Tag Archives: Cruising Cuba

A Delightful Surprise

Before my recent injury, we’d ordered the new Waterway Guide to Cuba in order to start doing some detailed planning for our anticipated return there in February. We met the author, Addison Chan, at Marina Hemingway in Cuba last year, and we spent a couple of months buddy-boating with Addison and his wife Pat, traveling together from Cuba to Mexico and then to the Florida Keys. We didn’t know it at the time, but Addison was doing research for the guide as we traveled along the northwest Cuban coast toward Mexico.

The chances of our returning to Cuba this year are now looking pretty slim, but since I have some time on my hands while I recuperate, I’ve been browsing through the Cuba Waterway Guide. So imagine our surprise and delight when we realized that Eagle Too makes two appearances in the book!

More than just a cool reminder of our trip, I think this will also give us something to point to if the USCG ever questions our claim that we travel to Cuba under the Journalism license, doing research for a cruising guide to Cuba’s north coast.

Reflections On Cuba – The Sounds Of Havana

In our previous post A Walk Around Havana, we briefly mentioned that the city is truly a feast for the senses. Here are a few clips of some of the music we encountered on our self-guided tour about the city. A quick listen will do much more to help you get a sense of Havana than any amount of prose we could write. Enjoy!


A Day In Varadero

We’ve been enjoying the resort atmosphere here at Marina Gaviota. In this part of Cuba, the government requires that you stay in a marina (where they can undoubtedly keep a close eye on you). We won’t be able to start anchoring offshore until we’re well west of Havana and in an unpopulated area of the country, probably late next week (and even then we won’t be allowed to dinghy ashore). I must say that if you have to stay in a marina, this is a pretty darn fine one to be in. Our marina fee of $39 CUC per day (about $45 USD, including moorage, power and water) includes access to many of the amenities at the neighboring Club Melia Resort, an all-inclusive vacation destination that borders the marina. Wandering around the property, you hear German, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian and even some English (those Canadian guests) being spoken. It’s a very international feel.Resort3 Resort4 Resort5

Among other things, we’ve been able to crash the free evening shows that are presented on the patio in front of the resort. There aren’t enough of us Yatistas here for them to have figured out how to manage us. We act like we belong there, and they bring us free Mojitos during the show, because it is an all-inclusive resort, so you’re not expected to pay for drinks. It’s comfortably cool in the evenings, enough so that we can wear light sweaters, and therefore the staff can’t see that we’re not wearing the appropriate “I get all I want for free” yellow wristbands. They don’t ask. We don’t tell. Life is good.Resort1 Resort2

But after a couple of days, we were all rested and recovered from our passage, and it was time to escape the reservation. We left Eagle Too secure at the dock.SS1

Passports and Visas in hand, we hopped over a short wall at the back corner of the complex (our new English friends on the boat across the pier told us where) and crossed the street to the bus shelter, where we caught the double-decker shuttle into town. We’re not captives here; we could have left via the front gate. But it was a long walk to the gate and then back to the bus stop, and a significant shortcut to just jump the wall when no one was looking. And it’s easier to say “Lo sciento” than to ask permission, after all.SS2 SS3

Varadero was much nicer than some places we’ve been to in Mexico or the Caribbean. It’s very much a tourist town, but it’s more a local’s destination than the all-inclusive resorts out on the peninsula where we are staying. The beach was beautiful, the streets were pretty clean, and most of the buildings, while older, appeared to be reasonably maintained.SS4 SS7 SS8 SS9 SS10

After hopping off the bus, we wandered through a market, where we picked up the perfect souvenir for the boat.Souvenier

We where then approached by a horsecart driver who wanted to give us a tour of the town. We really had no idea where we were or where we were going, so $15 CUC for an afternoon buggy ride (less than $20 USD) sounded about right to us.SS5 SS6

We learned that when you see the upside-down anchor symbol on a house or building, it represents a Casa Paticulares, or basically a privately run bed & breakfast, one of the few independent enterprises Cubans are allowed to operate. A blue background indicates it is for tourists, and a red background shows that it is for locals.SS11

It could be because Varadero is a tourist town, but we lost count of the number we saw, as they were quite common. From what we’ve read, a stay is approximately  $20 to $35 CUC a night, and usually includes a welcome drink and a meal.

The local traffic was a mixture of everything from busses to tractors, scooters to bicycles (ridden by two or even three people at once).SS12 SS13

And then there were the classic cars. My God some of them are beautiful! From what we could tell, they’re not private transportation, and aren’t used by Cubans as their daily rides. They’re all used as Taxis for the tourists. Sort of a natural resource that they exploit, if you will. Many emit a cloud of black smoke, which tells me that while they may look like a 1955 Chevy from the outside, there is a Russian diesel tractor engine residing under the hood. But never mind, just look!SS15 SS16 SS14 SS17 SS18 SS19 SS20

Our cart driver Eduardo was delighted to hear that we were American. He said he had never had Americans in his cart before, and was happy to have us. We told him there would probably be many more in our wake. But for now, we’re somewhat of an oddity. A few vendors asked if we were Canadian, and were quite pleased when we told them we were from Florida.

Eduardo took us by Al Capone’s house, who was apparently one of Varadero’s more famous past residents, and then in response to our request for a good local restaurant (i.e. not a tourist place), he dropped us off at El Galeon, where we had a delightful afternoon.CaponeHouse

SS21 SS22 SS23What began as lunch turned into an early dinner, as we arrived around 2PM and didn’t receive our order until 3:30. Apparently the meal I ordered needed to be baked in the oven, which decided to quit working at that particular moment. It took the chef a while to get it re-wired to finish cooking lunch. Seriously, that’s what we were told by our server, Ray. But no matter. We weren’t in a hurry, and Ray provided us with several helpings of amazing Cuban bread accompanied by an exquisite egg and cream sauce, and then two bowls of Cuban brown beans, and then a mouthwatering daiquiri, none of which appeared on our bill when we ultimately received it.SS24

Ray’s English was very good, and while waiting for our meals we had a fascinating discussion about life in Cuba and Ray’s hopes and dreams, which deserves a post all its own at some point.SS25

The extremely short version is that life in Cuba is not as officially described (if you want quality, then the free health care isn’t really free, nor is the free education) and he would leave tomorrow if he were able in order to provide a future for his children. He hopes to one day own his own gym, but realizes it will never happen unless things change dramatically. But he obviously loved his country and his home in Matanzas, so I wished for him that those changes would soon come so that he could pursue his dreams in his own country rather than long for escape to another.

Our stomachs full and the day growing late, we hopped back on the bus for the 45 minute ride back out to that part of Cuba that people like Ray can never experience, the part reserved for foreign tourists. Cuba is a country where people earn $15 to $20 CUC a month, and a single can of Coke costs $1 CUC, or more than a day’s wages. Spending a day at an all-inclusive resort?  It could never happen. Perhaps soon, I’ll have time to expand a bit on some of the things we’ve experienced that illustrate that what you see on the surface is not a true reflection of what Cuba really is today.

With the wind now shifting to the east, our time here in Varadero is growing short. Our plans are to head west to Marina Hemingway, outside Havana, late Sunday afternoon. It’s a trip of approximately 90 miles, which will require us to sail through the night. A dinnertime departure should put us off the entrance marker to Marina Hemingway at about 0800. As has been the case for all our nighttime passages so far, it will be another moonless night. Funny how it keeps timing out that way. We don’t really enjoy the utter darkness, but we’ve grown resigned to it. Say what you may about how beautiful the stars are on a moonless night-we’d rather be able to see the ocean around us than just feel and hear it as it moves and rocks the boat. We’d really prefer to make the trip as two shorter legs that we could sail during daylight hours, with a night at anchor in route, but the authorities here have told us no, we have to go directly from here to there, with no stopping allowed. Such is the way of things here in Cuba.

One final note, before signing off – it can be extremely hard to get online here, and the clock is ticking the entire time. For those of you who have commented, we appreciate that you follow along with our adventure, but I’m afraid there just isn’t time for individual replys. Perhaps when we make it to Mexico and we have a bit more time…

Welcome To Cuba!

It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot today. After a 20 hour motor-sail, we’re now docked at Marina Giavota Varadero, about 70 miles east of Havana. Choosing comfort as our primary concern on what we knew would be an overnight passage with no moon to light the way, we opted for flat seas rather than favorable winds for our trip across the Straits of Florida. If you’ve ever done an ocean passage on a moonless night, you know how unsettling it can be to not be able to see beyond the edges of your boat for hours on end while it charges along through the darkness at five or six knots.  Throw in confused seas that produce a wallowing roll and you have a most unpleasant ride. So we picked a day to cross that offered little in the way of good sailing because of extremely light predicted winds, but promised only 1 to 3 foot seas. We left Boca Chica Marina in Key West a little after 1 PM yesterday, and while the winds clocked through 360 degrees over the next 20 hours, the Gulf Stream stayed calm due to the light and variable breeze blowing mostly at 6 to 8 knots.Cuba1

Sunset Crossing The Gulf Stream

Crossing the main shipping lanes along Cuba’s north coast in the middle of the night created some anxious moments, but we used our radar and AIS to the maximum, and only had to slow down and alter course once to avoid a collision with a freighter in the darkness. A dazzling lightshow above the Cuban coastline also created some concern (you mean we have to sail into that?), but the storms finally broke up at about 3 AM, several hours before we arrived off the coast. I never was able to make contact with the Guarda Frontera on the VHF, but we were eventually able to raise the marina, and the dockmaster was waiting on the pier to take our lines as we arrived.Cuba2

Our First View Of Cuba

The check-in process was painless, although it still took over an hour to complete the paperwork. The only person to come below was the doctor, who spent about a half hour onboard while we completed forms. We handed our passports and ship’s documentation to the Custom’s officer on the pier, and the dockmaster sat with us in our cockpit when everything was done to have us sign our contract and brief us on the marina facilities. We received our passports back with separate stamped visas. Even though the rules are being relaxed for travel by Americans to Cuba, they still don’t stamp your passport. Old habits die hard, I guess.

We had nothing confiscated, not even Rhonda’s herb garden. It might have helped that we offered everyone who came onboard a nice cold Coke, which was accepted with gratitude. But everyone we dealt with seemed professional and quite friendly, and we never felt at all as if something “extra” was expected to smooth the way. We were soon pulling down our quarantine flag and hoisting our Cuban courtesy flag, and then it was off to find the money exchange so that we could convert our US dollars for Cuban Peso Convertibles (CUCs), the official tourist currency, and then purchase our first arrival celebration adult beverages.Cuba12Cuba10

People we know who have visited here recommended we come as well. But our first impression of the area is that it’s just too nice. Marina Giavota Varadero is a resort, with pools and bars and shops and restaurants, a spa and even an espresso stand. Imagine a nice hotel complex in Orlando (except with only 1% of the crowd) and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the feel. It’s lovely, but it just doesn’t feel like Cuba. It’s not the sort of place that regular Cubans would or could afford to visit. So we’ll probably only hang here for a few days while we scope out what sort of tours are available for this part of the country before we move on to Marina Hemingway and Havana, further west.Cuba9 Cuba6 Cuba5

Huge Facilities, Very Few Visitors
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The Mythical Classic Cars Of Cuba!

I don’t know how much we’ll be able to post about our travels while we’re here. As the dockmaster said to us, “WiFi is pretty new here.” To access the internet, you must purchase internet access cards for 2 CUC per hour (about $2.20 USD). They’re similar to Starbucks gift cards, as they have a scratch off area on the back that reveals a code that you need to go online. Until we have a chance to test the bandwidth, I have no idea whether we’ll be able to upload pictures to Facebook or our blog. It sort of reminds me of AOL in the mid-90’s – you plan and prepare everything offline hoping that once you connect, you can quickly post everything and then disconnect before you’ve used up your precious allotment of connect time.Cuba11

But please know that we’re here safe and sound, and have already briefly met a couple from Canada and another couple that have sailed here from England who we’re looking forward to sitting down with to pick their brains about their perceptions of this most interesting country. It’s early to bed for us tonight, as we’re exhausted from our overnight passage, but tomorrow we’re thinking about jumping on the bus that runs into the town of Varadero so that we can start to see more of the “real” Cuba. Until then…