Cuba, the Second Time Around
by Bernie Katchor
Our first cruise in Cuba was along the south coast in May and June 2007 (see “Cuba: Fair Winds and Friendly Faces”, Compass, September 2007). While there, we Australians were issued with USA visas at the enormous USA embassy in Havana. Then we sailed our 1978-vintage Endeavour 43 ketch, Australia 31, up to Maine for the summer.
After hurricane season, Cuba and her wonderful people enticed my wife Yvonne and me to return. We had an enjoyable sail back to Cuba’s north coast, where we stopped in one of the many well-sheltered anchorages about 60 miles from Havana. There, out of sight of the Guardia Frontera, we enjoyed ourselves for a week before entering Cuba officially. Cuba only allows visiting yachts two months before they have to exit, but we had friends from Australia arriving to join us in over two months time — hence our hiding. We have since learned that a boat only has to exit for 24 hours to obtain another two months’ stay.
The first day at anchor, the crew of one of the local lobster boats threw six grand lobsters on our deck and then anchored nearby. Every lobster in Cuba belongs to the government, as do the lobster boats. These carry approximately ten marineros, many of whom dive for the lobster, which is exported or used in the island’s vast tourist-resort business.
Cubans are not supposed to board foreign vessels, but we encouraged some of the fishermen to come over in their dinghy. They spend a month on these dilapidated 30- to 50-foot ferrocement boats. The reinforcing, which expands as it rusts, causes the concrete to pop off the hulls.
From the thrift stores in the US and from friends, we had collected a forward cabin full of clothing, as well as 1946 Chevy parts and other goods sent by Miami Cubans for their families. We handed out little dresses and shorts for the fishermen’s children, gifts totally beyond their ability to buy on the equivalent of US$15 a month they earn.
A second group of fishermen came over with a slab of spotted eagle ray and some turtle meat. We were aghast that such beautiful sea creatures were killed, but the Cubans pointed out they could not eat lobster every day for a month. We soon discovered that the ray has a heavy-textured, non-fishy flavour, while turtle tastes of wild chicken.
Privately owned boats owned before the Revolution in 1959 are allowed to fish, providing the owner pays certain taxes. So a 17-footer with a single-cylinder Chinese diesel would often come pop-popping by and offer us fish — and the captain almost became belligerent when Yvonne offered him a gift in return.
Thus, although we did not fish during the week before we cleared in, our freezer steadily filled. We sailed the 60 miles to Marina Hemingway, which is about 15 miles to the west of Havana. Small foreign craft are not allowed into Havana harbour itself unless a strong northerly makes the entrance to Hemingway untenable.
Calling the marina on VHF channel 72, we were directed to the “checking in wharf”. Many yachties become frustrated with Cuba’s check-in processes, but we find it enjoyable to meet all the delightful people who step aboard after removing their boots (tell that to the USA coastguard). First came an elderly doctor who sat with us drinking tea after asking questions about our health and completing the paperwork in triplicate after we loaned (then gave) him a pen. The rest of the officials waited patiently on the wharf. The vet was next. He asked about rats and any vermin, then invited us to his house. The three Customs officers followed and, after they asked permission for it to do so, a sniffing dog then spent 20 minutes gallivanting about our boat. One of the officers, who made me follow him every minute as he “searched” our boat, even pulled out some drawers and looked inside. The port master followed. Then port officials, after giving us a receipt, held our flares, which were returned as we checked out of the Marina. The total cost of entry, including the second month’s Immigration extension, was US$125.
We had all sorts of goods for Cubans living in Havana and, in one case, enjoyed the sight of a whole family admiring new parts for their immobilised 1946 Chevrolet. We stayed a week to accept everyone’s hospitality and see the wonders of the old city. It saddened me that our new Cuban friends were not allowed closer than 100 yards to our boat so we could not return their generous hospitality.
However, they love their country and their families are very close. Although they all complained about their predicament of low salaries and rigid government controls (the same as you and I complain about our governments), I asked many people whether, if they could escape as a family tomorrow, they would leave. Only one family of the dozen I asked this question said yes. The others hope things will change. We were told of one recent change: Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, now allows Cubans to stay at the resort hotels. “At a hundred and twenty dollars a night, this means if I work for seven months I will earn enough to stay one night,” one Cuban said, laughing.
Cuba has one currency for the Cubans (pesos), and another currency for tourists and all luxury items: the CUC or Cuban convertible. Twenty-four Cuban pesos equal one CUC. Sadly, “luxury items” include toothpaste, soap and many items of clothing. A Cuban earning 300 Cuban pesos a month has to eat before converting any of his pesos to CUC to buy clothes or toiletries. Thus, these items are virtually unobtainable to the locals unless they go outside the system illegally to make money, as most do.
To our delight, as we bought local pesos, an eight-inch pizza cooked in a converted 55-gallon drum on a street corner cost the equivalent of 20 cents. An ice cream, also made on a street corner with a little gas engine driving the compressor, cost one cent.
There are even Cuban-only taxis, in which a ride costs five local pesos. When one of our friends hailed a Cuban-only shared taxi, the driver heard I was foreign and put me out, telling me he could be jailed for carrying me. He informed me that I should take a tourist taxi, which costs 10 CUC (48 times the cost) for the same journey. My friend got out with me and told me never to talk again in a Cuban taxi. The next taxi took us the seven miles at five pesos a person.
The prices at resorts, hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants are generally the same as in the USA. Most tourists, including hundreds from USA, are sequestered in all-inclusive resorts, never meeting any Cubans except the staff. Again this was good for us, as when we stopped by a resort’s bar for a beer, no barman would accept our money, saying it was included.
In the USA, a dentist quoted me US$4,500 for a new bridge. In the excellent Cuban government dental clinic, the first dentist who saw me said repair was impossible. But then a delightful elderly professor (watched by five students) fixed my broken teeth with posts and cemented the bridge back in. It took two hours and cost US$25.
When it came time to leave Havana and Hemingway Marina, we took Australia 31 back to the check-in wharf. We checked out for the most western port of entry and intermediate ports. Boats have to check in and out of every port, so although we knew we would not get as far as Maria La Gorda we put this as our destination and on our list named every bay in between so we could visit them if we so desired. Again, Customs searched our boat and the officers were most upset when I asked if they were looking for Cubans when a drawer was pulled out. A long explanation in rapid Spanish that I did not understand made me realize irreverent Australian humour was uncalled for.
We headed for Cayo Paraiso and wound our way in to anchor when Guardia Frontera aboard a fast cigarette boat came along and told us it was a forbidden anchorage. They said we must move about ten miles. Apparently two dinghies had been stolen from visiting yachts anchored there and ended up in Florida.
We explored the village of La Esperanza where we met Sandra, a delightful, buxom female. (Cubans often complain about the lack of food, but we did not see skinny ones.) She cooked us an evening meal on three occasions and we gave her clothing and eyeglasses in return.
Cuba has unlimited sheltered anchorages. Walking the beaches and enjoying our favourite pastime, bird watching, were rewarding as was exploring far up mangrove creeks in the dinghy.
Soon it was time to sail to Varadero to collect our first guests. Sailing overnight to Varadero we found that the coastline east of Havana was wall-to-wall towns. As we sailed only four miles offshore, the path was easy to follow. We decided to check in at Gaviota Marina as it is 12 miles northeast and to windward of the marina at Varadero. Formalities here were repeated: Customs, port authorities and Immigration.
Our American guests all flew in (via Mexico, as Mr. Bush needs the Miami Cuban votes) and more formalities occurred as they were searched by Customs and added to the crew list by Immigration. It is easy to have US guests aboard in Cuba: passports are never stamped — you are just issued a visa on a separate document. Passengers’ names are removed from the crew list and their luggage searched as they leave. As we had six such comings and goings, we made good friends of the delightful authorities. Paperwork is Cuba. It takes three receipts to buy diesel, but at far less than USA prices it is worth the effort.
Each time we sailed with our guests eastward from Gaviota Marina in sheltered waters. Yvonne and I really enjoyed showing them how we have spent and enjoyed the last 15 years cruising. Highlights were actually having Cuban fishermen aboard to a rum party. We had stocked up with ten litres of local rum. The bar we bought from had a great barrel of it and every night after work Cubans of all shapes, sexes and ages cycled or walked up with a container and rum was measured into it in 100ml lots for about ten cents. As we bought 60 x100ml lots — six litres for US$8 — there was a long laughing line of locals waiting. Cubans have to wait days for buses, hours for bread or rice, and never seem to complain.
Lobster and fish were showered upon us although they were easy to catch. One guest hauled in a fish over ten pounds every ten minutes as we sailed. Any large fish along Cuba’s north coast can have ciguatera, whereas the south coast does not have this problem, Any fish we caught weighing over four pounds were returned to the ocean.
The Guardia Frontera officials were rowed out to us on commandeered fishing boats and checked our papers as we progressed eastward. The north coast, as compared to the south of Cuba, where we cruised last year, seemed to have more officials and we were not allowed to visit many towns on the mainland. To explore some towns, we used the excuse that we needed food, but at one town this excuse was rejected. Disappointed, we went the five miles back to Australia 31. Four hours later, three young men arrived, paddling a vessel very common in Cuba. Two large inner tubes were cut and had the ends sewn to keep the air in. A wooden frame with two sets of rowlocks was tied to the long inflated tubes. We often saw these craft miles out at sea. These lads brought us an enormous variety of vegetables from their garden.
Recently Cuban people have been allowed to grow vegetables to sell at the new markets, independent of the usual government-controlled system. Up until now, Cubans had little incentive to grow food at the pittance paid by the government, thus most of the fertile land was left lying unproductive. In the countryside, we saw and bought from many private vegetable farms. In the towns, one has to buy what is available. On one day the market will have potatoes and beans, the next a great variety of fruits and veggies. It depends who comes to sell. Food is more readily available since the legal allowing of private farms.
Every shop is owned by the government — full stop. In one shop, we saw a woman with a sewing machine, along with a bookkeeper to take the money for her work. Such are the inefficiencies of communism. Both get a salary of about US$15 a month. Medical care is free and of a good standard, however. Each month some food is subsidized, but not enough to last a person the whole month. For example, five eggs are allowed per person each month, but any extra are purchased at about five times the subsidized price.
Because we had to base at Varadero to meet our arriving groups of friends, we did not get far along the north coast. Our highlight was a week traveling by car, intensely bird watching with two friends who are professional ornithologists and a Cuban ornithologist who is the author of a book on the birds of Cuba. We saw 101 of Cuba’s 300 birds, including many of the endemics.
Cuba is a true delight with friendly people. It is the safest country we have ever been in. As we sailed north again to avoid the 2008 hurricane season, we both agreed to return for a third visit in November. We plan to sail farther east along the northern coast — slowly, very slowly, enjoying the hundreds of islands.
See more of the adventures of Bernie and Yvonne on Australia 31 at www.berniekatchor.com.
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