had gone down the tubes, but we were far, far ahead of our schedule and we had traveled in complete comfort.
We loitered briefly around Puerto Rico and then spent several weeks wafting gently through the alphabetical jumble of S, US and B VIs.  Our passages were largely smooth and uneventful and when, at last, we sailed back into Falmouth Harbor, Antigua we had completed a round trip of 2,990 miles.

The Two Main Questions
Since we returned, our cruising friends have asked us two main questions.
First, they want to know if this lengthy round trip was really worthwhile. Our answer is a resounding “yes”. We set out, not to visit Cuba as tourists, but to explore the vast areas of shallow waters and cays on the south side of the island, and to make an assessment of them as a cruising area. Although we did not cover such a large area as originally intended it was a new and fascinating experience that was well worth the effort and planning that went into it. However, we found that as a cruising area the western end of the south coast, the Golfo de Batabana, did not quite match up to our expectations. Well-protected and attractive anchorages were fewer than we expected and this was largely because of murky tidal waters and, at least in January, mega-millions of mosquitoes.

Ashore, as expected, we found Cuba to be fascinating. The Cubans themselves were generally very friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. There were few signs of affluence, but also very little evidence of real poverty. Almost everyone looks very healthy and it is one of the proudest claims of the Revolution that they have the world’s highest ratio of doctors to population.
The Revolution also claims very proudly that adult literacy has risen to a level as high as anywhere in the world; indeed the general level of education is very high, with more than 60 universities serving a population of just over 11,000,000. This casual visitor found these claims rather surprising. In the cities and towns that we visited, we saw not a single person reading a book, newspaper or magazine. In Cienfuegos we passed one poorly stocked second-hand bookshop; the only other reading material we saw on sale was guidebooks in tourist souvenir shops.
Being a communist state, Cuba will claim a very high level of employment, but in reality this means that although nearly everybody has a job, by no means do they have much to do. I was frequently reminded of the guy who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I just sits.” There seems to be a lot of that going on in Cuba.

For a police state, we saw remarkably few uniformed police — just three of them guarding a bank delivery in Cienfuegos. Of course, there may have been many more in plain clothes. On the other hand, facilities connected with tourists, for example the marinas and hotels we visited, were infested with security guards who did very little other then sit about for long periods before ambling around aimlessly. They were, however, the only people that we saw carrying firearms.

The second question asked of us by fellow cruisers is “Would you do it again?” and here the answer is “Probably not”. This has nothing to do with disappointment with Cuba; it is more to do with a time/benefit assessment. Our trip to Cuba involved a round trip of nearly 3,000 miles and the time taken would have been much longer — and less pleasant — if we had not been extraordinarily lucky with the weather on the way back. If Cuba were, say, only 300 miles away from our usual Eastern Caribbean groove, then we would go time and time again. But sailing well over a thousand miles before the fun starts is a long way to go and I doubt if we will do it again.

The picture is different for cruisers coming south from North America. A relatively short downhill run, either from the Bahamas or Florida, to round the western end of Cuba would open up a whole new world.

I would also suggest that any Eastern Caribbean cruisers heading for Panama should consider an alternative to the standard Venezuela, ABCs, Colombia route. A departure from any of the Leeward Islands towards Puerto Rico, the DR and then Cuba will offer a safe, secure and fascinating new experience. The trip to Panama could then be completed via Jamaica and/or the Cayman islands, then reaching to the Canal. If we were heading for the Pacific, then that is the way we would go — and in the process devote more time to the fascinating and deserted waters of southern Cuba.

Christopher and Jeanette Price live aboard their 50-foot catamaran Hummingbird. For the last six years they have sailed the Eastern Caribbean, mostly between Tobago and Puerto Rico.

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